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The best investment advice you'll never get
Mark Dowie | Photo: SF magazine | January 18, 2008
For 35 years, Bay Area finance revolutionaries have been pushing a personal investing strategy that brokers despise and hope you ignore.
It all started in the early 1970s with a group of maverick investment professionals working at Wells Fargo bank. Using the vast new powers of quantitative analysis afforded by computer science, they gradually came to the conclusion that the traditional practices guiding institutional investing in America were, for the most part, not delivering on the promise of better-than-average returns. As a result, the fees that average Americans were paying brokers to engage in these practices were akin to highway robbery. Sure, some highly paid hotshot portfolio managers could occasionally put together a high-return fund. But generally speaking, trying to beat the market—also called active investing—was a fruitless venture.
The insurrection these mavericks would create eventually caught on and has spread beyond the Bay Area. But San Francisco remains ground zero of the democratizing challenge to America’s vast and lucrative investment industry. Under threat are the billions of dollars that mutual funds and brokers skim every year from often-unwary investors. And every person who has money to invest is affected, whether she’s patching together her own portfolio with a broker, saving for retirement or college, or just making small contributions each year to her 401K. If the movement succeeds, not only will more and more people have a lot more money in their pockets, but the personal investment industry will never look the same.
I was once a portfolio manager myself, and like the industry folks Google was protecting its employees from, I was certain I could outperform market averages and confident that I was worth the salary paid to do so. However, I left the investment business before this revolt began to brew. In the intervening years, I never stewarded my own investments as judiciously as I’d managed those of my former employers—Bank of America, Industrial Indemnity, and the Bechtel family. I was unhappy with the Wall Street firms I had been using, which had churned my account to make lots of money on the sales, and, despite instructions to the contrary, placed my money in their own funds and underwritings to make even more at my expense. So a couple of years ago, when it finally came time to get my own house in order, I knew I wanted help from an independent adviser, someone who was doing things differently from the big brokerage firms.
Eventually I found a small financial management firm in Sausalito called Aperio Group that, after only seven years in business, already had a stellar reputation. “Aperio” in Latin means “to make clear, to reveal the truth.” Indeed, truth-telling is key to Aperio’s mission, even if that means badmouthing its own industry in the process. One of the company’s founders, Patrick Geddes, aged 48, is a renegade from the top echelons of his field. For several years he served, first as director of quantitative research, then as CFO, at Morningstar, the nation’s leading company for researching and appraising mutual funds. But when he left, not only was he disenchanted with his own company’s corporate environment, he was also becoming uneasy with the moral underpinning of the entire industry. “Let’s be straight,” says Geddes in his soft-spoken but zealous way. “Being unethical is a good precondition for success in the financial business.”
His partner, a bright, high-energy Norwegian American named Paul Solli, 49, is another finance guy who didn’t have the gene for corporate culture. After graduating from Dartmouth’s business school, he tried investment banking but didn’t like it. He went out on his own, starting an investment advisory business, but says he flailed about, searching for a business model that would support his desire to “live deliberately” in the Thoreauvian manner.
Solli and Geddes consider themselves heirs to the Wells Fargo insurgency and, as such, part of a movement that includes academics, some institutional investors, a couple of large index fund companies, and a handful of small firms like their own that are dedicated to bringing the indexing philosophy to badly advised investors like myself. And unlike most mutual fund investment firms, which have $5 million and $10 million minimums, Aperio was willing to take on a messy six-figure portfolio.
Solli took one look at my unkempt collection of mutual funds and said, “You’re being robbed here.” He pointed to funds I had purchased from or through Putnam, Merrill Lynch, Dreyfus, and—yes—Charles Schwab (which referred me to Aperio) and asked, “Do you know that you’re paying these guys to do essentially nothing?” He carefully explained the many ingenious ways fund managers, brokers, and advisers had found to chip away at investors’ returns. Turns out that I, like more than 90 million other suckers who have put close to $9 trillion into mutual funds, was paying annual fees, commissions, and transaction costs well in excess of 2 percent a year on most of my mutual funds (see “What Are the Fees?” page 75). “Do you know what that adds up to?” Solli asked. “At the end of every 36 years, you will only have made half of what you could have, through no fault of your own. And these are fees you needn’t pay, and won’t, if you switch to index funds.”
All indexing calls for, Solli explains, is the selection of a particular stock market index—the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500, the Russell 1000, or the broader Wilshire 5000—and the purchase of all its stocks and bonds in the exact proportions in which they exist in that index. In an actively managed fund, managers pick stocks they think will outperform a particular index. But the premise of indexing is that stock prices are generally an accurate reflection of a company’s worth at any given time, so there’s no point in trying to beat that price. The worth of a client’s investment goes up or down with the ebb and flow of the market, but the idea is that the market naturally tends to increase over time. Moreover, even if an index fund performed only as well as the expensively managed Merrill Lynch Large Cap mutual fund that was in my portfolio, I would earn more because of the lower fees. Stewarding this kind of investment does not require a staff of securities analysts working under a fund manager who makes $20 million a year. In fact, a desktop computer can do it while they sleep.
There are always exceptions, of course, Solli says, “a few funds that at any given moment outperform the indexes.” But over the years, he explains, their performances invariably decline, and their highly paid cover-boy managers slide into early obscurity, to be replaced by a new hotshot managing a different fund. If a mutual-fund investor is able to stay abreast of such changes, move their money around from fund to fund, and stay ahead of the averages (factoring in higher commissions and management fees) it will be by sheer luck, says Solli, who then offers me pretty much the same advice John Bogle and his colleagues offered Google. Sell the hyped but fee-laden funds in my portfolio and replace them with boring, low-cost funds like those offered by Bogle’s Vanguard.
It took Solli a couple more painful meetings and a few dozen trades to clean the parasites out of my account and reinvest the proceeds in index funds, the lifeblood of his business. Without exception, he moved me into funds that have outperformed the ones I was in, like the Vanguard REIT Index Fund, some Pimco bond and stock funds, and Artisan International. And he did it for an annual fee of .5 percent of money under management, saving me over a full percent in overall costs and a lot of taxes in the future. Then he did something I doubt any other financial manager would have done. He fired himself.
“You really don’t need me anymore,” he said, and closed my Aperio account that day, ending his fees, but not our relationship. I was curious. Who was this guy who was so open about the less-than-dignified ways of his own business? “You have to have lunch with my partner,” he said.