The Pro’s and Con’s of Passive Investing and When To Engage a Financial Advisor

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Passive investing, an investment strategy aimed at maximizing returns over the long run by keeping the amount of buying and selling to a minimum, is a popular choice for many. However, like any financial strategy, it has its pros and cons. To navigate these complexities, engaging a financial advisor can often prove beneficial.

The investment world has witnessed a surge in popularity of passive index investing in recent years. This investment strategy primarily involves tracking a market index like the S&P 500 or the NASDAQ, and it presents a number of advantages and disadvantages that investors must consider.

Advantages of Investing in Passive Market Indexes

One of the most significant advantages of passive investing is its affordability. Traditional actively managed funds, strategies, or managers often require payment of higher fees to finance research and frequent trading. In contrast, passive funds, such as index-tracking ETFs or mutual funds, usually have lower expense ratios, making them more cost-effective for investors.

Another advantage is diversification. By investing in a passive index fund, an investor effectively buys a small piece of each company in the index. This broad exposure helps to spread the risk associated with individual stocks.

Moreover, passive investing often results in superior long-term results. A wealth of research indicates that most active managers fail to consistently outperform the market over long periods.

Disadvantages of Investing in Passive Market Indexes

Despite the advantages, passive investing is not without flaws. One significant drawback is the lack of control. When you invest in an index fund, you’re committed to holding every stock in the index – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In addition, passive investing inherently means accepting average returns. By tracking an index, your goal is to match, not beat, the market. This approach may frustrate those who are aiming for above-average returns.

Another disadvantage is the potential for market bubbles. As more people invest in index funds, there are more funds flowing into the stocks that are included in the index. This can inflate their price, leading to market distortions.

Furthermore, passive investing is indifferent to corporate governance. Passive funds, by definition, buy stocks irrespective of the company’s policies on things like executive pay, environmental policies, etc. This could potentially lead to negative societal impacts.

Understanding Index Construction and Concentration

The S&P 500 Index, a commonly followed equity index, is heavily influenced by its top constituents, creating a concentration risk. For instance, as of the end of 2020, the top 10 companies in the S&P 500, which include tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook, made up about 28% of the index’s market capitalization and it’s only grown from there as these firms continued to profit dramatically from the COVID-19 Pandemic investing environment. These firms’ colossal sizes and significant price appreciations have contributed substantially to the S&P 500’s overall performance. For example, in 2020, these five tech behemoths delivered robust returns, aiding the S&P 500 to end the year on a high note despite the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. This heavy dependence on a few companies underscores the index’s concentration risk and the potential for these firms to significantly steer its returns.

Passive Index Investing and Volatility

Passive index investing inherently involves exposure to market volatility. It embraces the fluctuations of the market, riding the highs and lows without any effort to hedge against downturns or capitalize on short-term trends. In contrast, a more active and conservative investment strategy seeks to mitigate volatility. This often involves diversifying the portfolio beyond the scope of a single index, frequently adjusting asset allocations based on market conditions, or investing in more stable, lower-risk securities such as bonds or blue-chip stocks. While active investing requires more hands-on management and can incur higher costs due to frequent trading, it can provide a buffer during periods of heightened market volatility.

Lower volatility in a portfolio can indeed foster greater commitment to a long-term investment strategy. This is primarily because reduced volatility can help protect against significant short-term losses, which can be psychologically daunting for investors. When portfolio values don’t fluctuate wildly, it’s easier for investors to stay the course, avoid panic-selling during market downturns, and keep their focus on their long-term financial goals. Over time, this commitment to a long-term strategy can potentially yield superior investment performance. Although passive index investing may offer lower fees, it exposes investors to the full brunt of market fluctuations. Conversely, a more hands-on active strategy, while possibly more costly, can mitigate these swings and potentially deliver better risk-adjusted returns in the long run. By focusing on stability and long-term growth, investors may find that an active, more diversified strategy, can better serve their financial objectives in the long term.

