Tag Archives: Investing

State pension cronyism

A new report details the way state pension funds harm workers and taxpayers through cronyism.

Updated to accurately reflect the time period of the targeted investments.

American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has released a report detailing the various ways state employee pension funds are harmed by cronyism. The report may be read at Keeping the Promise: Getting Politics Out of Pensions.

The problem, ALEC reports, is: “Unfortunately, many lawmakers and pension plan officials have other priorities besides doing what is best for workers. They see the billions of pension fund dollars they manage as an opportunity to advance their own agendas. Rather than investing to earn the best return for workers, they use pension funds in a misguided attempt to boost their local economies, provide kickbacks to their political supporters, reward industries they like, punish those they don’t and bully corporations into silence and behaving as they see fit.”

One form of pension fund cronyism is Economically Targeted Investments (ETIs). These are local investments “that have been selected for their economic or social benefits in addition to the investment return to the employee benefit plan.” Kansas has its own experience with this type of cronyism. During the first half of the 1980s KPERS, the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, made numerous targeted investments that led to large losses. One newspaper article reported: 1

It all seemed so easy to many economic development planners.

In an era of hard-to-get money for business start-ups and small business expansion, why not tap into the state’s healthy $3 billion-plus retirement funds as a source for seed capital?

After all, it is there. And much of the profits earned by the Kansas Public Employees Retirement Systems have come from out-of-state investments.

For many Kansas legislators, the lure of using KPERS money for economic development was tempting. So KPERS, under considerable legislative pressure, agreed to target nearly 10 percent of its fund for business expansions in Kansas.

But three years after that decision, it is clear that KPERS money is not a panacea for economic development.

Here is one particularly egregious example of how KPERS did business.2 In this case, the chair of KPERS benefited personally from KPERS investment decisions, and in a brazen manner:

Take, for example, the $7.8 million investment in Emblem Graphic Systems, a company based in Kansas City and Denver that manufactured specialty package labels. According to court documents:

KPERS Chairman Mike Russell was on the Emblem board of directors and had personally guaranteed $200,000 in loans to the company.

Shortly before KPERS invested $5.3 million in Emblem in 1985, Russell resigned from his Emblem seat. The KPERS loan, however, was used to relieve Russell of his obligation to cover the earlier loans totaling $200,000.

KPERS continued to invest in the company until 1988, At one point, KPERS even paid $273,305 to itself to pay back the money it had lent Emblem when the company was sold. KPERS got back only $1.76 million of the $7.8 million it had lent the company.

Russell, however, was able to make a profit on his 3,000 shares in Emblem when the company bought him out for $48,330 — using KPERS money.

KPERS is suing, among others, Russell, the lawyers who approved the transactions, and Kenneth Koger, who managed the Emblem investment and about 70 percent of the investments in question.

Russell was not available for comment.

In 1992, Russell pleaded no contest to one felony count of aiding and abetting securities fraud regarding a different KPERS investment.3

In September 1991 the loss to KPERS was given as $92 million. 4 Lawsuits continued until 2003.

The governor of Kansas during the time of the targeted KPERS investments was John Carlin (1979 to 1987).


  1. S. Gossett/The Wichita Eagle, F 1989, ‘Disappointing returns the percentage of the KPERS fund given over to new business ventures has been reduced in light of big losses’, Wichita Eagle, The (KS), 16 Oct, p. 7D, (online NewsBank).
  2. Hobson, G 1996, ‘Full Accountability’, Wichita Eagle, The (KS), 22 Sep, p. 1A, (online NewsBank).
  3. Press, A 1992, ‘Former KPERS Chief Sentenced To Probation For Securities Fraud’, Wichita Eagle, The (KS), 25 Jun, p. 4D, (online NewsBank).}
  4. “After six years of investing in small- and medium-sized companies in Kansas, the state pension fund has 87 investments that are worth $231 million less than the fund paid for them, analysts told the fund’s trustees Friday. Considering that KPERS has collected about $139 million from those companies, however, the fund has lost $92 million in cash on its so-called ‘direct placement’ program, according to estimates by the staff of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.” Cross/The Wichita Eagle, J 1991, ‘Kpers Losses Put At $92 Million Lawyer Predicts ‘Monumental’ Suit’, Wichita Eagle, The (KS), 14 Sep, p. 2D, (online NewsBank).

