Index Funds explained

Follow the market for long-term financial success

In our last article we discussed how costs that add no value can, over time, decimate your long-term wealth generation ambitions. One of the challenges we presented to you, was how in fact to know when a cost was adding value or not.

This is understandably a very difficult thing for you to achieve at this stage of your journey, which is why the best we could suggest when it came to fees associated with investing, like annual Unit Trust fund costs, was to tell you that a good financial advisor would be able to steer you in the right direction.

While this suggestion still holds true, there is another option: the consideration of index-based investment funds.

Index Funds, the extremely boring chameleon of the finance world.

Simplistically put, an index fund is nothing more than a fund (like a Unit Trust), that aims to replicate the performance of an underlying group of assets or index. An index is simply a moving tally that represents the movements in price of an underlying group of shares, or assets.

You might be familiar with terms like the Johannesburg Stock Exchange All Share Index, or the US S&P500. These are indices that track the general stock market in their respective countries. It’s a convenient way of seeing what the general stock market is up to.

All indices are made up of certain shares, as its name would suggest, the S&P500 tracks the performance of 500 large companies in the United States. What an index fund will do, is to replicate the index, by buying all the shares in the underlying index (yes, all 500), and in the same proportion as they represent in the index. It’s a way of effectively owning the entire market, but investing in one simple fund.

The alternative would be if you went out and bought every single share in the index yourself. Not only would that take a lot of time, but it would be expensive and require you to make constant adjustments all the time, as the various components in the index changed.

The index fund, gives you one point of entry into buying ‘the market’, through one simple investment fund

As you’re no doubt realising, by owning the market via one fund, your returns will never be materially better or worse than the market – it cannot be. If all the underlying shares in the fund are exactly what would be in the market (as represented by the index), you’ll always get what the market gives.

But I don’t want what the market gives me – I don’t want average returns

Remember how we told you that markets are unpredictable and that trying to chase returns over what the market provides is largely a waste of time? We don’t play the the market, we work it!

If you can appreciate that the market dictates your investment returns, and not any one person or strategy, then you’re doing well. Getting average returns is something to be proud, especially when you’re not paying average fees – you’re paying less!

Why are they so cheap?

So how do index investing and low cost investment fees tie together? Simple:

Financial gurus make a lot of money

If the index fund you are investing in is not paying some very qualified people, some exorbitant salaries to try and provide excess returns for you, the costs of the fund will be low. If the fund costs are low, you won’t be charged that much.

This is called passive investing – ‘passive’ in the sense that there is no active strategy to try and outperform the market. By selecting those shares that constitute the index, you’re passively choosing to get what’s served to you by the market.

Active vs. Passive investing

This is likely the single biggest contentious issue within the financial services industry. As you can imagine, some very qualified people are charging a lot of money to investors, for the prospect of a higher return than what the market might give you. These active managers are unarguably very clever folk, however they’re not qualified to provide you with superior returns over the long term – nobody is, or can be.

A passive fund on the other hand, acknowledges on day one that it’ll never beat the market, so why pay people to try and do it for them? They hire very few people and a computer programme tells them what to buy and sell so that their index fund continues to mirror the underlying index.

Given that these passive fund costs are so low; your investment fees are low.

How low?

We would say as a generalization, that passive fees when compared to active fees are typically half.

HALF?! You mean I could be paying double for some of my investments, than what I need to?


But hang on! How do I know that if I’m going to switch funds in search of less fees, that I’m still getting the same thing? Cheaper fees generally mean a cheaper product or service!

Good question: Remember how we told you that a passive index fund tracks the underlying index? Well, if two funds are both tracking the same index, or the same general pool of assets, you by definition, have to arrive at pretty much the same outcome.

What makes this whole active vs. passive debate even more ironic, is that the performance of a fund, is largely the one single attribute of a fund that is used to market it to you folk out there. No fund that performed poorly last year, will boast on TV how as to how their fund performed 17th overall last year.

Would you invest in that?

I might.

You see, past performance should not and cannot be a proxy for future performance. It cannot be, as if a fund did well last year (and sometimes badly), the theory of efficient markets will say that its luck. Unless you believe in luck persisting (maybe you need a financial advisor sooner rather than later), then why would you choose someone simply because their coin landed on heads 12 times in a row?

Luck does not exist. Sorry

What we’re saying is a lot to take in – we get that. You have after all, just been told that you’ve likely been paying twice as much for all your investment fees since the day you started investing.

The best thing you can do going forward, is to be acutely aware of investment fees and costs whenever you invest any money. More and more financial services companies are offering lower cost investment funds, with some having built entire business models around passive investing.


Long term, you’re not going to beat the market, and you’re going to wear yourself down trying. It’s very possible to get great returns on an investment without ever having to explain a massive loss on the stock market to your family at some point. Don’t make gambles that a much older version of you might have to pay off.

0 comments on “Index Funds explained

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: