Index Investing, A Brief History of Vanguard, and the Case for Average Returns

Over on the post Magic Beans reader Mark had this to say in the comments:

“Being a Boglehead myself, I read the ERE article to see what he had to say. I had to sigh when I got to this: “Index investing is basically equivalent to a buy and hold strategy with very low turnover of a few large growth companies.” This is absurd. The S&P 500 is just one index. There are indexes for large cap, small cap, growth, value, US, Europe, emerging markets, REITs, every kind of bond, you name it. Index investing is about choosing an asset allocation that matches your need and willingness to take risk, and using low-cost index funds to hold the most diversified position possible within those asset classes. Why is it that the people bashing “index investing” have so little understanding of what it is?”

It’s not just people bashing Indexing Mark, it’s an entire financial industry.

In addition to offering some good points, Mark got me thinking about just why it is that concept of index funds meets with such resistance in some quarters. First, a little background.

Jack Bogle founded the Vanguard Group in 1974 and launched the first index fund, the S&P 500 Index, in 1976. The basic concept with Vanguard is that an investment firm’s interests should be aligned with those of its shareholders. To this day it is the only firm that is and as such is the only firm I recommend.

The basic concept of indexing is that, since the odds of selecting stocks that outperform is vanishingly small, better results will be achieved by buying every stock in a given index. This was soundly ridiculed at the time and in some quarters it still is.

But quickly and increasingly over the past 36 years the truth of Bogle’s idea has been repeatedly confirmed.

After replying it occurred to me this is a subject that deserves a post of its own. Below is my slightly expanded response to Mark.

Hi Mark… Always good to meet a fellow Boglehead.

Warren Buffet is typically held up, with good reason, as the pinnacle of all that is good in investment. He certainly has an impressive record.

Rock climber

But for my money (pun intended), no one has done more for the individual investor than Jack Bogle. From Vanguard and its unique structure that benefits shareholders to Index Funds, he is a financial saint and a personal hero.

You are, of course, correct. The S&P Index is only the first of its kind and now is one of many. Each tailored to a unique need. As mentioned elsewhere I use/need only two, plus a money market fund.

As to why people bash them with little understanding, all I can say is that seems to be a common human trait.

I have a lot of respect for Jacob and ERE. He’s clearly very bright and thoughtful. Why he choose to dismiss indexing in the manner he does, baffles me.

As to why people who do take the time to understand indexing and who still reject it, I think there is a lot of psychology behind it:

1) It is very hard for smart people to accept that they can’t outperform an index that simply buys everything. It seems it should be so easy to spot the good companies and avoid the bad. It’s not. This was my personal hangup and I wasted years and many $$$ in the pursuit of out-performance.

It should be easy to spot the bad ideas, right?

2) To buy the index is to accept “average.” People have trouble seeing themselves or anything in their life as average.

But in this context “average” is not in the middle, it is the performance of the all the stocks in an index. Professional managers are measured against how well they do against this return. In any given year, and of course this varies year to year, 80% of actively managed funds underperform their index. This means just buying the index guarantees you’ll be in the top performance tier. Year after year. Not bad for accepting “average.” I can live (and prosper) with that kind of “average.”

3) The financial media is filled with stories of individuals and pros who have outperformed the index for a year or two or three. Or in the rare case, like Buffet, who has done it over time. (I cringe at the often touted suggestion to just do what Buffet does.) But investing is a long term game. You’ll have no better luck picking and switching winning managers than winning stocks over the decades.

4) People underestimate the drag of costs to investing. 1 or 1.5 or 2 percent seems so low, especially in a good year. Fees are a devil’s ball & chain on your wealth. As Bogle says, performance comes and goes. Expenses are always there.*

5) People want quick results. They want to brag about their stock that tripled or their fund that beat the S&P. Letting an Index work its magic over the years isn’t very exciting. It is only very profitable.

6) People want exciting. Heck, I’ve even admitted to playing with individual stocks with a (very) small fraction of my stash. But I let the Indexes do the heavy lifting and they are the ones that got me F-you Money.

7) Finally, and perhaps most influential, there is a huge business dedicated to selling advice and brokering trades to people who believe they can outperform. Money managers, mutual fund companies, financial advisers, stock analysts, newsletters, blogs, brokers all want their hand in your pocket. Billions are at stake and the drumbeat marketing the idea of out-performance is relentless. In short we are brainwashed.

Indexing threatens the huge fees they can collect enabling your belief and effort in the vanishingly difficult quest for the alluring siren of out-performance.

Use the index and keep what is yours.


