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Is this the best investment fund in the world?

Hint: it’s not an index fund.

Travel broadens the mind, is an old saying we well and truly understand.

We come back from faraway countries with new insights into different cultures and customs; often which we repeat in our own private lives.

I still drink green tea after a trip to Thailand many years ago when we couldn’t find any decent coffee on one of the islands.

And so it was very much the same after a recent whistle-stop tour of the USA together with 20-odd colleagues in the investment world, which started with visits to Fortune 500 companies in Seattle (Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing), continued to San Francisco (Tesla, Facebook, Wells Fargo and Google) and ended up with investment seminars hosted by Black Rock and Investec in the Big Apple.

If you’re an investment roadie, then this was the ultimate tour of them all; facilitated by Investec Asset Management, using all their contacts (and then some more) to get us through the doors of the above listed prestigious companies.

But even Investec couldn’t crack us an invite to Facebook at their head office in Palo Alto. Facebook is notoriously security conscious and does not allow anyone into their campus without top security clearance.

No problem: we arranged a talk by a Facebook spokesman outside on the pavement….

When asked on my return what the overriding impression was of this tour in one word, I can safely say: speed.

The speed at which our lives will change over the next couple of years is not being fully discounted by most local investors. Industries will rise and fall much faster than in the past. At Amazon we were given a talk — by a South African ‘boykie’ from Bedfordview, nogal — how Amazon will disrupt almost every retail industry, first in the USA and then later all over the modern world. 

Not a week later the world awoke with the news that Amazon is looking at taking over Whole Foods, a sort of Woolies-equivalent in the US.

Two things happened on the news. Amazon and Whole Foods share prices rocketed, while almost every other retailer in the USA and UK — Wall Mart, Target, Tesco — slumped instantaneously. Such is the fear of what Amazom can do to established industries.

At Tesla, for instance, we had a visit to the Palo Alto factory and a talk about the future of cars. Barely a month later Volvo announced that it will be the first major motor car manufacturer ceasing to produce internal combustion engine vehicles and go totally electric.

I felt real proud to be able to tell our tour guide that Elon Musk, visionary founder of Tesla, grew up in the same suburb where I have been living for 25 years.

At the heart of all this change is technology and the world leader in technology is in Silicon Valley, which by the way, is not in a valley at all. Technology has been the major boost behind stock market returns over the past five to eight years and if you did not have any of the FANG companies in your portfolio, then you have been lagging badly.

(FANG stands for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google).

Vanguard’s little secret

But it was the chance encounter with a group of Vanguard executives in New York which also added immensely to my investment repertoire.

At an upmarket venue I bumped into some Vanguard people who were there for a conference and we got talking. I raised the issue of Warren Buffett’s oft-repeated advice that most investors should simply buy the S&P 500 Index and be done with the rest.

It’s also what Jack Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group, has been punting for many years. The index lovers and punters have pounced onto this comment by Buffett as the holy grail of investment advice in their promotional endeavours. 

My question whether they all followed Buffett’s advice with their own money was met with a polite cough and a subtle sideways shift of the eyes. Sensing that there was something afoot, I pressed on, looking for more information.

In the end — after buying a couple of rounds — I finally got to the bottom of this story. Seems that Vanguard is a little bit embarrassed by this free publicity they are getting from the likes of Warren Buffett and their founder but that they mostly invest their own money in a very large global equity fund — the Vanguard US Opportunities Fund (Bloomberg code: VANGUOA).

The reason? This fund has beaten their S&P 500 index fund (and any other comparative index funds) from day one since inception in 2002 by the proverbial mile. But they cannot come out and publicise this fact; it might just slow down the inflow of funds into their index fund.

For a start I didn’t know that Vanguard offered actively-managed funds. In fact, as I subsequently found out, more than half their assets under management are still held in active funds.

And secondly, when I did some more work on the Vanguard Opportunities Fund I was blown away by its massive outperformance against, not only the index, but also against its peers. To such an extent I have to ask whether this is not the best investment fund in the world?

Since inception this $2.4 billion fund has returned 15.5% pa (versus 8.2% pa); over ten years the returns were 11.77% pa (6.32%); over five years it returned 21.5% (versus 14.5%), 15.12% (9%) over three and 28.8% (versus 17%) over one year.

