Researching And Managing Your ETFs/Funds Can Give You A Huge Advantage

Includes: VTI
by: Tom Madell


A more and more recurrent theme in fund investing is that broad index funds will be the best choice for investors.

Most managed funds tend to perform no better than the entire stock market but with higher fees.

Fund returns for the entire stock market as well as for non-core categories likely will vary significantly from each other over periods lasting 5, 10, or more years.

Knowledge of these discrepant returns, as well as careful specific fund selection, can point to investments that will outperform the core market averages by significant amounts.

Data is presented that shows that even nearly 15 years ago, funds could be identified that would increase an investor's annualized return on each 10K investment by about $5K.

Many investors may immediately recoil at the title of this article. And why not? Actively seeking out the best funds to invest in, meaning not just picking the most popular index or managed funds, and then actively managing your portfolio takes time, some degree of knowledge, and may fly in the face of what many experts will tell you. The best approach to achieve the best performance, these experts say, is to latch on to perhaps a small number of good funds/ETFs, often non-managed index funds, and then don't monkey with them.

Speaking of monkeys, a close friend mentioned to me the so-called fact that if you give monkeys darts to throw at a list of stocks, their choices on average will get better results than the portfolios of people attempting to actively manage their results, professional or not. Management of investments, either by yourself, an advisor, or a fund manager is frequently viewed as an activity that is more likely to detract from your investment results than to help them.

Of course, there is much to be said for the seemingly more and more frequently heard argument that it is hard to do better than merely owning one (or more) low cost index funds and just holding on for many, many years. I highly endorse such an approach, especially a) as your time horizon for such holding spreads out further and further (like 20 years or more), b) you can almost swear that you won't sell when times get rough, and c) you simply don't want to get any further involved in managing your investments.

But a closer look at the outcome from holding an index fund, and more than likely any fund, shows a somewhat different picture. Holding will produce superior comparative multi-year results during some stretches of time, but relatively poor results during others.

Case in point: Right now, many people might argue that an S&P 500 index fund/ETF, or perhaps better yet, a fund that invests in the "total stock market" (U.S.) such as the currently most popular fund, Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (MUTF:VTSMX) (or comparable ETF such as VTI), seems like a no-brainer as compared to most other choices. The evidence? Over the last 1, 3, and 5 years, their results have been near the top as compared to most other fund categories ("near" meaning within say one or two percentage points annualized).

Unfortunately for many investors, non-indexed (i.e. managed) diversified US stock funds tend to be highly correlated with these indices, meaning that very few really offer you something significantly different than these two indices, but at higher costs. A managed fund that is highly correlated with an index fund tends to produce a highly identical result minus the higher fees incurred by the former fund.

Let's look at the correlations between the ten most popular domestically-oriented, diversified non-index stock funds and VTSMX over the period 6/30/2009 through 6/30/2014. (Note: You can see the correlation between any two funds at this website)

Fund Degree of Relationship
(i.e. Correlation)
The Growth Fund of America Class A (MUTF:AGTHX) +.99
Fidelity Contrafund (MUTF:FCNTX) .97
American Funds Washington Mutual (MUTF:AWSHX) .98
American Funds Invmt Co of Amer A (MUTF:AIVSX) .99
Fundamental Investors, Class A Shares (MUTF:ANCFX) .99
American Funds New Perspective A (MUTF:ANWPX) .95
Dodge & Cox Stock Fund (MUTF:DODGX) .98
Vanguard Windsor II Fund Admiral Shares (MUTF:VWNAX) .99
Fidelity Low-Priced Stock Fund (MUTF:FLPSX) .97
Vanguard PRIMECAP Fund Admiral Shares (MUTF:VPMAX) .98

These are shockingly high correlations since a correlation of +1.00 is the highest possible, 0 is the lowest. They suggest that it would have hardly made any difference whether you owned that fund or VTSMX; their end results should be nearly the same.

