With cheap index funds, you can diversify without paying a premium.
Herbert Gehr—Getty Images/Time & Life Picture
By Susie Poppick
November 12, 2014

Another day, another piece of evidence that active fund managers are no better at investing than lab rats.

This time, researchers at Bank of America found that more than 4 out of 5 managers have failed to beat the Russell 1000 index of large-company stocks so far this year. In fact, there’s been only one year in the last decade (2007) when a majority of active managers beat the market.

“It’s an incredibly competitive environment, with so many active managers looking for the next great investment, and it’s just not there,” says Alexander Dyck, a finance professor at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who has co-authored an international comparison of active and passive strategies.

Dyck’s research found that in the United States, passive strategies work better than active management. That is, mutual funds that simply mimic an index actually return more money, post-fees, than funds managed by professionals making hands-on choices about what stocks, bonds, and other assets to hold.

That finding is a big deal because people who invest in active funds—say, in their 401(k)s or other retirement accounts—typically pay much higher fees than those who invest in passive funds. Thanks to active management, stock fund investors on average end up paying more than five times as much in expenses than they would with index funds; that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, as the chart below shows.

Source: https://personal.vanguard.com/us/insights/investingtruths/investing-truth-about-cost

When active funds do beat their benchmarks, that can make up for high fees (though evidence suggests even that scenario is rare). But with most returns so uninspiring, there doesn’t seem to be much remaining justification for active management, at least for the average investor. Better to stick with cheap index funds.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Dyck’s research, for example, found that active managers can still beat their benchmarks when they invest overseas—particularly in emerging markets like China, where investing in companies hand-picked by a professional tends to be a better bet than investing in a basket of stocks representing every company out there.

“In countries with significant governance risks, a plain old index gives you exposure to everything, including the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says Dyck.

But even though active investing outside of the U.S. seems to work for institutional investors who generally pay lower fees, Dyck says, it doesn’t mean it’ll be worth it for you. As a retail investor, you’ll almost always pay more than the professionals.

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