MARK RIEPE: During a timeout of an NBA basketball game, Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, sits down next to Steph Curry, the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history. Curry’s shooting touch is off, so his field goal percentage is poor. By that, I mean he’s missing more shots than he normally does. Curry’s frustrated, and he feels that he’s letting his team down. But then Steve Kerr shows him a sheet filled with statistics from the game up to that point. He points to two numbers on the page and says, “That’s your shooting totals. That’s your plus-minus. All right? It’s not always tied together. You’re doing great stuff out there. The tempo is so different when you’re out there. Everything you generate for us is so positive. It shows up here, not always there, but it always shows up here.”
The plus-minus statistic measures how many points a player’s team scores while that player is on the court, minus the number of points the opponent scores. For example, if a player has a plus-minus of plus 20, that means while he was in the game, his team outscored the opponent by 20 points. So, in this game, Curry isn’t shooting well, but he’s mistaken in benchmarking his overall performance to just his shooting percentage.
There are many things that go into being a successful basketball player. And a lot of them are hard to quantify individually, but, ultimately, they all add up to whether your team is scoring more points than the other team. The coach, Steve Kerr wants Curry to focus on the statistic that measures his total impact on the game. And that’s the plus-minus. He doesn’t want Curry to obsess over a statistic that measures just one portion of what he’s doing on the court.
Statistics have always been a part of sports, but in this century, practically every sport has gone through a statistics revolution. These revolutions sprang from a belief that sports in the past had been measuring the wrong things. The old statistics, at best, form an incomplete picture of what makes a successful player. And, at worst, they can be misleading.
Everything I just said applies to investing in your financial life. There are plenty of numbers to look at to see how you’re doing. Look at your brokerage statement. There are almost as many numbers as words, and each one of those numbers provides some information as to your level of success. But just like Steph Curry, before you start getting too depressed or too excited about your performance, make sure you’ve got a good grasp of the numbers. You need to understand what they mean and what they don’t mean. And just as important, you need to understand which ones matter the most. Only then can you make sure you’re focusing on the right ones when it comes to evaluating your performance.
I’m Mark Riepe. And this is Financial Decoder, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about financial decisions and the cognitive and emotional biases that can cloud our judgment.
When it comes to evaluating your investment performance, there’s an important concept to keep in mind. It’s called the availability heuristic. Now, heuristic is just a fancy name for a rule of thumb. We use rules of thumb all the time, because they’re quite often useful. To see why, consider that every one of us faces hundreds of decisions per day, both big and small. That creates a huge load on our brains. It’s impossible to completely think through every decision we make. By using rules of thumb, we can make that process easier and reserve our thinking capacity for more difficult decisions. But there’s a dark side to rules of thumb. What if they’re wrong, or, more likely, what if the rule of thumb works some of the time, but not all the time? When that happens, we start to make bad decisions. The essence of the availability heuristic is that when we make decisions, we pay close attention to the evidence that is most readily available to help us make the decision. It’s the kind of rule of thumb that makes a certain amount of sense. The problem comes in when the evidence that is most available isn’t relevant, or we place too much weight on it.
The evaluation of investment performance is an example of this. A staple of the nightly news is to report what went on with the stock market on that day, including the movement of major indexes that track the performance of the market. By indexes, I mean things like the S&P 500® index or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For those of you who get your news online, go to any financial news website and there’s a good chance you’ll see these indexes prominently displayed at the top of the screen. I bet listeners of this podcast check them often. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. After all, how the stock market is performing does matter to the investments of many people.
This becomes a problem when that repeated exposure to those indexes becomes a benchmark against which you compare your own performance as an investor. It’s a problem because relatively few investors have all their money in the U.S. stock market. Because of that, using one index that measures only the performance of big U.S. companies will be a misleading indication of how your investments are doing. Those indexes are useful to judge how parts of your portfolio are doing, but not your overall portfolio. It’s a lot like evaluating a basketball player by looking only at the player’s shooting percentage. It’s a useful statistic for evaluating part of the player’s performance, but not the entirety of it.