The fund managers look particularly at the future earnings potential of the companies they invest in, especially in so far if that fact is already in the share price. Most of the companies are in the US (currently 94%) but it also searches for qualifying companies in Canada, China, Europe and emerging markets. There is no index fund that replicates such a strategy.

Because it includes offshore companies in its fund, its benchmark is the Russell 3000 Index.

It’s also a cheap fund; costs are 0.9% per annum.

Finally, I compared the returns of this fund with the returns (USD and rands) over the last five years against the S&P 500 and also the JSE Top 40 Index (see chart).

Did Warren Buffett choose the wrong Vanguard fund?

The chart clearly shows how this fund has beaten the S&P 500 Index substantially. Against the JSE Top 40, it’s a brutal massacre.

The Top 40 has not grown much in US dollar terms over the past 5 years.

And even with the stronger rand over the past 18 months the Vanguard fund has still beaten the Top 40 Fund!

A final word about Regulation 28 and the JSE

I have to feel sorry for investors, perhaps not so well informed, who keep on investing (or are advised to invest) in underperforming funds/indices linked to our local stock market. The sad part about this is that Regulation 28 forces pension funds and other institutional funds to invest at least 75% in the local market. That’s why the retirement dreams of many pensioners are crashing around their ears. Pension fund returns (together with residential property prices) are not performing and are declining in real terms. And there is nothing the big fund managers can do about it.

They are at mercy of the whims of Treasury who decides what percentage fund managers can invest offshore.

There is no one standing up for the little man/woman and appealing for greater offshore exposure via retirement funds. I am willing to bet that the millions of investors in local pension/provident funds have no idea what Regulation28 is doing to them and how badly it is effecting their retirement.

And then Treasury has the audacity to compile a massive report and point fingers at fees as a major contributor to sub-par investment returns. Fees are important, no doubt, but then Treasury completely ignores their own role in keeping pensioner returns under pressure.

Warning a long time

My comments and warnings about Regulation 28 are not new. I have been making them for several years now, and every time I do, I get the usual fallacious arguments about the need for local investments/patriotism/loyalty/blah, blah, blah.

The sad fact that Regulation 28 is part of foreign exchange controls which like under the apartheid regime, keeps capital locked into poorly-performing assets as a result of  government’s poor handling of the economy. 

It also comes as no surprise to me that the JSE itself, is being hit hard by the outflow of money from the local bourse. The JSE over the weekend announced major retrenchments of staff (about 60 people) and cost cutting measures. The JSE did not release any statistics but it no doubt comes as a result of foreign investors and wealthy South Africans fleeing our market. Foreigners have withdrawn an estimated R270 billion from our market over the past 18 months while wealthy local investors have moved an estimated R80–R100 billion out of the country via the Foreign Investment Allowance over the last number of years. This is money now being invested on other bourses were the return outlooks are infinitely better.

*Magnus Heystek is investment strategist at Brenthurst Wealth. He can be reached at for ideas and suggestions.

Read more from Magnus:

How Zumanomics is crashing your retirement

Investment advice from the tea boy

None so blind as those who don’t want to see…

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Hard to argue with anything here – EXCEPT that in addition to investing yr money off shore have to get your family off shore as well. There was a time (not so long ago) where the likes of MH could have gone almost anywhere. unfortunately those days are long gone. I have also been of the view that the sa financial markets in sa are actually FALSE markets – this applies particularly to the housing market & no more so than HOUT BAY at the moment when those palatial homes are suddenly coming on the market with “must sell”. attached to them. I have been particularly cynical abt REIT’s esp those with European interests. All these managers want is your money to get their fees

SInce you are in Australia, I assume by your name, could you please point out the online adverts of those Hout Bay homes with the “must sell” on them?

You would have seen that Robert is very closely linked with the homeless in SA (only a few thousand miles and wi-fi separate them)- he is therefor (by his own admission & disclosure) well informed.
As with the last “HOut Bay” crisis – buying up the properties of those who flee to Aus and US and EU will, again, show good returns.

