Episode #400: Patrick Geddes, Aperio – Lessons From A Customized Indexing Pioneer Who Sold His Firm To BlackRock
Guest: Patrick Geddes is the co-founder and former CEO of Aperio Group, a pioneer in custom index equity portfolios delivering tax optimization with $42 billion under management at the end of 2020 when it was acquired by BlackRock, and one of the country’s leading experts on after-tax investing. He was previously the Research Director and CFO at Morningstar. He’s the author of Transparent Investing: How to Play the Stock Market without Getting Played.
Date Recorded: 3/2/2022 | Run-Time: 1:04:23
Summary: In today’s episode, we kick it off with hearing back Patrick’s days at Morningstar as the Director of Quantitative Research & CFO. Then Patrick shares what led him to start a firm focused on direct indexing and customization over 20 years ago. We talk about why the Great Financial Crisis was an inflection point for direct indexing and why there’s been so much M&A in the space over the last couple of years.
Then we talk about his book, Transparent Investing. We talk about consumer advocacy, the importance of taxes & fees, and ways to counteract some of the behavioral biases we all have.
Sponsor: If you’re seeking the less obvious and are curious about the ever-changing world and how it affects investing, The Active Share podcast is for you. Hear thought-provoking conversations with thought leaders, company executives, and William Blair Investment Management’s own analysts and portfolio managers as they share unique perspectives on investing in a world that’s always evolving. Listen to The Active Share on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or TuneIn or visit here.
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Links from the Episode:
- 0:40 – Sponsor: The Active Share Podcast
- 1:15 – Intro
- 2:04 – Welcome to our guest, Patrick Geddes
- 2:56 – Working as The Director of Quantitative Research at Morningstar
- 5:00 – Founding Aperio with a focus on customized portfolios
- 10:32 – Why the financial crisis as an inflection point for direct indexing
- 12:25 – Why Patrick chose to sell the firm to BlackRock
- 14:03 – What lead Patrick to write his book Transparent Investing
- 21:02 – Thoughts on what to consider when hiring a financial advisor
- 30:10 – Wall Street’s fee based model and the US becoming more tax-aware
- 41:36 – Why the human brain is hard-wired to be a poor investor
- 48:08 – Advice on how to be a better investor
- 54:27 – The importance of having a written investment plan
- 1:00:37 – Patrick’s most memorable investment
- 1:01:02 – Learn more about Patrick; patrickgeddes.co
Transcript of Episode 400:
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Meb: What’s up, friends? We’ve got a great episode for you today. Our guest is Patrick Geddes, founder and former CEO of Aperio Group, a leader in the direct indexing space with over 40 billion in assets under management when BlackRock acquired them in 2020. In today’s show, we rewind back to Patrick’s days at Morningstar as the director of quantitative research and CFO. Then Patrick shares what led him to start a firm focused on direct indexing and customization over 20 years ago.
We talked about why the great financial crisis was an inflection point for direct indexing and why there’s been so much M&A in the space over the last couple years. Then we talked about his new book, “Transparent Investing.” It’s great, by the way. We talked about consumer advocacy, the importance of taxes and fees, and ways to counteract some of the behavioral biases we all have. Please enjoy this episode with Patrick Geddes.
Meb: Patrick, welcome to the show.
Patrick: Thank you, sir. Pleasure to be here.
Meb: Where do we find you today? Is that the Library of Alexandria? What is that?
Patrick: That’s actually a library in Hungary between Vienna and Budapest. That’s the most gorgeous library I’ve ever seen. It’s actually in a monastery.
Meb: Wow. I was going to say, if that’s your house, then you’ve done quite well on the partnership with BlackRock, so many leather-bound books. All right, man, we’re going to get into your new book, “Transparent Investing,” which is out on Amazon and everywhere books are sold, which I loved.
But first, we got to get a little background because you made a few stops, did a few cool things the listeners will be familiar with. First of which… I shouldn’t say first because you started out at a oil company, right? I was going to say Morningstar, but you did a little stuff before that out of university.
Patrick: Yeah. I worked for Amoco, which is now part of BP.
Meb: So, how does a guy working at an oil patch hop over to Morningstar?
Patrick: They actually reached out to me. I was actually planning on getting a PhD in finance and a friend of mine connected me with their head of HR. And I even kind of helped them look at what a research function would be and said, “You know, I’m not an econometrician, I may not be the right person.” And they were like, “No, no, no. It’s just something we want to get started.” And so, it just happened to be a great fit and shift going from that kind of corporate finance thing over to investment world.
Meb: When you’re at Morningstar, what were you doing at this point? You’re just chatting up all the mutual fund managers? Were you on the data analysis side? Where was Morningstar at this point?
Patrick: Morningstar was at about 300 employees when I joined, and I think they were at about 400 when I left. So, I was hired as the head of research and focused on performance measurement, did a lot of work on their after-tax stuff, which they’d already been developing, but jumped into that.
Now is actually the interesting tide of the oil company. Because when I moved over the investment space, I was sort of baffled at, why aren’t people doing risk adjusted after tax cash flows? That’s real money. That’s real dollars. And for taxable investors, that’s the only cash flow and risk that matters. Why aren’t we doing it that way? Long story for why that’s the case, then moved over to being their first CFO.
Meb: There’s a simple answer on why no one cared about it because it’s not the sexy part. Taxes don’t sell, as you know. Well, they do. You just got to get the right crowd. But certainly, when you’re writing a magazine article, it’s hard to talk about it. And so, how much of that was driven, your time there, by your interests and kind of where you led down the path versus kind of what they were doing at the time?
Patrick: The research was very much just to flesh out their analytic capabilities and their number crunching. And there were not grand things I wanted to do. I wasn’t allowed to. I mean, it was a good place to work. It was really just developing that capability. So, when I started, I was the only official part of research. And when I left, it was a group of like five. So it was just building that out. Obviously, much, much bigger now.
Meb: So, you had your hands dirty with some of the research, what was going on with that part of the world. And you said, “You know what? Something’s amiss. I see an opportunity. There’s a point where I could go start a new company.” What was the origin story there?
Patrick: So, I’d moved back to California, where I’m from, in ’97. And I was teaching portfolio theory at University of California, Berkeley Extension program. And I’ve set a small, emphasis on small, consulting practice on the side.