There are many other aspects of evaluating performance in addition to benchmarking, and we’re going to get into more details on those topics with David Koenig.
David is a vice president here at Schwab, and he’s the chief investment strategist for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. He also provides research and analysis about automated investment advisory services and how they can help investors reach their financial goals.
So, David, thanks for being on the show.
DAVID KOENIG: Well, thank you, Mark. Happy to join you again.
MARK RIEPE: David, the last time you were on the show we discussed whether it made sense to jump out of the stock market and get back in later. I think we recorded that pretty close to the market bottom. I think it was more, you know, mid- to late April. How did that turn out?
DAVID: Well, yeah, that’s right. The stock market is volatile by nature, and it does inevitably run into turbulence from time to time, which we discussed when I last joined you. And when investors see stocks falling and their portfolio value potentially shrinking, well, emotions can often take over and sometimes lead investors to try to time the markets. And the first quarter of this year was certainly an exceptionally volatile period that led to a lot of those types of questions and temptations. But getting out of the market in times of volatility is just rarely the best course of action, because it really requires you to get out before the decline and then to get back in before the rebound. And investors just rarely get those market timing decisions correct. What typically happens is that the sale takes place after the decline, and then investors are slow to get back in and actually end up missing the early stages of the rebound when returns have historically been quite robust.
And that’s exactly what we’ve seen this year, with an exceptionally rapid rebound from the March lows that actually took the stock market to new all-time highs in really just a matter of months. And that underscores why we advise investors to stay the course and just avoid trying to time markets in times of volatility.
MARK: Thanks, David. I think, also, given the strong market rebound, I’m sure we’ve got many investors looking at their brokerage statements and asking whether their performance is, in fact, high enough. And that makes sense, we all want high returns. So my question to you is whether shooting for the highest return, is that really the best approach?
DAVID: Yeah, it’s what investors often focus on—we do see that. But it’s not the best approach, and that’s because return is only part of the consideration. And as we all know, of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Returns are absolutely important, but how an investment has performed historically can be very different from how it performs in the future. So an investment that might do well in one period, well, it might do poorly in another and vice versa, and those shifts can often happen very rapidly.
MARK: Yeah, I think that’s the essence of risk, that volatility from period to period. Do you have any specific examples to share of this?
DAVID: Sure. Well, we can just look back over the past several quarters. Stocks, for example, did very well in the fourth quarter of 2019, and market indexes such as the S&P 500 actually hit all-time highs midway through the first quarter of this year, while at that time, Treasury bonds, for example, were among the bottom performing asset classes. But that shifted very, very rapidly later in the first quarter of this year, as we all know. Stocks tumbled into their fastest bear market in just a few weeks, while at that time, Treasuries actually jumped to among the top performing asset classes. And then in Q2 and Q3 of this year, we saw that reverse again: Stocks moved back to the top; Treasuries moved back to the bottom. And that just highlights why looking beyond just return, considering potential risk is so important, as well.
MARK: Yeah, you got to think about both risk and return, rather than just focusing on return. So why does that … could you elaborate on that? Why does the risk side or looking at both return and risk together, why does that matter?
DAVID: Well, I loved your Steph Curry story in the introduction because it really highlighted this, because while he was focused solely on his shooting percentage, he was ignoring an unseen risk, or the implication of him not being on the court, as you described. The same is really true of investing because return is what investors often focus on, but understanding the risk, or the potential volatility, of the investments that you’re holding is also key, as well as the potential risk of not holding other investments. An example of that would be, say, investing only in stocks, because they were doing well in 2019, and not holding an asset class like Treasuries. Well, that might have felt good when stocks were rising, but there’s that hidden risk of not holding bonds, and that would have become very painfully apparent during the first-quarter stock market sell-off, when bonds actually helped to cushion the overall portfolio declines. And that, of course, has implications for your ability to stay the course in those turbulent periods and, ultimately, also the long-term impact of the game as a whole. In this case, your long-term investment success.
MARK: David, in past episodes, we’ve talked about how we like to think about investing as a means to an end, and not an end unto itself. So after you, as the investor, understand both the potential risk and return of your investments, where do those goals that … where do those goals come into play, the goals that you set, for example, when you put together your financial plan?