Try this weekend argus property section- also confirmed that similar situation exists in joeys

@iiphil – read my lips – no one going nowhere!

Really Robert? There are still a lot of countries “selling” passports (especially EU passports) – You sold have of Sydney to the Chinese – So Aussies cant even afford to buy a house in their own country – As soon as it gets a bit tough in Aus you will pack up and head to another “better” country – You have no backbone just opinions on matters that don’t concern you.

lots of hot air – and no doubt lots of bitterness – which I do understand. I have THREE passports – sa , euro and aussie – and not going anywhere near the first two. and doesn’t get anywhere better than where I live – 10 minutes from the pacific ocean and 20 minutes from Sydney cbd. for your interest you have emigrants who move into a new country to give their family a better life – then you have foreign investors – two different types of people.

How does our Reg28 compared to other counties equivalent ?

So you were investing in underperforming funds (compared to the Vanguard US Opportunities Fund at least) in the meantime… why? You should have been able to identify it much earlier, as can all the guys here on moneyweb who deride index funds because they can identify the best funds.

And they should know better, as should you, than to go advertise that fund, because the more people go into it, the more the index would start to resembles it.

In fact, the index deriders should be glad about index funds, shouldn’t it give their managed funds more opportunity to outperform? To find the gems and strategies not replicated or unable to be replicated by index funds? Maybe less derision and let sleeping dogs lie while you make your mega moolas from the superior managed funds…

The most important thing I learnt from this article is that Investec Asset Management charges its clients way too much.

Also, Buffett has two t’s, Magnus.

Sorry to disappoint Julius.
All costs of this investment tour was paid for by the advisors in FULL.

Not quite supersunbird.
The Franklin Templeton Biotechnology fund–which I have been punting endlessly on Moneyweb for years…has a 5-year return (in rands ) of 30% p.a. versus Vanguard Opportunity Fund of 31% p.a.
I also got the FT Biotech fund approved by the FSB in SA and got it onto the Momentum Wealth local platform…..

Magnus I’m quite certain the leading voices against the high fees of active managers are peers and not treasury. The likes of Simon Brown, Nerina Visser et al. Either than that was an interesting read. Do you know how one can access the Opportunity fund from RSA?

Yes, please advise how one can invest in this fund without having to do so via local entities which charge all kinds of fancy fees.

SERIOUS QUESTION: Please advise a method for SA’ns to get money out of SA – LEGALLY – but without any risk of a collapsed Government being able to attach / block / freeze / claw back such proceeds (capital + earnings)
If SA is going the way you all suggest – then the proprietary rights of average SA’ns are at risk. Some may say – not me – why bother to invest overseas and make middle men rich(er) when it can all be controlled by government?

Suggest you ask this question in PRIVATE!

@moneychef in biotechs none. I bought 2 cancer immunology shares but got out of the one within a week before too much damage done. The one I stayed is up2.5x in 6 months. My wife died of breast cancer recently so needed to know more. Co is KITE pharma worth a look at if only to see what possible remedies cld be available soon. BUT very high risk. I have to wake up every trading day at 3am to see what’s happening. BTW this is NOT a recommendation!

I’ve been invested in us biotechs for over 5 years – but not in ETF’s but directly in the actual company. Not for the faint hearted – but rewards are HUGE if u strike gold /which I have twice

And how many times have you struck turds?

Magnus, please advise how one can invest in the Franklin Biotech Fund without having to go through an intermediary / financial adviser? I find the Momentum website challenging and archaic compared to the likes of Allan Gray and Coronation.

You can invest directly but at your own risk.

You will be restricted to FT funds alone, but have a look at the Technology Fund as well (contains FANG shares)

One needs to consider estate duty (death taxes) when investing offshore which are much higher in the US and U.K. than in SA.

That is a phurphy!

…you mean (Victorian) “Furphy” Ale beer??

Off topic: you aware of any Oz bank that offers non-resident bank accounts, which can be applied for and opened online perhaps?

