Why Rats, Cats, and Monkeys are Smarter than Investors
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An Austrian performance artist claims to be breeding and training rats to be able to beat the investment returns of highly educated and paid professional investors.
The artist, Michael Marcovici, says he trained the rodents to trade in foreign exchange and commodities. He did so by converting market information into sounds and rewarded the rats with food when they predicted price movements correctly and inflicted a small electric shock when they didn’t. (If only hedge fund managers could be compensated in similar fashion.) The rats are placed in a Skinner Box with a speaker, red and green lights, a food dispenser and an electrical floor to deliver the shock.
Marcovici says rats can be trained in three months, are able to learn any segment of the market and “outperform most human traders.” This may seem like an outlandish claim, but this kind of thing isn’t altogether new.
UK’s The Observer held a challenge in 2012 between a “a ginger feline called Orlando,” a pack of schoolchildren and a few wealth and fund managers to see which could produce the biggest returns over the course of the year.
The cat won.
Long before Orlando's victory, Princeton economist Burton Malkiel wrote that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts,” in his book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”
Add this to the overwhelming evidence that largely unmanaged index funds — that simply buy and hold all the securities in a market — often outperform professional stock pickers.
Just this month S&P Dow Jones Indices Versus Active funds scorecard for the first six months of the year, which showed that 60% of actively managed domestic large cap funds underperformed their benchmarks.
That’s in addition to 58% of domestic mid-cap and 73% of small cap funds losing out. If you extend the record out five years, more than “70% of domestic equity managers across all capitalization and style categories failed to deliver higher returns than their respective benchmarks.”
What does this mean for your portfolio? As Morningstar.com’s John Rekenthaler noted in a recent article, active funds may not have much of a future.
Passively managed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, Rekenthaler points out, enjoyed 68% of the net sales for U.S. ETFs and mutual funds over the past year. That leaves 32% for active funds. Meanwhile, target-date funds account for $30 billion of the $134 billion in inflows for active funds over the past 12 months. Even on this front, passive target date funds sales are growing.
In fact, the only real growth area for actively managed funds are in so-called alternatives that invest in things like currencies and that charge annual fees of close to 2% of assets. That's a lot of cheese.
You’re generally better off staying clear of professional security pickers.
No, this doesn't mean you should find a rat, cat, or monkey to manage your 401(k). Instead, go the passive index route and select three basic building block funds from our Money 50 selection (like say Vanguard Total Bond Market Index, Schwab Total Stock Market Index and Vanguard Total International Stock Index) and you can achieve basic diversification at a price that won't make you as poor as a church mouse.