John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing. He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.” It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.
Selling things based on price is always popular with the public. It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart, Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.
But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition. He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?
The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect. It has created the myth that they are safe.
A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:
“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”
The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well. The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.
Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.” For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk. It’s not.
But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:
“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”
The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.” Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund. There is no guarantee if any specific return. In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back. Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course. But humans have emotions. They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.
My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.” He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future. The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009. We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008). At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.
Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio. But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.” Don’t be fooled by this myth.