Not aware of any such Oz bank, as most banks would require at least a physical visit for “FICA” purposes(?) New Zealand could be a better offshore banking destination. I’ll have a word with my mates in Auckland and Hamilton if I can use their physical addresses 😉

Very valid point IzzThatSo. If one pass away with direct foreign investment, it can be nightmare bringing it back for beneficiaries.
If you have a direct foreign investment (am looking into that myself via Nedgroup Investments International Isle of Man/Ireland as possibility as they have fairly low 4,000USD entry), some foreign jurisdictions (like Isle of Man, Guernsey and others) have no CGT tax nor any Inheritance Tax. Ireland has IHT though.

Another tax “haven” closer to SA to consider is the Isle of Mauritius (AFAIK, Maurities has no CGT or Inheritance tax should you pass away & if you live there as a resident, their personal income tax is a flat 15% irrespective much much you earn. OK, life won’t be cheap there either & has high investment entry property schemes e.g. from 500,000USD investment)

Probably safer to use the direct offshore product offerings from any well-known local investments houses (fees will be unavoidable 🙁 ..but research some fund fact sheets), and use at least your R1million annual “single discretionary allowance” without need for SARS tax clearance.

Otherwise, if direct offshore is too onerous, start building up a Rand-denominated (“asset swop”) local UT or ETF fund. Just wait for ZAR to recover a bit 😉

We can always ask RobertInSydney do assist us in identifying banks in Aus who will be able to open non-resident accounts for S’Africans via online 😉

Very good article and comments , except of course from little Robert. other than telling us so he probably spends his day looking for food specials at the local grocery store

Will always appreciate Magnus for writing/co-writing a book about financial independence which set me on the right path 20 years ago, but do wonder if this not a case of the horse having bolted. Amazon etc are very richly valued, while SA stocks, especially small/midcaps which I like are very cheap after big declines. Anything can happen re rand/politics etc, but I would not swap one for the other at this point. My SA dividends will likely go offshore, but hesitant to swap cheap capital for expensive capital.

But do not discount the fact that the horse will continue to run! Look how dependent society has become on technology. It’s not going anywhere. In fact, if you compare valuations today to those in 5 years time, it might look ridiculously cheap!

Timing the market is impossible. If you are buying in, buy in to stay.

Great Article!!

I went to the Vanguard website and looked for the fund…..and its closed to new investors 🙁

could it be that the article was written to push up value ??? it happens –

Vanguard is one of the largest fund managers in the WORLD. I doubt that a few lonely investors from South Africa will ‘push up the value’

Magnus, thanks your opinion. Always good food for thought.

It seems, however, that the fund is no longer taking new investors.According to Vanguard website: “Effective 3 March 2014, Vanguard U.S. Opportunities Fund is closed to all new accounts: existing shareholders can still make additional share purchases” (

Seems a bit strange to be punting a fund that in effect no longer exists for new investors….

Magnus – – – your response is awaited – by me anyway

Believe it or not, there are ways around this.

Yes, the fund is closed to NEW individual investors, but platforms such as Momentum Wealth International have arrangements that effectively see THEM as the client (i.e. existing shareholder), and not the actual investor per se. This allows new clients of MWI to invest into the fund. Does it make sense?

Yes, Magnus hindsight is 20 20 vision. Maybe include some resource based economies in your “analysis” – How did Robert’s Aus index perform relative to ours and maybe the UK FTSE (not resource based but no fireworks) – Of course it makes sense to invest in these offshore funds but use a low cost platform and skip advisers that add absolutely nothing to performance and yet earn nice juicy trail fees – This country has given you so much Magnus – Stop trashing it every opportunity you get – You and Robert are cut from the same mould (although motivated by different self serving interests) – Reg 28 is not ideal but you get a significant tax deduction if you invest and its safe from any creditors (not SARS). SA has significant challenges but it also has some wonderful people – I have traveled extensively to appreciate the people we have in SA – Unfortunately the country is being sabotaged by a few self serving connected idiots – If none of us invests in our own country it will just be a death spiral/self fulfilling prophecy with more economic hardship.

Other than my business & residential property – all my assets are on us markets. For various reasons I don’t like Aus market – banks are clamping down on borrowing which will impact their earnings. Also my view is that Aus $ is over valued- shld be closer to .50 (that’s 2 in yr parlance). It was .50 when we arrived in ’86 & a lot has happened – so using opportunity to get us $ at good rate.

