Monday, December 18, 2006

Indexing for Googlers

How the Googlers prepared their new millionaires for the investment world: mass education on the merits of indexing.
SF Magazine: As Google’s historic August 2004 IPO approached, the company’s senior vice president, Jonathan Rosenberg, realized he was about to spawn hundreds of impetuous young multimillionaires. They would, he feared, become the prey of Wall Street brokers, financial advisers, and wealth managers, all offering their own get-even-richer investment schemes. Scores of them from firms like J.P. Morgan Chase, UBS, Morgan Stanley, and Presidio Financial Partners were already circling company headquarters in Mountain View with hopes of presenting their wares to some soon-to-be-very-wealthy new clients.

Rosenberg didn’t turn the suitors away; he simply placed them in a holding pattern. Then, to protect Google’s staff, he proposed a series of in-house investment teach-ins, to be held before the investment counselors were given a green light to land. Company founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt were excited by the idea and gave it the go-ahead.

One by one, some of the most revered names in investment theory were brought in to school a class of brilliant engineers, programmers, and cybergeeks on the fine art of personal investing, something few of them had thought much about. First to arrive was Stanford University’s William (Bill) Sharpe, 1990 Nobel Laureate economist and professor emeritus of finance at the Graduate School of Business. Sharpe drew a large and enthusiastic audience, which he could have wowed with a PowerPoint presentation on his “gradient method for asset allocation optimization” or his “returns-based style analysis for evaluating the performance of investment funds.” But he spared the young geniuses all that complexity and offered a simple formula instead. “Don’t try to beat the market,” he said. Put your savings into some indexed mutual funds, which will make you just as much money (if not more) at much less cost by following the market’s natural ebb and flow, and get on with building Google.

The following week it was Burton Malkiel, formerly dean of the Yale School of Management and now a professor of economics at Princeton and author of the classic A Random Walk Down Wall Street. The book, which you’d be unlikely to find on any broker’s bookshelf, suggests that a “blindfolded monkey” will, in the long run, have as much luck picking a winning investment portfolio as a professional money manager. Malkiel’s advice to the Google folks was in lockstep with Sharpe’s. Don’t try to beat the market, he said, and don’t believe anyone who tells you they can—not a stock broker, a friend with a hot stock tip, or a financial magazine article touting the latest mutual fund. Seasoned investment professionals have been hearing this anti-industry advice, and the praises of indexing, for years. But to a class of 20-something quants who’d grown up listening to stories of tech stocks going through the roof and were eager to test their own ability to outpace the averages, the discouraging message came as a surprise. Still, they listened and pondered as they waited for the following week’s lesson from John Bogle.

“Saint Jack” is the living scourge of Wall Street. Though a self-described archcapitalist and lifelong Republican, on the subject of brokers and financial advisers he sounds more like a seasoned Marxist. “The modern American financial system,” Bogle says in his book The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, “is undermining our highest social ideals, damaging investors’ trust in the markets, and robbing them of trillions.” But most of his animus in Mountain View was reserved for mutual funds, his own field of business, which he described as an industry organized around “salesmanship rather than stewardship,” which “places the interests of managers ahead of the interests of shareholders,” and is “the consummate example of capitalism gone awry.”

Bogle’s closing advice was as simple and direct as that of his predecessors: those brokers and financial advisers hovering at the door are there for one reason and one reason only—to take your money through exorbitant fees and transaction costs, many of which will be hidden from your view. They are, as New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer described them, nothing more than “a giant fleecing machine.” Ignore them all and invest in an index fund. And it doesn’t have to be the Vanguard 500 Index, the indexed mutual fund that Bogle himself built into the largest in the world. Any passively managed index fund will do, because they’re all basically the same.

When the industry sharks were finally allowed to enter the inner sanctum of Google, they were barraged with questions about their commissions, fees, and hidden costs, and about indexing, the almost cost-free investment strategy the Google employees had been told delivers higher net returns than all other mutual fund strategies. The assembled Wall Streeters were surprised by their reception—and a bit discouraged. Brokers and financial planners don’t like indexed mutual funds for two basic reasons. For one thing, the funds are an affront to their ego because they discount their ability to assemble a winning portfolio, the very talent they’re trained and paid to offer. Also, index funds don’t make brokers and planners much money. If you have your money in an account that’s following the natural movements of the market—also called passive investing—you don’t need fancy managers to watch it for you and charge big bucks to do so.

Brin and Page were proud of the decision to prepare their staff for the Wall Street predation. And they were glad to have launched their company where and when they did. What took place in Mountain View that spring might have never happened had Google been born in Boston, Chicago, or New York, where much of the financial community remains at war with insurgency forces that first started gathering in San Francisco 35 years ago.

The article goes on to trace the origin of indexing to a group at Wells Fargo in San Francisco in the 1970s.

“San Francisco was the only place in the country where this could have happened,” says Bill Fouse, a jazz clarinetist in Marin County who was present when the first shots were fired in the investment rebellion. It was 1970, and revolution was in the air.

While hippies, dopesters, and antiwar radicals were filling the streets of America’s most tolerant city with rage, sweet smoke, and resistance, a quieter protest was brewing in the lofty, paneled offices of Wells Fargo. There, a young engineer named John Andrew “Mac” McQuown, Fouse (who like many musicians also happens to be a brilliant mathematician), and their self-described “skeptical, suspicious, careful, cautious, and slow-to-change” boss, James Vertin, were taking a hard look at the conventional wisdom that for a century had driven American portfolio management.