KPERS problems must be confronted

This week the Kansas Legislature may work on the problems facing the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, or KPERS. Past legislatures have failed to enact reforms necessary to put this system on a sound financial footing, and the legislature has shown itself incapable of managing a system where it’s easy to pass on the problem to future generations. Now Kansas faces an unfunded liability of some $9.3 billion in KPERS. The most important thing the state can do is to stop enrolling new employees in this failing system.

When confronted with the realities of the finances of KPERS, the response of state government employee representatives is first, attack the messenger. This is taking place now in response to a report released by the Kansas Policy Institute (A Comprehensive Reform of Kansas Public Employees Retirement System). It also happened in 2009 when Art Hall and Barry Poulson released their research in The Funding Crisis in the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System.

The second response of state government employee representatives is to attack the only solution (short of massive tax increases) to providing for workers’ retirements: the defined-contribution plan. These plans, often called 401(k)-style plans, allow workers to contribute into a special type of tax-advantaged retirement account. Usually employers, in this case the State of Kansas, make additional contributions on employees’ behalf. Employees generally have a variety of investments to choose from. Employees also own their retirement accounts and their assets. The value of the account — and therefore the benefits available to retirees — depends on the performance of the investments.

KPERS is a defined-benefit plan, sometimes called a traditional pension plan. When employees retire, they are paid a benefit based on their final average salary, number of years of service, and a multiplier. KPERS funding relies on employee contributions, employer contributions (these are the state’s taxpayers), and investment returns.

The main problem is that the legislature has not provided enough funding to KPERS to keep it in balance. That’s easy to do, as retirement systems like KPERS operate on time horizons of decades, and it’s easy to say let’s deal with the problem next year. It’s also easy for legislators to promise and write into law a higher level of benefits than they’re willing to fund. Problems with lack of funding may not show up until long after the legislators who voted for them are out of office. With defined-contribution plans this isn’t possible. Each party — worker and employer — funds the plan each pay period, and that is the extent of the obligation of each party.

Misinformation spread

In its message to its followers, Kansas National Education Association (KNEA, the teachers union) wrote this about the problem with defined-contribution plans: “First, they claim that a DC plan gives the employee control over their own retirement. And if you have lots to invest and have the time and knowledge to do so effectively, that might be true. Of course, even if you do, you can end up like the folks who found Enron to be a great investment or trusted Mr. Madoff. The fact is most of us are not prepared to do our own analysis and investment.”

There’s quite a bit of misinformation here. But before that, a huge irony is that this information is aimed at Kansas schoolteachers, and their union assumes they are not intelligent enough to plan for their own retirement.

In fact, planning for retirement is quite easy and simple. All one needs to do is select low-cost index stock and bond mutual funds, of which there are many. These funds, over the long time horizon appropriate for retirement investing, beat the performance of all managed funds, meaning funds managed by professionals who attempt to analyze markets and earn greater than average returns through an active trading strategy. This is not disputed by anyone except by those who sell actively-managed mutual funds.

“The evidence is clear. Low-cost index funds regularly outperform two-thirds of actively managed funds, and the one-third of actively managed funds that outperform changes from period to period. Even the very few professional investors who have beaten the market over long periods of time — Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Yale University’s David Swensen, for instance — are quick to advise that investors are likely to be much better off with simple low-cost index funds than with expensive actively managed funds.” (Burton G. Malkiel, ‘Buy and Hold’ Is Still a Winner. Also, see the author’s book The random walk guide to investing: ten rules for financial success.)

Generally, most investors would select just one or two funds in which to place their contributions. Over time, investors may want to change the balance or characteristics of the funds they invest in. This again is easy to do. In fact, large mutual fund companies like Vanguard have index funds that automatically shift the balance between stocks and bonds as investors move along towards retirement.

The idea that the teachers union believes that professionals like schoolteachers are not capable of becoming informed and making these decisions is laughable if it weren’t the actual belief of the union. Suggestion: An actually useful and productive role for the teachers unions would be to help their members learn to invest for their retirement.

The problem cited about Enron and Madoff is that some people placed all or nearly all their investments with these two firms. That’s a bad strategy for anyone to follow with their retirement investments. Using index funds will not expose investors to the risk of losing all their money.

