An investment adviser brags about beating the S&P 500? Don't believe it

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An investment adviser brags about beating the S&P 500? Don’t believe it

If you work with an investment adviser, you’ve probably had a moment or two when you’ve lamented how much you’re paying in fees.

And it’s normal and healthy to regularly ask yourself — and your adviser — what you’re supposed to be getting in return for those fees.

If your adviser answers that they’re paid to “beat the market,” it may be time to seriously re-evaluate the relationship. Because you might do better just using one of today’s popular investing apps and putting your money into an S&P 500 index fund.

The fact is, most people who are paid to deliver higher returns than the stock market as a whole can’t do it. Data from the S&P Dow Jones Indices shows 60% of large-cap equity fund managers underperformed the S&P 500 in 2020.

It was the 11th straight year the majority of fund managers lost to the market.

There are plenty of good reasons to pay an adviser or certified financial planner to help handle your investments, but beating the S&P 500 isn’t one of them. The data says it probably won’t happen.

What financial pros are up against

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The S&P 500 has delivered inflation-adjusted returns of about 7% per year, on average, for the past 40 years.

So to beat the market, a financial adviser would need to design a portfolio that gets better returns than that.

Is it possible in a given year? Sure it is — plenty of investors and mutual fund managers do it.

But is it possible to predict who will do it? And does the possibility justify the fees charged by the most prestigious fund managers, many of which operate on a “two and 20” model (2% of the portfolio’s value plus 20% of profits)?

Buffett’s famous bet

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Warren Buffett, who’s justifiably famous for his sage money advice, has frequently argued that, for most people, a simple market-pegged portfolio is a smarter investment strategy than trying to pick winning stocks.

In January 2008, Buffett put this belief to the test: He bet a prominent hedge fund manager a million dollars that an S&P index fund would deliver better returns over 10 years than a fancy and expensive hedge fund portfolio consisting of actively selected stocks.

Buffett made this bet before the stock market collapsed during the financial crisis of that same year. But it didn’t matter — by 2015, the hedge fund manager had waved the white flag and admitted he’d lost.

Buffett’s index fund had made 7.1% per year; the hedge fund had made 2.2%. It wasn’t even close.

Anyone who wants to prove Buffett right yet again can easily do so thanks to a new generation of do-it-yourself investment apps, all of which allow you to quickly and painlessly assemble a stable portfolio with low fees

And some apps allow accredited investors to invest in U.S. farmland, which over the last 30 years has performed even better than the stock market, according to industry research.

What a good adviser does

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Investment advisers needn’t worry about beating the market because that’s not really the job of a good adviser.

A good adviser will work with you on your medium- and long-term financial goals, in ways an app or algorithm can’t replicate.

Are you saving up for a new home or a comfortable retirement? Maybe you’re saving up to pursue a post-retirement dream.

These are real-life questions that a real-life adviser can help you answer.

You should also have reasonable access to your adviser to discuss your investments and get personalized advice. If you call, your adviser — not an assistant — should pick up the phone.

As with Buffett’s slow-and-steady wisdom, these aren’t sexy ways to make fast money playing the market.

But if your adviser is promising you fast money, you should probably find a new adviser.

What should you do?

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The best way to avoid being disappointed by your adviser is to not set yourself up for disappointment.

No matter how well a financial professional is dressed or how confident they sound, the data shows their investment picks likely won’t outperform the S&P 500.

You might decide that a DIY approach takes the stress out of investing. A simple smartphone app can automatically invest your spare change into a balanced portfolio. You won’t notice the contributions but you will notice the returns.

No matter what you do with your investments, you should never pay someone for a promise they can’t keep. A good adviser would tell you that.