Comparing Your Investment Returns With Benchmark Indexes

Many investors base the success of their portfolio solely on their annual rate of return, but you should also compare your return to a specific benchmark index.

What is an index?

An index is a statistical tool designed to measure performance over time.  

Financial service companies create benchmark indexes then license them to investment companies to use as a measuring device for their funds, or as a basis for constructing various exchange traded funds and index mutual funds.

Indexes have been developed for all the main asset classes – cash, fixed income, stocks, real estate, etc. – as well as investment styles, and various regions and sectors.

There are thousands of different indexes. Here are some of the most well known for the Canadian investor:

  • FTSE TMX Canada Universe Bond Index – broad Canadian government and corporate bond market
  • S&P/TSX Composite Index – covers about 70% of companies listed on the TSX exchange
  • S&P 500 Index – US large cap equities
  • Russell 3000 Index – broad US stock market
  • MSCI EAFE – large and mid-size companies in developed markets around the world (not including Canada and US)
  • MSCI Emerging markets – equity markets in emerging market countries

New indexes are built regularly as new fund types are developed.

Comparing Your Investment Returns With A Benchmark Index

How indexes are constructed

Benchmark indexes are constructed in several different ways.

1. Market capitalization. This is the most common traditional method. The percentage of each stock is based on its market capitalization, or market value (the number of shares issued multiplied by the stock price). Market cap indexes tend to over-weight companies with large share issues and high prices which can greatly impact index performance,

Consider the S&P/TSX 60 Index which includes the largest and most traded Canadian companies. Canadian banks and natural resources account for almost 50% of the index. Small companies and certain sectors are not well represented.

Some indexes may modify this weighting by imposing limits on the size of any one holding – e.g. S&P/TSX Capped Composite Index weightings are capped at 10%.

2. Equal-weight. The characteristic of this type of index is that all holdings have the same weighting. It could have higher weightings in smaller stocks. e.g. S&P 500 equal weight index, BMP Oil & Gas equal weight index.

3. Factor based. Here, the intention is to improve traditional market cap indexes by choosing investments of a certain kind. These are sometimes called fundamental, alternative or smart beta indexes. e.g. FTSE RAFI US 1000 Index which is composed of top US listed companies chosen for their fundamental value – total cash dividends, cash flow, total sales and book to equity value.

Assessing portfolio performance using benchmark indexes

Benchmark indexes are used to evaluate the performance of your portfolio. Your portfolio should be compared to a benchmark that closely resembles the investments you own. A reference benchmark index may be included on your year-end investment account statement.

You can also create your own customized benchmark based on indexes for each of the asset classes you own.

Say your portfolio is a typical one that contains 20% Canadian large cap equities, 20% US large cap, 20% global equities, and 40% Canadian bonds, and you want to assess its performance over the past 5 years.

To create a suitable benchmark, you calculate 20% of the 5-year return for each of the S&P/TSX 60 Index, S&P 500 Index and MSCI EAFE Index, and then add 40% of the FTSE TMX Canadian Universe Bond Index.

The asset mixer at Norm Rothery’s website, Stingy Investor will do the math for you.

Benchmarks are most useful for evaluating longer-term investment returns.

Disadvantages on relying on a benchmark

When using a benchmark index to evaluate your investments, it’s important to remember that the index returns don’t include management fees, trading costs or administrative expenses. It would not be unusual for your portfolio to underperform its benchmark index due to these costs, so take that into account.

Sometimes the comparison can be misleading. If you have regular cash flow in or out of your portfolio, or make lump sum contributions or withdrawals, your rate of return probably will not be similar to the benchmark return. That’s because they are based on “time-weighted” returns where no additional money is added or withdrawn.

The Illusion Of Wealth

Would you prefer a lump sum of $300,000, or its equivalent monthly income stream of $1,000 for life? If $300,000 seems larger and more appealing to you than the monthly amount then you might exhibit a phenomenon known as the illusion of wealth.

A 2014 study looked at the illusion of wealth and how it might drive retirees to claim social security benefits too early, avoid purchasing an annuity, or to cash-out their defined benefit pensions.

The Illusion of Wealth

The Illusion of Wealth

People are more sensitive to changes in wealth when expressed in monthly terms. That’s because everyday financial obligations such as rent, car payments, and utility bills are expressed in monthly amounts and so any change in monthly income would simply mean identifying which monthly expenses to add or eliminate.

You might easily judge $1,000 per month to be too little to live on in retirement if your current rent alone is $1,200. Similarly, you might judge $5,000 per month to be more than adequate, since it would allow you to upgrade your apartment, for example, while keeping other expenses constant.

But it is not as straightforward when judging a lump sum like $300,000 in terms of adequacy for retirement. According to the study, one might hope to translate the lump sum into a monthly income amount and compare it to current expenditures, but doing so would require an annuity calculator.

The study goes on to say that without the ability to understand what various lump sums mean in terms of giving up or adding identifiable expenditures, people are predicted to be less sensitive to changes in wealth in the critical region of $100,000 to $1,000,000.

The Annuity Puzzle

This illusion of wealth might explain why retirees are so reluctant to purchase an annuity – exchanging a lump sum amount for a guaranteed monthly income stream.

“If people perceive small lump sums as much bigger than they are, then exchanging them for what seems to be very-small monthly payments would be unappealing.” 

The authors predict that annuities become more attractive the larger the amount at stake. Their analysis from defined benefit plans shows that retirees are less likely to cash out their benefits as a lump sum payment if their total benefits are rather large.

The illusion of wealth might also contribute to the tendency of Americans to claim their social security benefits early, with 40-50 percent claiming at 62, the earliest possible age (Canadians have the same tendency to take CPP early).

Until recently, the social security administration had a tool that attempted to help older Americans decide when to claim their social security benefits by displaying the amount forfeited by not claiming at 62 and waiting a year to age 63 (say $21,492) versus the monthly increase for those waiting till 63 (say $119 per month). Applying the illusion of wealth, the lump sum loss of $21,492 is perceived much larger than the monthly increase in lifetime payments of $119.

So What Does This All Mean?

The purpose of the illusion of wealth study was to look at how information is presented to people in hopes to get them to save more money for retirement.

In Dan Ariely’s book, Dollars and Sense, the author describes an experiment in which some people were given a salary of $70,000, while others were given the equivalent earnings of $35 an hour.

When framed as hourly earnings, people saved less than when earnings were defined as a yearly sum of $70,000. Apparently we take more of a long-term view when our salary is presented as a yearly amount, and consequently we save more for retirement.

Ariely says that while the illusion of wealth might seem like a flaw in our thinking perhaps it can be something that we can use to design saving systems to our advantage.

For example, stating retirement income in monthly terms should make us feel that we are saving less than we need, and make us think we should increase the amount and save more.

Similarly, we could put projected monthly income at our expected time of retirement before any other information on our investment statements, making it obvious that the need for savings is still high.

That speaks to the appeal of dividend investing, particularly in the accumulation years. It can be motivating to see those quarterly payments climb; at first enough to pay a utility bill, then a car payment, a mortgage payment, and more.

Once your dividend income is large enough to cover all of your expenses, then you know you can afford to retire.

So, while I like to say I switched from dividend investing to indexing for behavioural reasons, there ARE behavioural advantages to dividend investing that can help investors save more for retirement.

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