And my co-founder at Aperio, Paul Solli, he’s got really good radar for spotting odd skill sets. And a client of his asked, “Should I take this course?” And showed him the listing in the catalogue, and he thought, “What’s the former head of research at Morningstar doing with his own…? Like, something’s weird here. I got to meet this guy.”
So we connected and kept talking about what we could offer. And over the course of about a year… We actually never formally decided to start a company. It was just every conversation went further and further. And then in the summer of ’99, we finally officially filed for the company and got started.
Meb: And what was the origin story mission at the time?
Patrick: I mean, we were both very clearly way over in the indexing camp. And we looked at things like, “Well, there are already some great players here. If we can offer something more than they do, like a Vanguard or others, why bother?”
And that’s where we got into the tax side and then the customization. There was, tax loss harvesting already existed. But we focused on offering a very customized version of indexing with both the tax side and really building it around a client’s particular portfolio of their risk issues, their environmental, social, and governance. So it was an opportunity narrowed by what was already available and what wasn’t. And that was the customization that we saw, the part that really wasn’t there.
Meb: So this feels like a very 2022 conversation. But you were doing it 25 years ago, with two really big topics that are still making their way through our industry, the customization, and I lump ESG in there, and then also the tax side. In the early days, what was the leading pitch? Or what resonated with the investor? And were you focusing just on professionals? Or is it direct to retail? And which one of those two really was the thing people wanted?
Patrick: We thought… I think it’s funny. It was a bit parallel to Morningstar. When Joe Mansueto started it, he thought it was going to be investors paying for it, and then suddenly found that advisors, wealth managers had a huge need that was not being fulfilled.
Similarly, we thought we would be managing money directly for clients and very quickly learned, it’s kind of too arcane and complicated a thing to explain. And what are you going to do, direct advertising for this? So almost immediately, we ended up working through intermediaries, basically, the higher end wealth managers.
And the initial sales push was really on the tax side. And it was still fairly new that most people hadn’t really heard of it. Some had, nothing like today. And it’s funny, the early sales discussions at that time was more indexing versus active.
And then, as things started evolving, it was more like, “Oh, why this custom version versus a straight ETF or index mutual fund?” And then once people really had heard of this kind of customized indexing strategy, then it boiled down to, “Okay, how are you different from your competitors?” So it was really interesting to watch that evolution from clients who were quite unfamiliar with the concept to, in the last few years, it’s one of the hottest spaces in the investment industry.
Meb: And this is obviously a huge success today, 40-plus-billion-dollar firm. What was the on ramp like? Was this something where it was like, boom, immediate product market fit? Or was this like an overnight success, 20 years in the making?
Patrick: No, it was slow. It took four or five years to really get some traction. Say in 2003, people would ask me, “Hey, how’s your business going?” And my answer was, “Well, we’re too much of a success to be labeled a failure, but we’re too much of a failure to be labeled a success.” It was limping along. We all had side jobs. I mean, we did this with no capital, ours or anybody else’s.
So it took a while to get the traction. And it started looking like it was going to be a real business around 2004. We had some big institutional clients that really, fortuitously arrived. And then, coming out of the meltdown in ’08, ’09, that’s when we saw the real traction.
I think at the end of 2011, we were like 2 billion and then grew that to 42 billion by the end of 2020. So nine years went. What’s that, 21 full? And a lot of that was writing the flows and indexing in general. I mean, we were a big part of that and benefited enormously.
And then as people started figuring out the other angles, the ESG, the tax side, even the factor side, in a way, we had some foresight. In another way, we were just fortunate to be standing in the right place.
Meb: Right place, right time. Well, we often say the best compliment you can give, this applies to investors too, but entrepreneurs, is that you just survived. So many go out of business. So the fact you’re still around is a compliment already. Okay. So what about the financial crisis do you think drove that point home for investors that they wanted a solution like this?
Patrick: I think they woke up to they were being pitched a lot of stuff that didn’t pan out. And the research data, just like that was nothing new. That’s been around for decades. Something in the market and the zeitgeist was ready for a lot of investors moving on to indexing, understanding the fee side, and how much that mattered.
And I think it was a kind of bitterness that the dotcom blow-up was more sort of industry-specific. And though the home mortgages were technically the catalyst for the ’08, ’09 meltdown, that was so broad that a lot of strategies, especially on the hedge fund side that were supposed to protect market downturns, those blew up. And they actually didn’t have the downside protection they were promising. And this kind of cynicism came in among consumers that I think is a very positive thing. Just, they finally woke up and smelled the coffee.
Meb: Echoing that, I think when you have, especially times of crisis, where things don’t work out, and investors, in many cases, are pitched or sold something that often doesn’t have either a long track record or it’s just a different market regime or environment, a lot of strategies that did okay from 2000, 2003, then got pummeled in ’08.
But often, what we talk a lot about is, that’s often a one-way road. Like, the people don’t ever go back. I say this with the kind of the high price active world, too. Like no one goes back to paying 2% for an S&P closet indexing fund. Once they’ve sold it, they’re never going back. So at least you hopefully have this directional area of progress, but often it takes those painful disruptions to make it happen. It feels like, I’m not sure.
Okay, so walk through, you guys are growing, getting big. And then eventually you say, “You know what? We’re going to partner up with BlackRock.” Depending on their perspective, you could call them the Darth Vader. You could call them the Yoda. I don’t know who they are in the Star Wars ecosystem, but they’re the big one. What was the decision there? And then where are we in the timeline? What year would this have been?
Patrick: The discussions with them started late in 2020. And we had sold a majority stake in 2018 to a private equity firm. Why? Basically, demographics. My co-founder and I were heading into getting near to retirement age. And so that was the catalyst to create some liquidity.
And then the private equity firm had said, “Look, we’re fairly long term. We’re not looking to flip this.” And then reality hit where, suddenly, everybody had to own one of these things. They’ve just, the big players, all went nuts. You can still see this playing out, say, with a UBS acquisition of Wealthfront. That just everybody had to have some sort of custom index and tax loss harvesting.
And so BlackRock was a great fit. So we weren’t making the call as to whether to be part of a bigger firm, but BlackRock was a great fit because… I mean, these are the folks who invented indexing. So, if you go back to 1971, and the old Wells Fargo, which then became Barclays Global, and then that BlackRock acquired. So this is the home of indexing. And that philosophical fit was terrific that we weren’t going to be getting in a lot of arguments about, “Why would you do this indexing thing? It makes less revenue.”
