Steve Forbes is the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine. It’s one of the world’s most respected financial publications. Its columnists have been churning out stories since 1917. For more than 100 years, they’ve been trying to forecast the direction of stocks and bonds. They’ve speculated on the best stocks to buy. They’ve warned investors when to expect a crash. And they regularly publish lists of “the best mutual funds to buy.”
But Steve Forbes says, “You make more money selling advice than following it. It’s one of the things we count on in the magazine business–along with the short memory of our readers.”
By day, financial journalists often write, “The best funds to buy right now!” But by night, many of them invest in low-cost index funds. It’s easy to identify mutual funds that have performed well in the past. But funds that perform well in the past rarely maintain their winning ways. For example, in March 2017, SPIVA revealed the 546 mutual funds that represented the top quartile of performers over each of the previous three years. Two years later, they found that just 11.36 percent of them maintained their top quartile ranking.
My first finance magazine editor told me, “To some degree, we’re in the entertainment business. If every issue told people to build diversified portfolios of low-cost index funds, we couldn’t keep the magazine afloat for very long.”
Scott Burns has been an investment columnist for more than 40 years. He gave me a foolproof system for finding story ideas: Identify high-profile magazine stories that tout, “The best mutual funds to buy right now!” He said I could then track their performances. After they’re recommended, they’ll usually start losing to their benchmark indexes. So…why do people continue to read such stories? As Steve Forbes says, they have short memories.
Let’s pull the curtain off the wizards at Zachs Investment Research. In 2015, they published, “ The Best Performing Mutual Funds of 2015.” Such a list might be entertaining. But it doesn’t help investors. In fact, it hurts people when they buy the recent best-performing funds. If somebody invested equal sums into each of 2015’s top-ten performing funds, they would have earned a compound annual return of 8.5 percent from January 1, 2016 to October 31, 2019. That compares with a compound annual return of 12.67 percent for Vanguard’s Total U.S. stock market index (VTSMX) and 10.23 percent for Vanguard’s Global Stock Market Index (VTWSX).
Zachs implies they can pick winning funds. But their own website sheds doubt. They gave strong buy recommendations for several U.S. equity mutual funds from 2014 to 2017. According to Zachs, those funds averaged a compound annual return of 10.2 percent (it doesn’t appear they’ve updated this performance). By comparison, Vanguard’s U.S. stock market index (VTSMX) averaged a compound annual return of 11.33 percent. That’s why investors should ignore Zachs’ strong buy suggestions.
Consider Zachs’ specific buy and sell suggestions in this 2016 article. Three years later, it reads like a tragedy, instead of a triumph.
The magazine gave the Turner Medical Sciences Long/Short Fund (TMSFX) a buy rating. That’s too bad. It no longer exists. The fund was liquidated.
Zachs also recommended DFA’s Japanese Small Company fund (DFJSX). Since the recommendation, it averaged a compound annual return of 8.32 percent. It’s tough to predict how country-specific stocks might perform. That’s why smart investors shouldn’t try. Instead, they should focus on global diversification. Vanguard’s Global Stock Market Index (VTWSX) includes thousands of stocks from dozens of countries. It doesn’t speculate on a specific sector. It averaged a compound annual return of 10.23 percent. That beat the Japanese fund by almost 2 percent per year.
Zachs also recommended Fidelity’s Select Retailing Portfolio (FSRPX). That’s a shame. It averaged a compound annual return of 8.32 percent. By comparison, the U.S. stock market index gave it a beating. It averaged a compound annual return of 11.33 percent. In other words, the index beat Fidelity’s fund by more than 3 percent per year.
In that same column, Zachs also said investors should sell one fund: Eventide Healthcare & Life Sciences fund (ETAHX). Ironically, after suggesting investors sell it, the fund averaged a compound annual return of 9.60 percent. That beat all of the funds that Zachs recommended in their story, with the exception of the T. Rowe Price Global Technology Fund (PRGTX). It averaged a compound annual return of 15.73 percent.
But before we celebrate Zachs’ one success, consider the wind behind its sail. The iShares Global Technology ETF (IXN) averaged a compound annual return of 20.47 percent. That means T. Rowe Price’s Global Technology Fund underperformed its global technology benchmark by almost 5 percent per year.
Zach’s also recommended the remaining four funds: Wasatch International Growth (WAIGX); Oberweis International Opportunities (OBIOX); Matthews Korea Investor (MAKOX) and Oppenheimer International Small-Mid Company A (OSMAX). As a group, they averaged just 5.4 percent per year.
I don’t mean to pick on Zachs. Other magazines make predictions too. I call it The Investment Magazine Dance . These writers are smart. But they need to attract eyeballs. High readership attracts advertisers–and that brings in the money. That’s why investors should ignore stories that claim they can pick winning actively managed mutual funds. Evidence says they can’t. Steve Forbes is right. Human memories are short. But if we want to make money, we can’t forget this.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas