Any Investor Can Beat an Index

People invest money to make money. That may not seem like a profound statement but a lot of investors think that it is a lot harder than it is and there is an ongoing debate that suggests that most professional investment advisors are not worth what they charge. Personally, I do not buy it.  I would not think of investing any significant sum without a competent advisor.

I know that most large institutional investors still use fundamental analysis and good old fashioned research to select investments.  CALPers, the nation’s largest public employee pension plan has several hundred research analysts on its staff.

The best research analysts are specialists who cover a single industry and have much more than a cursory understanding of the companies that they cover.  It is not unusual to find research analysts with degrees in electrical engineering covering tech companies or doctors who went from medical research to covering drug companies.

When I started on Wall Street the firms would release research reports to their institutional clients first and retail clients a day or two later.  With the advent of discount brokerage firms and DIY investors, a lot of the research available to individual investors has been watered down and is not very insightful.

I am not suggesting that every research analyst is great and there are a great many conflicts that color the reports that some analysts publish. What I am suggesting is that if you cannot read a research report and you do not read several before you make any investment decision, you are shortchanging yourself.

No one has to invest. Leaving your money in the bank where it will currently get you about 1% in interest is better than investing it in the market and losing 10% or more. This is especially true if you have only a minimal amount saved up.  Protect what you have before you start taking market risks.

A lot of people believe that they can just buy an index mutual fund or index ETF, hold it for the long term and everything will be fine.  The “common knowledge” is that the markets will likely be higher years down the road and that an index fund captures a large diversified basket of companies. Neither is necessarily true.

The markets today are higher than they have ever been. No one can tell where they will be next week, next year and certainly not a decade or two from now when you may need your money.  Whether your portfolio will be worth more or less than it is today when you retire is something that is best worked out with a financial planner.

Most financial planners will caution you about effects of inflation. Even if your portfolio is worth 20 years from now, its buying power may be less.

The idea that an index is diversified is also flawed. An index like the S&P 500 has stocks of the 500 largest companies.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average specifically excludes transportation companies and utilities.

To be diversified a portfolio needs to hold stocks that have a negative correlation to each other.  If you buy a large cap index, a mid cap index, a small cap index and a foreign index with the idea that they are diversified from each other, you are incorrect. Each is likely to hold airlines, telecommunications companies and financial institutions. That is not diversification.

Assuming that you could analyze all 500 stocks in the S&P 500, rank them to identify those which have the best value and create a portfolio of the top 150, you would probably beat the overall S&P 500 index every year.  If you identify the best and eliminate the clunkers, beating the entire index should not be difficult.

By best value, I would suggest that you include those companies whose shares are trading at the low end of their traditional P/E range.  Many market professionals look at the price/earnings ratio of individual stocks that they own and the market in general.  Price/earnings ratios move within a fairly standard range and when they get to the high end of the range they usually pull back and revert to the norm.  Both the current price and the outlook for near and medium term earnings for publically traded companies are readily available.

If you are a DIY investor and it is too much work for you to analyze 500 stocks or you do not need a portfolio with 150 stocks in it, there are easier ways to beat an index. One of the simplest is a strategy called “Dogs of the Dow.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is made up of 30 mature, blue chip companies. The earnings of the companies will vary depending on where in their particular business cycle the companies are and their stock price will fluctuate with the earnings. Most, however, have a fairly stable dividend payout policy.

The theory suggests that when a company is at the low end of its cycle and its stock price is low; its dividend yield will be high.  As the company bounces back, its stock price will rise and its dividend yield will return to its mid–range.

To execute the strategy you would purchase equal amounts of the 8 or 10 highest yielding Dow stocks, hold them for one year, sell them and repeat.  The strategy hopes to allow investors to capture both a high dividend and good price appreciation every year.

Understand that this is not asset allocation. Asset allocation is a method of balancing a portfolio with multiple market sectors hoping that the good ones will outweigh the bad.

Dogs of the Dow is a specific stock selection strategy.  You are attempting to select stocks that will appreciate in price faster than the other stocks in the Dow Jones Index.  A fair number of people use this strategy because it is very easy and because it works most of the time.

If you research Dogs of the Dow, you are likely to come across the Hennessey Funds.  The Hennessy Total Return Fund (HDOGX) invests 75% of its assets in the ten highest dividend-yielding Dow Jones Industrial Average stocks (known as the “Dogs of the Dow”) and 25% in U.S. Treasury securities.

Neil Hennessey was the person who first introduced me to this strategy somewhere around 1985.  He was working with it successfully back then and still does.

This strategy is not hard to master.  It shows that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to be a successful investor and in most years you will beat the index.