Warren Buffett just revealed the best investment most people can make

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In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE: BRK-B) shareholders, Warren Buffett included an extensive discussion of investment fees, and how they can rob individual investors of profit. Here's what Buffett says most people should do instead, and how you can do it in your own portfolio.

Buffett's $500,000 bet

In Berkshire's 2005 annual report, Buffett said active investment management, as a whole, would underperform the results of simple buy-and-hold investing, over long periods of time.

A few years later, Buffett offered to wager $500,000 that no investment pro could choose a set of at least five hedge funds that would beat the performance of a low-cost S&P 500 index fund of Buffett's choosing, over a 10-year period.

Warren Buffett speaking to reporters.

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Only one fund manager, Ted Seides, took the bet and chose five "funds of funds" as his picks. The first year tracked for the purposes of the wager was 2008, so 2016 represented the ninth full year. Buffett detailed the year-to-year performance of each investment thus far, and the results aren't even close.

The S&P index fund has returned a compounded average of 7.1% per year -- a total return of 85.4% as of the end of 2016. On the other hand, the collective performance of the five funds-of-funds has been dismal. The total gain of 22% represents just over one-fourth of the return of the S&P index fund. So, barring a miraculous year for the hedge fund industry, it looks as if Buffett and the charity he selected to receive his winnings will be victorious at the end of 2017.

The best investment most people can make

Buffett's logic is that someone who invests in a S&P 500 index fund, by definition, will match the market's performance.

On the other hand, "active investors" as a group will also deliver average investment performance over time -- that is, some managers' investments will do well, and others won't. However, when you add in the cost of actively managed investment options, particularly hedge funds, the result is that the average hedge fund will underperform the market.

From the results of his bet, which competed against five funds-of-funds that represented hundreds of individual hedge funds, it appears his logic was sound. In fact, Buffett estimates that 60% of all the fund-of-funds gains went toward management fees.

Buffett's main point is that when managers charge high fees, the managers may earn tremendous profits -- but investors won't. Therefore, the best investment most people can make, whether they're wealthy or just have a few hundred dollars to invest, is a low-cost index fund such as the one Buffett used for his bet.

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Warren Buffett through the years
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Warren Buffett through the years
Investor Warren Buffett answers reporters' questions during a press conference to announce that Walt Disney will buy Capital Cities/ABC July 31.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett of Omaha makes a rare public appearance during an autograph session outside Borsheim's Jewelry Store in Omaha, May 4. Buffett was signing autographs for shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, which is having its annual meeting May 5.
Billionaire businessman Warren Buffett sits with his wife Susan (R) and daughter Susie, prior to the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, May 5. This marks a rare public appearance for the reclusive Buffett.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican candidate for governor of California in the October 7, 2003 recall election listens as world famous investor, Warren Buffett (L), one of his financial advisors, speaks to reporters after a meeting of Schwarzenegger's Economic Recovery Council in Los Angeles August 20, 2003. REUTERS/Fred Prouser FSP
Billionaire financier Warren Buffett looks on after a meeting with U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington June 29, 2005. Specter is the co-author of a bill seeking to create a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund. REUTERS/Shaun Heasley SH/TC
Billionaire Warren Buffett arrives at the Sun Valley Resort in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2007. The world's biggest media chiefs gather this week at the 25th annual Allen & Co. conference at the resort starting today. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing about "Federal Estate Tax: Uncertainty in Planning Under the Current Law" on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 14, 2007. Billionaire Buffett warned of widening U.S. income disparity and endorsed the estate tax as a check on wealth accumulation, while two senior lawmakers said they want the tax repealed. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett greets shareholders during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska May 3, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett laughs as he appears with Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York, November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett kisses his ukulele at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha May 1, 2010. Buffett played "I've Been Working on the Railroad." REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT)
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett (L) and Microsoft founder Bill Gates gesture at the national launch ceremony for the BYD M6 vehicle in Beijing September 29, 2010. Chinese battery and car maker BYD, backed by Buffett, launched its first premium multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) in Beijing on Wednesday to tap rising demand in the world's biggest auto market. REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Billionaire Warren Buffett, wearing a traditional tikka or a red mark on the forehead, speaks during a news conference in Bangalore March 22, 2011. Buffett on Tuesday said he is looking to invest in large countries like India, China and Brazil, but added that restrictions on foreign ownership in India's insurance industry could be a deterrent. Buffett also said and the U.S. economy was improving and that the devastating earthquake in Japan would not hurt global growth. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett tours the floor of the New York Stock Exchange September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem, at the start of a 5km race sponsored by Brooks Sports Inc., a Berkshire-owned company, in Omaha May 5, 2013, a day after the company's annual meeting. Buffett at the meeting on May 4, 2013 gave the most extensive comments to date about the future of Berkshire Hathaway Inc after he is gone, saying he still expects the conglomerate to be a partner of choice for distressed companies. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SPORT ATHLETICS)
Warren Buffett, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, poses for a portrait in New York October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Roberta Buffett Elliott sits with her brother Warren Buffett as they attend an announcement ceremony at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, January 28, 2015. The sister of financial investor Warren Buffett has given Northwestern University more than $100 million to create the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies, the largest single gift in the school's 164-year history, the university said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EDUCATION SOCIETY)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at the Fortune's Most Powerful Women's Summit in Washington October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, smiles before speaking with Bill Gates (not pictured), at Columbia University in New York, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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Examples of low-cost index funds

