The protesters occupying Wall Street and locations in many other cities have strong cases to make against the privileged people in power. It's easy to find fault with the rich and wealthy institutions, and in many ways it's reasonable to feel that the deck is stacked against us. But sometimes we individuals can do better than the rich. The folks at Morningstar recently offered evidence of that, via a study of real estate investment trusts.
In a study commissioned by NAREIT that looked at 20 years of data, Morningstar found that publicly traded stock REITs performed considerably better than private equity real estate funds. They also tend to sport lower fees and use less leverage.
The private equity scoop
Here's an explanation of private equity funds from one of the horses' mouths, Swiss financial giant UBS
Notice that goal: to achieve returns superior to the stock market. Well, according to this new study, lots of private funds are failing in that mission.
Other studies find all kinds of fancy investments to be delivering underwhelming performances. A 2008 report from the Maryland Tax Education Foundation found that "leveraged buyout funds and venture capital funds provide less investment return than a portfolio of public stocks duplicating the S&P 500 index." It also mentioned another study concluding that the average hedge fund underperforms the public markets.
Fees, fees, fees
What's the problem with these investments? Well, in many cases it all comes down to fees. Money managers aren't getting rich by letting investors keep all of their gains.
According to a 2007 study, private equity funds actually outperformed the S&P 500 annually by about 3 percentage points -- on a pre-fee basis. But once you factor in fees, they underperformed it by 3 percentage points per year! That kind of difference can really add up.
Hedge fund managers often take around 2% of investors' money as an annual fee, and then take 20% of the fund's profits as well.
It's enough to (almost) make you feel bad for those rich folks and institutions (such as pension plans) that are parking money in private funds when they could opt for the regular stock market like the rest of us. (A sad little irony is that many of us do have some money in private equity funds, via the investments of pension plans.)
Opt for the common market
Whether you're after investments in real estate or other businesses, the stock market can serve you well. Buy into a common stock or REIT and you'll only pay a commission to your brokerage, which can be quite small indeed. (Our Broker Center features some good-quality, low-cost brokerages.) You won't be charged any annual fee.
If you'd rather not have to pick individual companies on your own, consider handy exchange-traded funds, which offer you baskets of securities that look like mutual funds but trade like stocks. You can apparently beat many or most private equity funds simply with a broad-market ETF such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF
Moving into individual companies, consider REITs such as Annaly Capital Management
To diversify your money across many REITs and reduce the risk of getting whacked by any single stock, you might look into an REIT ETF such as the Vanguard REIT Index ETF
The upper crust of society may have bigger homes and more expensive cars than we do, but they don't necessarily have an advantage when it comes to where they can invest their money. Terrific investing opportunities abound if you just keep your eyes open.
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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Annaly Capital Management, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chimera Investment, SPDR S&P 500, and Annaly Capital Management, and has sold short shares of SPDR S&P 500. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Health Care REIT. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.