Chasing the Index’s Performance

Chasing index performance is a common trap that many investors fall into. This approach often involves buying high and selling low, as investors tend to hop onto the bandwagon of top-performing indices without fully understanding the risks involved. This reactive investment approach can lead to elevated transaction costs and subpar returns due to timing errors. When an index is performing exceptionally well, it may already be overvalued, and investing then may expose the investor to higher downside risks.

On the contrary, investing according to a financial plan aligns the investment decisions with the investor’s individual financial goals, risk tolerance, and investment horizon. It involves deliberate asset allocation and diversification across different asset classes to smooth out potential market volatilities and reduce portfolio risk. It doesn’t aim to beat the market in the short term but focuses on achieving sustainable, long-term returns. This disciplined investment approach can help avoid emotional decision-making, providing steadier returns and a greater likelihood of achieving long-term financial goals.

Investing is a long-term endeavor, and it is crucial to maintain perspective during times when your investments are lagging the indices. Remember, market fluctuations are part of the investing process, and a short-term underperformance does not necessarily mean your strategy is flawed. Rather than solely focusing on short-term performance, it’s important to keep your financial goals, investment horizon, and risk tolerance in mind. If your investments are underperforming, it may be a good time to review your portfolio and investment strategy. Perhaps market conditions have changed and require a strategic reallocation of your assets, or maybe your investments need more time to reach their potential. Remember, consistency and patience are key facets of a successful investment strategy. Also, comparing your investments with appropriate personal benchmarks, rather than indices that aren’t aligned with your goals or risk profile, can provide a more accurate measure of your portfolio’s performance.

The Key Question

This brings us to a key question that every investor must ask themselves: “If I achieve all my financial goals but never beat the S&P 500, would I be happy?” The answer to this question can significantly impact your investment strategy and mindset. The inherent flaw in benchmarking your success against the S&P 500, or any other index, is that it does not consider your individual financial goals. Aiming to beat the market can often lead to taking unnecessary risks. Remember, investment is not a competition against the market; it’s a pathway to achieving your financial objectives. If your investments are consistently meeting your financial goals, then they are successful. So, it’s entirely possible to be content and financially secure without ever outperforming the S&P 500, as long as your strategy aligns with and achieves your personal financial objectives.

A proficient financial advisor understands that their primary role is not to beat passive market indices, but to guide you in achieving your unique financial goals. They do this by aligning your investment strategy with your risk tolerance, financial objectives, and timeline. These factors form your personal benchmark, which is a more relevant measure of your financial progress than how an index is performing. Chasing the highs and lows of the market can lead to inconsistent results and unnecessary risk. Instead, a good advisor emphasizes a steady, disciplined investment approach, focused on long-term growth. They consistently review and adjust your portfolio to ensure it keeps pace with your financial goals, rather than obsessing over outperforming an index which may not even align with your investment strategy.

Passive Investing and Wealth Accumulation

Passive investing is particularly advantageous for young individuals in the early stages of wealth accumulation – it is cost-effective, typically involving lower fees than active management and provides you with broad market returns, which, historically, over time, have been adequate. This is crucial for young investors who may not have a lot of capital to start with. The savings in fees can compound over time, contributing to your wealth accumulation. Furthermore, the simplicity of passive investing allows young investors to set up a portfolio and maintain it with minimal effort. This conveniently frees up time for other pursuits, while simultaneously building wealth for the future.

Active Management and Retirement Income Planning

As individuals approach their retirement years, the importance of active management in their investment strategy tends to increase. During these years, the focus shifts from wealth accumulation to creating a sustainable income stream from their accumulated assets. Active management, and a skilled financial advisor, plays a key role here since it allows for the careful balancing and re-balancing of portfolio assets according to market fluctuations and changes in personal income needs. A skilled financial advisor can help in tactically adjusting asset allocation, managing risk, and ensuring that the drawdown strategy safeguards the longevity of the retiree’s assets. This active approach towards retirement planning can provide peace of mind, knowing that their financial future is being attentively managed and adjusted according to their changing needs and market conditions.

