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Rice University research finds how index funds can be a good investment opportunity for the risk adverse

Investors might be drawn to active fund investing, but index funds might be less risky, according to Rice University researchers. Getty Images

It's easy to assume that investing, like cooking, requires skill to get the right mix of ingredients. But that's not the case with index funds. Effort goes into building them, but these ready-made investments need minimal intervention. Yet the outcomes are appetizing indeed.

In the past few decades, use of index funds has exploded. So have media coverage and advertisements questioning if they can truly compete with active funds. A recent study by Alan Crane and Kevin Crotty, professors at the business school, provides a resounding "yes." These humble investment recipes, it turns out, are richer than they might seem.

Index funds track benchmark stock indexes, from the familiar Dow Jones Industrial Average to the widely followed Standard & Poor's 500. Like viewers following a cooking show, index fund managers buy stocks in the same companies and same proportions as those listed in a stock index. The best-known indices are traditionally based on the size of the companies.

The idea is that the index fund's returns will match those of its model. An S&P 500 index fund, for example, includes stocks in the same 500 major companies included in the Standard & Poor index, ranging from Apple to Whole Foods.

Index funds are part of the broad range of investment products called mutual funds. Like cooks making a stew, mutual fund managers add shares of various stocks into one single concoction, inviting investors to buy portions of the whole mixture.

While some mutual funds are active, meaning professional managers regularly buy and sell their assets, index funds are passive. Their managers theoretically just need to keep an eye on any changes in the index they're copying. Not surprisingly, active index funds tend to charge more than passive ones.

Curiously, not all index funds perform at the same level. So what should that mean for investors? To study these variations and their implications, Crane and Crotty expanded on past research about skill and index fund management, analyzing the full cross section of funds.

This wasn't possible to do until fairly recently: there simply weren't enough index funds to study. The first index fund, which tracked the S&P 500, was developed by Vanguard in the 1970s. To do their research, the Rice Business scholars looked at performance information for both index and active funds, starting their sample in 1995 with 29 index funds. The sample expanded to include a total of 240 index funds, all at least two years old with at least $5 million in assets, mostly invested in common stocks. They also analyzed 1,913 actively managed funds.

Using several statistical models, Crane and Cotty found that outperformance in index-fund returns was greater than it would be by chance. The discovery suggests that passive funds, although they require little skill to run, have almost as much upside as active funds.

In fact, the professors found, the best index funds perform surprisingly closely to the best active funds, but at a lower cost to the investor. The worst active funds perform far worse than the worst index funds–even before management fees.

The findings topple the conventional wisdom that only actively managed funds stand a chance of beating the market. While active-fund managers often measure their success against that of passive funds, the data show investors who are risk averse would do better to choose passive funds over more expensive active ones.

More adventurous investors, of course, will always be tempted by what's cooking in actively managed funds. But overall, investing in plain index funds is as good a meal at a lower price.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Alan D. Crane and Kevin Crotty are associate professors of finance at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Hey, big spenders of The Woodlands and Sugar Land. Photo courtesy of Holiday Shopping Card

It appears that delivery drivers (and Santa) will be hauling sleighs full of gifts to homes in The Woodlands and Sugar Land this holiday season.

A new study from personal finance website WalletHub ranks The Woodlands and Sugar Land sixth and seventh, respectively, in the country for cities with the biggest holiday budgets. WalletHub estimates that consumers in The Woodlands will ring up an average of $2,729 in holiday spending; Sugar Land residents will spend $2,728.

Other Greater Houston-area suburbs on the list include League City, No. 15 at $2,501, and Missouri City, No. 98 at $1,264.

Elsewhere in Texas, Flower Mound came in second for holiday spending; residents there will ring up an average of $2,973. Only Palo Alto, California, had a higher amount ($3,056) among the 570 U.S. cities included in the study, which was released November 17.

The five factors that WalletHub used to come up with budget estimates for each city are income, age, savings-to-expenses ratio, income-to-expenses ratio and debt-to-income ratio.

Flower Mound consistently ranks at the top of WalletHub's annual study on holiday spending. Last year, the Dallas suburb came in at No. 3 (budget: $2,937), and in 2018, it landed atop the list at No. 1 (budget: $2,761).

Aside from Flower Mound, five cities in Dallas-Fort Worth appear in WalletHub's top 100:

  • Richardson, No. 36, $2,002
  • Frisco, No. 53, $1,684
  • Plano, No. 59, $1,594
  • Carrollton, No. 71, $1,492
  • North Richland Hills, No. 95, $1,303

Two cities in the Austin area also make the top 100: Cedar Park at No. 73 ($1,472) and Austin at No. 99 ($1,259).

Austin's No. 99 ranking puts it in the top spot among Texas' five largest cities. It's followed by Fort Worth (No. 306, $718), San Antonio (No. 394, $600), Dallas (No. 399, $596), and Houston (No. 436, $565).

Harlingen is the most Scrooge-y Texas city: The estimated $385 holiday budget puts it at No. 560 nationwide.

Overall, Americans predict they'll spend an average of $805 on holiday gifts this year, down significantly from last year's estimate of $942, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Outlooks for U.S. holiday retail sales this year are muted due to the pandemic-produced recession. Consulting giant Deloitte forecasts a modest rise of 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with commercial real estate services provider CBRE guessing the figure will be less than 2 percent.

"The lower projected holiday growth this season is not surprising given the state of the economy. While high unemployment and economic anxiety will weigh on overall retail sales this holiday season, reduced spending on pandemic-sensitive services such as restaurants and travel may help bolster retail holiday sales somewhat," Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's U.S. economic forecaster, says in a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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