Is direct stock investing worth it or should mutual funds do?

Assuming that I want to “invest” in the stock market, and not “trade” or “speculate”, getting average market returns is a no-brainer. I just need to buy an open-ended index fund or an exchange traded index fund, and I am done. At the lowest cost, I am guaranteed returns that the market index will give – day on day, month on month, year on year.

stocks-vs-mutual-funds

Why, then, should I be even interested in investing in actively managed mutual funds? There can be only a few reasons for that. First – they give returns better than the index after deducing costs.  Second – I want an exposure to companies outside the index in a specific market cap or sector or style that I am bullish about. So it may make sense to supplement my index fund holdings by some actively managed funds that suit these requirements.

After that, why should I directly invest in stocks? Is it really worth the time and effort? There are few reasons when it may make sense. First – I am a better investor and can beat markets consistently. Easier said than done, but if that is the case, there is no reason I need to invest through the fund route. It is likely to take sufficient time and effort, but if indeed one can beat the index, why depend on mutual funds? Second – I want to invest in some businesses that are either small or in under-researched sectors that funds are not allowed to, or not able to invest in. There is a section of the market that institutions are not interested in. An individual investor who understands those businesses and has conviction on a particular company, has an advantage by investing directly. Third – this is perhaps due to the structural constraints of mutual funds. Due to the inherent requirement of funds to keep beating the index, some great businesses cannot be held by funds for long periods of time. For example, a mid-cap fund has identified a great mid-cap company, but once it becomes successful and actually becomes large-cap, the fund has to sell it. Or, during a market crash, a fund has to sell some companies to honor redemptions – so a buy and hold is not possible, even in case of great businesses.

In such scenarios, it may be worth it for individual investors to invest directly in stocks instead of the mutual fund route. But as index returns are easy to get, one has to be sure that these additional investments will actually help better portfolio returns rather than dilute them. Therefore, overall – allotting majority of your equity allocation to mutual funds (index or active based on performance) might be a prudent strategy for individual investors. Investments through direct stock holding can be a small part of your equity allocation – only in situations where there are valid reasons for the same.

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