Bank trust departments across the country were staffed by portfolio managers who, as I did at the time, believed that they alone possessed the investment formula that would enrich and protect the security of their customers. “No one argued with that premise,” Fouse recalls.

But McQuown suspected they were pretty much all wrong. He had met Wells Fargo chairman Ransom Cook at an investment forum in San Jose, and at a later meeting at company headquarters, persuaded him that traditional portfolio management was merely an investment variation of the Great Man theory. “A great man picks stocks that go up. You keep him until his picks don’t work anymore and you search for another great man,” he told Cook. “The whole thing is a chance-driven process. It’s not systematic, and there’s lots we still don’t know about it and that needs study.” Cook offered McQuown a job at Wells and a generous budget to conduct research into the Great Man Theory and other schemes to beat the averages. McQuown accepted, and a few years later Fouse came on as well.

They couldn’t have been more different: Fouse, a diminutive, mild-mannered musician, and McQuown, a burly, boisterous Scot. The two were like oil and water—McQuown even tried to have Fouse fired at one point—but their boss, Vertin, was the one who really was in the hot seat.

“You have to understand, Vertin’s career was on the line,” Fouse recalls. “He was, after all, running a department full of portfolio managers and securities analysts whose mission was to outperform the market. Our thesis was that it couldn’t be done.” Proof of McQuown’s theory could lead to the end of an empire, in fact many empires. “The poor guy was under siege,” says Fouse. “It was a nerve-racking time.”

Vertin’s memory of those times is no less vivid. “Mac the knife was going to own this thing,” he once told a reporter. “I could just see the fin of the shark cutting through the water.” Eventually, the research McQuown and Fouse produced became so strong that Vertin could not ignore it. “In effect it said that almost everything that every trust department in America was doing was wrong,” says Fouse. “But Jim eventually accepted it, even knowing the consequences.”

In July 1971, the first index fund was created by McQuown and Fouse with a $6 million contribution from the Samsonite Luggage pension fund, which had been referred to Fouse by Bill Sharpe, who was already teaching at Stanford. It was Sharpe’s academic work in the 1960s that formed the theoretical underpinning of indexing and would later earn him the Nobel Prize. The small initial fund performed well, and institutional managers and their trustees took note.

By the end of the decade, Wells had completely renounced active management, had relieved most of its portfolio managers, and was offering only passive products to its trust department clients. And it had signed up the College Retirement Equities Fund (CREF), the largest pool of equity money in the world, and Harvard University, the largest educational endowment. By 1980 $10 billion had been invested nationwide in index funds; by 1990 that figure had risen to $270 billion, a third of which was held at Wells Fargo bank.

Eventually the department at Wells that handled index ing merged with Nikko Securities and was later bought by Barclays Bank, which created the San Francisco subsidiary Barclays Global Investors. Its CEO, Patricia Dunn, the scandal-tinged former chairman of Hewlett-Packard who had worked for 20 years at Wells Fargo, had been heavily influenced by indexing. Running Barclays, she became the world’s largest manager of index funds.

Fouse, now retired in San Rafael, explains why all this could have happened only in San Francisco. “When we started our research, almost all the trust clients out here were individuals with small accounts. Anywhere else, particularly on the East Coast, trust departments handled very large institutions—pension funds, university endowments, that sort of thing. If Mellon, Chase, or Citibank had done this research and come to the same conclusion, they would have in effect been saying to their large, sophisticated, and very lucrative clientele: ‘We’ve been doing things wrong for a century or more.’ And thousands of very comfortable investment managers would have been out of work.”


Anonymous said...

First the dutch auction IPO, then this... just what does Google have against poor investment bankers and money managers trying to put food on their table?

On the other hand, Goldman Sachs just gave out 16 billion in bonuses, so it doesn't look like index funds have made much of a dent in Wall Street skimming.

Dave Bacon said...

Here's a silly question I've always had about index funds. What would happen if everyone invested in index funds? Could such a situation even exist? (More realistically, what happens to the market as the percentage of players hold index funds grows?)

Anonymous said...

An interesting and depressing article by Michael Lewis on the bifurcation of private/public equity markets:

Index investing allows the small investor to avoid getting fleeced by mediocre fund managers and brokers, but you still get fleeced by CEOs and well connected private equity players.

steve said...


The active traders are the ones feeding real information into the system. A market dominated by indexers would lose much of its information processing power, which plays a key role (resource allocation) in the economy. I think this point is actually made in the article by one of the economists.

Anonymous said...

Obviously if everyone invested in index funds the markets would cease to be efficient. One of the experts in the article quotes a figure of 50% index investing as the threshold where significant market inefficiency would result. Index investing is in some sense parasitic as you are relying on others to do the work of figuring out the fair prices.

rosi said...

A lot of time is spent on the alpha versus beta debate but little consideration is given to another equally important but often ignored greek letter - rho or the sensitivity to changes in interest rates. Some San Diego business investors fund strategies have negative rho, that is depend on interest rates staying low. Ironically pension funds have positive rho as rising rates permit them to use a higher number to discount future liabilities. That can be a pyrrhic victory because on the asset side of the balance sheet their portfolios of stocks and bonds tend to fall in such times. It therefore makes sense for investors to diversify with OTHER strategies that tend to perform well in a RISING interest rate environment.

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