Did any of these 10 funds actually beat the 19.3% annualized return on VTSMX over the period? Only three: DODGX, FLPSX, and VPMAX and each by less than 1% annualized. Yes, then, investing in a broad index would certainly look hard to beat if most broadly diversified, managed funds do indeed show just as high correlations with VTSMX.

So does that mean that what we have seen over the last 5 years is typical, and more importantly, will it likely be repeated over the next 5, or the next 5 after that? Unlikely, and here is the evidence: Approximately 5 years ago (at the end of June 2009), the annualized return for the S&P 500 index over the prior 5 year period was -2.2%; for an index of the US total market, it was -1.6%. (The results for even the lowest cost index funds mirroring these indices, such as from Vanguard, were slightly worse since all such funds must deduct something for expenses.) These results were quite poor in an absolute sense, considering that stocks tend to average returns of around +9 to +10% per year.

Was this the best you could have done over the mid-2004 through mid-2009 period? Not at all. Here are some non-broad based categories and non-US stock fund categories you could have invested at least some of your money in instead and each category's subsequent average annualized return. These categories together represented many 100s of different funds.

  • Utilities +5.9%
  • Natural Resources +8.4
  • International +2.1
  • Emerging Markets +12.4
  • Pacific Region +7.8
  • Gold Oriented +14.5

These positive results versus the negatively returning indices may not seem like terrifically huge differences until one realizes that the difference between receiving a return of say +6% a year vs. -2% a year over 5 years would amount to well over $4000 on each $10,000 investment. Specifically, the 6% return would amount to $3382; the -2% loss would be $961, with the difference in dollars being the sum of these two figures.

Since the above categories did significantly better than VTMSX, one would expect their correlations with it to be less than those shown above since a very high correlation means assets move nearly in unison. During this 2004-2009 period, the index fund had a negative result. Therefore, extremely highly correlated funds should also have a highly similar result. However, funds with a less high correlation might act somewhat more independently and potentially show a better result.

The following are correlations between VTSMX and representative Vanguard funds from these above categories; I also show the total annualized return for each fund during that mid-2004 through mid-2009 period:

Fund Degree of Relationship Total Return
Vanguard Utilities ETF (NYSEARCA:VPU) .79 +6.5%
Vanguard Materials ETF (NYSEARCA:VAW) .89 2.1
Vanguard International Growth Fund (MUTF:VWIGX) .89 3.9
Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund (MUTF:VEIEX) .86 14.3
Vanguard Pacific Stock Index Fund (MUTF:VPACX) .81 2.1
Vanguard Precious Metals and Mining Fund (MUTF:VGPMX) .77 14.3

As you can see, even a relatively small drop in correlation from that for the ten funds above means that a fund may be different enough from the index that its results can be significantly different.

So far, we have shown data for two separate 5-year periods. What about for the full 10 year period between June 30, 2004 and June 30, 2014? The following fund categories were among those that averaged significantly better returns than the 7.3% ann. return for the average S&P 500 index fund and even the 8.3% ann. return for VTSMX.

  • Health & Biotech 11.7%
  • Utilities 10.7
  • Emerging Markets 11.2
  • Natural Resources 11.7

While the indices during this period did moderately well, investors could have done better in a number of other categories of funds, although granted not a large number.

So, it appears that to have a chance to do better than even the highly regarded broad based indices, one might need to add funds somewhat away from the "core" of stock investments these indices provide. While the particular categories might differ depending on when you were investing, categories to be considered might include international investments as well as funds more narrowly focused on certain stock market sectors.

Now let's look at some data that span 15 years. But instead of just focusing on identifying non-core investment categories, let's examine a variety of well known specific stock funds that have in the past shown the ability to perform well under a variety of market conditions. In fact, approaching 4 years ago, in my Newsletter article entitled "Our Long-Term Fund Choices for the Next Five Years" (Dec. 2011), I discussed 8 outstanding stock funds, and in addition an S&P 500 index fund, I felt were one's best bets for achieving the improved results goal mentioned in my left hand column beginning on page 1. If one can identify such funds, one would certainly think that they should have "staying power" over very long periods of time. And, if such a search for funds is to be indeed worthwhile, their long-performances should, in most cases, reward the investor with better returns than even a solid fund such as VTSMX can provide.