DAVID: Sure. That’s a great question because potential risk and return are really just part of the consideration. You need to know what you’re investing for in the first place in order to understand how much risk you need to take to have the potential to achieve the necessary return, in order to achieve that goal. So what is your goal? Is it a long-term goal like retirement, or is it maybe a shorter term goal, like just a rainy day fund, or maybe saving for a down payment on a home, or maybe an income goal, where you’re actually using your portfolio to generate income in retirement? Those different goals would likely lead to very different portfolios.
MARK: So what it comes down to is you need to start with that goal, and then select investments that are consistent with that goal. Is that a good summary of that?
DAVID: That’s right. That’s right. Your goal is really the reason for opening the account to begin with. So understanding why you’re investing, what it’s for, how critical that goal is to your life, well, that’s really the starting point. And then that leads to investment selection for investments that have the right risk and return characteristics that are consistent with that goal.
MARK: I get the sense that even for experienced investors, putting that goal in the driver’s seat, if you will, that’s counterintuitive for most people. Do you get that sense? And, if so, why do you think that is?
DAVID: Yeah, it can be counterintuitive. The temptation is often just to try to maximize return with the assumption that that will lead to success. But, unfortunately, it can sometimes lead investors to take far more risks than they really need to and, ultimately, produce disappointing outcomes. So clearly defining your goal has critical implications for your overall risk profile, such as the investment period, whether it’s a long-term or short-term goal, and how much risk you need to take, as I mentioned, to have a high probability of achieving that goal. And all of that insight is key to understanding which investments can be combined within a diversified portfolio that has the right risk and return characteristics to be consistent with that goal.
So taking unnecessary risk just means more volatility in the portfolio in terms of potential ups and downs along the way. And that might work in your favor, but it might work against you, as well. And too much volatility as we see time and time again sometimes leads investors to abandon their plan when markets become rocky, either trying to shift their portfolio to become more conservative or more aggressive in response to what’s happening in the markets or, even worse, potentially selling and exiting the markets after a tumble and then potentially missing the rebound, as we discussed a few moments ago.
MARK: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. You need to know what you’re investing for, or what that purpose of the portfolio is in the first place, and once you get those goals, and you then come up with a target risk or a target return for the portfolio, then you’ve got to determine whether it’s performing as you would expect. And it seems to me that there are probably at least a couple of ways to determine if your investment performance is adequate. The first is whether the investment is keeping you on track to meeting your goal, and then the second is whether your investment is doing as well as other investments that you could have chosen. So what’s the difference between those two approaches?
DAVID: Sure. So staying on track to achieve your goal is really what I would call the true measure of investment success, because it gets back to why you opened the account in the first place. For example, growing a portfolio enough to meet your retirement income needs, well, that would be a measure of success. Whereas beating an index such as the S&P 500 every year for 30 years doesn’t really tell you if you’ll have enough saved to meet your retirement needs. A lot of other financial planning considerations really come into play there.
But measuring performance relative to other investments, it can be a useful yardstick, though it also can sometimes lead to misperceptions about how well you’re doing. So you might not be keeping up with those other investments and think you’re actually falling behind, when maybe you’re actually on track to achieve your goal. You’re just not taking more risk than necessary to have that high likelihood of achieving the goal. Those other investments might actually be much riskier with higher volatility, and that could lead to potential larger declines when markets pull back, such as in the first quarter of this year.
Likewise, outperforming those other investments might make you feel good in the short term but might actually … underlying that might be an implication that you’re actually taking far more risk than is necessary. And that can, of course, have potentially negative long-term consequences in the form of bigger declines in times of turbulence. And that can be disastrous if you’re at or near retirement. And even if you’re not near retirement can potentially lead you to abandon your plan and really get off track from your goal if you’re not prepared to withstand that volatility.
MARK: So, David, let’s go into more detail about comparing your performance relative to alternatives because that’s where benchmarks come into play. You know, the S&P 500 is a great example. So maybe let’s take a step back—what is a benchmark?