Addendum I:

On a fairly regular basis I’m asked what would happen were all money to be indexed. I’m afraid I find this question almost completely uninteresting. The reason being, it is never going to happen.
What is interesting to me is that only ~33% (so I’m told) is currently being indexed. This is remarkable in that the research has for over 30 years shown indexing to be the most powerful investing strategy. 30 years of study after study coming to this conclusion and still 64% of investors DON’T index? That’s what’s stunning.
But they never will for the reasons provided in this post. And, of those, perhaps #7 is the most critical.
There is relatively little money to be made running index funds. There are huge fortunes to be made selling and running actively managed funds. There will always be the naive, ignorant or arrogant who will be easy prey.
The fact that there is so much money at stake hoping to prove active management has value, makes the research supporting indexing all the more compelling.
Addendum II:

*In addition to underperforming Index Funds, actively managed funds cost more, and those costs have a very serious and negative impact on your results. My pal Shilpan has a great post on this: That Mutual Fund is Robbing Your Retirement

Addendum III: Warren Buffett’s plan for his widow

Addendum IV: At various points on this blog I suggest only about 20% of active managers outperform the index. That’s being a bit generous.

This is a ballpark figure based on the many articles on this I’ve come across on this over the years. In fact you can Google this question and find several falling around this percentage. I’m not sure why they vary. Some look at different time frames. Some at different metrics. Some factor in costs, some don’t.

Clearly it is easier to get lucky and outperform the shorter the time you need to do it. Even I called the market almost exactly last year, and I can assure you it was no more than luck: :)

Vanguard has done research on this looking at a 15-year time frame:
In it they point out that 45% of actively managed funds fail to even survive over that time, let alone outperform. Only 18% both survived and outperformed. And even those frequently had long periods of underperformance.

So even if you are lucky enough to pick one of the out-performers, it will be tough to live with.

This article references studies done for an even longer period: 1976-2006, 30 years:

The results are even more shocking. As the article says:
“Barras, Scaillet and Wermers tracked 2,076 actively managed U.S. domestic equity mutual funds between 1976 and 2006.

“And — are you sitting down? Only 0.6% — you read that right, 0.6% — showed any true skill at beating the market consistently, ‘statistically indistinguishable from zero,’ the three researchers concluded.”

Always ask, where are the missing bullet holes?

On reflection, calling the out-performers at 20% I am too generously off the mark. :)

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    • jlcollinsnh says

      Yep. In #5 Ego is a big part of the dynamic and it is what gives #7 its power.

      Like I’ve said before:

      “If you choose to try to best the averages, God Bless and God Speed. You may well be smarter and more talented than I. You are most certainly likely to be better looking. I’ll look for your name along with Warren and Peter’s in the not too distant future.

      I extend the same to all those folks I’ve met in Vegas who assure me they have bested the house. I listen, gaze up at the billion dollar casinos and reflect on how many smarter, more talented and better looking people there are than me.” 😉’t-pick-winning-stocks-and-you-can’t-either/

  1. Kalo says

    One other thing about indexing, especially the Total Market indexes (Stock, Bond or REIT) that is implied in the above discussion that I like is that there’s a sense of comfort one gets knowing one can go on vacation mentally for years or decades and still retain confidence about an investment. The allocation should be reviewed periodically, but even that can be put on auto pilot through Vanguard. My favorite example of the opposite is Kodak. Who could have predicted several decades ago the fate of this former DOW 30 stock?

    People usually don’t factor in the cost of monitoring a portfolio. Maybe because they convince themselves that they enjoy it. I did as much in the past. But there is time, stress, energy. And the nagging fear that you are making a mistake. I am so much happier with my few Vanguard ETF’s purchased at zero brokerage commissions through Vanguard brokerage service. I may convert these to the corresponding mutual funds to make my life even easier in the future.

    Thanks for this web site. I was directed here from MMM’s site and am also a fan of Bogleheads.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Kalo…

      and congratulations. Sounds like you’ve got it working for you, not the other way around!

      Great point on Kodak, and that’s a story repeated many times.

      Way back in 1896 a guy named Charles Dow selected 12 stocks from leading American industries to create his Index. Today the DJIA is comprised of 30 large American companies. Care to guess how many of the original 12 are still around?

      One. General Electric.

      BTW, your ETFs are a fine way to hold your investments. If they are in tax deferred accounts, switch them if you like. But if they are not, be aware of the capital gain taxes you’ll owe if you switch. At least if you’re here in the USA.

      • Kalo says

        Thanks. I appreciate the advice. I am in the US and most of my holdings are in tax deferred. The ones in the taxable account I plan to keep in ETF’s. I had experience years ago reporting on fractional shares for taxes and want to avoid that. So I buy VTI in 50 share increments when I can and keep the reinvest options turned off. Then just use the dividends plus new contributions to make new purchases. That way I never have fractional shares. Not an issue in the tax deferred accounts.