Meb: Yeah. And so, you said, “You know what? I’m tired of surfing and hiking in the Bay Area,” or what all my friends up there do, kite surfing, cycling, active golf, who knows what it is, making cheese and wine, beer, you said, “I’m going to write a book.” Was this a pandemic-induced idea or what? Were you just like stuck at home, you’re like, “I’m going to torture myself and write a book.”?
Patrick: No, not at all. That’s well put, why torture yourself? It was a commitment I’d made a long time ago, probably around 2010, when I was just looking at the good fortune of what was happening at Aperio. And I made a commitment to the universe of, “All right, look, I need to do a major payback if we hit a certain level of success.” And we blew right through that level. And I was in arrears for many years and finally got tired of that hanging on my shoulder.
And the pandemic timing is purely coincidental. I actually flew to the East Coast and met with the editor, I ended up using, great independent shop, in January of 2020. So, I was already on the path when the pandemic hit. It was convenient in the sense of, if you’re going to work that hard to do a book when you’re working full time, you don’t want a lot of other distractions. And as everybody knows, like, a lot of those fun distractions in life disappeared for quite a while.
And so, I was still working full time through less than a year, through about May of 2021 and then just did the book on the side. I’d get up early and work weekends. And producing and then, of course, promoting it is a huge amount of work on top of that.
Meb: I like the book for the biggest reason being is that you, I shouldn’t say, have no filter, but you clearly speak your mind.
Patrick: You would not be the first person to accuse me of not having the kind of filter and niceties we all need.
Meb: But I often think, in our industry, if we were to hook someone up to a lie detector as they’re saying certain things, and watch kind of like it’s squiggle as they’re talking, so to try to distinguish how much do they believe at their core and how much of this is their narrative and marketing and how much of it is muddled. But the challenge in our world, of course, is a lot of it falls in the middle. But your book clearly shines through in that way, which I think is great.
So tell me the inspiration. You said, “I’m going to berth this book.” What was really the message that you think kind of you wanted to convey? What’s the soul of this book?
Patrick: So, it was first and foremost, a consumer advocacy, educational aim. I want consumers to wake up to the BS they get fed by the industry. And I actually became more tolerant or compassionate, maybe not the right word, of the industry as I was writing it, realizing there’s still a lot of value there. There’s still a lot of situations where clients may be told, “Oh, just do this yourself. It’s simple.” And they balk at like, “What?”
The challenge in writing the book is, “Another book on investing? Another book on just buy index funds? Like who needs that? There are dozens and dozens of good ones.”
The two pieces I thought were missing, I’ve not seen anyone blend all the research in behavioral finance with all the research on how, what an atrocious track record active management, on both security selection and the asset allocation, market time and market beating behavior. They’re just awful. They’re not like a little thin. It’s so overwhelming. So that piece was fairly clear and, within the pro indexing camp, well understood.
The piece I hadn’t seen was the brain is such an important component and the way it’s evolved, and the way in which it’s actually very inefficient in terms of making poor decisions, because we’re wired through evolution for a world that existed whatever, how old are homo sapiens, 3000,000, 400,000 years, that for survival on the plains of Central Africa, yeah, that’s great. Modern investment world? No, we actually do some unhealthy things.
So it was blending those two, with an advocacy piece, but also saying, “How do you help people decide whether to do it themselves or hire somebody?” And I’d never seen anything helpful that I thought was unbiased because the recommendations on that either come from the industry, big question there, what are they going to pick? Hiring someone or telling people to do it themselves? Or a kind of cynical, it’s all snake oil salespeople, it’s like, you can’t trust it. You got to do it on your own.
I thought, boy, that doesn’t address those people kind of caught in the middle. And so, one of the big components of the book that I think is new is this idea of, how do you figure out whether or not to hire someone or not, and really distil it down to what services are you buying?
That’s what I tried to emphasize what I’d seen in my 30 years in the industry is, I actually think most clients, as investors, aren’t very clear about why they’re hiring a manager. Are they doing it to try and beat the market? Are they doing it to help their financial planning?
And what was one of the more interesting parts about the book is really sifting that out, and I hadn’t even done that for myself, and finding, you know, there’s a long list of areas where the industry does add value. And there are some really serious incentive problems around its predictive abilities.
And as I was putting that in the book, and in fact, it’s a story in the book and I even have a animated video I did on this. I thought of the scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” Where does the Wizard of Oz going to be a good analogy for investing? What’s up with that?
It’s that climax scene when Toto pulls the curtain back. And they figure out that the wizard is a fraud. And Dorothy marches over to him with great indignation and says, “You’re a very bad man.” And the wizard, the fake wizard answers, “No, I’m a very good man. I’m just a bad wizard.” Aha, bingo, that’s the analogy that works for investment advisors.
When investment advisors pretend they are a wizard with a crystal ball, which that character had when he was back in Kansas, that’s lying. It’s lying because they imply an ability that’s just absolutely not there. The investment industry has an awful track record at predicting which stocks are going to outperform or whether the stock market’s going up or down.
And so he then helps those three characters: the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. But he’s more of a kind of a counselor and maybe a life coach, therapist. He gives them something they need. They come out much richer or they benefit greatly, not on a financial sense, from that interaction once he stops posing as a wizard who can foretell things that in fact he can’t. And that’s the analogy that works really well, I think.
Meb: One of my favorite things to do is you look at like the yearly strategist market predictions. And it’s funny because they always center around, I don’t know, 5% to 10% returns on the S&P, or even 8% to 10% returns, when almost never does the S&P land and the 0 to 10%. We say normal market returns extreme, it’s up 20, down 10, up 40, you know, on and on.
I was actually at a forecast dinner recently in Mississippi. And I said, “Look, it was full knowledge that this prediction is going to be worthless. You still want to hear it, but it’s going to be worthless.” I at least am going to pick an outlier. Because I’m guessing it’s not going to be… It’s like Price Is Right, am I going to bet $1 or am I going to bet $2.10?
But anyway, so I picked down 20. The bad news will be is if we end up down 20, no one’s going to invite me back because I’ll be the resident bear in the room.