DAVID: Sure. So a benchmark is really just a collection of securities in one asset class, or potentially a combination of multiple asset class that’s used to measure the performance of a particular market segment, or maybe the relative performance of an investment portfolio. These are typically single indexes, such as the S&P 500 or the Dow, that you mentioned earlier. But benchmarks could also be a combination of indexes in different asset classes used to form what we would call a blended benchmark to help assess the performance of a multi-asset portfolio that might hold a diversified mix of various asset classes across, for example, stocks, bonds, commodities, and cash.
MARK: So the S&P 500 and the Dow, as we’ve mentioned earlier, they’re almost always used by the mainstream media as proxies for how the U.S. stock market is doing. And I suspect every American listener is at least somewhat familiar with them. Are those good benchmarks, then, for an overall portfolio?
DAVID: Well, we do find that many investors often compare their portfolios against those indexes, because, as you just mentioned, they’re among the most familiar, we see them in the media constantly. But whether they’re appropriate for your portfolio really gets back to what I mentioned earlier about understanding the risk and return profile of your portfolio and what you’re invested in. And, additionally, investors really need to understand that even though those indexes are often cited in answering the kind of ubiquitous question of how did the market do, well, neither is technically “the market.”
MARK: So what do those indexes actually measure?
DAVID: Sure. So I would start by just saying that the market really consists of all asset classes across the global investment universe, whereas each of those indexes that were mentioned measures just one segment of the market, U.S. large-cap stocks, and each only measures a portion of even the U.S. large-cap market segment. So the S&P 500 includes approximately 500 large companies, and the Dow holds just 30 large companies, and the constituents of each of those indexes are actually chosen by a committee. If you’re invested in a U.S. large-cap stock fund or ETF, however, the S&P 500 could be a relevant benchmark for that fund. And it would be expected probably to track it relatively closely. And in the case of that index mutual fund or ETF, well, those funds seek to track their underlying benchmark. And they typically do match that performance relatively closely over time. In the case of an actively managed mutual fund, however, while the managers are selecting securities and they’re managing the fund to try to outperform their benchmark over and above, of course, the fees that they charge for that active management. Now, that also means that there’s potential they might underperform the index, but if you’re invested in a U.S. small-cap stock fund, for example, or maybe an international stock fund, or a corporate bond fund, or a Treasury bond fund, well, those are completely different asset classes from the U.S. large-cap market segment that the S&P 500 measures. So they just wouldn’t be expected to track the S&P 500, and that should be no surprise.
MARK: So the S&P 500, it’s a useful benchmark in some circumstances, but not all circumstances because it won’t necessarily reflect how your portfolio is actually invested. And if you’re investing in a fund in those market segments, some of those that you just mentioned, so how do you measure performance? Are there different benchmarks that you can use?
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. So each market segment has indexes that measure the performance for that segment. Now, for self-directed investors who might be holding an all-stock portfolio of just a collection of large U.S. companies, comparing how that portfolio is doing relative to the S&P 500, that could be a reasonable yardstick for how they as, we’ll say, stock pickers are doing relative to taking a passive index investing approach of just investing in an S&P 500 index fund. But for investors who actually hold funds in other market segments, as you just alluded to, there are different market indexes that are more relevant.
So, for U.S. small-cap stocks, the most common benchmark is typically the Russell 2000 Index. For international large-cap stocks, it’s typically the MSCI EAFE Index. And then for emerging market stocks, typically, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. For investment-grade bonds as a whole, which would include both investment-grade corporate bonds and Treasuries, the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index is a common market benchmark. And then there are individual market indexes for each of those two sub-asset classes, as well. Notably, the benchmark for individual mutual funds and ETFs is actually readily available online. So investors can see which index is the benchmark for each of their individual funds in order to compare how that fund is performing relative to its benchmark.
MARK: So the good news is that you can take your portfolio, you can break it into pieces and compare the performance of each piece against a benchmark that makes sense for that particular piece. But what about a situation with an investor who holds, I don’t know, individual securities or funds that are in multiple market segments or multiple asset classes, maybe they’ve got a large-cap fund, a small-cap fund, an international fund, a bond fund, what should they be doing?
