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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Recent Data on Passive Versus Active

One of the most important decisions an investor can make is whether to go passive or active. Passive accepts the market return, active seeks to beat the market return.

I am in the camp that says most investors investing for retirement should go passive (see previous post of "Proposal"). This rests on the belief that capital markets are mostly efficient. This means that stock and bond prices rapidly reflect publicly available information.

Believing in efficient markets practically comes with the territory of being an economist. Economists are drilled in the idea that when you have low barriers to entry, abnormal (i.e. greater than market ) profits won't persist. Take this idea to the capital markets where billions of dollars are on the line and it is pretty straightforward.

But this isn't an intuitive notion for most people. They hear their friend made a killing selling beanie babies and they run out and garner an inventory only to watch them gather dust later in their basement.

So what does recent data on passive versus active show? One of the most anticipated reports of the year  produced by Standard & Poor's is called the SPIVA report. This year, through 6/30/2016, 84.6% of large cap active managers underperformed the S&P 500 Index.

This means that if you bought SPY, the low cost index ETF, you outperformed 85 out of 100 managers for the year. For what it's worth, yearly performance is pretty much useless. Anything can happen in a year.

What is important is longer term performance because that is where costs that arise from active trading, management fees etc. come into play. The data shows that over the 5 years ended 6/30/2016 only 8% of active large cap managers performed better than the index. To break this down consider that if you had given 100 active large cap managers $1 million 5 years ago only 8 would have come back with better than index returns.

These results, along with the results of other market sectors, including "fixed income" are reported by Ryan Vlastelica in "How passive funds extended their dominance over actively managed rivals" /MarketWatch 9/15/2016.

There are various ways to try to beat the market. Some try to time the market, i.e. jump in when they think it is going up, jump out when then think it's going down. I call this the "hokey - pokey" approach to investing. And actually it amuses me. For example I was recently entertained by the mass exit called for after the Brexit vote. As we saw the market didn't fall off a cliff, instead it reached new records.

Another was to beat the market is to try and pick the best stocks. In this category I find especially interesting the so-called long/short Funds. If you think you can pick stocks then surely this proposition would interest you: study the stocks in the S&P 500 and short the 50 you dislike the most and with the proceeds buy equally weighted positions in the 50 you like the best.

Clearly, if you have any stock picking ability you would provide a superior return. Not only that but you should do well in any kind of market. This was, in fact, the pitch Funds following this approach presented. I know because I spent the first 20 years of my career investing for pension funds, endowments and other institutional investors. I heard the pitches.

How have they done you ask? William Baldwin, "Scary Results At Long-Short Equity Funds", 8/23/2016 Forbes provides some data. He says that Morningstar puts 133 publicly offered Funds in this category and that they returned 2%, average annualized return for 3 years ended 6/30/2016. The average stock index Fund returned 11.7%/year.

Is it really any wonder active funds are seeing huge outflows and index funds are seeing huge inflows. You don't need to be an economist to grasp that money flows from poorly performing high cost products to better performing low cost products.

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