When it comes to performance, mutual funds do better than the investors who buy them.

It’s a problem born of mechanics, emotion and timing, but investors generally make the discrepancy wider by falling into the most basic of investment traps.

The latest research for Morningstar, however, shows that investors may finally “get it,” having figured out that the best way to achieve long-term results like your funds is to hitch your wagon unstintingly to the issues you own.

For anyone who has chased performance in funds and ETFs, it’s a story that could help simplify their financial life while improving returns.

Let’s explore the problem to see why.

The performance gap between a fund and its shareholders is built around timing, and has been measured by a wide range of studies over several decades.

The problem starts with investors looking for funds that have proved themselves worthy of being purchased. Typically, funds earn that trust — and thus investor dollars — by outperforming peers and topping the charts for their asset class or strategy.


The hot performance draws in investors, who enter as the fund’s performance starts to regress toward the mean, because no fund remains hot forever.

The fund may have great overall results even after performance recedes to the average, but the shareholder who bought in after the good run mostly got the decline, buying high and selling low, the opposite of the proverbial way to win in the stock market.

In the latest “Mind the Gap” study released by Chicago-based Morningstar, investors have narrowed the performance discrepancy largely by moving away from efforts to time the market.

Morningstar found that the gap had declined around the globe, but noted that in the United States investors now trail their fund, on average, by 0.45%. In other words, if a fund delivered a 10% annualized gain over the decade ending in 2018, the average investor — factoring in additional purchases and withdrawals — earned 9.55% from the fund over that period.

What makes Morningstar’s research so compelling is how different it is from other studies, showing a dramatically wider void.

Research from DALBAR, for example, showed that investors were crushed by the stock market in 2018, losing 9.4% on the year as they repositioned portfolios to avoid mounting volatility, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 lost roughly 4.4% on the year.


Morningstar’s picture is dramatically more positive, although Russel Kinnel, director of manager research and editor at Morningstar’s FundInvestor newsletter, noted that the jury is still out on how much investors truly have learned because the 2018 market decline was short-lived.

“It’s partly a more benign market, partly people are making better decisions, but we won’t know for sure until the next bear market really puts it to a test,” Kinnel said in an interview on “Money Life with Chuck Jaffe,” my investing/personal finance podcast (moneylifeshow.com). “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s not just that the market’s going down, but it’s that the market is going down and [the investor] is worried that they won’t have a job in six months. We’ve had blips along the way but not as much of a test as a real recession or real bear market.”

But a soft market environment isn’t why investors’ performance aligns more closely with their funds; instead, it’s that investors themselves are lining up with their funds better, developing plans where the funds have a defined role.

The emergence of target-date and life-cycle funds has helped investors effectively hitch their future to a long-term fund, trying just to capture market-like returns over time. The explosion of indexing — with investors passively managing money rather than looking to actively generate superior returns — also has created more staying power.

But Kinnel noted that a big part of the problem creating the gap is that investors mismatch their funds to their needs; if a market decline of 30% makes it appear like you will blow your college savings, for example, you will get out to protect the tuition money.

Yet if investors have come along enough to feel reasonably comfortable with matching investments to their long-term goals and needs, then the real questions they should ask themselves occur any time they think about making a move, effectively whenever they  might do something that could widen their gap, increasing the chance that they lag their funds and the market in general.


Assuming you make sound choices before entering a fund — that you have a plan which the fund fits into — market conditions alone should not be a reason to sell. You most likely will get better results by going along for the ride.

With that in mind, Kinnel noted that most investors should unload a fund most often in three broad circumstances:

• You’ve reached your goals and need to make changes to remove and use the money or to reposition it to a more-appropriate asset allocation for the next stage of life.

• A fund has gone through a fundamental change “to where it no longer does what you bought it for,” Kinnel said. That means you bought the fund for a manager who has since retired, or the strategy of the fund has changed, fees are on the rise, and so on.

• To clean up a portfolio — perhaps combining overlapping funds or merging retirement plans — where the change is less about market timing and the behavior that truly creates the gap and more about convenience and making your investment life less complicated.

“If you have a plan and have done your homework,” Kinnel said, “you will find out that you have to do a lot less selling.”

And that, he noted, will lead to your results being more closely aligned to your fund’s returns, and in you being better positioned to reach your goals.