Shenanigans! “Index Investing Distorts Valuations” Edition

Here is an oft-repeated meme that has begun to grind my gears. Here it is again, from the FT’s Megan Greene:

Passive investments, such as exchange traded funds (ETFs) and index funds, similarly ignore fundamentals. Often set up to mimic an index, ETFs have to buy more of equities rising in price, sending those stock prices even higher. This creates a piling-on effect as funds buy more of these increasingly expensive stocks and less of the cheaper ones in their indices — the polar opposite of the adage “buy low, sell high”. Risks of a bubble rise when there is no regard for underlying fundamentals or price. It is reasonable to assume a sustained market correction would lead to stocks that were disproportionately bought because of ETFs and index funds being disproportionately sold.

The idea that index investors cause valuation disparities within indices is a myth. It is mainly trotted out in difficult client conversations about investment performance. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s restrict the definition of “passive” to “investing in a market capitalization weighted index,” like the Russell 2000 or S&P 500. There is a simple reason everyone who makes this argument is categorically, demonstrably wrong:

INDEX FUNDS DON’T SET THE RELATIVE WEIGHTS OF THE SECURITIES INSIDE THE INDEX. 

It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than Russell 2000 stocks because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than OTC microcaps outside of the index because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is demonstrably false to say, “NFLX trades at a ridiculous valuation relative to the rest of the S&P 500 because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

Index funds buy each security in the index in proportion to everything else. Their buying doesn’t change the relative valuations within the index.

Here is how index investing works:

1. Active investors buy and sell stocks based on their view of fundamentals, supply and demand for various securities, whatever. They do this because they think they are smart enough to earn excess returns, which will make them fabulously wealthy, The Greatest Investor Of All Time, whatever. As a result, security prices move up and down. Some stuff gets more expensive than other stuff.

2. Regardless, the markets are not Lake Wobegon. All of the active investors can’t be above average. For every buyer there is a seller. If you average the performance of all the active investors, you get the average return of the market.

3. Index investors look at the active investing rat race and think, “gee, the market is pretty efficient thanks to all these folks trying to outsmart each other in securities markets. Let’s just buy everything in the weights they set. We are content to get the average return, and we will get it very cheaply.”

4. Index investors do this.

Despite what we in investment management like to tell ourselves, index investors are rather clever. They are trying to earn a free lunch. They let the active investors spend time, money and energy providing liquidity and (to a much lesser extent) allocating capital for real investment in primary market. They just try to piggyback on market efficiency as cheaply as possible.

In my experience, some index investors like to think of themselves as somehow acting in opposition to active managers. This, too, is demonstrably and categorically false. Index investors’ results are directly and inextricably tied to the activity of active investors setting the relative weights of securities within the indices. That activity is what determines the composition of the index portfolio.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Index investing only “works” to the extent the active investors setting the relative weights within the index are “doing their jobs.” When the active managers screw up, bad companies grow in market capitalization and become larger and larger weights in the index. At extremes, the index investor ends up overexposed to overvalued, value-destroying businesses. This happened with the S&P 500 during the dot-com era.

Now, flows of passive money certainly can distort relative valuations across indices, and, by association, across asset classes. When it comes to asset allocation, almost everyone is an active investor. Even you, Bogleheads. Otherwise you would own something like ACWI for your equity exposure.

A running theme of this blog is that there are no free lunches. Someone is always paying for lunch. These days, it’s the active managers. But that doesn’t mean the passive folks will always enjoy their meal.

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