The claim by the KNEA that “lots to invest” is required is false. The companies that manage defined-contribution retirement plans accept new employees into the plan no matter how little they have to invest, and they accept their periodic contributions each pay period no matter how small. Scale — the amount available to invest — is not an issue, contrary to the assertions of the teachers union.

One claim made by KNEA is true: defined contribution plans give workers control over their retirement savings. This is a benefit. If a worker has a low tolerance for risk, they can keep their contributions in cash (actually treasury bonds would be the choice for these people). Others who wish to take an active role in the retirement investing can do so, as most plans offer funds that have targeted goals such as real estate, growth stocks, short-term bonds, long-term bonds, etc.

But in KPERS, all members are invested in the mix of investments that the KPERS trustees decide on. (When Jane Carter of Kansas Organization of State Employees asks “Do you really want to take your retirement security and gamble it on the stock market?” she may not be aware that KPERS is invested in the stock market, and those returns are essential to funding KPERS benefits.) The investments that the trustees choose may not be suitable for each individual member. But KPERS members have no choice.

By the way, the KPERS investment fund has proven irresistible to politicians seeking to invest in Kansas for various reasons. In the 1980s a series of bad investments were made in Kansas companies. As reported in the Wichita Eagle on October 16, 1989: “For many Kansas legislators, the lure of using KPERS money for economic development was tempting. So KPERS, under considerable legislative pressure, agreed to target nearly 10 percent of its fund for business expansions in Kansas.” Many of these investments lost money, and lawsuits went on for years.

The point is that the worker is in control, not the KPERS trustees or the legislature. That’s important, as the legislature, over the years, has not made sufficient contributions to KPERS. They keep pushing the decision down the road to future legislatures, and the burden on future taxpayers who will need to make the necessary contributions. But in a defined benefit plan, employees, through their employers, make contributions each pay period. If for some reason the employer fails to make the contribution, it’s easy to notice it before years go by.

New members needed to prop up existing

Reading the material put out by KPERS defined-benefit supporters, it becomes clear that KPERS depends on the contributions of new members to pay for the benefits of those already in the system. Here’s a claim made by KNEA, the teachers union: “If all new employees came in under a defined contribution or 401(k) plan, their investments would be essentially personal investments and not used to contribute to benefit payments to current or future defined benefit members. This means that each person who retires will be replaced by someone who is not paying into the defined benefit system.” (emphasis added)

The KNEA has also written to its members: “The state would have the obligation to continue funding the defined benefit (DB) plan since it depends on new employees contributing to fund at least a portion of the benefits to retirees. (emphasis added)

This claim was echoed in testimony given by Coalition for Keeping the Kansas Promise, which states: “In fact, the creation of a defined contribution plan for KPERS, which will remove revenues used to reduce the unfunded actuarial liability, will only accelerate the insolvency of the KPERS fund for current KPERS members and retirees from FY 2033 to an uncertain, though more immediate, date in the future, and place the entire KPERS funding obligation upon Kansas taxpayers.”

There could be no clearer admission that the KPERS contributions of young workers are used to fund the benefits of retirees. Instead of the new members’ contributions being invested and growing to provide for their own retirement, their contributions are needed to pay for current retirees. This is a system that guarantees being perpetually under-funded.

Who is the employer?

The Kansas Policy Institute report states: “Employers in the state/school plan currently contribute 9.37 percent of payroll. To fully fund that part of the plan at the market value of assets employers would have to contribute 15.26 percent of payroll. Employer contributions into the state/school plan would have to increase from $393 million to $640 million annually, a 63 percent increase.”

Now when most people read this and other information about KPERS they probably don’t associate “employer contributions” with what this term means. Since KPERS covers government employees, the employer is the state’s taxpayers.

That’s right. It is the taxpayers who will be called upon to correct the unfunded KPERS liability. The KPI report is accurate but understates the political reality when it concludes: “Kansas legislators are not likely to find an additional $247 million in the current budget to fully fund the KPERS pension plan; and they are even less likely to find the money to fully fund the plan in future years as unfunded liabilities accumulate, especially if the plan fails to generate the projected 8 percent rate of return on assets.”

Most Kansans realize that KPERS is part of the cost of having state employees. Citizens pay taxes so that these employees can be paid, and KPERS is part of their package of pay. The problem is that citizens expect that the cost of paying employees be paid each year. But now we learn that the legislature has not been doing this. The legislature has not been paying all that is required into the KPERS system. Essentially, taxpayers will be asked to pay now for payments not made in years past for work that was performed years ago.

