“If past history is all there was to the (investment) game, the richest people in the world would be librarians.” -Warren Buffett
If you have ever bought shares of stock, a bond, or shares in a mutual fund, you were presented with the following disclaimer: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requires it and the SEC is right, there truly is no correlation between an individual investment’s past performance and its future. Past performance has no predictive power whatsoever.
Of course, that doesn’t mean your investment advisor sat you down, rested a hand on your shoulder, and with a kind but concerned look in their eye, uttered these words. No, it was in the fine print somewhere that most of us never bothered to read. Or worse, when we came across this disclaimer, we ignored it, because frankly, we did not want to accept it. We like guarantees. When we buy an investment, we simply want the assurance that it will perform as it has done in the past. Unfortunately, that promise can’t honestly be given.
The “grand illusion” of persistence of performance is hard to diffuse because so much of our life experience is based on the reliability of past performance. We believe the sun will come up tomorrow morning at the appropriate time, because it always has. We therefore assume that it always will. Your summer vacation at the beach, or next winter’s ski getaway, can be planned months in advance because of the persistence of performance of the weather, and the reliability of the change of the seasons. If you have a car that has averaged seventeen miles per gallon since you purchased it four years ago, it would be crazy to assume it will average anything but seventeen miles per gallon next month.
The persistence of performance surrounds us, and it seems quite natural to want to use past performance as a criterion to select our investments. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the past performance of a specific investment has any predictive power of that investment’s future.
S&P Persistence Scorecard
S&P Global, an independent research company that monitors the mutual fund industry, produces a biannual report they call the “S&P Persistence Scorecard.” These annual reports, always come to the same conclusion: that over a five-year period, less than 1% of the mutual funds in the top quartile at the beginning of a five-year period have been able to maintain their top quartile status at the end of five years.
Many investors waste an inordinate amount of time and energy studying past investment returns, attempting to discover next year’s investment champions. It is an exercise of futility, but it is easy to get caught up in, because we really want this illusion to be true. Founder of Peterson Wealth Advisors, Scott Peterson recounts an experience of when he was first beginning in the investment business:
“I cut my teeth in the investment business in the late eighties and early nineties, back in the day when double-digit investment returns were the investment norm. It seemed as if the whole world was consumed with finding the hottest-performing mutual fund. As a young and inexperienced advisor, I spent countless hours identifying all the top-performing funds so I could direct my clients to them. I now recognize that perfecting my golf swing or cleaning my garage would have yielded equally productive investment results.”
So, who profits from promoting the idea of persistence of performance?
Any entity that touts their ability to direct you to a superior investment, based on that investment’s past performance, perpetrates this grand illusion. The Morningstar, Inc. star-rating system for investments is based on past performance, rendering their system meaningless. That is right: buying a five-star fund versus a one-star fund does not increase your chance of success! Countless newsletters and magazines are sold as they flaunt their recommended lists of the hottest stock or best mutual funds to buy. All their recommendations are based on historical performances which has no predictive power.
Just as the road in front of us is different from the road behind us, it is important to recognize that drivers as well as investors who navigate solely by what they can see in their rear-view mirror are not well equipped to manage the inevitable twists and turns of the road that lies ahead.
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