DAVID: Yeah, that’s where it starts to get more complicated, and where comparing the portfolio’s performance against just the S&P 500 index isn’t really relevant. Because depending upon the mix of those investments, well, the portfolio might emphasize the bond funds and have a more conservative profile, or it might hold more of a balanced combination of stock and bond funds—maybe 50-50, or 60-40 is common—and have what we would call more of a moderate risk profile, or it might hold mostly stocks and be a growth or even an aggressive growth portfolio. So those different risk profiles have very different implications in terms of the expected long-term return of the portfolio, as well as the expected volatility of that portfolio.
So, for example, the moderate portfolio that holds a more balanced mix of stocks and bonds would actually have a lower expected long-term return than the S&P 500, which, again, is an all-stock index. However, the portfolio would also be expected to have lower volatility than the S&P 500. It wouldn’t necessarily be expected to keep up with the index when stocks are rallying strongly, but it would also not be expected to fall as much when stocks are tumbling, such as the first quarter of this year, offering sort of a smoother ride, if you will.
MARK: So what is the solution, then, for the investor who has one of these multi-asset class portfolios? How do they gauge their portfolio’s performance, or how do they come up with a benchmark that they can use that takes into account everything you just were talking about?
DAVID: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s really part of the art of performance measurement. Some type of blended benchmark that consists of multiple market indexes would really be more relevant than just the S&P 500. But which indexes and how much of each really depends on what an investor’s portfolio consists of in terms of the various asset classes and market segments that they’re invested in.
So an investor with a relatively simple portfolio of, we’ll just say, core stocks and bonds, well, they might use a blended benchmark consisting, maybe, of just a combination of the S&P 500 and the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Bond Index. In that case, it’s still critical, however, to make sure that the mix of indexes in that blended benchmark matches the mix of asset classes in the portfolio. So if the portfolio is 80% bonds, 20% stocks, well, then the appropriate blended benchmark would consist of 80% Aggregate Bond Index and 20% S&P 500. Whereas for a moderate 60% stock/40% bond portfolio, it’s blended benchmark might consist of maybe 60% S&P 500 and 40% Aggregate Bond Index.
MARK: So what if we push that example a little bit further and think about the investor who has some U.S. small-cap stocks and some international stocks. How do they factor those into the equation?
DAVID: Yeah, that gets even more complex, as the blended benchmark would really need to include additional indexes in, again, the same proportion as those market segments in the portfolio. So, let’s say, that moderate portfolio, the 60/40 portfolio, I just mentioned, let’s take a look at that at a more granular level, and see that it actually consists of, we’ll say, 30% U.S. large-cap stocks, 20% international stocks, 10% U.S. small-cap stocks. That’s the stock portion. And then for the bond portion, maybe it consists of 20% Treasuries, 5% investment-grade corporates, 5% high-yield bonds, and 5% cash. Well, that portfolio is also a 60/40 portfolio at its highest level—60% stocks and 40% bonds—just like the simple 60/40 portfolio we just discussed a moment ago that only held the core stocks and bonds. But it has a different risk profile. So the blended benchmark should really reflect those additional asset classes, as well.
MARK: David, does it matter whether the portfolio is actively managed or whether it’s more of a passive index-fund-based portfolio?
DAVID: Sure. Yeah, that’s a really great question, as well. And the answer is, yes, it does matter. An actively managed multi-asset portfolio, again, as I mentioned earlier, it’s being managed to outperform a benchmark. So in that case, the blended benchmark wouldn’t necessarily need to include each of those individual market segments at the most granular level. The allocations beyond broader asset class categories, for example, the high-yield bonds that I mentioned in the previous example, well, they could be considered active decisions that the portfolio manager is taking. So the effect of those decisions on performance can be measured relative to maybe a more limited set of broader market indexes. And, additionally, the managers are making active decisions in managing the portfolio, potentially changing the weightings or proportions of each asset class in the portfolio over time, based on their shorter-term market views about individual securities or funds in the markets.
