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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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Building Houston

 
 

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of March. Photo via Getty Images

March marks a full year of attending online events — from Zoom panels to virtual conferences. But, the shows must go on with another month full of online innovation and startup events that Houston innovators need to know about.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — from workshops and webinars to summits and pitch parties. Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

March 1-5 — CERAWeek by IHSMarkit

In lieu of the week-long, in-person mega-conference that is the annual CERAWeek by IHSMarkit, the 2021 iteration will be completely virtual. Need some ideas of what panels and talks not to miss? Click here for five recommendations of what to attend.

The conference takes place Monday, March 1, to Friday, March 5. Click here to register.

March 2 — Houston Innovates: Digital transformation and Innovation in Oil & Gas

Digital forces are changing the skills an executive needs to manage organizations. In a world that's become increasingly digital, energy companies can sometimes find it hard to adapt. Join General Assembly Houston for a panel discussion with:

  • Sameer Khan, digital leader (MarTech and Transformation) at ExxonMobil
  • Sarah Vega, vice president of IT & Change at SmartestEnergy
  • Ricky Burns, business transformation team lead at BP
  • Jose Beceiro, senior director of Global Energy 2.0 at the Greater Houston Partnership

The event is on Tuesday, March 2, at 9:30 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 2 — Ladies Who LaUNCH #13: The Female Superpower

In 2020, 40 percent of US businesses were owned by women and generated $1.8 trillion. With these numbers in mind, it comes as no surprise that the presence of women in entrepreneurship and investing is growing.

Why do women-led companies financially outperform their male counterparts? And what are the "female superpowers" behind our ability to excel in these fields? Join featured speaker, Megan Bent, as she explores the research, data, and her own experience in the importance of female leadership in entrepreneurship and investing, and how to leverage your differences to your advantage.

The event is on Tuesday, March 2, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 3 — What's Next in Crypto?

Baker Botts and TeamBlockchain are hosting a webinar discussing trends in cryptocurrency. Key speakers from the sector include:

  • Ali Dhanani, partner at Baker Botts
  • Sarah Beaumont, associate at Baker Botts
  • Jonny Fry, co-founder & CEO at TeamBlockchain Ltd
  • Spencer Randall, principal & co-founder at CryptoEQ
  • Ankush Jain, chief investment officer at Aaro Capital

The event is on Wednesday, March 3, at 11 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 9 — Investing in Medical Devices

Join the Texas HALO Fund for a conversation with three of the fund's portfolio companies: Adient Medical, Allotrope Medical, and PathEx.

The event is on Tuesday, March 9, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 10 — Open Project Night: Achieving Gender Equality in Houston and Beyond

Impact Hub Houston is bringing you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, March 10, at 5 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 10 — Conversations with Latinx Entrepreneurs in Houston

Latinx entrepreneurs are starting small businesses faster than the rest of the startup population and becoming a bigger part of the total U.S. market every day. Join General Assembly for a panel of Houston Latinx leaders as they share stories about their heritage, failures and success.

The event is on Wednesday, March 10, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 11 — How to Sell Without Being "Salesy"

In celebration of Women's History Month, Catherine Brown and Leela Madan, both serial entrepreneurs and founders of Houston-based Founder's Compass offer their advice on selling your business.

The event is on Thursday, March 11, at 10 am. It's $30 and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 11 — Inspire Seminar with Leslie Wise

Join Enventure for a talk and Q&A with the president and principal consultant of Evidence Matters, Leslie Wise. Inspire is one part of Lilie's three-program career exploration series. The goal of Inspire is to share an individual's career journey so that trainees can see one of the many paths that can be taken, learn about the reality of working in these fields, and gain valuable advice from key leaders to better prepare themselves for their own career journey.

The event is on Thursday, March 11, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 16-20 — SXSW

Another conference is pivoting to virtual attendance this year. SXSW has flipped the switch to being online only for 2021. SXSW's seven conference themes are A New Urgency; Challenging Tech's Path Forward; Cultural Resilience in the Arts; The Rebirth of Business; Transforming the Entertainment Landscape; Connection in Disconnection; and An Uncharted Future. Stay tuned to InnovationMap for a Houston innovator's guide to the conference.

The conference takes place Tuesday, March 16, to Saturday, March 20. Click here to register.

March 17 — Top Legal Considerations for Startups

Join Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a session with corporate and securities lawyer Aaron Barker, who specializes in advising companies from formation to exit, will give you the inside knowledge to help you launch your venture, and possibly save you from making a rookie mistake.

The event is on Wednesday, March 17, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 24 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a flagship event from The Ion, formerly known as Demo Day. This event will allow for developing companies to receive feedback from subject matter experts and showcase their successes thus far. The event is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions, and results in a final winner to close the series in November. Companies are encouraged to apply online to pitch.

The event is on Wednesday, March 24, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

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