For his bet, Buffett used the Vanguard S&P 500 index fund, which is available in both mutual fund and ETF form. I prefer the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF(NYSEMKT: VOO) for most investors, simply because it's easy to trade and has an extremely low expense ratio (that is, an annual management fee) of just 0.05%. This means if you invest $100,000, your annual expenses will be just $50, so your investment should track the S&P 500's performance very closely.

There are several other S&P 500 index funds in the market that are perfectly fine, and chances are that if you have a 401(k) at work, there's a similar passive investment option. And there are several other types of index funds available that can help you meet your investment objectives.

As one other example, if income is more of a priority for you, the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF(NYSEMKT: VYM) could be a good choice for you. The idea behind this index fund is similar to that of the S&P 500 index fund -- large American companies -- but with a focus on stocks that pay relatively high dividend yields. At just 0.08% annually, the cost isn't much more than the S&P 500 version.

As a side note, you may have noticed that I'm a Vanguard fan, as Buffett is, because of the low costs of the company's ETFs and the variety of index fund options available. You can read Vanguard's full ETF list here if you're interested.

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Warren Buffett's wealth story
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Warren Buffett's wealth story

Warren Buffett Bio: The Early Years

Born Aug. 30, 1930, Buffett was always great with numbers. Aside from recording license plate numbers, Buffett would have his childhood friend Bob Russell quiz him on city populations from an almanac — and Buffett would nail the numbers dead-on.

Though he loved numbers, it was money that truly fascinated Buffett in his early years. At the age of five, Buffett opened a sidewalk gum stand, followed by a lemonade stand — which he placed on Russell’s street where foot traffic was heavier.

Warren Buffett’s Family

Looking at Buffett’s family history could help explain why the Oracle of Omaha was such a natural when it came to money and business. His great grandfather Sidney Homan Buffett perfectly timed the opening of his S.H. Buffett grocery store in 1869, just as the railroad boom took off around Omaha, Neb. Sidney’s son Ernest, Warren’s grandfather, worked in the family business before opening his own successful store, Buffett & Son, in 1915.

Ernest’s son Howard had hopes of being a journalist, but after marrying Leila Stahl — Warren’s mother — in 1925, he took a more secure job at an insurance company. Later, Howard would work as a securities salesman for Union Street Bank when the stock market was hot. But that all changed with the Great Depression.

(Getty)

Life Lessons

The Great Depression shaped who Warren Buffett would become. Ernest had been skeptical of the stock market, and the closing of Union Street Bank in 1931 seemed to prove him right. Howard was unemployed and begrudgingly took a loan from his father, instilling in Warren an important lesson against borrowing: Save your credit, for that is better than money.

The double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in Nebraska forged Warren into a man bent on building wealth. Howard and Warren both were determined to never fall into such hardship again. As they recovered from the Depression, Warren learned the importance of independent thinking from his father, who recited the maxim from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

From his father, Warren also learned about his obligation to give back to the community. And it was his father who introduced young Warren to Wall Street during a trip when he was 10 years old. Fascinated by stocks, Warren bought his first stock at age 11 — three shares of Cities Service preferred for himself and three for his sister. Though Warren made a net profit of $5 from Cities, he could have made far more had he been more patient — a lesson he would hold on to for life.

(Photo by Lee Balterman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Warren Buffett’s Education

Warren Buffett graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1947 and enrolled in the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. The decision for Wharton was due to pressure from his father. Buffett knew he was earning plenty and felt college would be a waste of time and money.

As it turned out, Buffett felt the curriculum was uninteresting. He transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, enrolling in five courses for fall 1949 and six for spring 1950. Juggling full-time work and an accelerated curriculum, Buffett graduated in only three years with a degree in Business Administration.

After getting rejected by Harvard Business School, Buffett enrolled at Columbia Business School. It was there that he would meet his mentor, Benjamin Graham, professor and author of the groundbreaking book “Security Analysis.”

Graham introduced to Buffett a methodical approach to investing in the stock market. In essence, Graham taught Buffett what would be later called value investing: looking for companies so cheap they pose little to no risk but are undervalued given their intrinsic worth. Under Graham’s tutelage, Buffett graduated from Columbia with a Masters in Economics in 1951, worked as an analyst for Graham at Graham-Newman Corp. and established his own successful firm in 1956, the Buffett Partnership.

