Couch Potato Portfolio: Introduction

With MoneySense magazine’s Couch Potato Portfolio, anyone can build a great investment portfolio in just 15 minutes a year. Here’s how.

127

by Duncan Hood and Ian McGugan
April 5th, 2006

Online only.

127

There are people out there, and we’ve met plenty of them, who spend hours every week sweating over their investments. Some of these investing junkies actually seem to enjoy reading balance sheets and analysts’ opinions.

Most of us, though, aren’t like that. We want good performance with low risk — but between our jobs and our families we don’t have a lot of time to follow the market.

If that sums up your situation, MoneySense has the perfect portfolio for you. It will not only beat the performance of most people who spend hours on their investing, it will beat about 80% of the money managed by professionals. Best of all, like an ideal houseplant, this portfolio thrives on neglect. It performs superbly even if you pay attention to it for only 15 minutes a year.

We call our approach the Couch Potato strategy. It’s based on the simple fact that the market is smarter than any single individual. If the market says a stock is worth $20 a share, chances are the stock is probably worth somewhere close to $20 a share.

This may surprise you. Most market commentary is geared to making you believe that there are scads of undiscovered bargains out there. But think about how the world works and you realize how unrealistic that proposition is.

On any given day, thousands of highly paid, highly competitive mutual fund managers and pension fund experts are scouring the market looking for bargains. When they think a stock is undervalued, they buy it. All that buying forces up the price of the stock until it’s trading for what most investors believe is fair value. Similarly, if the pros believe a stock is overvalued, they sell it and keep on doing so until the stock meets their definition of fair value. Thinking that you’re going to beat the system and turn up lots of great, undiscovered stocks is a bit like thinking you can wander into a thoroughly explored wilderness and spot a gold mine that all the professional geologists just happened to overlook.

The best proof of the market’s intelligence is that even the professionals can’t keep pace with it. Over any period of a few years or more, about 80% of actively managed mutual funds lag behind the market. They’re weighed down by the salaries of their managers, by research costs, by marketing expenses, by fees paid to financial planners, by trading expenses.

Here’s where the Couch Potato strategy comes in. It’s based on a simple idea: if active management doesn’t beat the market, why not dump it and buy the market instead?

You buy the market by investing in a small collection of low-cost index funds. These funds passively follow the ups and downs of market indexes, such as the S&P/TSX Composite index of Canadian stocks or the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of U.S. stocks. Your exact mix of funds can vary (and we’ll get to the details in just a second), but the key advantage of the Couch Potato strategy is that it gives you wide diversification among hundreds of stocks and bonds at rock-bottom cost.

Why is this so important? Because low costs are crucial when it comes to investing success. Most investors pay about 2.5% of their assets each and every year to invest in actively managed mutual funds. On the other hand, you can become a Couch Potato for 0.5% a year or less. The couple of percentage points you save go directly to your bottom line and can have a tremendous effect over time.

Let’s say you have a $200,000 portfolio. This year alone you would save about $4,000 by becoming a Couch Potato investor rather than an investor in actively managed mutual funds. Over a few years, assuming you reinvested all of your savings, the difference would grow and grow, because the money you would be saving would compound on itself. Assuming typical rates of return, the money you would save by becoming a Couch Potato would be more than enough to buy you a luxury car in 10 years’ time even if you were never to invest another cent in your portfolio.

Whenever we lay out the math, people are naturally skeptical. It seems too good to be true. How can the mutual fund industry get away with charging us so much for so little? Doesn’t all that expensive professional management accomplish something?

Sadly, no. If you doubt us, click here to see how our Classic Couch Potato portfolio has generated returns higher than 11% over the past 30 years. Or visit Scott Burns’ site at Dallasnews.com and see how Burns, the inventor of the original Couch Potato approach, has fared. Compare the Potato’s results to what the average actively managed mutual fund has accomplished — we think you’ll be impressed. Then, if you want to better understand the reasoning behind Potato-hood, pick up Unconventional Success. It’s a new book by David Swensen, the legendary investor who piloted Yale University’s huge endowment fund to record-breaking performance. In his book, Swensen lays out a Couch Potato-like strategy of his own. Coincidence? We think it’s merely another affirmation of the Couch Potato’s unarguable logic.

The Potato is ultimately about common sense. It rests on three ideas:

The first idea — as we’ve already seen — is to keep your costs low. This ensures that you, not your financial adviser, reaps most of the rewards from your portfolio.

The second idea is to diversify among different types of assets. By doing so, you ensure that no single blow-up can devastate your portfolio. We usually recommend that Couch Potato investors follow a classic balanced strategy, which consists of putting 60% of your money in stocks and 40% in bonds, but you may want to adjust the stock component upward if you’re young and willing to take on additional risk in pursuit of larger returns. Conversely, you may want to dial down the stock portion if you’re older and more conservative.

The third idea is to rebalance once a year to get back to your original asset allocation. If your stocks shoot up in value, for instance, you would sell some and put the proceeds into bonds. Doing so ensures you’re constantly selling high and buying low.

That’s it. If you follow those three ideas, you’re going to do well. In fact, you can adapt the Couch Potato strategy to suit your individual situation and preferences. Our Classic Couch Potato Portfolio is a simple strategy that spans Canadian and U.S. markets. Our Global Couch Potato Portfolio takes things a step further and expands your portfolio to span the world. Both are just suggestions and can be tweaked to suit your purposes.

Ready to get going? We suggest you read our Couch Potato FAQs for a quick overview of the major issues. Then follow Do the Couch Potato for a step-by-step guide to implementing the strategy. Finally, visit Meet the potato family and choose the Couch Potato strategy that’s right for you.

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  4. The couch potato is probably a deal it does have a low operating cost compared to most.
    Index funds that didn't help me or anyone I know prior to and in March 2009 the bottom remember the comeback!
    You were still down on the bottom of the septic field &tank.
    It's just that they say well everybody is here with us & it leaves you Duh holding the bag, as they usually say well it's not like we made a error the entire market is crap.

    Now it's back up the coaster and WHAT a !,000 point drop long enough for the crooks to take billions out and then they didn't want a serious investigation so they play acted "the big Thumb theory, no that didn't fly.
    Then a computer glitch yeah sure nuclear weapons controlled by these computers for 30 years and not one missile ever fired due to a computer glitch.
    So much for the stock market.

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