Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the conclusion of the book, "The Quest For Alpha: The Holy Grail of Investing."
Girolamo Cardano was a sixteenth-century physician, mathematician, and quintessential Renaissance man. He advised: "The greatest advantage from gambling comes from not playing at all." Similarly, the only sure way to win the game of active investing is not to play. The winner's game is to accept market returns by investing in low-cost, tax-efficient, and passively managed funds. Paul Samuelson put it this way: "It is not easy to get rich in Las Vegas, at Churchill Downs, or at the local Merrill Lynch office." 4 Wall Street knows that. However, they want to make sure you don't reach that conclusion. They need you to keep playing the loser's game of active investing because it is the winner's game for them. As author Ron Ross put it, "Wall Street does its best to follow W.C. Fields's advice: 'Never smarten up a chump. ' "
The Quest For The Holy Grail
We have come to the end of our quest. Hopefully, it has become self-evident that the Holy Grail of investing is available to each and every investor. There are only two requirements. First, give up the quest for alpha and accept market returns. As you have seen, by doing so you are virtually guaranteed to outperform the vast majority of individual and institutional investors, assuming you have the discipline to stay the course.
Second, you must stop paying attention to the "noise" of the market. Noise causes investors to make decisions that are likely to prove unproductive. Paraphrasing Barron's financial journalist Alan Abelson, investing for the long term and paying attention to the daily ups and downs of the market is like walking with a yo-yo and paying attention to the yo-yo instead of where you are going. 6 To help accomplish this objective, consider this advice from Richard Thaler, professor of behavioral finance:
I have not looked at any of my holdings and don't intend to. I don't want to be tempted to jump because I think I'd be more likely to jump in the wrong direction than the right one. My advice has always been to choose a sensible diversified portfolio and stop reading the financial pages. I recommend the sports section.
Thaler's advice echoes that of Warren Buffett: "We continue to make more money when snoring than when active. "
The Winner's Game
I hope you have reached the conclusion that passive management of your portfolio is the winning investment strategy. Even more importantly, it is the winner's game in life. Let me explain.
Passive investing may have the "disadvantage" of being boring. However, it guarantees that you receive market returns in a low-cost and tax-efficient manner if you have the discipline to adhere to your investment policy statement. It also frees you from spending any time at all watching CNBC, studying charts, following Internet discussion sites, and reading financial publications that are basically not much more than the equivalent of astrology. Instead, you can spend your time with your family, doing community service, reading a good book, or pursuing your favorite hobby.
The bottom line is that if you play the game of active investing and you are skillful or lucky enough to be one of the few winners, the price you may have paid is that you lost the game of life -having spent far more time on less important issues. No one I know has written on his or her tombstone, "I produced persistent alpha." However, passive investors not only are virtually guaranteed to outperform the vast majority of individual and institutional investors, the time they don't spend actively managing their portfolios gives them a greater chance to win the far more important game of life.
To conclude our journey together, I offer the following. Perhaps the most asked question I receive about market efficiency and passive investing goes something like this: "But how do you explain Warren Buffett?"
The answer is simple. I tell them if, when they look in the mirror, they see Warren Buffett, go ahead and seek the Holy Grail of alpha. If they don't, give up the quest and play the winner's game. I believe Buffett would offer the same advice.
Here is what he had to say about active investing: "Our stay-put behavior reflects our view that the stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the passive."