        I have reviewed Bogleheads on the subject but am still not totally clear about ETF’s vs Funds. Most of the issues I understand. And since Vanguard charges no brokerage commissions, the ETF’s work and are sometimes lower cost. I originally converted from funds to ETF’s because I thought I may want to time the market, but since then I’ve come to believe I can’t do it profitably. I guess the one thing I wonder about is if there were ever a total economic catastrophe if the funds would be better but in that case it probably wouldn’t matter because everyone would be toast anyway.

        If you have any thoughts about ETF’s vs funds I’d be happy to hear them.

  2. Scott says

    One of the recent Vanguard papers (indirectly) made a very good point — that 100% of good index funds underperform their index 😛 (And index fund that outperforms its index is probably tracking it poorly, and thus isn’t a good fund.)

    They mentioned that (I’m getting the numbers wrong) if you compare active funds to index funds (instead of to the uninvestable index), the 80% underperform turns into more like 70% underperform.

    So the important part is that a good index fund will underperform its index by an amount they told you upfront, the expense ratio, which is why costs matter so much.

    (And the average managed fund will, in practice, also underperform its benchmark by its expense ratio, but that expense ratio will be much higher than for the index fund.)

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Good point. Even modest expenses are a drag on performance and that drag precisely matches the expense.

      Another factor is that even index funds typically have some cash on hand. Partly just the inflow of new money, partly to have on hand for when investors want to sell.

      In a rising market, this will be a drag. In a falling market, it will be a cushion. But either way the effect is slight as index funds strive (correctly) to keep cash at a minimum.

  3. Josh says

    Jim I’m curious if you own any Berkshire Hathaway stock, after reading your frequent descriptions of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway as an example of a stock, or I guess mutual fund but not sure, that has beat the S&P index over time.

    Great blog, I found you via MMM and have been hooked ever since. I enjoy your ability to condense your points with a dusting of humor. Keep up the good work.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Josh….

      and thanks for the kind words. Glad you found your way over here!

      Sorry for the delay in responding. As you may know, I’m just back from spending most of the summer in Ecuador and am only now catching up.

      Nope, I’ve never owned any BRK and what a spectacular investment it would have been!!

      Here’s the problem. Back in the day, there was no way to know Warren Buffett would turn out to be, well, Warren Buffett.

      I mean this not just in his stock picking performance, but in his longevity.

      Back in the 1980s I found Michael Price, who was running the Mutual Series of funds. He, too, turned in a spectacular performance and made me a lot of money.

      But choosing him, from among all the others, was sheer luck on my part and not likely repeatable.

      But then he sold out to Franklin Templeton for half a billion dollars. They, and he, tried hard to convince shareholders that the funds’ success wasn’t just him but a function of the efforts of his team. Fortunately, I didn’t listen. The funds were never the same after his departure.

      Certainly those lucky enough to have bought and held BRK over the decades have out performed the index. About 5% of money managers pull this off over decades. A vanishingly small percent when you are picking them from the starting line as we all must do.

      The real question, of course, is what about now? Well, Mr. Buffett is 80-something years old. The harsh reality is that investing in his acumen now is a short term proposition. All too soon you’ll need to make the same call as I did with Price.

      For the past several years, BRK and Buffett have been floating the idea that the spectacular results were a team effort and that these results will continue even with out him. Just like Mutual Shares and M. Price. That’s a very long-shot in my view….

  4. kyle says

    After reading Jack Bogle’s ‘The Little Book of Common Sense Investing’ it’s clear to see Jack is an honest man, who wants the best for the investors who trust and invest with Vanguard. He created the first index fund with the American investors in mind, not his (dare I say?) greedy colleagues in the investment industry. As human beings, we want the best. We want the best health, the best lifestyle, the best house, the best for our children, it’s written into our DNA. It makes sense that accepting average for anything in life is quite simply unacceptable and seemingly lazy and boring. When you zoom out and look at the big picture, ‘average’ in the form of indexing is actually the best you can get in the long term because you are avoiding costly fees (that line the pockets of fund managers), you are outpacing inflation (if you are foolish to not invest at all!), you are not timing the market, and you are diversifying your investments. It’s really above average, as you said, it’s just not exciting in terms of looking at your gains on a yearly basis. Thanks for this article, Jim.

  5. Chandon says

    This was a very good article, which made some very valid points. I would add that I think that a big reason that some people (mostly men, it seems) continue to criticise index funds and ETFs is because accepting them would mean that they have finally accepted that they do not possess any real investing acumen or “edge” themselves. It would be tantamount to admitting that they are lousy lovers or bad drivers. There are many people who struggle to accept that they have not only have no above average investing ability, but do not even have average understanding or ability. Once the majority of people accept that they do not possess the ability to outperform the market, acceptance of index funds is easier. For what it is worth, I am a man who worked in the financial world for more than 25 years, and all my investments are in index funds or ETFs!

