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Index Fund Booster Takes Victory Lap: How You Can Win Too

Daniel Solin, September 9th, 2014

I started writing books extolling the virtues of index fund investing back in 2006. At that time, there were already many advocates of the concept, including Burton Malkiel, Larry Swedroe and, of course, John Bogle. The problem then (and even now) was that we were like canaries in the coal mine -- small voices warning of a larger danger.

We were massively outnumbered and significantly outspent. Stories about outsized returns, "hot" fund managers, market timing and underperforming stocks dominated the financial media. They still do.

We were derided and trivialized when we discussed index funds on television. I appeared on CBNC's "Power Lunch" on May 15, 2009. At the time, CNBC used the slogan "In Cramer we trust" as part of its marketing.

I've written a number of blog posts describing how Jim Cramer's antics harmed investors. In one, I quoted David Swensen, a respected financial author and chief investment officer of Yale University, who believes Cramer "exemplifies everything that's wrong with the advice -- and I put advice in quotation marks -- that is given to individual investors." I also referred to a study by Barron's that found "Cramer's recommendations underperform the market by most measures."

This interview represented my chance to make my views known to CNBC's own audience. I couldn't resist. When asked by CNBC's Brian Schactman about the best ways to save for retirement, I said, "One of the things that you could do instead is to give us more 'in Bogle we trust' and much less 'in Cramer we trust.' "

An Angry Cramer Crashes the Interview

Cramer stormed onto the set. With his eyes bulging, he trashed index funds with this comment: "In all due respect, the S&P is flat literally for 10 years. That's John Bogle's world. If you were to sell at 11,000 like I told you in September, 10,000 like I told you in December, and then get back in at 6,500, who wins? Is that so bad? Is that worth not trusting in?"

Cramer continued his rant: "I've had it with the people who tell me about the index fund," he screamed. "For 10 years they've done nothing! For 10 years! When do they get called on the carpet? When are they ever wrong? Do we have to wait another 10 years? Enough of this! I've said my piece."

In retrospect, I can understand his anger. If investors followed the evidence and limited their investments to a globally diversified portfolio of index funds, in a suitable asset allocation, he would be irrelevant. Investors would understand that Cramer and others who peer into their crystal balls are emperors with no clothes. They pretend to have an expertise that doesn't exist. His show would be quickly canceled.

What a difference five years has made. Charles Ellis, author of "Winning the Loser's Game" and an adviser to Yale's endowment fund, published an article about the fall of performance investing in Financial Analysts Journal. Ellis, a long-time proponent of indexing, concluded that the costs of active investments are so high and the incremental returns so low, "the money game is no longer a game worth playing."

What Hindsight Shows Us

John Rekenthaler, the director of research for Morningstar (MORN), questioned the future of active management. He noted that net sales over the past 12 months for all index-based funds was 68 percent of the total market share, compared to only 32 percent for active funds. His conclusion was stunning: "Active managers have become the periphery. As the slogan goes, there is core, and then there is explore. Active management is no longer core."

Perhaps the death blow to active management came from Warren Buffett. In Berkshire Hathaway's 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett noted that he instructed his trustee to invest his wife's inheritance in low-cost index funds.

I never believed I would see the time when index-based investing would be considered mainstream. And while this is a welcome development, most investors are still not benefiting from it. According to Morningstar, as of July 31, assets in passive U.S. funds were $3.11 trillion, compared to $5.50 trillion in actively managed funds.

Before I take my victory lap, I want you to join me by dumping your actively managed funds and your individual stocks. You should recognize that no one has the skill to time the markets. If you do have brokers or advisers who are telling you they can "beat the markets" using actively managed funds, you need to make a change. Join the mainstream and become an evidence-based investor.