Next to Putin, you must be the wealthiest person outside SA, Robert
Seriously – – You should start a blog – to educate us (people like me) who desperately need advice.


Let see if Magnus is a bright spark – how do you buy the vanguard through there platform? If you are a South African.

The fund is open to admiral vanguard holders at 25000 dollars a year

It is very clear from the chart that VANGUOA is a much higher risk (higher volatility) investment than the S&P 500. So I am not surprised that in the long term it will beat the S&P 500. Why not get a US small cap index if you only care about outright performance and discard volatility?

what is the Sharpe ratio for both funds better comparison

Well, I see the VANGUOA uses the Russell 3000 Index and NOT the S&P 500. And the VANGUOA beta is 1.18%, so it is indeed more risky than the index.

VANGUOA 10 year sharpe 0.59 vs S&P500 10 year sharpe of 0.5. Looks like VANGUOA has a slightly better risk adjusted return, BUT after expenses your typical S&P500 index will probably end up ahead…

Dear Gemini,

Where o where was I thrashing our country?
We are all entitled to our own opinions but don’t twist the facts to suit those opinions.
My job is to find funds with the best returns at the lowest costs. I was not pushing any fund–Vanguard does not market its funds in SA anyway. I was merely trying to show that one needs to read a little bit further than the headline when it comes to investing.
Because Warren Buffett says its so doesn’t make it true when it isn’t.
And to Moneychief–these returns produced here are all AFTER costs so don’t try and make certain conclusions that only serves your own prejudices.

Dear Magnus

Ok, so show me one article (in recent times) when you have been positive about SA? I have a lot of “friends” that have emigrated and now slate SA every chance they get – SA has its problems (and sometimes they seem almost insurmountable) but you either contribute to a solution or at the very least don’t make people even more negative – Maybe you should read your own article “I have to feel sorry for investors, perhaps not so well informed, who keep on investing (or are advised to invest) in under-performing funds/indices linked to our local stock market.” Where are all those doomsayers saying the Rand will be trading at 80 to the Dollar? You are most certainly entitled to your opinion – But as a adviser you should at least have a balanced view – No the same story over and over again – And as I said if you want to compare the JSE to other indices at least include some peers or other 1st world court indices (for a balanced view) – Also maybe once you have achieved what Warren Buffett has achieved (at least he stays humble) you can start questioning his advice.

I agree with you, Gemini

((((I do so, at the (considerable) risk that once you criticize Magnus, your head is called for by his loyal followers, and he ignores any uncomfortable questions.
I say – if you have the guts to put your opinion on line – as an self declared expert – you need to have the guts to defend it or answer questions about it.))))

Thanks for clarifying that the returns are after costs.

Magnus please point us to the 1st article where you recommended the FT biotech fund with the date of publication.

The earliest article I can find where you recommend it was this one from 5-2-2014:

Subsequently it returned 5.4% pa in US$ vs the S&P 500 index fund (SPY) 12.2% pa US$ return.

Please point us to your published ex anti prediction beating Buffett’s advice.

It seems as if you are financial advisor which missed the boat by not advising your clients to investment offshore.
Give a balanced view, you ask?
Compared to the MSCI Emerging Market index the JSE is also trailing very badly and underperforming. Are you even aware of that?
A 100% asset allocation to SA-only assets have been a very poor investment and nothing appears on the horizon to change that.
So as far as balanced investments you are recommending half in poorly performing investments and the other half in well-performing investments. Does that make any sense at all….?

Really – Is that what I said? Yes, I am aware of the performance of the MSCI EMI – But I’m also aware of other indexes that had pedestrian performance – You cant access RA/Pens/Prov funds if not in line with Reg 28 – So you would forgo any tax deduction just not to have any exposure to SA? Yes, that’s high level financial planning – I NEVER SAID IT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE to invest offshore – I just said don’t trash your country – And I’m not an financial adviser

Yeah don’t trash the country… you might hurt the rand’s feelings.

If it is not embarrassing enough for Magnus that the S&P 500 index fund beat the Franklin Templeton Biotech fund by more than 6% pa in US$ terms since his Moneyweb article on 5-2-2014 where he punted it, then check this out.