Investors or combatants

The current system of retirement for state employees creates a situation where there is conflict. We see it right now, where state employees and their lobbying groups insist that the state make good on its promise to its workers. The pushback comes from those who realize that taxpayers are tired of ever-increasing spending. This is especially true when taxpayers are being asked to make up for the deficits of legislatures past. So there’s conflict. One class is trying to extract payment from another. It isn’t pretty, and it’s not productive. It’s the political system at its worst.

Advocates for state employees say there’s nothing wrong with KPERS that can’t be fixed by funding it properly. In other words, more taxes and more spending: more conflict. We need to find a way out of this trap, and enrolling new state employees in defined-contribution retirement plans is the way.

The benefit of defined-contribution plans is that people, including state employees, become investors. They own something. They have a rooting interest in the success of the economies of Kansas, America, and the world.

Kansas state employees have a choice to make. Do they want to become investors in America and own their retirement funds, or do they want to continue to rely on the political system for their retirement?

Hawker Beechcraft deal not proud moment for Kansas

This week the State of Kansas, City of Wichita, and Sedgwick County struck a deal with Hawker Beechcraft that allows Hawker to stay in Wichita rather than moving to another state.

While outgoing Governor Mark Parkinson and other leaders praise the deal, it was not a good day for Kansas.

It’s difficult to blame Hawker. That company saw similar Wichita-based companies receive corporate welfare, most recently Bombardier Learjet. Who can blame Hawker for wanting the same? In fact, when the state and local governments are willing to readily hand out corporate welfare, you can make a case that Hawker has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to seek the same.

Therein lies the problem: Kansas’ approach to economic development is piecemeal. We respond to problems, as in the case of Hawker. But the state’s response gives more companies the incentive to come up with their own “problems” that require state intervention.

When recruiting or retaining companies, the state and its local governments presume they have the ability to select which companies are deserving of public subsidy.

What we have is a situation where a relatively small number of companies receive help from the state and its taxpayers, which only serves to increase the cost of business for everyone else.

Nonetheless, politicians and bureaucrats call this making an investment in, say, Hawker Beechcraft or whatever company is asking for handouts or tax breaks. The problem is that we don’t know if investing in these companies is the right investment, if government should be making these investments at all. (In the case of Hawker Beechcraft, there is some evidence that this company may need to shrink substantially in order to survive, handouts notwithstanding. See Report: Hawker should divest all but King Air.)

We need economic development policies that nurture all companies. Somewhere in Wichita or Kansas there is a small unknown company that has half a dozen or so employees — maybe more, maybe less — that is working on some innovation. If we’re lucky, we have many such companies. These companies could be working on a new technology, manufacturing process, computer software, video game, internet site, food processing technology, retail concept, chemical process, restaurant idea, engineering methodology, agricultural process, airplane wing — we just don’t know. Many will fail. But some will succeed, and few will, hopefully, succeed in a big way.

But these small startup companies may not fit in to the economic development programs the city and state have. Any of these now-small companies could become the next Cessna, LearJet, Beechcraft, or Pizza Hut. We just don’t know — we can’t know — which small companies will succeed. But these companies, when in small startup stage, struggle to pay the taxes that large companies are able to escape. Being small, they may also be disproportionally impacted by regulation. It’s not necessarily the case that a small startup aviation company is competing directly with Hawker Beechcraft and is handicapped by the larger company’s tax advantages and handouts. But these two companies could be competing for the same employees, for example, and that puts the smaller company at a disadvantage.

How can we identify which companies are deserving of government subsidy? Which companies should have their tax burden softened at the expense of others? Allocating resources — deciding what to do — in the face of uncertainty is the crux of entrepreneurship. It’s something that government is not equipped to do, as its incentives and motivations are all wrong.

In order to succeed, Kansas needs to embrace dynamism in its approach to economic development. For more on this see Kansas economic growth policy should embrace dynamism and Embracing Dynamism: The Next Phase in Kansas Economic Development Policy.

Unfortunately, the Hawker Beechcraft deal, along with most of the policies of the state and the City of Wichita move in the opposite direction: towards more state-controlled economic development.

Social Security: A good and moral deal?

