Picking an Index Fund – For The Tortoises Out There

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When the Vanguard investment company in 1976 offered peace of mind in investments with a new creation called the Index 500 fund, it wasn’t easy to sell. An index fund is something that invests your money in a choice of good reliable stocks in major companies that make it to the Standard & Poor’s index of the best 500 companies. Vanguard saved a lot of money not hiring any expensive market gamers and stock pickers. The funds would keep trading just a little bit to make sure that nne of their  stocks slipped out of the top 500 on the index. You got rock solid dependability, average earnings, and peace of mind.

At first, something as slow and as unexciting as this was a hard sell. Who wants to put their money into something that guarantees you low returns? As time went by though, it began to look pretty much like the story of the hare and the tortoise. The actively managed and glamorous investments would rage on going great guns for a few months, and then would poop out for a while and lose out on all the gains they made;  and while there was all this activity to keep you entertained with the actively managed funds, every index fund would plod along, and often surpass the actively managed funds. A quarter century of index fund investing has proven how it consistently beats more ambitious investment plans. Most of the time, the active investing plans that investment experts dream up don’t work at beating the market, because for the most part, those experts are the market. They really can’t beat themselves.

Fast-forward to now, and the index fund is a proven concept and a juggernaut. There are hundreds of plans that all kinds of companies offer. While this is more or less a great way to prove the moral, and the slow version has pretty much won out in the end, to a new investor, it isn’t anymore just about taking your money down on an index fund, having them invest in one of the top 500 companies on the S&P index, and then going to sleep for about 20 years. The thing is, the S&P isn’t the only index to follow anymore. There are all kinds of rival indexes that different companies use to keep track of the top 500. Some index funds will only track great overseas stocks, some will make sure that they don’t track socially irresponsible industries. There are ones that will only track real estate; ones that’ll only track energy industries and so on. So how do you know which way to go?

The first thing you need to keep an eye out for to avoid is the high cost index fund. There were lots of them around that charge you a lot in fees to take you on board. There is no reason to take them when you have standardbearers like Vanguard, Charles Schwab and Fidelity that charge you next to nothing in fees. It really makes no sense to pay all that money that the high-cost funds ask; if you are going to be paying fees anyway, you might as well go to an active fund that can probably give you a shot at making it big.

The S&P top 500 only tracks the really large companies that work on capital that runs into the billions of dollars. There are indexes that follow the smaller companies too that could be just as good. Vanguard itself has a stock market index fund that follows the Wilshire 5000 index.  Another major player in the index markets is the Morgan Stanley value-added market equity. It takes your money and puts it in equal proportion in every one of the top 500 companies. That kind of equal opportunity approach has won a lot of fans too. But Morgan Stanley is quite expensive considering the standards of an index fund. And one wonders if Morgan Stanley is a little behind the times. Their index fund refuses to follow companies that are anything but large. And those usually tend to be unambitious banks and oil companies. It doesn’t make much sense does it to exclude all the ambitious tech firms?

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