Warren Buffett: CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Already a successful investor, Warren Buffett eyed a new venture in the struggling textile manufacturing firm Berkshire Hathaway. Horatio Hathaway founded Hathaway Manufacturing Company in 1888 and Berkshire Fine Spinning Association had roots as far back as 1790 to Samuel Slater.

Both companies endured the ups and downs of the textile industry in the U.S. The two merged into Berkshire Hathaway in 1955, but by the 1960s, Berkshire Hathaway found itself in dire straits. Buffett took notice of what looked like an undervalued company with potential.

Buffett, through the Buffett Partnership, became the majority shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway in 1963. Two years later on May 10, Buffett and his firm took over Berkshire Hathaway.

Under Buffett’s leadership, Berkshire Hathaway expanded far beyond its textile origins. In 1967, it entered the insurance industry by acquiring National Indemnity Company, a step that paved the way for Buffett to acquire a stake in Geico in the mid-1970s. Through shrewd investments and company acquisitions, Berkshire Hathaway is now worth $360.1 billion, and ranks as the No. 4 largest public company in the world, reports Forbes.

Successful Investments

As a value investor, Buffett tends to invest his money in companies that seem undervalued compared to their fundamental value. Since he was a natural with numbers, value investing appealed to Buffett with its need for detailed financial research. Here’s a look at some of Buffett’s investments that paid off.

(Photo by Patti Gower/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

American Express

Scandal rocked American Express in 1963, which hurt the company’s image and clouded its success and worth. Buffett, however, saw through the scandal and observed a company with loyal customers and a valuable franchise name. In January 1964, for only $13 million, Buffett gained a 5 percent stake in American Express. Three years later, its stock price reached $180 per share, earning Buffett a profit of $20 million.

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Illustration/Files 

Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola wasn’t doing so well by the fall of 1988 before Buffett stepped onto the scene. Where many Wall Street experts saw a company failing to adapt and on its way out, Buffett saw immense value: Coca-Cola had a bankable franchise name, strong pricing power and didn’t require a lot of capital.

Buffett started buying up Coca-Cola stock in 1988, eventually owning 100,000 shares by 1995. To this day, Berkshire Hathaway holds more than a 9 percent stake in the $190 billion Coca-Cola company, named the No. 4 most valuable brand in the world by Forbes.

REUTERS/Samrang Pring TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Gillette

Like Coca-Cola, Buffett saw value in the Gillette brand, which was the main seller of razor blades in the world by 1989. That year, Buffett bought $600 million worth of preferred Gillette stock for an 11 percent stake in the company. Buffett’s initial investment turned into a $4.4 billion profit for Berkshire Hathaway when Procter & Gamble bought Gillette in 2005 — earning Buffett a cool $645 million in a single day.

(Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Investment Mistakes

Warren Buffett’s net worth of $66 billion didn’t come without setbacks. Not even the Oracle of Omaha is infallible, and Buffett has endured his fair share of investment mistakes. There is at least one investment mistake that really stands out, mainly because Buffett openly acknowledged how bad it was.

Dexter Shoe Company possessed exactly the features Buffett sought in a company: It had solid management, a valuable brand and competitive edge in the industry. So, in 1993, Buffett acquired Dexter at a cost of $443 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock.

From this promising beginning, Buffett’s investment in Dexter turned south as cheaper overseas labor costs prevented the company from taking off. By 2001, Dexter had gone nowhere, and Buffett pulled the plug, merging it with another Berkshire subsidiary.

Looking back on the investment, Buffett said in a 2007 shareholder letter, “To date, Dexter is the worst deal that I’ve made.” Berkshire shareholders lost as much as $3.5 billion from the deal.

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Buffett Gives Back

Having learned from his father the importance of giving back to the community, Buffett regularly donates his wealth to charity. Although Buffett has long been philanthropic, his charitable donations in 2016 stole headlines when he donated $2.86 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Buffett actually donated the money to five different charities. He donated the vast majority, 15 million shares, to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, maintaining a promise he made in 2006 to give 85 percent of Berkshire Hathaway stock to the organization. Buffett then spread the remaining shares among charities his family runs: Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation; Sherwood Foundation; Howard G. Buffett Foundation; and NoVo Foundation.

Find Out: Who Is the Next Warren Buffett?

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Buffett isn't discouraging you from buying individual stocks

To be perfectly clear, Buffett isn't necessarily saying you shouldn't buy individual stocks. If (and this is a big "if") you have the time and desire to properly research companies to invest in, and are committed to building and maintaining a well-diversified portfolio, go for it.

The point is that most investors don't have the time or desire to do all of this, so the other option is fund investing. And simply buying a collection of large American businesses and letting them do the work for you is a far better option than paying hefty fees to some fund manager.

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Matthew Frankel owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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