Indexing has become an undeniable force in the investment world. Consider: $1.4 trillion in net new cash flow and reinvested dividends went into domestic equity index funds and ETFs in the decade through year-end 2016, which is astonishing when compared with the $1.1 trillion in net outflows from domestic equity active funds in the same period.1
Indexing’s rise didn’t happen by accident. For example, in my previous roles as global head of Vanguard Fixed Income Group and head of bond indexing, my teams and I were part of the effort to improve index fund management through a range of methods designed to help improve investor outcomes. That included everything from refining index sampling techniques to better approximating the fundamental characteristics of benchmarks to working closely with benchmark providers to strengthen index methodologies.
But the push to improve indexing does not stop there. In my new role as Vanguard’s chief investment officer, my global team and I are dedicated to staying abreast of new themes and issues in the investment world—especially those that directly affect indexing. We revel in exploring the details of what makes indexing tick and finding innovative ways to deliver more value to our clients. So we scour investment journals, attend conferences, and continue to refine our process. Our mission: to optimize the investment outcomes for our clients and investors overall and to do so at a low cost.
It’s clear, then, that I am a firm believer in the value indexing delivers to both the investor and the market as a whole. Over the last few months, I’ve noticed indexing has received some criticism from a few commentators alleging indexing hurts price discovery, stifles competition via common ownership, and leads to higher volatility. I believe those claims are inherently false. Let’s walk through these claims one by one and set the record straight.
Hurting price discovery?
The concern about indexing hurting price discovery is a naive view. Price discovery is driven by active managers, Vanguard included. I know from my years as a bond guy the vital role that active managers play in keeping security prices aligned with their value. So the thought that indexing could somehow get in the way of that is troubling for me. But the truth is that even though indexing has grown in popularity in recent years, it’s still a small part of overall trading volumes (i.e., portfolio managers’ trading of index funds’ underlying securities). Since indexing represents about 5% or less of equity daily volumes, as shown in the chart below, there is still considerable price discovery and liquidity provided by active managers.
Breakdown of overall individual stocks’ trading volume
Sources: Vanguard and Bloomberg, 2017.
Lack of competition?
Critics claim that managers of corporations whose stocks are in some of the leading indexes become complacent participants, rather than competitors, because they feel their stock prices are being propped up by the steady drumbeat of index investments. The truth is that there is no evidence to support the idea that these anticompetitive practices are actually happening or that there’s a cause-effect relationship between common ownership and product price competition. All the corporate executives that I know are diehard competitors and are doing everything in their power to expand market share, increase revenues, and boost profits.
In addition, as owners of just about every company in every industry, index funds have no incentive to favor one industry over another: Higher product prices in any one industry would cut against our fund investors’ interests in other sectors.
At Vanguard, we always advocate for what is in the best interests of our fund investors. We believe fierce industry competition produces greater shareholder return and a healthier industry as a whole, since competition forces companies to constantly innovate and find new ways to deliver value to both consumers and shareholders. We firmly believe the best performers should be rewarded, which is why we advocate for executive compensation plans to be tied to relative performance, not stock price, and have explicitly promoted competition among firms in their respective peer groups.
As for the last issue—the concern that equity index funds contribute to market volatility—I don’t see any substance to that claim. Regardless of size, indexing is not a monolithic investment strategy. Index investments are spread through many market caps and investment styles, and the majority of index assets are held by long-term investors in broad-based, market-cap-weighted funds. There is no convincing evidence that the growth of index funds has had an impact on market volatility or the dispersion of stock returns. Even as index funds’ share of mutual fund assets has consistently grown, market standard deviation has risen and fallen in a seemingly random pattern and dispersion among the stock market’s securities has remained somewhat constant, except for the tech bubble and the global financial crisis.
The real truth: Indexing has earned its accolades
Indexing has transformed the investment experience for millions of investors, and Vanguard has been a driving force behind that. We take pride in the fact that we have helped investors enjoy the many benefits of indexing, including:
- Low cost.
- Broad diversification.
- Relative predictability.
- The potential for long-term outperformance compared with the performance of many high-cost active fund managers.
In short, indexing can offer a firm foundation for investors seeking to achieve their investment goals. And as Vanguard’s CIO, it’s my job to make sure that indexing and active management continue their symbiotic relationship in the investment landscape.
1 Investment Company Institute, 2017. 2017 investment company fact book: A review of trends and activities in the investment company industry. Washington, D.C.: Investment Company Institute. p. 46. (57th edition; also issued in electronic format.)