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The best investment advice you'll never get

For 35 years, Bay Area finance revolutionaries have been pushing a personal investing strategy that brokers despise and hope you ignore.

The high failure rate should come as no surprise, given how hedge funds operate. There’s no working model, so they vary widely, but the basic idea is that they rely on risky, untraditional investment strategies—ranging from arbitrage to taking over floundering companies, as Lampert did—to make big money fast. The industry is largely unregulated, and most funds involve private partnerships that operate in strict confidence.

They’re also extremely expensive, which limits their user profile. Though fees average just 2 percent of the investment, the same as in a typical Silicon Valley venture fund, managers also withhold a sizable chunk (averaging 20 percent, but sometimes going as high as 50 percent) of whatever profit the funds produce. The typical minimum required to get into a fund is between $1 million and $5 million.

The SEC periodically considers applying minimal rules to hedge funds, such as prohibiting pension funds from investing in them. Last October, the call for reform came from Congress when Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked administration officials and Congress members for their views on how to improve hedge fund transparency. But so far, the hedge fund lobby has managed to keep all regulators at bay. —Mark Dowie

What are the fees?

Every fee that a mutual fund charges should be outlined somewhere in its prospectus. But many people don’t even think to look for it, and you can’t necessarily trust your broker to bring it up. “The first step is simply getting people to pay attention to fees,” says Patrick Geddes, chief investment officer of Aperio Group, in Sausalito. Hang tough in asking your broker for the full breakdown of what those fees will cost you each year. If you need help, the National Association of Securities Dealers has a useful tool for computing fees, called the Mutual Fund Expense Analyzer, on its website (http://apps.nasd.com/investor_Information/ea/nasd/mfetf.aspx). You put in the name of the fund, the amount invested, the rate of return, and the length of time you’ve had the fund, and it tells you exactly how much you’ve been charged.

You can also compare past fees for different funds before you invest. For example, if you had put $100,000 into Putnam’s Small Cap Growth Fund Class B Shares and held it for the past five years, you would find that Putnam would have charged you $13,809 in fees during that time. Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund, on the other hand, would have charged only $1,165 for the exact same investment. —Byron Perry

Which index fund?

In some ways indexing is a no-brainer: invest your money and let it do its thing. Still, there are varieties. Aperio Group’s Patrick Geddes pushes two rules in choosing a fund: “The broader the better, and the cheaper the better.” When you invest in a broad domestic fund, you’re investing in the entire U.S. economy, or “owning capitalism,” as it were, Geddes says. The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, which represents about 99.5 percent of U.S. common stocks, is a great one to start with. If you choose a narrower fund, like a tech or energy index, you’re basically just speculating (though you’ll most likely still fare better than if you tried to pick the next Google). Narrow index funds also typically command higher fees. With indexing gaining in popularity, everyone’s trying to get into the game and sneak in unnecessarily high fees. Geddes says there’s no good reason to pay more than .19 percent. —Byron Perry


Mark Dowie
, who managed the municipal bond portfolio at Bank of America and all nonequity investments for Industrial Indemnity, and advised the Bechtel family on economic and investment strategy, now watches his modest portfolio of index funds grow from his home near Point Reyes Station.