But anyway, so the challenge, I think, and there’s a very big real challenge in our world, particularly when we’re talking about the consumer and even, to be honest, a lot of professionals, is there’s a big knowledge gap. We don’t teach finance or investing our money in schools. It’s like 15% of high schools do. And on top of that, it’s complicated. It’s full of jargon.
And then there’s the piece that you talk about, which is, there’s a bunch of predators out there. Some predators that are intentional predators, some that are unintentional, some that, like Buffett talks about, “Don’t ask a barber, if you need a haircut” type of predators. They’re just, in many ways, trying to make a living, but the incentives are wrong.
So what do we do about it? As you’re talking to these people, do you say…? Okay, you mentioned this in the book, do you go grab an advisor? Do you try the very long path of lifelong learning in this space? Like, what’s the fork in the road direction that you think people should or are capable of taking?
Patrick: So, part of the challenge of that knowledge gap you mention is the vast majority of people, I would speculate, who are wondering about whether to hire someone or do it themselves, grossly overestimate the complexity and the time requirement for doing an excellent portfolio. And it’s a contrast of, let’s say, the sort of day traders who are looking at their phone, 17 times a day.
I’m asked how often should I look at my portfolio? “Spend 90 minutes every three years” “No, no, no, that’s for the dumb downer. What’s does smart money do?” “The smart money knows not to look at it, but basically like a rebalancing approach.” But that is so antithetical to making money.
So the fork in the road for the DIY is, the first thing you need to understand is, what are you hoping to get out of an advisor? If you’re paying them to beat the market or time the market, you’re in trouble. The odds are heavily, heavily stacked against you.
If you’re hiring them, to help you out with financial planning, I consider that a really valid use of advisors’ time. Or what I would call the hand-holding part, where advisors will claim that a lot of clients flip out and do silly things if left to their own devices. I think that’s a valid argument for the value they provide. But do it with eyes wide open. In effect, you’re paying for like a therapist, a coach, who’s going to keep you from harming yourself.
There’s a category called the one-off situations where people get into a decision they got to make. “I’ve got this retirement pension, how should that be worked into my portfolio?” “And I’m getting an inheritance, and how does this all work together?” And that is validly baffling stuff in terms of the lifelong education part you mentioned.
But the construction and ongoing management of a portfolio, for the vast majority of investors, can be absurdly simple. And that’s the part that really horrifies the industry. I’m not saying all active is bad. I’m saying, all index is so reliable and so solid and such a safe bet, not in the risk sense, safe in the vulnerability to have really harmed yourself, it’s such a prudent move. That’s what horrifies the industry.
Meb: Yeah. There’s a quote from Bogle that goes along the lines of, he’s talking about his indexing approach, and he said something like, “Look, this approach works for me. Are there investment approaches that are better? Maybe.” He’s like, “But I can guarantee you there’s infinite that are worse.”
So, but it has been muddled slightly, certainly in the ’90s, but definitely, in the ’70s, indexing had a very clear definition that’s been somewhat perturbed by the industry, intentionally or not, where now you can have extremely low cost quantitative active strategies, and extremely expensive nonsensical index strategies. They call them an index, where it’s firms that are based in Indianapolis, and the CEO wears a tie instead of a bow tie like that, theoretically, could be an index and charge 2%. So, but I think most people know we’re talking about when we say indexes, low cost, sort of.
Patrick: But it is an important distinction between what is technically index. I make this point in the book. Like you can own a single index fund for all of your equity. But if it’s the Thai market, like Thailand stocks, you’re technically indexing, but you don’t have a diversified portfolio, as opposed to a broadly diversified very, very broad benchmark.
Like I’m not even that huge fan of the S&P 500. Just own capitalism. Go really big. That’s the version that’s really smart. And you’re right there. I don’t know what the count is. Now, say there are 8000 index fund, you really need about 5 of those.
Meb: Yeah, well, I like to tease the Bogle heads on occasion. And my favorite stuff is always that Vanguard technically has more active funds than index funds. Dollar weighted, it’s way more on the index, but that often sets them off.
But your point that I think I talk a lot about, that I feel like it’s hard for people to really sit well with, is this concept of the time you spend on the portfolio and every other endeavor of life. It’s like the 10,000-hour rule. You want to get good at golf? Spend a lot of time at golf. You want to make a bunch of money in stocks? Well, you need to spend time on the 10-Ks and Qs and all this stuff.
But we did a post to try to illustrate this with a chart and said, “Okay. Look, how much do you value your time at? Or so how much money do you make per year? How much money do you spend on your portfolio? And how much is this costing you?”
So framing it in a slightly different way, and in like no scenario, was it beneficial to spend any time on your portfolio? Because the amount of alpha you would theoretically even have to generate, if you could, was so monumental that it’s like you should be spending zero time automating it and moving on with your life. But not a lot of people do that. Some do.
Patrick: No. And that’s the argument in the book is, there’s a section on, what’s the best way to manage during various market conditions? And the really boring advice is, when the markets have been shooting way up and you’re worried it’s overvalued, but you don’t want to miss out on further growth. The best thing to do, it’s like a Buddhist answer, sit quietly. Do nothing. All right, the markets tanking and falling out, what’s the best advice? Sit quietly. Do nothing. And that sounds so counterintuitive. “Doing nothing makes me wealthier?” “Yep.”
And the same thing that applies is there’s a behavioral bias, it’s very well documented, called overconfidence, which is people think, we think we’re much better at investing than we are when you actually measure it. And I frame that for people in the context of humility is usually paired in people’s imaginations with vows of poverty, a Buddhist monk, the Sisters of Mercy. But actually, humility in investing makes you richer, and over long periods of time, a lot richer.
So very counterintuitive suggestions in the book that don’t fit the way our brain is wired. And that’s why I’d say good investing is simple, but it’s not easy. The reason it’s not easy, it’s a behavioral thing.
That’s why I often draw the food analogy where we evolved as a species to crave salty, fatty, sweet foods. In today’s world, certainly in the developed world, and even much of the developing, like overabundance of food is much more of the issue because our brains are wired to have rather unhealthy diets. It’s not complicated to eat less, but it’s really hard because you’re dealing with willpower and kind of fighting natural instincts.
And investing, it’s the same way. The natural instinct, try and outsmart the market. Go for your bragging rights. The data just overwhelmingly show, “Nope. Bad call. You’re much, much better off in terms of probability going with this incredibly boring, non-entertaining, simple portfolio as counterintuitive as that sounds.”