  6. MarredCheese says

    Bogle is definitely the man. The more I learn about him, the more I admire him and am thankful for what he has done.

    I have one question though, which I have not been able to find the answer to myself. Given that Bogle and Vanguard are both pretty relentless in their support for indexing, why does Vanguard have more active funds than passive ones? Doesn’t that seem strange and contradictory to their message? You could say that they would alienate too many customers by offering fewer or zero active funds, but if they operate at cost, keep each fund financially independent, and strive to put the investor first, then the size of their customer base shouldn’t matter. What am I missing?

    • Scott says

      Every manager has a different taste, so number of active funds is unbounded. There are only so many non-controversial pivots for indexes, though, especially since Vanguard is big on market-cap weighting, which keeps the number of index funds down.

      Also, some of Vanguard’s active funds are actually older than their index funds. Lucky, Vanguard’s cost structure keeps funds from subsidizing each other, so their having both kinds doesn’t hurt either side. (Unlike many of the ETF vendors that do subsidize one way or the other.)

      • MarredCheese says

        You have a point that there are only so many index funds you can make, but I don’t see why that means they should bother with active funds too (other than the old ones that already exist). It’s like saying, “Well, we’re already selling all the medications that have been proven to work, so we’d better sell snake oil so that we don’t have any empty shelves.” Why? Leave the shelves empty and move into a smaller building. Either that or stop talking about how bad snake oil is all the time.

        I assume Vanguard continues to create active funds as a matter of ego: they are massive and don’t want to shrink. That’s also probably why they started spending significant cash on advertising, though Bogle has openly criticized them for that.

        Or maybe they don’t truly believe in index funds and don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket. After all, Bogle himself invests in active funds, and his son is a fund manager. It’s all very confusing to me.

        • Scott says

          The other answer I remember seeing somewhere was something like, “Well, some of our clients want active funds for some portion of their portfolio, even when they have index funds for core holdings, so we provide them because our ‘costs matter’ philosophy helps for active funds too”.

          The biggest problem with active funds is the traditional “5% upfront + >1% per year” thing. For example, Morningstar calls HOTAX‘s fee level “average” at 5% up-front and 1.2% per year.

          I wouldn’t bother saying anything, though, if someone insisted on picking, say, VWENX (Active, 0.18% ER, founded in 1929, 2/3 stock, 1/3 bond) over the very-similar VSMGX (Index, 0.16% ER, 60% stock, 40% bond).

          Oh, and many of the bond funds are active, AFAIK due to lack of good indexes.

          • MarredCheese says

            Thanks, makes sense.

            When you say there is a lack of good bond indexes, do you mean that although there are plenty of passive funds available, most of them don’t beat their active counterparts? Or are you saying that passive perform better but have less selection?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      As Scott points out, some of Vanguard’s active funds actually pre-date the launch of their first index fund. Wellesley, Windsor and Wellington are all examples, I believe.

      That said, Jack Bogle himself has expressed some reservations about the many newer active funds launched in more recent years since he last had a role in running the place.

      He makes the point that in the old days, well before indexing, mutual funds tended to be much more conservatively managed with far less trading. The managers would select stocks carefully and hold them for the long term (think Benjamin Graham) Fiduciary responsibility was taken very seriously.

      One of the recurring themes in some of Bogle’s books, articles and interviews is the lamentable trend of funds being created for the benefit and enrichment of their managers rather than their shareholders.

      I confess that, as big a fan of Vanguard as I am, this does concern me, however slightly. It will bear close watching especially once Mr. Bogle, and his voice, pass on.

      That said, Vanguard is still fundamentally different in its structure than any other investment company out there, and better for it.

      • MarredCheese says

        Interesting, it sounds like though fees have decreased over time, turnover has increased. Maybe due to the availability of more sophisticated tools that make it harder to resist tinkering?

        Hopefully Vanguard stays true to Bogle’s vision since as you say, they’re the best option we have.

  7. Paul says

    I came across your site via MMM. This is all totally new to me but to put it bluntly, I’m frigging inspired-it’s def indexing for me! Thanks Jim

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Paul…

      …glad you made your way over here.

      Hope you keep reading. That way you’ll continue to learn more about why indexing is so powerful. This will be important in helping you stay the course the next time the market plunges.

