Wow. Vanguard had tremendous growth in 2014. An intake of $214.5 billion last year pushed this fund giant’s total assets to $3.1 trillion as of December 31, 2014. That growth represents a 56% increase for Vanguard compared to 2013. Early this year, they passed State Street Global Advisors as the second-largest exchange-traded fund provider as they close in on the top dog BlackRock.
Dimensional Fund Advisors (Dimensional or DFA funds for short) is another fund company that has been experiencing strong inflows. DFA funds added nearly $28 billion in assets in 2014, which was the third highest dollar amount of inflows last year, trailing only Vanguard and JPMorgan Chase.
That type of growth is doubly impressive because Dimensional Fund Advisors flies under the radar of many investors. Last year’s growth, however (not to mention a relatively steady inflow of assets since its 1981 founding), makes it clear that investors are attracted to DFA. What explains its rising-rock-star appeal, given its (yawn) nerdy tagline, “putting financial science to work”? Maybe it’s the firm’s laser-like focus and steadfast approach to applying academic research into the factors or “dimensions” that are expected to generate long-term wealth – fads and fashions be damned. For this blogger, anyway, it’s hard not to prefer that level of discipline to the usual frenzy involved in active stock picking and reactionary market timing.
Then again, Vanguard’s index and exchange-traded funds are no flashes in the pan either, also built on an investment strategy of substance. Admittedly, it can be confusing at a glance to understand how these two similar, but different fund companies compare. Let’s take a closer look at nine characteristics that help differentiate them from the crowd … and from each other.
Before we dive in, if this article stirs up any questions, reach out to me and book your 15 minute “Office Hours” session. Just book a time on my online calendar that’s convenient for you, and I’ll answer your most pressing questions.
Both trust the market knows best.
Yes, we are all brilliant, of course. However, when you consider that in 2014 alone there were some 60 million daily worldwide trades representing more than $300 billion dollars, it may be wise to embrace market pricing instead of trying to outguess the market. Vast, real-time, electronic information makes the market a highly effective price-setting machine. Trying to consistently outguess 60 million of your fellow investors is not unlike expecting to find enough single needles to outweigh an entire haystack, and to succeed at it over and over again.
In contrast, if you invested $1 in 1927 in a U.S. large-cap index fund and let it ride, your investment would have grown to $3,955 by 2014. Not bad. Vanguard and Dimensional alike prefer to invest in market “haystacks,” albeit with some procedural differences in how the assets get bailed, so to speak.
Both minimize trading.
Trades cost money, in both overt and clandestine ways. By trading according to plan rather than trying to time the market or jump into “hot” segments, both fund companies are well-positioned to trade less often. Since trading is expensive, we can expect lower costs with reduced drag on performance if we trade less often.
The DFA Difference
Beyond just reducing trades by avoiding market-timing or trend-chasing, DFA’s structured trading strategy is part of its secret sauce. Actually, it’s not such a secret: When it comes to trading, a trader who is in less of a rush to buy or sell can usually command better prices than one who is in a rush or under pressure to trade. By being more patient than an index fund manager can be and a market-timing manager chooses to be, Dimensional has developed a solid track record for minimizing the trading costs involved in capturing the asset class returns they are seeking.
Moreover, DFA takes it one step further and offers its funds through select financial advisors who have demonstrated a similar level of patience. The result? Less frenetic trading and even net inflows during times of market panic. For example, during the 2008-2009 market panic, most funds experienced massive redemptions, which wreaks havoc on a mutual fund management. However, DFA funds actually had net inflows during that time, and was able to put that new cash to work and buy securities at bargain basement prices. (This is a mutual fund manager’s dream!)
Neither firm tries to guess what asset class will outperform.
Vanguard and DFA offer funds with “style purity.” They invest in the asset class they say they will–small-cap value for example–and stay there. They aren’t making any kind of tactical bets that one asset class will perform better than the other.
The chart below says it all. Each column is the year, and each colored square is a separate asset class. Follow one color, such as “red” (the S&P 500), year by year. Look how much it bounces around! The performance of each asset class each year is anyone’s guess.
They don’t keep betting on the horse that won the last race.
Another common investment mistake is to chase stocks that have been on a recent winning streak and/or abandon recent underdogs. This continues to happen, despite the volume of evidence that past performance does not inform us about future returns.
Both Vanguard and DFA do not make “bets” on individual stock performance. They simply hold a large basket of stocks that fall into their well-defined criteria (in DFA’s case) or follow a published index (in Vanguard’s case).
The DFA Difference
DFA does not invest in public indexes like most of Vanguard’s index funds. The problem with public indexes is, well, they are public; everyone knows when a public index will change (and how it will change). Stocks tend to rise when it’s announced they will be included in a public index, and index funds will buy that stock on the effective date at the higher price.
