Each day, investors everywhere compare their portfolio’s return to a benchmark. Many times, at least for investors in the U.S., the benchmark of choice is the S&P 500. I find it endlessly fascinating because a benchmark is simply the average of all investor returns before costs.
This is not opinion, but fact. John Bogle, the late founder of Vanguard, said it this way in his book “Common Sense on Mutual Funds“:
All investors own the entire stock market, so both active investors (as a group) and passive investors — holding all stocks at all times — must match the gross return of the stock market.
I can think of no other arena where people are so (unknowingly?) obsessed with “the average.” People don’t compare Mike Trout to the average MLB player. People don’t compare Lebron James to the average NBA player. They are compared to the all-time greats.
When it comes to investing, I believe we have an obsession with benchmarks because we like to win and perhaps more importantly, we worry if we’re falling behind. True for you? This is already ingrained in my two sons (ages 6 and 2). They rush to be the first up the stairs or first in the door as they invariably squeeze through together. It’s just who we are.
But in all the hoopla that accompanies our competitive nature, I think many people have lost sight of what the real benchmark should be. That is, simply, “Are you on track to afford the retirement you’ve imagined?”
The goal is to retire successfully. Period.
The goal isn’t and shouldn’t be to beat some random benchmark index that may or may not be a good comparison for your portfolio in any case.
Because if you don’t reach your goals, what difference does it make if you “beat the market” or don’t? Won’t you be disappointed either way?
Assuming you have accumulated enough to achieve the retirement you’ve imagined, the goal for your portfolio should be to create a sustainable income stream from your portfolio you can stick with through good and bad markets that will hopefully get you across the metaphorical finish line.
For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree that portfolio performance is important and comparing it to something relevant can be a useful exercise. But I’ll maintain that there is still only one true benchmark that matters when it comes to retirement planning. That is, can you afford to (or are you on track to) retire and stay retired in the way you imagine?
When it comes to retirement planning, I can’t think of anything (aside from your health) that could matter more than this.
This article is not advice. See additional disclosures.