The “Big Lie” Of Market Indexes

Last week, I received the following email from a reader which I thought was worth further discussion.

“In a recent article “Signs of Excess – Crowding and Innovation” Lance stated ‘Note the chart above is what has happened to a $100,000 investment in the S&P Index. While the S&P index has soared past previous highs, a $100,000 dollar investment has just recently gotten back to even. This demonstrates the important difference about the impact of losses on a dollar-based portfolio on investments versus a market-cap weighted phantom index.” – M. Fitzpatrick

It’s a great question.

Almost daily there is an article touting the soaring “bull market” which is currently hovering near its highest levels in history. The chart below is based on quarterly data back to 1990 and is nominal (not adjusted for inflation) which is how it is normally presented to investors.

The Big Lie

The “Big Lie” is that you can “beat an index” over an extended period of time.

You can’t, ever.

Let me explain.

While individuals are inundated with a plethora of opinions on why the index is moving up or down from one day to the next, a portfolio of dollars invested in the market is vastly different than the index itself. I have pointed out the problems of benchmarking previously stating:

  1. The index contains no cash
  2. It has no life expectancy requirements – but you do.
  3. It does not have to compensate for distributions to meet living requirements – but you do.
  4. It requires you to take on excess risk (potential for loss) in order to obtain equivalent performance – this is fine on the way up, but not on the way down.
  5. It has no taxes, costs or other expenses associated with it – but you do.
  6. It has the ability to substitute at no penalty – but you don’t.
  7. It benefits from share buybacks – but you don’t.