Social Security and its future have been in the news lately. Supporters promote it as one of the best examples of successful government programs, and denigrate its critics as pessimists.

Locally in the campaign for United States Congress from the fourth district of Kansas, one candidate promises to defend the current system, while another has spoken approvingly of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and the reforms recommend in his Roadmap for America’s future.

Many of the arguments in favor of Social Security and strengthening the system revolve around the issue of fairness, even casting a moral tone. So what about the fairness of the Social Security system?

In Slaying Leviathan: The Moral Case for Tax Reform, author Leslie Carbone looks at the economic impact of Social Security and its payroll taxes on middle income people:

Payroll taxes actually have the bizarre effect of leaving families less able to ensure what they are specifically purported to provide — security in old age. According to The Heritage Foundation, Social Security’s inflation-adjusted rate of return is a paltry 1.2 percent for an average household of two 30-year-old earners, each making just under $26,000, with children. This family will pay about $320,000 in Social Security taxes (including their employers’ share) and can expect to receive about $450,000 back in payments (1997 dollars, before taxes, assuming that they begin collecting at age 67). Had this typical family allocated the same amount to conservative private investment vehicles, such as traditional retirement accounts, they could expect to enjoy a real rate of more than 5 percent per year before taxes, or $975,000 (1997 dollars). Social Security taxes of $320,000 cost this family $525,000.

Social Security is not a very good investment, as we now see. It’s even worse — cruel and unfair, we might say — when workers pay into the system for years and then die shortly after starting to receive benefits. If people owned their own retirement savings, they could pass these assets on to their heirs or anyone else they choose.

An argument often used against privatizing the Social Security system is that people will have to make investments in stocks and bonds. Securities markets sometimes go down, as they have recently, and sometimes do not perform very well for long periods. So the Social Security supporters ask: Do we want Americans’ retirement security dependent on such uncertain investments?

It’s true that markets go up and down. But over the long term, the direction has been up. Young workers do not need to be concerned about the performance of the market over the next few years. Their time horizon is measured in decades.

Furthermore, over long periods of time, the performance of securities markets is closely tied to the performance of the American and world economies. If markets do not perform well over time, it is almost certain that the economy is underperforming too. Such a poor economy makes it even more difficult for young workers to pay the taxes necessary to pay the Social Security benefits that retirees will demand. Those young workers will have to pay, as there is no Social Security trust fund that can be drawn upon, despite the claims of its backers.

It’s contrary to economic freedom and personal liberty for the government to force Americans to participate in a retirement program. Forcing us to participate in one that performs as poorly as Social Security is a tragedy, not a mark of kindness and moral superiority.

Investment strategies to be discussed in Wichita

This Friday (August 13) the Wichita Pachyderm Club features a program titled “Could any investment strategy be successful in today’s economic climate?” The presenter will be Dr. Malcolm Harris, who is Professor of Finance at Friends University. His blog is Mammon Among Friends, and he is regularly quoted in Wichita news media regarding financial and economic matters.

All are welcome to attend Wichita Pachyderm Club meetings. The program costs $10, which includes a delicious buffet lunch including salad, soup, two main dishes, and ice tea and coffee. The meeting starts at noon, although it’s recommended to arrive fifteen minutes early to get your lunch before the program starts.

The Wichita Petroleum Club is on the ninth floor of the Bank of America Building at 100 N. Broadway (north side of Douglas between Topeka and Broadway) in Wichita, Kansas (click for a map and directions). You may park in the garage (enter west side of Broadway between Douglas and First Streets) and use the sky walk to enter the Bank of America building. The Petroleum Club will stamp your parking ticket and the fee will be $1.00. Or, there is usually some metered and free street parking nearby.

John Bogle on Investing: The First 50 Years

John Bogle on Investing: The First 50 Years
John C. Bogle
McGraw-Hill, 2001

“The one great secret of investing is that there is no secret.”

“Investment success, it turns out, lies in simplicity as basic as the virtues of thrift, independence of thought, financial discipline, realistic expectations, and common sense.”

John C. Bogle, whom I greatly admire, founded Vanguard investment management company, a mutual fund company owned by its shareholders. He pioneered the no-load mutual fund and the index fund. These two ideas have made it possible for the average person to be in charge of their investments and do better than any of the Wall Street professionals that make up the financial establishment.