This forces the index funds to “buy high,” which is exactly the opposite of what investors should do. It’s why Dimensional can afford to trade more patiently, as described above.
Here’s a nice visual to explain the concept:
Both firms make “going global” easy.
Only about half of the global market’s capital is in the United States. That leaves a big opportunity set outside our borders. Moreover, many of those other countries respond differently to economic forces, which has many benefits to investors (a portfolio of investments that “zig” while others “zag” can actually increase return and lower risk).
Both firms offer funds that cover broad sectors of foreign markets, so you can easily stay globally diversified.
The DFA Difference
DFA offers foreign funds (and even emerging market funds) with higher “tilts” towards small-cap and value stocks, which have historically been a source of higher long-term returns. They also “tilt” towards companies that have exhibited higher profitability. As an asset class, these stocks also have a history of higher returns.
They help to manage your emotions.
When you are well diversified, both domestically and in foreign markets, you reduce the risk of any one investment taking a nosedive, which can be unnerving and cause you to panic if you are over-concentrated in that investment. With many of Vanguard and DFA’s funds holding thousands of individual securities, the impact of a few dogs isn’t going to hurt as much. You aren’t as likely to panic sell when you have a global back-up plan.
Take a breath. Talk to your advisor. Don’t react emotionally to a buy high and sell low outcome.
Both firms help you to see beyond the headlines.
We are bombarded daily with catchy headlines about economic facts that seem to be on the verge of derailing our investment strategy. It’s easy to get swept into the hoopla about rising (or falling) oil prices, currency fluctuations, or political tensions in other countries. By participating in the market according to a disciplined, evidence-based process, turning to fund managers who help you accomplish that, it’s easier to take comfort in the fact that you are a long-term investor with a well-diversified global investment strategy.
They help you focus on the real drivers of returns.
Many investors believe the factors that affect their returns are stock picking and market timing. In reality, the bulk of your returns are actually driven by how you decide to split your money between stocks and bonds. (Well, another huge determinant is your ability to stay the course once you build your sensible portfolio, without succumbing to your human behavioral biases, but that’s a subject for another post, such as this one.)
- Stocks have historically offered a higher long-term return compared to bonds, but are more volatile.
- Smaller companies have historically performed better than larger companies.
- Value stocks have historically done better than growth companies (think WalMart vs. Groupon).
- High-profitability companies have historically performed better than low-profitability companies.
- Longer-term bonds have historically had higher yields compared to shorter-term bonds.
- Lower credit quality (“junkier bonds”) have historically had higher yields compared to higher credit quality bonds.
This is an important decision, so work with your advisor to design a suitable portfolio based on these core drivers of returns.
The DFA Difference
DFA regularly and closely collaborates with academic scholars, some of whom have been awarded Nobel prizes for identifying these factors or “dimensions” of higher expected returns. As such, they have been particularly early, strong and ongoing proponents of this sort of factor-based or evidence-based investing.
These firms help you focus on what you can control.
One of the few things you can control in investing is your costs. Both firms offer funds at significantly lower costs than many of their actively managed peers. They also offer a more disciplined approach to knowing what your own fund investments contain, so that it’s easier for you (especially with the support of an evidence-based advisor) to build and maintain a portfolio that you can stick with through thick and thin in your quest to build personal wealth. By minimizing the angst and second-guessing involved when you’re not sure just what is contained within your holdings, your own overall costs can be minimized as well.
You are in the busiest (and most profitable) time of your life. Working long hours. Struggling to figure out the best investments for your retirement. (Time, what time?) Why not work with a financial advisor who can help you clarify your goals and develop and plan to reach those goals?
An advisor will help you focus on factors you control — asset allocation, structuring a portfolio that takes into account the real drivers of expected returns and your ability to handle risk, broad diversification, low expenses, low trading costs and tax minimization.
Both Vanguard and DFA offer low-fee funds that operate on the principle that the market is an effective, information-processing machine that is nearly impossible to outguess.
DFA takes it one step further with some distinct tactics and also allowing for “tilting” towards areas of higher expected returns like smaller stocks, value stocks and higher profitability stocks.
The growth of these firms shows that investors are waking up to the reality that investment success is about capturing global market returns and keeping costs low, not about hunting down the next “rock star” money managers.
Did you hear about my new “Office Hours”?
That term can either bring up pleasant memories from college, or make you cringe a bit thinking back to exams and finals. Either way, I’d like to offer my own version of Office Hours to you. I hope you’ve found my advice in this article and on my blog valuable, but sometimes you have questions that are unique to your situation. That’s what Office Hours are for.
How does it work? It’s simple. Book a time on my online calendar that’s convenient for you and let me know your biggest financial concern. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. At the time of our appointment, you and I will have a 15-minute phone chat about how I can help and additional resources I can point you towards.
The best part? No quizzes or exams after we chat.