There’s no denying that the index fund is the best ride in the mutual-fund amusement park, but that doesn’t make it right for everybody.
Numbers can be tortured until they say almost anything, but some recent mutual-fund statistics could get investors to defy conventional wisdom and feel like it’s a smart move.
The numbers here are saying that it’s possible for active management — a money manager trading in and out of securities — to outperform passive management, where a fund company merely replicates an index.
Conventional wisdom is that passive management is better because a majority of funds routinely fail to beat the benchmarks they’re measured against. There’s no denying those numbers, which is why so many investors have transitioned to passive strategies.
There’s no denying that the index fund is the best ride in the mutual-fund amusement park, but that doesn’t make it right for everybody. Some people just can’t strap themselves into the market’s roller coaster without getting nauseous; active funds, in theory, should have a manager’s moves protecting against ugly downturns, creating a smoother ride that a nervous investor might better stomach.
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But to avoid a sour stomach, you actually have to believe you can identify the right manager.
Here’s where the new studies come in: They suggest the odds of finding a manager capable of beating the market aren’t so long.
Fidelity Investments recently updated a performance report showing that while the average fund underperformed the index in 2015 — as it had in earlier time periods — the problem was more with the way the “average” was calculated than it was with active management.
“Industrywide averages can be misleading, and may be doing investors a disservice by giving them the perception that all active funds cannot outperform passive funds, which is simply not true,” Timothy Cohen, Fidelity’s chief investment officer, said in a statement. “We believe the results of applying certain straightforward and objective filters can be a helpful starting point for investors seeking to identify above-average actively managed equity funds that beat their benchmarks.”
Fidelity put two conditions onto the equity-fund universe, screening for the lowest-cost funds from the five largest mutual-fund families, and the funds meeting those criteria outperformed their benchmark on average by 0.70 percent in 2015, a year that was purportedly hard on stock pickers.
From 1992 through 2015, this same group of funds beat their benchmarks on average by 0.18 percent per year.
Meanwhile, the American Funds used Morningstar data to create their “active scoreboard,” which showed that “contrary to popular belief, research proves that two simple screens can uncover a group of funds that, when taking the average for the group, has beaten the indexes over one-, three-, five- and 10-year rolling periods.”
The screens in this case were low expenses and high levels of management ownership.
This swaps the “five biggest fund companies” screen for managers who eat their own cooking.
These aren’t completely new cases for active management, just the latest verses in the chorus, updated after a year in which the indexes supposedly ruled the day. Fidelity and American, it should be noted, have a big stake in touting active funds.
But C. Thomas Howard, director of research at AthenaInvest, a Denver-based research firm, unveiled research early in 2015 — updated in January of this year — showing that 90 percent of active equity-fund managers are superior stock pickers.
Underperformance for the average fund is the result of “structural decisions made by fund companies,” conditions he lumps together into something called “portfolio drag.”
Howard’s research shows that both American Funds and Fidelity managers have significant stock-picking skill, but give back much of that edge — but not all of it — due to portfolio drag. “These two complexes, like all active funds, can deliver more value to their investors by not growing too large — keeping fund assets less than $1 billion — by not closely tracking their benchmark, and by not over-diversifying, limiting holdings to no more than 20 high-conviction stocks.”
Ultimately, the lesson for investors here is that anyone considering active funds must focus on a few key conditions, or accept that they’re likely picking a laggard.
Low costs are a must, the one universal condition experts agree on.
“High-conviction” — which can be used to describe a manager’s personal stake in or long tenure with a fund, but can also apply to funds that spread their money through just a few stocks the manager truly believes in — is next. From there, it’s about preference, whether it is large fund families, performance during down markets, a clear and repeatable methodology and more.
With the right characteristics, an investor might be looking at an active fund that defies conventional wisdom but that they can live with even in times when active management doesn’t look so good.
“Your biggest risk isn’t that your manager will underperform, it’s that you’ll panic and do something stupid and self-destructive,” said David Snowball, founder of MutualFundObserver.com. “With luck, if you know what your manager is doing and why she’s doing it and if she communicates clearly and frequently, there’s at least the prospect that you’ll suppress the urge to self-immolation.”