  8. Aaron says

    Hi Jim,

    Great site, I’ve really enjoyed reading the stock series.
    For the past 15 years or so, I’ve tried diligently to beat the S&P index. But, for the vast majority of those years, my results weren’t impressive. However, some years I substantially outperformed. (last year with biotech) It’s this occasional luck that keeps people hooked…just ask a casino manager. I’ve finally acquiesced and keep most of my money in index funds, with a few holdovers that will likely eventually be transitioned to indexes.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks Aaron…

      …and thanks for sharing your story.

      The psychology of wins with individual stocks is exactly the same as that the casino managers you reference play upon. People tend to remember and give themselves outsized credit when things move their way. When they don’t they tend to push it from their minds or attribute it to elements they’ll be able to control next time. (Forgot to wear my lucky socks!)

      It is a rare individual who systematically measures both over time.

      I salute you!

  9. PMV says

    Dan December 26, 2011, 9:09 pm
    “That is, living on say a 2% withdrawal via dividends or via selling shares, you still are in the same risk profile. Even in a year the market is down 75%, if you pull out 2% as a dividend (ie choose not to reinvest those dividends), that is the very same thing as selling 2% of your shares of non-dividend-paying stocks. Receiving as dividends instead of selling shares just forces you to pay higher taxes, especially during your wealth accumulation phase (where you really should defer taxation if you can). And for gosh sakes readers, please diversify and do not try to think you can pick out the good stocks- dividend or no!”

    Dan wrote this in the MMM post on Dividend Investing, which has become the ‘last word’ on this topic as there are no further comments since 2011. I see this analogy as historically flawed. A key factor in Dividend Growth Investing (DGI) strategy is that if dividends are paid out by companies that are relatively stable (with sustainable payout ratios), then even during deep drawdowns (such as 50%), you can count on dividend income or at least it doesn’t decline as much. For example, S&P 500 dividends declined by 21% in 2009 over 2008 even as the stock prices declined by 50% lending credence to the relative stability of dividends. Note that this includes all S&P 500 dividend paying companies, but the more ‘boring’ ones barely reduced any dividends and some (like MCD) continued to increase their earnings and dividends in 2009 regardless of stock price.

    There is one more table (from Ibbotson study) that I am not able to attach here but it says that the standard deviation of dividends since 1926-2012 period has been just 1.6 versus 19.5 for capital appreciation. The geometric mean of income (dividends) over the same period has been 4.1% /yr and capital appreciation contributes 5.6% /yr – explaining the total returns of 9.8% in equities annualized over the same period. So, the real attraction of the DGI approach is in very low volatility of income and so, is more predictable than capital appreciation, which is very volatile as the std dev figure shows.

    I agree DGI is more work than indexing but the rewards can be worth it as long as one is flexible about dividends, patient and not blindly yield chasing. For example, if a DGI portfolio of 25 stocks – as assembled at time of purchase – is 4% yielding (possible to put this together at a beta of 0.8 – less volatile than S&P 500), the yield is absolute figures is relatively stable (i.e. $40K on a $1 mill portfolio). Still, it is better to learn to live on 3% ($30K in this example) and keep the extra as a cash cushion to tide over the years like 2009 (rare as they are) when dividend income doesn’t keep pace with inflation. This method, practiced by many advocates of this strategy, preserves the share count and so, focuses more on the income. Yes, it may lag the index at times, but then what index is relevant to an income investor, where risk diversification is defined as income coming from different sources and sectors – for example, I have a portfolio where I strive to keep my income <6% from any stock and <15% from any one sector, actually less than 10% in most cases. Diversification can also be achieved in DGI contrary to what many indexers believe as long as all sectors of the economy are represented in the portfolio.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome PMV…

      Let me start by saying that I absolutely agree with Dan in the quote you provided.

      And I’m a bit confused as to why you provided it. You say, “I see this analogy as historically flawed.” But there is no analogy in that quote of Dan’s as far as I can see. Nor do your following paragraphs refute his points, which is what I am guessing was your intent?

      You make the case that a DGI strategy has lower volatility than some other alternatives. My guess is you are thinking of investing in growth stocks or perhaps a broad based total stock market index fund such as I recommend.

      If low volatility is your goal, then yes DGI will serve you better than either of those two. But of course you pay a price for that lower volatility in lower growth rates and in your total return. You seem to understand this as you say “Yes, it may lag the index at times…”

      If lower volatility is the goal, however, I’d suggest it is better served by adding bonds to an total market index fund like VTSAX. By adjusting your allocation you can precisely target the level of volatility you find acceptable along with the reduction in growth you are willing accept.

      However, I also suggest that reducing volatility is not the best goal especially in the Wealth Accumulation Phase.