Here then is a current performance chart showing the 15 year total ann. returns of the 8 funds as compared to the total return of the S&P 500 of 4.39%, and more specifically, 5.21% for VTSMX (these two returns certainly reveal that in spite of the current 5+ year bull market, it has not been a good one and a half decade period for core index investors):

Fund 15 Yr. Ann. Tot. Return
Yacktman Fund (MUTF:YACKX) 11.1%
VWNFX Vanguard Windsor II (MUTF:VWNFX) 6.2
Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) 7.5
Fidelity Low Price Stock (FLPSX) 12.2
Vanguard Small Cap Growth Index (MUTF:VISGX) 9.7
Vanguard REIT Index (MUTF:VGSIX) 11.4
Vanguard International Growth (VWIGX) 6.0
Tweedy, Browne Global Value Fund (MUTF:TBGVX) 7.4

This and subsequent returns from for the period July 25, 1999 through July 25, 2014.

Clearly then, there appears to be a flaw in the notion that VFINX, or even VTSMX (or similar funds/ETFs), will always be the best funds to invest in, even for the relatively long-term. As you can see, every one of my carefully selected funds has a track record that is better, in some cases significantly so, than the index performance over this decidedly long period.

Of course, if one waits another 5 years, perhaps these core index fund holdings will again return to ascendancy. However, a period of 15 years of outperformance, and in some cases a more than doubling of investment returns, is enough to convince me that relying mainly on either/both of these indices to be your fund/s of choice only makes sense if you truly believe that chance is the only factor that governs long-term investment returns, thus propelling monkeys to an equal or better status than humans when taking fund expenses into consideration.

I know that some people still won't be convinced. I've realized that right from the start of the 15 years I've been writing my Newsletter. I suspect that's why many people come and go from my site, without apparently ever gaining from the kind of valuable information I think I am providing. (But that's OK; we all have to size up reality in our own individual ways.) But I'll take one last shot here at trying to show that first researching and then attempting to choose funds that beat the core indices can be done in advance and can make a big difference to the investor's long-term bottom line.

Take a look at my Model Portfolios published on Dec. 31, 1999, or approaching 15 years ago. In that early Newsletter, I recommended 14 stock funds, 5 bond funds, and one money market fund. (Note: It is fortunate that the website has a repository of web pages that go back as far as the 1990s so that anyone interested can see what I was saying starting from my first Newsletter.)

Now, nearly 15 years later, we can see how these choices performed if one merely held them for 15 years. (It should be noted that my Newsletter does recommend changing investments on occasion; therefore, any poor performing funds can readily be eliminated.)

The tables below again show 15 year returns; a few of the funds are the same ones we continued to select in 2011 (see above):

Stock Funds Recommended Dec. 31, 1999

Fund Category 15 Yr. Ann.
Tot. Return
Fidelity Low Priced Stock (FLPSX) Mid-Cap Value 12.2%
Vanguard REIT Index Inv (VGSIX) Real Estate 11.4
Vanguard Small Cap Index (MUTF:NAESX) Small Blend 9.0
Vanguard Extended Market Index (MUTF:VEXMX) Mid-Cap Blend 7.7
T. Rowe Price Value (MUTF:TRVLX) Large Value 7.4
Janus Overseas (MUTF:JNOSX) Foreign Large Blend 7.2
MainStay ICAP Equity I (MUTF:ICAEX) Large Value 6.1
Vanguard International Growth (VWIGX) Foreign Large Growth 6.0
Vanguard Index Europe (MUTF:VEURX) European Stock 5.1
American Century International Growth (MUTF:TWIEX) Foreign Large Growth 4.9
Vanguard Growth and Income (MUTF:VQNPX) Large Blend 4.4
Vanguard Index Pacific (VPACX) Diversified Pacific/Asia 3.4
Janus Fund (MUTF:JANDX) Large Growth 2.4

As in our 2011 selections above, one of the stock funds was VFINX so we don't show that in the table and won't count it in the comparison described next.

Bond Funds Recommended Dec. 31, 1999

Fund Category 15 Yr. Ann.
Tot. Return
Vanguard Long Term Investment-Grade Inv (MUTF:VWESX) Corporate Bond 7.7%
Vanguard Long Term Treasury (MUTF:VUSTX) Long Government 7.4
PIMCO Total Return Instit (MUTF:PTTRX) Intermediate-Term 6.8
Vanguard High Yield Corp (MUTF:VWEHX) High Yield 6.3
Fidelity Intermediate Bond (MUTF:FTHRX) Intermediate-Term Bond 5.1

Of the 13 stock funds, 8 beat the return on VTSMX over the last 15 years. The average annualized outperformance was +1.5% and +2.3% as compared to VFINX. But that's not all. Four out of the 5 bond funds also beat the return of VTSMX! Who would have expected that? The average bond fund outperformance of VTSMX was the same at +1.5% showing that on relatively rare occasions, even bond funds may be a wiser holding than VTSMX over extended periods.

An outperformance of 1.5% might not seem especially noteworthy. But, in this case, the outperformance is the average outperformance for every single year of the 15 year period, compounding year after year. By checking on a financial calculator, you will see that in the case of investing solely in VTSMX, each original investment of $10,000 made 15 years ago would have grown to $21,422; if one had invested in my 13 non-core funds, it would have grown to $26,490 - that's over a $5000 difference per 10K invested! You can check these figures yourself if you have doubts. (One site I found where you can plug in the 5.21% return vs. a 1.50% higher return over 15 years is available here)

Once again, the data show that merely investing in either of the two most popular "core" domestic stock index funds will not necessarily lead to the best results. In this case, some of the best performing funds were either managed funds or index funds that were investing in special corners of the overall market, such as value stocks, real estate, and small/mid cap categories.

To summarize: Just parking your money in an index fund, or any fund/s, for a long time, and expecting your portfolio to give you very good results as compared to what you could have earned in any of a number of other carefully selected funds/categories does not appear to stand up.

Of course, at this moment in time, as suggested above, these two aforementioned indices may appear to give you among the best results possible, but this is only based on results from the last 5 years. During this period, many investors, it seems, were still reeling from the still recent '07 to '09 bear market and therefore were reluctant to gravitate too far afield from the "safest" and best known stocks and market indices. Stock fund returns pretty much across the board were highly correlated, with little advantage accorded to those who chose away from the core indices.

Regarding the above bond fund results, of course, this is not to say that I expect bonds to continue to do better than the S&P or total market funds for stocks over long periods going forward. But the results do go to show several things: a) the S&P or total market funds are obviously not always the best places for investors to be, and b) people who tend to perennially disregard bond funds perhaps need to re-examine their stance.

Bond funds can be nearly as good or even better places to be during periods when stock funds are overvalued and interest rates are stable or declining. I consider both of these two conditions true right now. But especially the second part of this statement is likely to change over the next year or so. (Of course, if stocks enter a significant correction, or even a bear market, then the first part of this statement may no longer remain true either; once stocks return to fair valuation, their forward-looking prospects will look significantly better.)

Also, as noted above, the above data does not mean to suggest that everyone should routinely hold their particular fund choices for 5, 10, or even 15 years. My Newsletter may be particularly helpful to investors trying to find which additions to their portfolio can improve their end results. Down through the years, I have tried to find funds that might be the best available at that particular time. But of the 20 funds, we first recommended back nearly 15 years ago, we still have investments in all but 5. And based on the above results, we are glad for having continued with them.

My fund choices cannot be expected to outperform every year, nor even over several year periods. But well-chosen funds can, as my data suggest, have a very good chance of outperforming, even the indices, over long periods of time. My current ETF/fund choices are posted at my website.

Disclosure: The author is long VTI. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.