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Yes, There Are Good Active Funds

The average active fund is a loser. So, don’t buy the average active fund.

Dan Culloton, 02/12/2013

Statistical portraits of the average American are often unflattering. The numbers usually describe the typical Yank as an overweight coach potato who consumes too many Quarter Pounders and sugary drinks. “Basically,” my daughter quipped after reading such a description, “the average American is gross.”

It’s easy to come to a similar conclusion about active money managers. Studies by Morningstar and others of the performance of the typical actively managed fund versus relevant benchmarks often show the active fund losing. The theories explaining indexing’s advantage are well known. Because professional managers make up most of the market, on average, they can’t beat the market, on average, after they deduct their fees. So, low-cost indexing is bound to beat the typical active manager. Even the managers who manage to beat their bogies in one time period will find it darn near impossible to do so in subsequent time spans.

This has not gone unnoticed. In recent years, investors have pulled hundreds of billions of dollars from actively managed domestic stock funds and poured a comparable sum into traditional and exchange-traded passive funds. To the extent that the cash has gone toward building balanced portfolios of cheap, broadly diversified stock and bond index funds, it has been smart money.

A Hopeless Case?
Yet, even indexing adherents disagree whether passive investing is an all-or-nothing proposition. Last year, I attended an event held in honor of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle by the Institute for The Fiduciary Standard in New York. Naturally, indexing was one of the main topics of discussion. Roger Ibbotson, the Yale professor and founder of Ibbotson Associates; Burton Malkiel, author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street; Gus Sauter, Vanguard’s outgoing CIO and former index fund manager; and even David Swensen, Yale’s very active endowment manager, all agreed on indexing’s central tenets and attractions.

The only issue on which they differed was whether indexing, which now accounts for about one fourth of mutual fund and ETF assets, should completely dominate investors’ portfolios. That’s when a difference emerged, and I thought about my child’s revulsion of the average American.

Sauter, the veteran index fund manager from the firm that did for passive investing what McDonald’s did for the hamburger, actually conceded that active management was not a hopeless case. It’s possible for some active managers to beat the market, Sauter said, though it’s so hard to pick them beforehand that investors should still index a big portion of their assets just in case.

Swensen, the highly active endowment manager whose success and writings have inspired a generation of institutional investors to add alternative strategies and asset classes to their portfolios, said it was either all or nothing when it came to active and passive investing. If you can’t bring the same kind of time, expertise, and resources Yale does to bear on the task of selecting managers, don’t bother, he said. Just index everything. “There’s almost no chance that you’re going to pick an active fund that’s going to beat the market over a 20-year period,” he said.

Bad Managers vs. Bad Behavior
Even if you are a self-possessed investor, is it worth the bother looking for consistently above-average managers? Arguments against active management often rest on studies that pit the returns of the average manager against a specific index or series of benchmarks, such as the S&P 500 or its growth, value, and market-cap cousins. These studies have encouraged the exodus to passive vehicles but also have shortcomings. Some benchmarks aren’t a good fit for the funds in the categories they try to represent, and the fees and transaction costs that drag on active managers’ results don’t hinder the benchmarks.

Dan Culloton is an associate director of fund analysis for Morningstar and editor of Morningstar's Vanguard Fund Family Report, a monthly newsletter that offers independent, no-holds-barred guidance on the pros and cons of this dominant fund family. Click here for a free issue of the Vanguard Fund Family Report.

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