A no-load mutual fund is one that charges no sales fee or commission, either to buy or sell the funds.

An index fund is one that is managed to match the performance of a broad market index, such as the S&P 500 Index or the Wilshire 5000 Index for stocks. There are bond indexes, too. Investing in an index mutual fund is like buying everything (“the haystack”) instead of searching for needle.

Actively managed funds employ high-powered investment professionals who use many different techniques to select securities that they believe will perform better than other funds. It would seem that these funds should do much better than the passive index fund strategy. But the results don’t show this to be true. That’s what Mr. Bogle means when he says there is no secret.

For the period 1987 through 1997 (this is from a speech given in 1999), Morningstar selected what they term the equity fund “Manager of the Year.” For these managers, not even one of them beat the S&P 500 Index in the following year. Not even one was able to turn in an above average result.

From 1993 through 1998 the New York Times asked five investment managers to manage a hypothetical portfolio. The portfolios started with $50,000. At the end the average advisor portfolio grew to $103,500. Does that seem like a lot of growth? Most people would probably be happy with that. But the market average, as represented by the S&P 500 Index, grew to $156,100 over the same period.

Any comparison of index funds to actively managed funds will show that, over time, the index funds do better. For short periods, some actively managed funds will do better than the index funds. The problem is that we don’t know which funds will do better.

Why do index funds outperform actively managed funds over time? The answer, according to Mr. Bogle, is costs. Investors pay costs in the form of sales charges or loads when they buy (and sometimes when they sell) funds, actively managed funds often have some portion of their assets held as cash reserves, actively managed funds incur high transaction costs as they buy and sell securities, and actively managed funds usually charge higher management fees. Plus, actively managed funds can generate tax bills for their holders, too. These costs substantially reduce the return to investors in actively managed funds. The tyranny of compounding tells us that even small differences in returns can make huge differences in the amount of money one can have as they start retirement. An investment in the S&P Index would be worth about twice as much as an investment in the average equity fund over the period 1949 to 1998.

The innovations that Mr. Bogle has been responsible for are invaluable. The collections of speeches in this book are fascinating to read, and following the advice in them will lead to a lifetime of success in investing. It is not, however, the same advice you’ll get from a stockbroker or from most financial advisors.

The Random Walk Guide to Investing

The Random Walk Guide to Investing: Ten Rules for Financial Success
Burton G. Malkiel
W.W. Norton & Company, 2003

The title of this book derives from the author’s famous book A Random Walk Down Wall Street, published in 1973. That book, and this too, refer to the theory of efficient markets. In the author’s words: “The main premise of the theory is that the stock market is an extraordinarily efficient institution for reflecting without delay any information that arises. When news arises, an army of profit-seeking Wall Street professionals pounces on it rapidly, driving stock prices up or down. As a result, stock prices reflect whatever good or bad news there is about each individual company or about the economy as a whole.”

News is unpredictable. If not predictable and random, it wouldn’t be news, and today’s prices would reflect that information. So the price of a stock tomorrow is based on unpredictable — and therefore random — events. There is nothing contained in the past prices of a stock that has any value in predicting tomorrow’s price.

This is quite a powerful theory. It has many implications. For example, have you seen the stock analysts on television known as “technical analysts?” They look at charts of past prices, and spotting things like “support,” “resistance,” or “head and shoulders,” they predict what will happen in the future. But according to the efficient markets theory, there is not a single thing in those charts that is useful in predicting future prices.

It also means that in the long run, there is no hope of beating the market as a whole. That means that a huge chunk of the financial services industry is engaged in selling services that don’t work in the long run or even the short run, and, in fact, are harmful to the average person.

Consider “actively managed” mutual funds. These are funds where the managers, by using various strategies, attempt to earn large returns. These managers are among the smartest people on Wall Street. Yet each year about 80% fail to “beat the market,” which is to say they didn’t perform as well as broad market indexes such as the S&P 500 index. In fact, for the 10 years ending December 31, 2002, the S&P 500 index beat the average equity mutual fund by 2.09%, and for the 20 years before the same date, by 2.42%.

Of course, each year there are some funds that do very well, and some that are able to maintain high performance for a few years in a row. These are the funds that everyone talks about, and many people buy. But on page 129 there is a sobering table of figures. It shows the 20 best-performing funds (out of the 851 funds with more than $100 million in assets) from 1997 to 1999. These funds averaged annual returns of 44% to 66% during those years. Their managers were hailed as geniuses and treated as celebrities.

