The surest way to garner attention in a crowded financial media market is to say or write something highly controversial. Investor Marc Faber has made a handsome living doing just that.
Now, financial educator and adviser Paul A. Merriman's recent challenge of investment principles espoused by the Oracle of Omaha, Warren E. Buffett, is the latest case in point.
The most interesting aspect of Merriman's self-described alternative view is that, in reality, he and Buffett essentially agree on many points. Most notably, Buffett is on the record saying that index investing is highly appropriate for most individuals.
In fact, in his 2014 letter to Berkshire Hathaway(BRK.A) - Get Report shareholders, Chief Executive Buffett said that at his passing, cash will be distributed to a trustee for the benefit of his wife.
His instructions to the trustee are simple: "Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund."
Buffett thinks that the trust's performance will be superior to those obtained by most investors who use high-fee managers, try to time the market or who attempt to select individual securities on their own.
But not everyone has the disposition to simply be an index investor. Some investors want to try and beat the market, and they shouldn't be discouraged from trying.
That is why they make vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Both satiate one's palette, but many prefer one flavor over the other.
Historically, individuals following disciplined tried-and-true value investing principles have been able to outperform the market averages. Investors who select stocks of companies with competitive advantages and reasonable growth prospects, who don't significantly overpay for their stocks, and who hold them for long periods of time may also do quite well over their investing lifetimes.
Buffett's advice to keep a large cash reserve and tap into it when market conditions are appropriate may seem like advocating market timing. But, the very definition of Mr. Market providing a buying opportunity must be guided by core value investing principles such as a low price-earnings ratio, high dividend yield, etc.
"Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy" is the simple manifestation of those principles.
The year 2009 presented a phenomenal buying opportunity for investors guided by value investing tenets. Those who had the courage to stick to their convictions since the financial crisis have been handsomely rewarded.
Both courage and a rational, contrarian frame of mind are definitely needed for this approach, and not every investor has the right temperament for it. For those who don't, making regular purchases of a low-cost index fund over long periods of time is a perfectly acceptable alternative.
Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, described the difference as "enterprising" (active) and "defensive" (passive) investors. Either road can lead to the promised land.
Merriman claimed that Buffett's prescription to invest in the boring, isn't boring enough. He admonished Buffett and said that the Oracle should get even more boring and simply invest in index funds.
By definition, some firms in that index are more richly valued relative to other firms in the index. Those who can identify systematically undervalued firms, which is the premise of value investing, can outperform.
From 1965 through 2015, the compounded annual gain of the S&P 500 with dividends reinvested before index fund fees was 9.7%. Berkshire Hathaway's annual compounded gain over that time period was 20.8%.
As athletes often say when a winning team is criticized, I say to Merriman, "scoreboard."
One of the strangest critiques is taking issue with buying firms with great brand names.
Merriman said that buying Coca-Cola doesn't make one a savvy investor because buying an index fund can provide many wonderful brands and lessen the risk. A valuable brand name often provides a terrific investment moat, and there are relatively few of those investments available at a reasonable price at any given time.
There are certainly not 500 of them, for those who are comparing the opportunity to that of investing in an S&P 500 index fund.
It may be true that owning only Coca-Cola doesn't make one a savvy investor and does indeed subject that investor to a great deal of idiosyncratic risk. But owning a portfolio of great brand names such as Coca-Cola, American Express, Apple, Walmart and Wells Fargo reduces portfolio risk and is a great foundation to build upon.
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On the topic of learning from one's mistakes and teaching one's children, Merriman thinks that simply teaching children to be index investors is the holy grail of investing.
I agree with the part about teaching children to invest, and an index strategy is wholly appropriate for many and indeed is a great prescription for the masses. But I believe in a combination of the two schools -- active and passive -- and practice it myself.
About half of my own investable assets are in index funds. The other half are in value investments, including a large allocation to Berkshire Hathaway.
Sticking with what one knows is good investment advice, but staying away from what one doesn't understand is better advice. Prior to its bankruptcy, index investors had a significant position in Enron, and we all know how that turned out.
In all likelihood, Buffett and most investment managers would agree that people shouldn't invest in any investment they don't understand.
But he wouldn't suggest investing in something just because one understands it, either. The investment must be made at an attractive price relative to value.
I take issue with Merriman's statement that "Buffett doesn't have experience helping thousands of real people get the most from their investments."
Buffett is simply one of the best financial educators of all time. He creates messages for the masses with stories, analogies and pearls of wisdom tailored to the public.
If anything, Buffett represents in many ways the democratization of investment knowledge. He doesn't think that a few very well compensated hedge fund managers serve as the repositories of investment secrets.
Instead, Buffett thinks and teaches that better investor education is for everyone. Just ask the multitude of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders if he didn't help them get the most from their investments.
By the way, congratulations to Merriman for accomplishing his main goal of garnering attention. His thoughts certainly got my attention, and that seems to be the goal of many investment pundits as well as one very controversial orange-haired billionaire.
These days that seems to be a winning strategy.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. Robert R. Johnson is president and chief executive of the American College of Financial Services.
At the time of publication, the author held a position in Berkshire Hathaway.