The index fund in this space (First Trust Arca Biotech index fund) with an expense ratio a quarter that of the FT biotech fund beat it by a whopping 8% pa since that date.

I wonder if Magnus’s refusal to understand why index funds are superior is explained by this Upton Sinclair quote — ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’

Those worried about death taxes by investing offshore, yes it is a issue. That’s why I stick with Alan Gray. Though my investment still is offshore direct (not asset swap) it falls under SA estate. Get the more sexy explanation on their website.

From their website:

“Effective 3 March 2014, Vanguard U.S. Opportunities Fund is closed to all new accounts: existing shareholders can still make additional share purchases”

Hi Bylo Selhi,

Please go to April 12 2013 where I wrote a long article about Biotechnology and the fact that I have been investing and recommending FT Biotech funds since September 2011, both on RSG and other radio stations.

Sorry I can’t find that article, but if I give you the benefit of the doubt:
Since 12-4-2013 the FT Biotech fund returned 14.5% pa (US$), the S&P500 index fund 12.73% pa and the First Trust Arca Biotech index fund 18.7% pa.

So purely on return you got one over Mr Buffett, but Mr Bogle still wins by a mile.

Also as an adviser you should know it is not return that matters, but risk adjusted return.
The SD for the FT fund is 24.44 vs 10.24 for the S&P 500 with the Sharpe ratios 0.73 and 1.77 respectively. So where it matters Mr Buffet still clobbered your advice.

As the above article was another attempt by MH to discredit index investing – I hereby declare victory for Mr Bogle.

Dear Bylo Selhi,

I’ve been in the investment world long enough to know you can prove almost anything with statistics. In other words, torture the facts until they confess….
The First Trust Arca Biotech fund is not available on any platform in SA nor is it approved by the FSB.
So be my guess and try and open an account in the US and invest in it.
The FT Biotech fund is the only biotech fund available to local investors and approved by the FSB–mainly through my doing.
Can you imagine the outcry if I went and recommended a non-FSB approved fund to locals….Oh vey!
You also miss completely my point about the article. It was meant to show the irony about Vanguard–the leaders in index investing–having their own active fund handsomely beating their index fund.

Can an individual South African invest in ETF’s directly through the Vanguard platform or does one have to go through an intermediary? If so, do you know of any local intermediaries / platforms offering Vanguard products?

You will have to move the money to an overseas brokerage firm where you can trade US ETF’s and transact from there.

Not quite – Easy Equities will hopefully be adding some of the Vanguard ETF’s to their US offering which launches beginning August (they will also have some of the iShares ETF’s)

@ Magnus Heystek

I note you respond, selectively, to messages and queries.

This suggests to me that you really do not have an answer – how to go about it? how to invest if the ‘fund’ is closed? why invest in your choice if the results are flawed? etc

I say it again – you lose credibility when you put forward a specific investment only to be questioned – and then do nothing to clear up the ‘confusion’ you created.

Bad show, Magnus!

PS I think MWeb not place this comment – you are a preferred supplier after all.

Dear Illphil,
The crux of the article was that Vanguard, known par excellence as an index tracking fund company(erroneously it seems) also runs active funds, one which has beaten their best-performing index fund by a long shot. And that the Vanguard executives prefer to put their own money into the active fund.
Ironic, isn’t it?
The fact that the fund is closed to new investors is neither here nor there. Existing investors can still add money to the fund at any stage.
I didn’t write the article to promote the Vanguard Opportunity fund as it is not registered by the FSB (none of the Vanguard funds are), just to make the point that there are very good active fund managers out there.
My inbox was filled with emails requesting access to this active fund…but I couldn’t help them.

Few money articles amass 55 comments.
Comments, though some skewed and missing the main point of the article, indicates interest in the article and / or the writer. Can’t help but just smile at our SA way of reacting and critique – the behaviour of some are so predictable. They have to attack – they just can’t help themselves. At least the writer got the repliers to do a bit more reading, to consider tax consequences and evoked some elementary level of debate. Now watch the attacks on this reply.

I would argue that the only way the economics of the above rational would work en mass is if we (SA as a country) dollarised (ie adopted the US dollar as our official currency) and dropped the rand…

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