The next columns of the table report the funds’ rank for the period 2000-2002. The highest rated of these was at position 500 (out of 851 funds). Most were ranked worse than 750, and there are quite a few ranked worse than 830. Their returns averaged negative 32% per year. (In three years at -32% per year, $100 turns into $31.) Patterns like this were found in earlier time periods, too.

We might think that we would be smart enough to get out of these high-flying funds as they start to tumble. But the managers of most of these funds have wide latitude as to the strategies they can use, and they weren’t smart enough to switch to some other investment. How can the average person expect to know more than these managers?

Some people believe that they can do well by purchasing last year’s best funds. Professor Malkiel reports on a study where he took the funds with best recent performance, and these portfolios produced below-average returns. He also took Morningstar’s best-rated funds, and found that a portfolio of them produced much lower returns than an index fund. From 1990 to 2002, the Morningstar best rated funds grew in value by about 110% (judging from a graph), while the Wilshire 5,000 Index grew by about 300%. Over a lifetime of investing, that’s the difference in being relieved there’s Social Security and being independently wealthy.

One of the reasons why actively-managed funds fail to beat the market in the long run is that the actively-managed funds have large costs. Index funds are very inexpensive to operate. Costs like this are very important in investing. Small differences, even just 1% per year, make a lot of difference when subjected to compounding over a lifetime. That’s why Malkiel strongly recommends reducing the costs of investing. Still, many people purchase “load” funds where perhaps as much as 6% of your investment goes to sales charges, and funds that have large ongoing management fees to pay every year (including marketing fees). Now there are “wrap” accounts that many people are lured into using, where the investor pays an annual fee, usually 1% to 3%, for the services of a professional money manager. I recently had experience with someone who had a wrap account from a very large investment company, one whose advertisements on television are commonplace. The advisor charged 1.5% per year, and the investor’s portfolio consisted of a variety of mutual funds, all actively managed, and all of which had high sales charges and high annual fees. This investor had absolutely no hope of earning anything near what an index fund would return.

It’s no surprise that Malkiel is not well-liked by Wall Street and investment professionals, as the efficient market theory tells us there’s no way to beat the market in the long run. Yet a huge industry tries to sell us products we are led to believe will beat the market. As the advisor I mentioned a moment ago said to me in an effort to get my business after I told him I was a self-directed investor, “You pay a little more, and you earn a lot more.” He may even believe that. The sad fact is that most people have no idea how well their investments are performing. Calculating returns, especially when investment is made periodically, is difficult. Do you remember the Beardstown Ladies, an investment club that produced fabulous reported returns for several years running? It turned out that their calculations treated their contributions as though they were returns that their investments earned. Mistakes like that are easy to make. A few years ago a well-known website had a portfolio-tracking service that I used for a while to track the returns of my 401(k) plan. I thought I was doing really well, until I realized that it treated my twice-monthly contributions as through they were investment returns. I inquired about this, but the service admitted no error. Since then, they have discontinued this “service.”

The first chapter of this book, titled “Fire Your Investment Advisor,” is quite blunt about its topic. If people are willing to study a little, perhaps by reading a short book like this, and then to trust themselves, I agree. Otherwise, you may want to use the services of an investment professional. In this case, people would do well to use a fee-based planner instead of one who is paid by sales commissions or annual fees.

The next two chapters explain the four investment categories (cash, bonds, stocks, and real estate), and the important relationship between risk and returns.

Then the rules start: Start saving and investing now, in order to take advantage of the powerful effect of compounding over time. (“The most powerful force in the universe,” Einstein reportedly said.) Save and invest regularly. Have proper insurance and cash reserves. Invest with an eye towards minimizing taxes. Allocate assets amongst the four categories according to your time horizon and your capacity and temperament towards risk. Diversify appropriately. Bow to the wisdom of the market (this is where the efficient market theory is important). Invest in index funds. Don’t be your own worst enemy: avoid stupid investor tricks.

This is a valuable book for anyone who is interested in their financial security. Please don’t think that because you may not have a lot of money to invest that it isn’t important for you to take investing seriously. The less money you have, the more important it is to start saving and investing now, and to invest wisely. This book will show you how.