Meb: The most brilliant thing Wall Street’s ever done is the fee-based model because it gets skimmed off in the background. You never see it on your statement. It just kind of like little baby slice. It’s like the mandolin, right, when we’re making a sandwich. And we always try to frame things in a slightly different way to investors and to really drill home the point of how much fees and taxes and kind of all this stuff, but fees is a good example, matter.
And we say, “Look, would you pay? Instead of paying the fee. Tell you what, you get a second option, which is you have to take a briefcase down to the asset manager once a year with $10,000 in it, would you do that?” And everyone’s like, “Hell, no, I wouldn’t do that. Are you crazy?” So, well, it’s the same thing. And in some cases, even more than, then it piles up over time.
And so I feel like people, at least in the U.S., the industry is becoming very fee aware. If you look at the flows every year, they tend to keep moving towards index or low cost. Part of it is driven by advisors because their business is under pressure. Part of it’s just individuals doing it themselves.
How much do you think people are aware of taxes and kind of the alpha or the benefits there? Is that something that is still way behind the times? Or is that something that you think people are…?
Patrick: It’s, I wouldn’t say, way behind. It’s behind. It’s not as behind as it was even five years ago. It’s great you framed the tax question in the… Let’s put that in the context of the last, say, 70 years of the investment industry and sort of portfolio theory.
So when Markowitz comes out with quantifying risk in the very early 1950s, the reaction is kind of, “Risk? You can’t spend risk. What are you talking about?” I believe Milton Friedman was on his dissertation committee even said, “This isn’t an economics paper,” which, of course, by today’s standards, sounds really silly.
Then fast forward, certainly by the 1980s, even a good chunk of the 1970s, you couldn’t practice investing without incorporating risks. So consumers, the world adapted, “Oh, risk matters.” It’s not a…you don’t want the risk tail wagging the dog. No one says that. It would sound incredibly stupid.
Fast forward to 1971, when Wells Fargo now part of BlackRock investment arm, starts the first mutual fund. “You’d have the same fees? I’m after returns, why should I pay any attention to fees?” Because they actually matter. And you look at the correlations.
And similarly, you go to…taxes harvesting really started getting traction in the late 1990s. We started in ’99. We were not the first player. And watching that over the last 23 years, the awareness is growing. There’s still a long way to go. But I would put it very much in the context of what used to be this, “Well, you don’t want the tax tail wagging the dog.” Basically, anyone saying that is in effect telling you, “I don’t really understand taxes or care about them.”
Because the whole…and this is what I learned at an oil company, run all your numbers based on a risk adjusted after tax return number. That’s not that hard a concept. But it’s still taking time. So to answer your question, we’re early in that. But I’m watching what’s happening in the industry. I’m watching how many firms are focusing on it. And it is shifting.
The interesting part though is the tax efficiency is so negatively correlated with fees. The cheapest, most boring stuff like index is highly efficient on the tax side. The really awful stuff, from a tax perspective, would be for that ultra-high net worth, like hedge funds are notoriously tax inefficient, pick out a lot of short-term gains. But active management for stock picking is just bad enough to try and defend in a pre-tax world.
Morningstar ran a great piece published about five, six years ago. It was a 10-year holding period through the end of 2015. And they looked after tax, not against the benchmark, against…they just picked one, a fund, I think was a stock-only fund. And they found that 95, that’s right, 95% of the active funds failed to outperform when you included the taxes.
And it was just this. Hey, any gambler would understand this. I think it was, you had a 5% chance of winning by 71 basis points. Let’s say you’re making the bet. “Okay, I’ll give you a 5% chance, Meb, to win $71 or 95% chance to lose 124,” I think, something like that. “Well wait. I have a 95% chance of losing 120 or a 5% chance of winning 70. Like that’s a stupid bet, no one…” Oh, millions of people and trillions of dollars are making that bet, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that once you throw in the tax piece, what became a tough sell, should become close to impossible?
Meb: Why do they hold out hope?
Patrick: Because, a number of things. One, the tax piece is still…got another decade or two to really be broadly understood. Two, because of that correlation with the fees, the industry is actually, depending on how focused they are on active, very wary of investors waking up to after-tax returns.
I was with the chief investment officer of a client, was in our office several years ago, and they were talking about their hedge fund strategies. And they just acknowledged, “We can’t have our clients understanding the tax implications of our hedge fund strategies because they’ll look awful.” And they were at least acknowledging, “We can’t discuss this.”
So the industry as a whole has a very strong incentive for people not to really be aware of that extra tax track. But consumer preferences are starting to pull that tax awareness. And even the less efficient firms are starting to shift on that. They still are wary of saying things like, “You want to look at after-tax returns? Indexing looks even better.”
So it’s going to take some time. But in my wildest dreams, this book would be one of the catalysts to help people wake up to this idea of, focus on the stuff you can control. What can you control? Number one, fees. Number two, tax. That’s the easiest to control.
And the obvious implication for anybody in the industry, especially on the marketing side is, “Patrick, you’re picking the two most boring off-putting parts of investing – taxes and fees. Nobody wants to talk about that.” No, but it’s the part you can actually control.
That’s where I throw in the Serenity Prayer that they use in the 12-step process. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. That would be market returns, which strategies are going to outperform. The courage to change the things I can, that would be stuff like fees and taxes. And the hardest part, wisdom to tell the difference.
Meb: We made the mistake of writing a paper on taxes. That is probably our least read paper. I think it was like, really fascinating. And it probably be only two people in the world, you and I, that would really enjoy it. But it kind of walks through, if you’re in a high tax bracket, particularly where I live and you live, you really don’t want these high dividend yielding stocks. And so we kind of walk through, actually, if you had a value approach that avoided the yielding stocks, how that performed in various scenarios, and even with more rebalancing, because of the ETF structure, it leads you to some interesting conclusions.
But not something, like talk about the least marketable idea of all time, Patrick, it’s like the no-yield or low-yield fund. Come on, man. Nobody wants that. So I can sympathize, kind of how the esoteric of taxes can get a little messy. However, some of our best episodes have been tax related. So, you never know, this may hit a funny bone with some of our listeners.