One of the key challenges faced in retirement income planning is managing the sequence of returns risk. For instance, suppose you retire with a portfolio worth $500,000 and plan to withdraw 4%, or $20,000, each year. If you experience a negative return of 20% in the first year of retirement, your portfolio would drop to $380,000 after the withdrawal. In the following year, even if your portfolio rebounds by 20%, it would only grow to $456,000, still less than your starting amount. This is due to the sequence of returns risk — the danger of receiving lower or negative returns early in a period when withdrawals are made from your investments. This can seriously deplete your retirement savings, particularly if the downturn happens early in your retirement years. Therefore, understanding and managing this risk is of paramount importance for a secure retirement. This is where active management becomes truly critical for an investor.

When Should I Look At Hiring A Financial Advisor? Early!

Hiring a competent financial advisor early in life can significantly enhance your long-term financial well-being. Such a professional can offer more than just attempting to outpace a passive index. They provide crucial guidance in formulating a comprehensive financial plan that accounts for your specific goals, risk tolerance, and time horizons. They assist in understanding complex investment vehicles, tax planning, retirement planning, and estate planning. More importantly, a good financial advisor can help instill financial discipline, enabling you to make informed decisions and avoid common investment pitfalls. The cumulative effect of these benefits over an extended period can be substantial, potentially leading to a more comfortable and secure financial future. Therefore, the earlier you engage with a financial advisor, the more time you have to leverage their expertise and the compounding effect of sound financial decisions.

Further, engaging a financial advisor early in your financial journey is beneficial as it allows for easier course corrections. When financial missteps are made early, there is ample time to adjust strategies and recover from potential losses. However, as one ages, the ability to bounce back from financial blunders reduces significantly due to fewer earning years left. Early financial planning enables the power of compounding to work in your favor, as the prolonged investment period allows your wealth to grow exponentially. On the contrary, waiting to hire a financial advisor later in life may limit the potential for wealth accumulation and could lead to unnecessary financial stress. Therefore, it is prudent to start financial planning as early as possible to maximizethe time available for course corrections and wealth generation.

Summing It All Up

In summary, passive investing is a long-term strategy whereby an investor builds a portfolio mirroring a market index, aiming to generate returns that closely follow the performance of that index. This approach comes with significant advantages, including lower fees due to the reduced need for active management, diversity as the portfolio includes a wide range of securities, and potentially lower taxes due to less frequent trading. However, passive investing also has limitations. It caps the potential returns to the growth of the market as there is no opportunity to outperform the index. Additionally, it exposes investors to the full brunt of market downturns since the strategy does not actively work to mitigate risks or losses.

In the context of passive investing, hiring a financial advisor can bring added value. While the investor might primarily follow a passive investment strategy, a financial advisor can provide guidance on creating a diversified, balanced portfolio that aligns with the investor’s financial goals and risk tolerance. The advisor can also aid in understanding tax implications of certain investments and help navigate market downturns. Therefore, even with a passive strategy, a financial advisor’s role can be instrumental, particularly when the investor lacks the time or expertise to manage their portfolio effectively.

Brannon Brown

Brannon is a financial advisor with LPL Financial and also serves as the team’s wealth manager. He joined Prosperion Financial Advisors in 2004. In addition to being a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP) and an Accredited Portfolio Management Advisor®, Brannon has a Master’s degree in Leadership from Denver Seminary. He is passionate about helping clients make wise, informed, investment and financial planning decisions. He is married to the love of his life, Melanie, and is the proud father of his son, William. When not working with clients or spending time with family, Brannon enjoys being in the outdoors of the Colorado high country, skiing, fly fishing, and exploring wild country.

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The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.
All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.
Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.
No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee return or eliminate risk in all market environments.
All examples are hypothetical and are for illustrative purposes.