Too Many Investment Choices Limit Our Wealth
February 02, 2015

Too Many Investment Choices Limit Our Wealth

Singapore’s banking district is a lot like Wall Street.  But it looks richer. Every building sparkles. Rolex, Prada and Gucci are as common as gloves at a Little League game.  Cars in Singapore are expensive.  So bankers pay $300,000 or more for a flashy set of wheels.  And the parking lots are packed with them.

Finance districts ooze with money—often at the expense of social grace.  Fewer people hold doors and elevators for those walking just a few feet behind.  So I usually avoid such places.

But last week, employees at Blackrock Singapore asked me to visit.  The company owns iShares, the world’s largest ETF provider.  So why invite a teacher to talk about investing? The company offers something like a 401K plan.  Employees can choose to invest from a variety of funds.  Blackrock matches a portion of their contributions.  You might think employees at financial firms are comfortable with money.  You might think that they invest with more confidence than the average teacher, plumber or nurse.  But they might not.  In fact, it could be the opposite if they’re paralyzed by choices.  

Money lingo whirls through banking districts.  Options, derivatives, currency trading, IPOs, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, futures, closed funds and hedge funds.  Investing is complicated—or so it seems.  According to my Blackrock host, many of his colleagues are paralyzed like deer in headlights when selecting mutual funds. Sound familiar?

The number of mutual funds available to Americans now rivals the number of stocks.  According to the 2014 Investment Company Fact Book, there were 7,707 mutual funds by the end of 2013.  ETFs are also multiplying.  Their numbers exceed 1,375.

You might think that more choices benefit investors.  But that isn’t true.  Researchers Sheena Sethi-Iyenga, Cur Huberman, and Wei Jiang examined 401K participation rates provided by hundreds of employers. They found that a greater number of employees contributed to 401Ks when their companies offered fewer options.  For example, companies offering the choice of just two funds saw, on average, 75 percent of their workforce investing.  Companies offering broader investment choices reported lower participation rates.

This doesn’t surprise Barry Schwartz.  In 2005, he wrote The Paradox of Choice.  He described researchers displaying jars of jams to consumers.  In one version, shoppers saw six varieties.  In another, there were 24 jams.  More options attracted more lookers—but not buyers. The smaller number of jams resulted in ten times the number of purchases. 

But John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, doesn’t need a book or a jam test to state the obvious. In 2013, PBS interviewed Bogle in a piece titled, The Train Wreck Awaiting American Retirement. He said, “The less choice the better.  Choice is your enemy, because you choose based on one thing: past performance.  Past performance does not recur.” 

Three days ago, I arrived in Beijing, China.  I’m speaking to international teachers about investing.  The book I wrote, The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing, describes how expats can build low cost portfolios of index funds.  But when writing it, did I make a huge mistake?

I show readers which ETFs to buy if they want to build portfolios with cap-weighted funds. I also show how to do the same thing with fundamental indexes.  For variety, I then show how to follow Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio model.  Nobody knows which type of portfolio will outperform the others.  So my advice was to choose one method…and stick to it.

Last night, I had dinner with teachers from the Western Academy of Beijing.  Some had read my book.  Did it inspire them to build their own low cost portfolios? In some cases, it did.  But with three models to choose from, many felt stuck.  Which would be the best?  Nobody knows. The best answer might be the simplest.  Choose three index funds.  Split the proceeds equally between your home country stock market, the international stock market and a government bond index.  Rebalance your portfolio once a year.  And stick to the plan. 

Doing so removes the paralysis of choice.  And you won’t be picking funds based on past performance.  As French novelist George Sand once said, “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.”

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This article contains the opinions of the author but not necessarily the opinions of AssetBuilder Inc. The opinion of the author is subject to change without notice. All materials presented are compiled from sources believed to be reliable and current, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This article is distributed for educational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, product, or service.

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