Patrick: Yeah, it’s just about the realization. And this is the industry does resist that. You’ve got pre-tax returns and after-tax returns. And if you ask someone, “Okay. We’re analyzing the returns for a traditional pension plan, a defined benefit pension plan. Should we use the after-tax return numbers?” “No, that’s stupid. They’re irrelevant. Like they are not just less valuable. They’re absolutely irrelevant.” “Ah, okay, for taxable investors.” “Well, for them, the pre-tax returns are equally irrelevant.”
That’s not reality. That’s not what they’re keeping. The only number that matter is their after-tax return. That’s going to take a while for people to click on the fact that it’s not an extra piece to pay attention to. After-tax returns for taxable accounts are the only ones that count. And that’s going to take a while for the industry to pay attention to.
Meb: Well, you had a quote from the book where you’re talking about survey of investors like 401k, and it was almost 40%, thought they didn’t pay any fees, and another 20-some percent was unsure. So you’re already like almost two thirds of people, either that they paid none or some. And so part of the industry likes to keep it. The less they bring it up, the better.
And particularly with it, like, you know, it’s funny, I spent a lot of time debating, and we all do on Twitter and just investment research conferences or whatever. It’s like the final 5% or 10% of the football field or the debate. Because the first 80%, 90% seems so obvious.
And so, often, it’s like, “Look, these things over here are probably all fine. But these things over here are so atrociously terrible that that’s like where the debate should be.” So, I look at a lot of these mutual funds every year to do these just enormous capital gains distributions, and I just palm to my face, I’m like, “Oh, my God, how can anyone still be here?” And I think I’m just waiting for that world to die or get divorced or something because it’s astonishing. I don’t know.
Patrick: Well, it’s the behavioral research on that. It’s called mental accounting, where you compartmentalize. I pay my taxes from my checking account. My investment accounts, that’s kind of separate. That separation is the problem.
And we published a paper about six years ago called “What Would Yale Do If It Were Taxable” that hammered that point home that showed through the research. And we just picked Yale as this very famous, justifiably admired portfolio-run by the late David Swensen at the time.
And the point of the paper was, this tax thing is not a little tweak you add at the end. You have to analyze all your cash flows, all your risk on an after-tax basis. And it doesn’t just mean slight modification. It can completely eliminate entire asset classes and make others look better.
So that is going to take a while for the tax piece to shift from this interesting add-on to real investing, and instead be categorized, as there are two types of investing and two types of investors, those who pay taxes and those who are exempt. And you have to run all the numbers differently for those two worlds. And that’s going to take a while to evolve.
Meb: Yeah. I feel like there are people who think of taxes like twice, once in December, once in April, or whenever they’re thinking about it. And it’s like a scramble both times. It’s never, when it should really be kind of the fundamental underpinning. But at least kudos to Morningstar and others for bringing that to light on some of the published pages. I saw they started doing some security lending revenue. There are always more data, it’s pretty good to see.
All right, what else in the book have we not talked about?
Patrick: On the behavioral side, the learning is around, like, people have trouble dieting. How do I get my arms around the fact that my brain is wired for me to do unhealthy things? That’s a hard message to sell and a little dour.
The joke at my firm has been that if I were in charge of marketing for a sushi restaurant, I’d go around asking people, “Hey, Meb, do you want some cold, dead fish?” Like it just, I want the truth to be out there. And it’s really unpleasant to realize, it’s not just the industry. I do criticize the industry, but you got to look in the mirror, too.
Like I heard a great comment from a behavioral finance professor at Columbia at a conference once, and he said, and this is years ago, “When people find out I studied behavioral finance, they get fascinated. That’s great. Teach me the tips for how to make a killing in the market based on everyone else’s biases.” He shakes his head and say, “No, it’s about the mirror and learning your own biases.” And that’s not sexy. That’s hard disciplined work.
But one of the more hidden points of the book is your behavior drives your investment returns a lot more than your neocortex-driven cerebral research. And I say that as about as geeky a quant as they come. Like, that’s my world, that quantitative analytic side of investing.
And to realize, the behavioral folks, they’re not just blowing smoke because it’s a very real part of investing. And yet, it’s not as much fun because it’s about controlling your own behavior rather than figuring out how to make a killing. In fact, one of the things you need to surrender is this longing to make a killing.
And I suspect it’s even tied to a kind of competitive nature. Part of the research I have in the book is on the gender side. Men are slightly worse investors than women across a really broad number. Vanguards found this. There has been other research. There’s a great article called “Boys will be Boys.” Fidelity just published something on this. So it’s fairly consistent.
Why are women slightly better? They’re not smarter. They are not good at prognosticating. Women are awful at making financial predictions. Men are also awful, but more so than women. We think we’re good at it.
And so the question can come down to, let’s say you’re in a room full of 100 people, all investors, what’s your utility fund? What’s the end game? What’s your goal? And if a lot of people are saying, “Well, I want the highest probability of the best portfolio in my retirement or I leave to my heirs.” Then indexing is overwhelming slam dunk. Smart bet. It doesn’t mean active won’t ever work, it just means the odds are heavily stacked, especially over long period.
If your goal is to have bragging rights in five years or one year with your colleagues at the gym, then active is the only way to go. You’re never going to be number 1 out of 100 with indexing. You typically come in pre-tax around 85th, 90th percentile.
So that competitive angle really intrigues me. I haven’t seen any research on that. As that may be part of the overconfidence side is the benefit to the ego, basically, of getting to brag about your investment outcome and your clever maneuvers. Whereas, if you’re indexing, you’re dead in the water.
Like, sorry, you’re not going to be at some garden party bragging about your index portfolio. That is dull, drab, unexciting. People are not going to be impressed, but you’re going to have more money.
Meb: Yeah. Something about this concept of average feels very un-American, where all these risk takers want to believe the dream is possible. There’s a good Charlie Munger quote that we have used over the years. And he says, “I know one guy, he’s extremely smart and a very capable investor. I asked him, ‘What returns do you tell your institutional clients who earn for them?’ And he said, 20%. I couldn’t believe it because he knows that’s impossible. But he said, ‘Charlie, if I gave them a lower number, they wouldn’t give me any money to invest.'”
The investment management industry is insane. So I think he’s spot on, though. Like, we heard an active manager the other day predict that their portfolio was going to do 50% a year for the next 5 years. And I said, “Huh, that’s interesting.” And so I looked up the French/Fama data back to 1920s. I was like, what time is the industry ever even returned 50% for 5years? And it was obviously, well, to the right of the decimal point. I think it was 0.1%, 0.01%. It happened like three times. It was like coal, or something.
So I said, “Well, you compound at 50%, you very quickly become Bill Gates. It doesn’t take that long.” But people want to believe that it’s possible.
Patrick: Right. And that’s part of the challenge. So my book is a combination of data and guidance, and the kind of description of a rewiring. And that’s hard stuff. One of the comments I make in the book is self-help books tend to make really hard things sound easy. “Oh, you want to have,” whatever it is, “your love life better, your financial situation. You want to lose weight. You want to exercise more. All you have got to do is follow these simple steps.”
Yeah, the steps may not be that complicated to explain, but the discipline of changing your behavior. I may be projecting here, it’s really hard for me to change my bad habits. I don’t like it. I don’t like behaving like a grown up. And none of us do.
And so a lot of the message of the book is the weird irony of doing nothing earns you so much more. And back to your point about average sounds un-American. The hard part for some to understand is when you go with indexing, you’re not settling for average. You’re settling for like 85th or 90th percentile.
And yeah, you are giving up that 10% chance of knocking out homeruns in exchange for being better than 85% or 90%. Who wouldn’t take those odds? So it’s not average. It’s actually really, really good. It’s just not the absolute best.
Meb: I was talking, I need to get one of these for my podcast studios, the advertisement back in the day were aimed at Vanguard where they said indexing is un-American. So I need to get one of those.
Patrick: Oh, well, it’s the Leuthold Group that… Yeah.
Meb: Yeah. So one solution is certainly to try to build systems that keep us from ourselves. You mentioned kind of the chocolate broccoli. And so, when I go to the grocery store, I try really hard to only buy healthy food, with the knowledge that I go out to eat a fair amount and will misbehave then probably. But if I have some delicious ice cream in the freezer, like, I’ll probably eat it.
And so, same thing with the portfolio. The challenge, of course, is there’s a lot that’s being marketed as disruption in your best interest. I’m looking at you, Robinhood, but the reality of like at every turn, they’re pushing you, nudging you in the wrong direction because it benefits them. And so trying to align yourself with the right fiduciaries. I think, we could certainly do more in our industry and legislation to try to protect and help that.
What are your ideas there? You give Patrick the magic wand, he gets to…
Meb: Sure. So I would not actually… I’m sure there are some legal or legislative solutions, like disclosure. But I think the industry is going to change from consumer behavior. You framed it as, “We need to put in place some,” what you call it, “processes.” I think it’s a combination of… In effect, it’s like self-imposed constraints, which are unpleasant, but they’re not as bad because they’re self-imposed and maybe even some social support for that.
I’ve been fascinated. There are weight loss firms that emphasize like a group support role where people around you are keeping you more on the straight and narrow. The same, back to the 12 step, same thing, if you’re, whatever, alcoholic, drug addict, having a sponsor, you call when you’re… It’s like you need that as an investor. “I’m tempted by this. I got to make a killing in the market, better call my sponsor and have them talk me down off the ledge.”
The other angle that I’ve heard only very recently, I’ve read some on this and had a friend who’s very senior, actually runs an advisory firm, describe it as, back to the chocolate cake and broccoli which I used in the book, investors will have worst performance if you force them to eat only broccoli, meaning you don’t give them any fun.
I was fascinated by this idea, the concept of it. The optimal portfolio for most people would be to have a little 5%, 10% play area where you go nuts, you do all kinds of active stuff, you day trade, you put your active funds, and you put 95%, 90% in grown up, locked down portfolio.
So you get the satisfaction and the bragging rights and, in effect, saying you’re more likely to stay on your diet when you can misbehave a little, rather than being so rigid and sort of Calvinist, you must follow your self-imposed or externally imposed rules. We don’t like doing that as humans. That makes me prickly. I’m sure it makes everyone prickly.
So I think the interesting opportunities there are, kind of following up on what Nobel laureate Richard Thaler talks about in “Nudge,” like nudge people into healthier behaviors and build in like group support or other tools to help offset those inclinations.
The problem is, you have an industry, like junk food, that makes money when people eat stuff that’s not unhealthy to ever eat it. But if it’s all you eat, that’s not great for your longevity. That’s why I view it as very similar to dieting and this kind of self-imposed constraints or other structures you put in to basically bring out the best in all of us.
But that sounds a little kind of woo-woo, New Age-y. But I actually think that’s where the investment, the smartest investment, messaging for the public, for investors, that’s where it’s headed.
Meb: Yeah. No, I agree with you. I think there are a lot of innovative ideas with product design, as I see some of these new platforms emerge. An example I give from years ago was Betterment. They had introduced a little feature that when someone was trying to change their portfolio or risk score, they would pop up a box and say, “Hey, just so you know, this is going to be taxable. It’s going to cost you…” and they put a number like $150. And they said, a lot of people then abandon it.
Just those little things that we can design in, as opposed to being like, “Here are some confetti, go trade some options.” But eventually, it’s sort of self-selects, because the people that end up in the casino end up losing all their money. So those platforms that rely on churn and destroying your consumers usually don’t last as the 4x brokers can attest.
Patrick: Yeah. One other thing investors can do, I’m developing a digital training course version of the book. And one of the components is write a letter to yourself that you’re supposed to read during a meltdown. So it’s like, I don’t like being scolded or lectured by anyone. What about you? What if you wrote…? Basically, the premise of right now the market is not in a complete meltdown. So you can write it rationally. And in effect, say, it’s almost like having compassion for that future you. You’re in the middle of thinking capitalism is over. Your retirement is done. And that’s a very real fear.
But remember, when you put this bet down, that this was part of the game. Like, if you’re in stocks, you should not ever be saying, “How could this happen? How could the market go down 50%?” That means you didn’t understand the stock market.
Meb: I thought you were going to say, it was going to hook you up to some like electrodes and shock you every time you tried to place a trade.
Patrick: Hey, who knows? Maybe we got a sci-fi movie like Clockwork Orange with the… You know, basically rewiring the brain again. Yeah. So it’s very hard to counter these ingrained evolutionary traits.
Meb: Well, I think one of your Morningstar current, I don’t know if you ever worked with her Christine Benz, but she talks a lot about having a written plan. And we often will, like, do polls on Twitter and say, “Do you have a written investing plan?” It doesn’t have to be complicated. It could be three bullet points, 60/40 rebounds once a year, whatever. It could be 10 pages. But do you have one?
