Ben Graham on Index Funds and Efficient Markets

Twenty-five years after he retired, at eighty-one years old and just six months before he passed, Ben Graham sat down for an hour with Hartman L. Butler. The whole interview is worth reading, but I pulled three sections that particularly stood out.

HB: By some coincidence as you were becoming less active as a writer, a number of professors started to work on the random walk. What do you think about this?

Graham: Well, I am sure they are all very hardworking and serious. It’s hard for me to find a good connection between what they do and practical investment results. In fact, they say that the market is efficient in the sense that there is no particular point in getting more information than people already have. That might be true, but the idea of saying that the fact that the information is so widely spread that the resulting prices are logical prices-that is all wrong. I don’t see how you can say that the prices made in Wall Street are the right prices in any intelligent definition of what right prices would be.

HB: The efficient market people have kind of muddied the waters, haven’t they, in a way?

Graham: Well, they would claim that if they are correct in their basic contentions about the efficient market, the thing for people to do is to try to study the behavior of stock prices and try to profit from these interpretations. To me, that is not a very encouraging conclusion because if I have noticed anything over these 60 years on Wall Street, it is that people do not succeed in forecasting what’s going to happen to the stock market.

HB: What thoughts do you have on index funds?

Graham: I have very definite views on that. I have a feeling that the way in which institutional funds should be managed, at least a number of them, would be to start with the index concept-the equivalent of index results, say 100 or 150 stocks out of the Standard & Poor’s 500. Then turn over to managers the privilege of making a variation, provided they would accept personal responsibility for the success of the variation that they introduced. I assume that basically the compensation ought to be measured by the results either in terms of equaling the index, say Standard & Poor’s results, or to the extent by which you improve it. Now in the group discussions of this thing, the typical money managers don’t accept the idea and the reason for non-acceptance is chiefly that they say-not that it isn’t practical-but that it isn’t sound because different investors have different requirements. They have never been able to convince me that that’s true in any significant degree-that different investors have different requirements. All investments require satisfactory results, and I think satisfactory results are pretty much the same for everybody. So I think any experience of the last 20 years, let’s say, would indicate that one could have done as well with Standard & Poor’s than with a great deal of work, intelligence, and talk.


An Hour With Mr. Graham

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