A managed multi-asset solution typically would have a policy benchmark of some sort that would consist of various combinations of maybe the S&P 500 for U.S. stocks, MSCI EAFE for international stocks, Aggregate Bond for fixed income, S&P GSCI Index for commodities, and T-bills for cash. So maybe five or six sort of broad asset class categories.
For a passive index-based portfolio, however, it can be a little bit different because it isn’t being actively managed tactically to outperform a benchmark. The blended benchmark would typically consist of the underlying indexes for every asset class in the portfolio at the same weighting as the investments in the portfolio. So in that case, the portfolio would be expected to track that blended benchmark relatively closely, because it’s just not being managed tactically to try to outperform the blended benchmark. And that’s really the measure of success if the portfolio is tracking the index relatively closely.
Now, there, there will, of course, still be some differences, typically, and that would be expected, because the funds in the portfolio would have expense ratios, whereas indexes, well, you can’t invest in an index directly, and an index doesn’t have an expense ratio. And then there are other factors, as well.
MARK: David, this has been fantastic. I just want to ask you one final question. So what are the two to three most important things for investors to think about when evaluating their performance?
DAVID: Sure. So I would start by, number one, at the top of the list, I think is to, again, go back to that goal. Make sure that when you are building a portfolio, you’re investing in a managed account, understand what the goal is for that account. And then make sure that you’re tracking your progress toward that goal. Here at Schwab, we have many tools that provide investors a way to actually set up goals, monitor their progress toward their goals. So that’s really the starting point, and as I mentioned earlier, the true measure of success.
Secondly, I would say consider what the risk profile of that portfolio is. Is it a more conservative portfolio, a moderate portfolio, a more growth or even aggressive growth portfolio? And then look at the underlying investments across the various asset classes in the portfolio. Don’t just measure your portfolio relative to the S&P 500 index. Look at the various asset classes, understand what the underlying indexes are for those asset classes, and then measure the individual investments against those appropriate market benchmarks, and then, potentially, versus a suitable blended benchmark, as well.
MARK: That’s great advice, David. Thanks for joining us today.
DAVID: Well, thanks again for having me, Mark.
MARK: This episode started with a discussion about the metrics used to judge Steph Curry’s effectiveness as a basketball player.
A few things stick out when that process is applied to investing.
First, unlike basketball, the goal of investing isn’t to score the most points. Very few people are aiming to overtake Jeff Bezos. Instead, “winning” is accomplished by achieving your goals.
Second, goals matter, but you still need to look at statistics to see whether you’re on track to reach those goals.
When it comes to investing, your rate of return is one of those statistics, but you need to compare your return against a reasonable benchmark.
Given that most investors are diversified across at least a few different asset classes, you need a benchmark that’s a mix of returns from these asset classes, otherwise you’ll be comparing apples to oranges.
Third, get a third-party opinion. Professional athletes have coaches. For individual investors, use an advisor who understands you and what you’re trying to accomplish.
And check in with your financial advisor or planner to get regular feedback and guidance.
Finally, investing is just like a sporting event in the sense that there are hundreds of moments that all add up to a final result.
There’s a certain level of volatility from play to play in a game or day to day when you look at your portfolio. It can be unsettling if you zoom in so tight that that’s all you see. You end up feeling all of these ups and downs.
Without some perspective, it can often lead to overly emotional decision-making. I think a better approach is to allow yourself the time to put together a financial plan—know why you’re investing and where you’re trying to go. Set your financial goals and track your progress toward them to help make sure that you’re staying on track.
That financial planning, along with ignoring short-term market noise, both to the upside as well as the downside, are among the keys to long-term investment success.
If you’d like to learn more about Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, check out Schwab.com/intelligent.
Schwab clients can also try out our portfolio checkup tool by logging into their accounts on schwab.com and clicking on “Portfolio Performance.”
That’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening.
To hear more from me, please follow me on Twitter @MarkRiepe. M-A-R-K R-I-E-P-E.
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For important disclosures, see the show notes and Schwab.com/FinancialDecoder.