Wealth management secrets that beat the Ivy League
Business is full of acronyms, some better than others. A favorite of mine is KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid, which has surprising relevance when it comes to wealth management secrets.
And that’s the explanation, in fittingly modest Midwestern terms, that we get from the manager of the equally modest endowment of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.
In the 10 years ending June 2017, that manager — a former beer company executive named Bill Abt — simply slayed the big, fancy endowments, including Harvard.
In fact, Abt’s investments in market-tracking index funds from Vanguard beat 90% of college endowments, returning 6.2% annually.
Harvard, despite spending hundreds of millions on rocket-scientist money managers, returned 4.4%.
Asked why the big guns don’t do what Carthage has done, Abt shrugged and said: “Maybe it’s too simple.”
Simple, yes, but not stupid at all. To put this in ordinary terms, a $100,000 investment in Abt’s portfolio grew to $182,493 after a decade. The Harvard approach returned $153,817.
Run that difference out to 30 years — the typical time people have to save for retirement — and you see the compounding really take over.
Final score: Carthage $607,765, Harvard $363,928. Oof!
Grow the pot
Sure, Harvard runs $37 billion and Carthage $120 million. But there’s no denying the difference in return.
The gap is even harder to swallow when you consider that Abt earns $250,000 from the college while the Harvard brain trust took in $242 million in compensation for doing what should be the same job.
Take the college’s money, protect it from unnecessary risk and grow the pot. “Too simple” is right.
If you look under the hood at Bill Abt’s portfolio, you’ll find a clear and understandable collection of Vanguard names, most of them low-cost index funds. He has 43% of the college’s money in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund VTI, -0.05% for instance.
There’s a smattering of small-cap and mid-cap stock funds, also indexed, as well as index funds of bonds, developed foreign stocks and real estate. A smaller portion, 21%, is held in actively managed Vanguard funds, mostly in international stocks.
Abt really is a man after my own heart. His “invest for perpetuity” model is very similar to the portfolios we manage for our clients at Rebalance IRA.
Bloomberg News even thought to interview Charley Ellis, the former chairman of the Yale University Endowment, about Abt’s success. Ellis is on the investment committee of my firm.
Ellis likely was generous with his time. That’s how he is. But the sole quote chosen to illustrate Abt’s success truly illustrates how Carthage slayed Harvard.
Things have changed, Ellis said. The stock market used to be rife with what hedge-fund managers call “asymmetric information,” stuff you know before anybody else which gives you an edge.
No more. “Today, everyone knows everything at the same time,” Ellis explained.
And it’s true. Fancy Bloomberg news terminals sit on thousands of trading desks. We have non-stop online and TV news. Hedge funds a few years back invested in lasers — lasers! — to shave milliseconds off trading times.
When you start trying to measure an advantage in thousandths of a second there fundamentally is no advantage to be had. Things get stupid, fast.
The answer, as Abt will tell you, is to cut your costs and get the market return in a risk-adjusted portfolio. If you want financial advice, ask a planner to help you with actual planning, like Social Security claiming strategies or building a college fund.
If you want trading advice, forget it. Simple wins over the long run, which is all that matters to those of us who want to retire with more.
Mitch Tuchman, Market Watch.