      You also ask, “but then what index is relevant to an income investor…”

      I’d say, if you are going to undertake any strategy that entails selecting individual stocks (something that is vanishingly difficult to do successfully over time) and all the work that entails, it seems only rational to measure your results against a no-effort index fund. Otherwise you are flying blind and just fooling yourself.

      Even a 1% difference over time is huge.
      Over 10 years..
      $20,000 @ 8% = ~40k
      $20,000 @ 7% = ~37k, ~$3000 less

      Over 30 years..
      $20,000 @ 8% = ~186k
      $20,000 @ 7% = ~142k, ~$44,000 less

      Finally, you are correct that you can create a DGI portfolio diversified across various sectors and I’ve yet to see anyone suggest otherwise. However, that is only one aspect of diversification.

      As you point out in your comment, companies that fit DGI are “relatively stable” and “boring.” That is to say, large established companies in the mature phase of their life cycle. That is a very narrowly focused, un-diversified slice of the overall market.

      Finally, for any who are interested, here is my take on DGI and the MMM post you referred to:

  10. PMV says

    Thank you Jim for your detailed response. I used to be an indexer and have slowly moved over to DGI so I understand all the ‘for’ arguments in indexing. A few clarifications are in order:

    * There is a difference between diversification and diworsification – the latter referring to a blind assurance that just by owing 2000 companies, we all can sleep well at night. Studies show that 98% of the index diversification is achieved by owning just 25 stocks, with say 2-3 each from each of the 10 sectors of the economy. Also, these companies are all globally diversified with anywhere from 30-80% of their revenues coming from outside US, so international diversification of these 25 stocks is also significant. Such a portfolio can be constructed give a 4% dividend yield today versus 2% for the VTSAX. I understand that the 2% delta here is included in the ‘growth’ component of VTSAX but that growth comes at 19.5% std deviation versus the income that has just about 1.6% standard deviation.

    * Since we are all advocating ‘buy and hold’ this becomes that much easier if the income component is stable and that’s what the DGI investor focuses on. It doesn’t mean there is no growth and I don’t think there is evidence to say that companies that give out decent dividends don’t grow. On the other hand, a stable dividend policy (that grows with earnings) is a sign of prudent fiscal management and ensures that Management doesn’t use the cash flows to fund all the available projects including long shots and pets. If Management knows before hand that say, 50% of net operating cash flow must be paid out to shareholders, then it forces them to be that much more careful in funding growth projects – only the best ones get funded that can increase the ROI and future cash flows even further.

    * I am not saying that DGI stock portfolio will be less volatile than the broader market. They can be as volatile as the broader market as they are constructed (I use portfolio beta as a metric – mine is 0.84 compared to S&P 500 – so a bit less volatile). To use EMH parlance, it is equivalent to owning 84% SPY and 16% cash. A DGI porfolio can lag the index in portfolio return for some periods (and lead in other periods) but in general, what’s attractive is that the income it provides keeps up with inflation and the income itself is far less volatile (as the 2008-09 Great Recession data I cited in my previous comment shows). This relative stability in portfolio income is what allows retirees to peg their expense needs against the incoming cash flows.

    * Success is defined here as follows. If a retiree is able to sustain his spending throughout retirement without selling a single share of the stock and in fact, have excess in dividend income that he keeps in cash to manage the periodic downturns without selling stock, then he is successful. What is the terminal portfolio value (which depends on Mr. Market’s blessings anyway) got to do with it? It is in this context I said “what index is relevant to an income investor”

    * I used to be an investor in VTSAX along with international indexes and have no issue with it, but I don’t see the value of adding bonds in today’s world. With unprecedented ZIRP and QE world with no further reduction in interest rate possible, I think the biggest bubble today is in bonds. If an investor cannot handle 100% equities, cash or real estate (physical) might be acceptable diversifiers.

    * There is no issue with VTSAX, it is a great index fund to have, please don’t think I am suggesting otherwise. But if you are in withdrawal phase, and if your income needs to be more than the 2% yield that it provides, then you are forced to sell some shares of it to augment the income. If this sale happens during downturns because expenses cannot be deferred, then the investor has given up the upside potential for that portion of the shares that he had to sell to sustain his living. This is the paradigm addressed by DGI.

    * I know of some people who are fortunate enough to have amassed so much that even the 2% VTSAX dividends are enough to sustain their life. For them, it doesn’t matter at all because they will end up with so much wealth at the end of their lives (because they withdraw only 2% that the index gives), For these folks, the only meaningful conversation they have with me about their portfolio is estate planning and charities. Not all are so fortunate – DGI allows others to get more current income while ‘sacrificing’ terminal value maximization of their portfolio. This need not be a definite ‘sacrifice’ as it is subject to market’ s vagaries so only time will tell. Even if it is a sacrifice, they will still leave a sizable estate (because they haven’t sold a share) and yet, they have lived a life enjoying an income higher than from purely index dividends. Going by your example, the 1% difference is significant indeed and it can be applied to income also. 2% yield income versus 3% is a 50% increase in spendable income ($30,000 vs. $20,000 in a $1 M portfolio). DGIers see this as an acceptable balance between spending income today versus leaving a large estate.

