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Why Fund Investors in 2009 Should be Thankful

In times of great turmoil and anxiety in the markets, I like to read accounts of prior booms and busts, if only to assure myself that that a line depicting the slow and steady growth of the stock market over the long term masks the many periods of doubt and frustration that investors have always had to deal with.

And in doing just that recently, I stumbled upon a reason for investors to be thankful, which struck me as a particularly appropriate feeling in late November.

It happened as I was re-reading Supermoney. If you're not familiar with the book, it's Adam Smith's (the pen name of George Goodman) classic account of the boom and bust of the late-1960s Go-Go era.

It's remarkable how similar the sentiment of the early 1970s was to today. Investors were coming out of a period of remarkable excess. Great fortunes and stellar reputations had been made on investment schemes and strategies that seemed rock-solid, until they failed, and investors realized too late how foolish they had been.

But what struck me in this reading of Supermoney was the tone of resignation that Goodman took. Discouraged at the track record of the investment professionals of his era, Goodman quoted a Wharton study which found that "virtually all of the published government and academic studies have indicated that the investment performance of mutual funds in the aggregate is not very different from that of the stock market as a whole."

So what, Goodman despaired, was an investor to do? "You have to do something with [your] money," Goodman wrote, "and just because you invest it does not mean that you have to be the median or the average. Somebody has to be first, and somebody has to be last, and one hopes to be closer to the former than the latter."

So choose and hope seemed to be the only course of action, because, Goodman noted, "you cannot really buy the Dow Jones Average, or the S&P. If you are going to buy a fund ... you have to buy that and hope that your fund is at the top of the list."

Yes, investors in those days, burned by many of the strategies and superstars that had been lauded just a few short years ago, had little choice but to rely again on their ability to identify a manager worthy of their trust, and hope that this time their faith would be justified.

Small wonder that, after chronicling the failures of the era's best and brightest, Goodman struck such a despondent tone.

So thank heavens that investors today no longer face such a quandary. On the heels of a financial meltdown of historic proportions, with their faith in Wall Street shaken, investors now have the benefit of a choice that Goodman alluded to: a broad stock market index fund.

Achieving our financial goals is no longer yoked to our ability to select a money manager who will prove to be worthy of his fees. We can instead opt-out of the chase, place our assets in a broadly diversified index fund for pennies on the dollar with the knowledge that our portfolio's future growth will track the returns of the total stock market within a few basis points.

No, that doesn't mean that investors today have little to be concerned about as we ponder what lies ahead, but our options today are vastly superior to what our counterparts of earlier eras were given. And that's no small reason to be thankful.