Rob Arnott’s Research Affiliates can now boast about $60 billion in assets that use “fundamental” indexes from his Newport Beach, Calif.-based company that screens stocks based on book value, cash flow, sales and dividends. One wonders if the future of indexing will feature Arnott more and more. When IndexUniverse.com Managing Editor Olly Ludwig sat down with Arnott in his office, they talked about his disagreement with indexing legend John Bogle, the state of the ETF industry and the allure of investing in relatively debt-free emerging markets countries.
Ludwig: When we talk about the pioneers of indexing, there are those who say that the baton must be passed at some point, and that perhaps you represent the next chapter. How do you respond to those views?
Arnott: Well, I have enormous respect for Jack. He is one of my heroes in this business. He is one of the pioneers. But as with so many pioneers, the ideas that spawned his and Vanguard’s meteoric success—that if you hold costs down, the customer gets more; and that since departures from the market are a zero-sum game, you should just hold the market—are very powerful ideas. But as with so many pioneers, he latches onto those ideas tenaciously and defends them fiercely. And so to him, Fundamental Indexing is active management in drag.
Ludwig: I was going to say you are in his cross hairs in some sense.
Arnott: He and I are friends. But this is one area of fierce disagreement. Another is ETFs.
Ludwig: Let’s start with the “active management in drag”—I love that formulation—then we’ll move on to ETFs.
Arnott: OK. Viewed from the perspective of classic cap-weighted indexation, Fundamental Indexing is active management. Any departure from cap weight is active management, viewed from that perspective. What a lot of people miss is that there's another perspective. Viewed from the vantage point of the macroeconomy, the cap-weighted market is making huge active bets. During the Internet boom, Cisco was 4 percent of the market, when it was 0.2 percent of the economy, and that’s a huge active bet. And so viewed from that perspective, Fundamental Indexing is studiously seeking to mirror the look and composition of the economy and using it as an anchor to contra-trade against the market’s constantly changing views, expectations, speculations, fads, bubbles and crashes.
That’s the elegance of Fundamental Indexing. Viewed from the vantage point of the macroeconomy, Fundamental Indexing does its best to be passive. And cap weight winds up loading up on growth companies, safe havens, weighting companies in proportion to their popularity.
Ludwig: So there's a whole lot of nuance here that we’re not getting from Jack Bogle? For example, I’m guessing you’ll concede the point that the line between active and passive management has blurred in the last two decades.
Arnott: It’s gotten blurrier and blurrier. And Fundamental Indexing has helped to make it even more blurry.
Ludwig: So you don’t dispute Bogle’s assertion that Fundamental Indexing is “active management in drag?”
Arnott: Actually, I don’t. I accept the notion that, from a cap-weight-centric world view, it is active management in drag. But I take it a step further, and I say: “That’s not the only world view.” From an economy-centric world view, Fundamental Indexing is passive and cap weight is active. It’s a little like looking at the world with one eye, or the other eye or with both.
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