    * There is no universal right way, and I don’t think any grounded DGI believer will disagree. I am not a DGI ‘zealot’. DGI is not a fad or even an asset class but just another way of accepting the reality that volatility cannot be avoided if we want to enjoy the returns of the ‘best performing asset class’ so a conservative way to deal with it is to focus on income. It is based on a trust companies that have learned to grow dividends and earnings in the last 10-50 years when they faced many challenging periods must also have the ability to handle the challenges the future throws at them. It is a bet on their agility, strength and ability to generate sustainable profits in the future. If 100 companies form an index, of which 10 are in this DGI category, it is saying that we bet the 10 will continue to grow and succeed and generate inflation-adjusted dividend growth rather than the entire 100, of which some may be superstars (and will grow much faster than the DGI set) but many others are surely to be duds.

    • Jeff says

      You sir are very sharp and well versed in this forum…..I learned something reading both comments and responses…..thank you!

  11. Minh says


    I started with Mr. Money Mustache and now I’ve dived into this rabbit hole corner of the web. I’m having a blast I must say =] Thanks for sharing your knowledge and linking to other bloggers.

    This may be a silly question but are there any indexes that follows long term successful investors like Mr. Buffet? What’s your opinion on that? I mean if they’re successful why not just copy what they do and get the same results?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Minh…

      Welcome to the rabbit hole!

      If you want to invest like Buffett you need only buy shares in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B), his holding company. But I wouldn’t.

      While his record has been spectacular, he is up in years and his partner Charlie Munger is even older. What they’ve accomplished is exceedingly rare. In my view it is highly unlikely, no matter how talented, that the team that follows them will be able to repeat.

      Other than that, there are no indexes that follow specific investors.

      There are, however, many, many actively managed funds that are run by various individual investment managers. But these are high costs and in all but the rarest instances they underperform the market over time.

  12. Elizabeth says

    Hi! My husband started reading you and MMM and asked me to do some research on index funds because he is 100% convinced they are the way to go.
    For background my husband and I are both 30, make about 100,000 a year combined, and bought our home 2 years ago. We are both really into savings so manage to save about $2,000 a month cash plus our IRA and 401k contributions. We recently got a large inheritance from a relative and we need to figure out what to do with it.

    So, I have a few questions.

    Everyone talks about index as being the right choice for long term. If we are planning to start our own business in 5 years would you consider putting the money somewhere else?

    My husband contributes the max his IRA each month and I have a 401k with my company. It doesn’t match but does put in 3% regardless of if I contribute. Would you suggest we stop paying into those and put that money directly to an Index fund each month?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Elizabeth…

      Glad you found your way here.

      Your questions indicate this is all very new to you and you are a bit confused on the basics. Nothing wrong with that, but please keep reading, especially this:

      That said, let me try to answer your questions.

      First, understand that index funds can and do invest in all sorts of things besides stocks. Bonds and REITS for example. But in your first question I think you are referring to investing in stock index funds. So…

      1. Stock investing is for the long-term and stock index funds are the best way to invest in stocks.

      Short-term (<5 years) belongs in cash precisely to avoid being caught in a downdraft like the current one when you need the money.

      If you want to take a bit more risk in the pursuit of a bit more return, you can create a bond/stock portfolio and fine tune it to your risk profile. Betterment is a useful tool for this as I describe here:

      2. Here you are confusing the buckets you can hold investments in – IRAs and 401(k)s – with the investments that can go in those buckets: : Stocks, bonds, REITs, etc. Index funds are one of the investment choices you can put into those buckets.

      So keep funding your IRA and 401(k), and in doing so I would suggest choosing index funds as the investment in them.


      Make sense?

  13. Gabe Richman says

    Hi Jim,

    Curious to hear the rationale behind investing in Index Funds vs ETFs that accomplish the same. If my money is with Vanguard, is there a reason I would rather have it in VTSAX vs VTI (Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF).


  14. Ninad says

    Hi! I recently discovered your blog and I’ve been devouring as much of it as I can.
    I’m currently restricted to investing from India for residency reasons and this article really struck a chord with me.

