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The secret momentum driver elevating market indexes to all-time highs, again and again, is none other than the "passive investing" trend. It's going on unbeknownst to even the drivers of this momentum bus.
Investors who don't understand how big an impact money flowing into index funds has had on the market's performance probably have no idea what could happen if the trend stalls – or worse, reverses.
Here are the pitfalls of passive investing – and how bad the fallout could be if passive investors discover the trap they've entered, turn active, and sell.
The almost self-perpetuating cycle of rising markets attracting passive investment capital into index products, which boosts the value of indexes as money flows into them, which attracts more sidelined money and compels investors to sell actively managed funds and buy passive index–following funds, which have been lowering their management fees since they aren't actively managed, which attracts more investor capital into the growing universe of index funds, which keep increasing in value as sponsors and their authorized participants buy all the underlying stocks in the indexes they track when investors buy those packaged products in the open market, is almost self-perpetuating.
But you know the saying: "Almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
The truth is passive investing's virtuous positive momentum manufacturing feedback loop isn't a guarantee.
What passive investors aren't seeing, because they aren't looking through or behind the mad rush into what looks like a better mouse trap, is that more money flowing into index funds increases systemic risks inherent in the investment.
Risks Behind the Curtain
First of all, it's the extraordinary amount of money flowing into index funds that's inflating the value of those indexes. Passive investors, small and medium fund sponsors, giant asset management companies like BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street which dominate the index products business, and regulators, either don't think or don't want to think that this is true.
As the market goes higher and higher, passive investing returns trounce actively managed funds' performance, and passive investors think that there is less perceived risk. As this happens, the index-following crowd becomes less concerned about company and stock fundamentals. Instead, they foolishly rely on rising markets as a kind of ratings approval of their investment vehicles.
The dangerous truth is that index funds aren't rated, and investors aren't doing homework or analysis on their investments. The rising market, which they're very much responsible for, is their rating system stamp of approval.
That reminds me of the insane buildup in the value of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. Homebuyers and investors who saw rising home prices stopped doing their homework on what was causing the rise. Instead they relied on cheerleading rating agencies' rubber-stamped investment grade ratings. Even junk tranches of structured layers of crap were given a thin wrapping of AAA brown paper.
The fallacy that passive investing is less risky than investing in the market (yeah, some people actually believe that) is based on the rise of passive investing over the past 10 years coinciding with the market's extraordinary rise… over the past 10 years. See where this is going?
Index Funds as a "Safe Haven"
It gets worse. The stock market, meaning benchmark indexes, has gone higher after every big and little bump over the past 10 years. It has recovered quickly when bumped by anything. That means that passive investors are looking at indexed funds as safe-haven trades in times of trouble.
They're right to believe that the U.S. Federal Reserve "writes options on the market for investors." We saw this in the Greenspan put, the Bernanke put, the Yellen put, and now the Powell put. However, those puts didn't stop equity markets from scary drops.
Yes, they always recovered quickly every time they dropped, but that doesn't make index funds safe-haven vehicles.
The latest proof of the index fund as a safe-haven trade was evident in December 2018. On the heels of the market's trouncing, which started in October, investors pulled $143 billion out of actively managed funds in December, a record amount, and bought $60 billion of index funds.
Full Theaters with Crowded Exits
What the swelling passive investing crowd doesn't see is that they're all crowded into the same theater, watching and cheering the same play.
They don't realize that they're all increasingly over-weighted in the handful of big-cap weighted stocks that draw the most capital from investments made in indexes with even as many as 500 stocks.
They don't realize that institutional investors, hedge funds, and big traders jump into those same big-cap, hyper-performing stocks. They don't just do this to ride the momentum created by passive investors, but also to push them up to inflate indexes that they dominate. This draws in more passive investors, generating still more momentum.
It's All Good, Until It Isn't
About the Author
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.
The work he did laid the foundation for what would later become the VIX - to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd's TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company's "listed" and OTC trading desks.
Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.
Shah's vast network of contacts includes the biggest players on Wall Street and in international finance. These contacts give him the real story - when others only get what the investment banks want them to see.
Today, as editor of Hyperdrive Portfolio, Shah presents his legion of subscribers with massive profit opportunities that result from paradigm shifts in the way we work, play, and live.
Shah is a frequent guest on CNBC, Forbes, and MarketWatch, and you can catch him every week on Fox Business's Varney & Co.