And obviously, the vast majority of investors don’t. And so the problem with that, of course, is that when things happen, whether it’s pandemic, war, recession, whatever, the emotions creep in. It feels like it’s almost always the wrong emotion. You know, it’s like the run for the hills or the greed. Yeah.
Patrick: But they’re very natural. It’s very natural that we have those emotions. What I try and frame that is, befriend those emotions. You’re not going to subjugate them. They’re part of who you are. They’re part of how we make decisions. It’s not as though emotions get in the way of the brain making decisions. That’s a ridiculous concept.
The brain makes decisions from all of its parts. It’s rational. And it’s highly emotional, and you got to blend all that stuff in. The trick, I think, is bracing yourself in advance. You want that high return, you’re going to pay through suffering and pain. And the pushback is you want to go with a super-high stock allocation for, let’s say, it’s just two asset classes, stocks and bonds. You want to go with 100% stocks, mathematically, that’s the best for a 20-year return.
If you’re going to sign up for this, you better have a high pain threshold. It’s going to be awful. If you haven’t invested a lot before, you have no idea, the whole risk tolerance questionnaire thing, I think, can be a little misleading. The real telling evidence is to ask someone of a certain age, obviously, if you’re 20 today, this is a silly question.
Did you own stocks through the ’08, ’09 meltdown and you never sold? Okay. You passed the test. Because, by your actions, you’ve proven, you got the mettle to ride through. You don’t ask people, “How bad did you feel?” We all felt horrible. It was icky. It was a disturbing thing. Even if you study risk and know this stuff, as well as some of us do, it doesn’t help your emotions freak out.
But knowing that in advance, it’s baked into stock market investing. That’s the message which also requires getting rid of that crystal ball in the industry, to a lesser extent, than active security selection on the active asset allocation. The industry is terrible at predicting when the stock market is going to be up or down.
You need to take this very long-term view of stocks, historically returned a lot more than bonds, of course, no guarantee there. But that is a crystal ball prognostication I would recommend. But go into it with open eyes. You’re not going to be a little perturbed. You are going to be miserable. And you need to understand that.
But that’s kind of a dark message. It’s like telling everyone, “Someday, you’re going to die.” Well, yeah, I learned that in biology class, but I don’t want to think about it. It’s kind of the same thing with stocks.
Meb: I like the idea. Listeners, we got developers out there, come build this for me. I want to brokerage that you put in a buy order. And it’s like, “All right, how long are you going to hold this?” And, you know, you say, “Look, no, I have a long-term perspective, this fund, or this ETF or stock.” And so, you’re going to put in 10 years. That’s going to say, “Okay. We’re going to charge you a fee. There’s no fees, but we’re going to charge you a fee if you liquidate early.” And maybe it’s like a sliding scale.
But then I like the idea that that fee doesn’t… So that’s the penalty. But the benefit is that fee doesn’t necessarily just go to the management company. It would get recycled to the people that are holding. Like, there’s a way to get like the benefit too, like your good behavior, you get a dividend.
Patrick: Or you could even have it, that that investor, if they go five years, and they really do hold it, then the penalty goes away. But it’s like a self-imposed version of some of the particularly gross stuff you might see with like variable annuities, where they make in these absurd surrender fees. Some of them run as long as 10 years.
Meb: There’s a fun idea there. And I don’t know if it would ever scale, but it’d be fun to at least to try. All right. So the book, listeners, out in the stores, pick up a copy. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a dose of good humor, good advice, but also take your medicine, too.
What else? As you look out to the horizon, what’s on your brain? Anything else you’re thinking about? Or is it totally depleted from this writing? Are you scratching your head about some other ideas?
Patrick: It’s pretty depleted. Actually, the original book idea I had, that I went to this editor with was a broader topic called, What If You Just Told the Truth?
Patrick: Yes, your reaction is very telling.
Meb: That’s too honest.
Patrick: Yeah. With a combination of the investment industry as a sort of little example, a little microcosm of a lot of non-truth telling going on. Then looking at organizations and politics, like what if you told the truth within an organization, obviously organizations are built to promote sort of self-indulgence. What it really comes to is, if you have a lot of authority, don’t assume telling the truth is going to be bad for you because it can actually lead to a healthy company culture and an unhealthy financial reward. And then kind of tie it into, what if you just told the truth inside your own head?
And that my editor heard that idea and she said, “Well, you’re the client. So if that’s the book you want to write, we can do that. Throw my two cents in, like, no one’s going to buy it. It’s all over the map. It makes no sense. Write the investment book first. And if you want to do that other one, you can do it later.”
I say, “All right.” I followed her advice. I don’t know if there’s another book in me. But that’s what it would be about, about the truth. And you certainly see it with political propaganda, especially coming out of Moscow. Like, not a lot of truth telling, going on there. And that’s the way of the world, but also, the truth, I think, is very aligned with honorable, ethical behavior.
Meb: When you look back on your career, what’s been your most memorable investment – good, bad, in between – anything that just comes to the frontal lobe?
Patrick: Well, the financial benefit I gained from never selling any of Aperio. But that came because I wanted to control the messaging. My basic rule was, “I want to work in the investment industry, but I don’t want to have to lie.” “Well, you’re going to have to start your own firm, for the most part.”
Meb: My friend, that was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. Where’s the best place people go if they want to keep an update on what you’re doing, right about these days? After they buy the book, how they get in touch with you, can they?
Patrick: Sure. So my website, which is patrickgeddes.co, has information on the book. It’s got some free tools. There’s a chapter in the book you can download. There are a bunch of videos there that are trying to counter the problem that investing, for many people, is both tedious and intimidating. So these videos are a lot of mocking of the industry, but some real value.
And you can also sign up to my email list and get notifications. As I mentioned, there’ll be some digital training coming out. So that’s the best place to find out more about the book and everything I’ve been talking about.
Meb: Awesome. Patrick, thanks so much for joining us today.
Patrick: My pleasure, sir.
Meb: Podcast listeners, we’ll post show notes to today’s conversation at mebfaber.com/podcast. If you love the show, if you hate it, shoot us feedback at email@example.com. We love to read the reviews. Please review us on iTunes and subscribe to the show anywhere good podcasts are found. Thanks for listening friends and good investing.