    Since I can’t invest in Vanguard, I went looking for index funds from financial companies based out of India like ICICI or HDFC or even Franklin Templeton. Two things I’ve discovered very quickly – even with index funds, due to lack of competition from a player like Vanguard in India, all the companies are pulling wool over our eyes with crazy expense ratios and/or tracking a ridiculously narrow range of stocks (a 30-stock index called the SENSEX and a 50-stock index called the NIFTY – similar to the NASDAQ 100)

    This post struck a particular chord with me as the financial media in India still tries to play a spiel of how index fund performance is only average. In India, they also try to play on how in India, active funds have outperformed index funds unlike the US and other more “developed” markets.

    Some examples –


    How did you handle it back in the 80s before these 20-30 year data sets were available? What would be your argument against the naysayers, especially the ones who say the Indian market is fundamentally different from the more developed markets?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Ninad…

      I don’t argue with anyone, let alone naysayers. From my Disclaimers page:

      The investment ideas of others:

      Occasionally I am asked to read some book, article and/or blog and dispute the ideas in them. I simply don’t have the time or inclination to do this. I’m not the least bit interested in trying to persuade anybody of anything.

      If you read my blog you’ll soon have a very clear idea of my views. You can then read other sources, compare and decide for yourself what resonates.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Mr. Bogle is a very conservative guy, and a hero of mine. But no one can predict the future.

      Regardless of whether returns are 4% or 12% like the last 40 years, you will be better off on the Simple Path than not.

  15. Miguel says

    Hi Jim
    I have to say what a nice surprise it was to see all the answers you provide to the questions on this blog. It must be so much work!
    It’s my first time here but I finished reading “the simple path to wealth” the other day, after it was recommended by mr mmm and mad fientist. I have to say thank you very much for all of it. I had been pondering over two months over how and where to invest, and after reading your book I have answers to most of my questions.
    I’d like to ask you though: you say that the average return on vtsax over the past 40 years was 11.9. Nevertheless I see much more conservative returns on other sources, the most common one being 7%. Do you think that’s because in that average taxes and inflation are excluded?
    I plan to follow your suggestions, but I’m from Argentina so I wouldn’t be paying any US taxes, and also inflation is much more volatile here. So I’m curious as to how taxes and inflation work into that estimate.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Miguel…

      There are lots of ways to look back at past returns, including choosing the lenght of time. How those who came up with 7% did so is a question you’d have to ask them.

      As I say here on the blog and in the book, in the calculation I used taxes and inflation are ignored. The reason is simple. Taxes are different for everyone and inflation is unpredictable.

      For those interested is seeing what the numbers look like if you include such factors, the link to the calculator I used is provided.

  16. KS says

    Question, why choose VTSAX over VTI? VTI is slightly cheaper and more tax efficient. More broadly, why mutual funds over ETF’s? Is it solely because mutual funds allow for automatic investing?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi KS,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Mr. Collins is currently traveling and unable to respond just now.

      We find for most questions, he has already covered the topic. Using the Search button might very well provide your answer. If not, please post your question again after October 15, 2019.

  17. LiLin says

    Hi Collin, I have been reading your blog for quite some time and I’d say it has been helpful in my path to early retirement! Just wondering what is your thought on this following answer with regards to the danger of indexing and do you think it’s possible that indexers could lose a lot of their values and have to go back to work during a crash?

  18. Cristian says

    Hi Jim,

    I came across your blog through MMM and I spent the last couple of weeks reading almost all of your posts and all comments. I had a blast reading through all that and I would like to thank you for sharing all this info and your life experience with us.
    I’ve got a couple of questions and since I couldn’t find an answer anywhere I would very much appreciate your input.
    1. I was wondering what happens when I trigger a buy order of 100k of VTI? Is Vanguard buying immediately(through a software) shares on each company present in the index?
    2. The fund net assets might be close to 1T $ by the end of this year. With those numbers they could actually buy a few of the top 100 US companies, maybe even a country(joking). I wonder if there’s any limit where they might say stop to new buy-ins, or they’ll continue to expand the index to new companies?
    3. Is the number of VTI shares finite? Or new shares are added as new funds are injected into the fond?

    Thank you in advance for your input.
    Greetings from Switzerland,

  19. TheLazylonewolf says

    I stayed with index funds after dabbling for a bit in stocks. Spending minimal time for research and reallocation are the biggest benefits of mutual funds that led me to stop bothering with stocks since I’d rather use my limited time on earth on fun or productive things.

  20. Shaun says

    Hi JL,

    After reading your book and blog I’m convinced to put all net new investments in index funds, mostly VTSAX. What I can’t find is advice on what to do with the ~20 individual stocks I currently own. Do I hold them all forever to avoid a taxable event? Do I just hold on to the winners and sell the losers, or vice versa? (And invest any sales into the index fund, of course.)

    Going forward I’m all in on VTSAX. But what about the winners and dogs currently in my portfolio?

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