In my last post, I pointed to the shift towards passive investing that has accelerated over the last decade and argued that much of that shift can be explained by the sub-par performance of active investors. I ended the post on a contradictory note by explaining why I remained an active investor, though the reasons I gave were more personal than professional. I was taken to task on two fronts. The first was that I should have spent less time describing the problem (poor performance of active investors) and more time diagnosing the problem (the reasons for that poor performance). The second was that my rationale for being an active investor, i.e., that I enjoyed investing enough that I would be okay not earning excess returns, could never be used if I sought to manage other people’s money and that a defense of active investing would have to be based on something more substantial. Both are fair critiques and I hope to address them in this post.
The Roots of the Active Investing Malaise
There is no denying the facts. Active investing has a problem not only because it collectively under performs passive investing (which is a mathematical given) but also because the drag on returns (from transactions costs costs and management fees) seems to be getting worse over time. Even those few strands of active investing that historically have outperformed the market have come under siege in the last decade. While there are many reasons that you can point to for this phenomenon, here are some that I would highlight:
- A “Flatter” Investment Word: The investment world is getting flatter, as the differences across active investors rapidly dissipate. From information to processing models to trading platforms, professionals at the active investing game (including mutual funds and hedge funds) and individual investors are on a much more even playing field than ever before. As an individual investor, I have access to much of the information that an analyst working at Merrill Lynch or Fidelity has, whether it be financial statements or market rumors. I am not naive enough to believe that, SEC rules against selective information disclosure notwithstanding, there are no channels for analysts to get “inside” information but much of that information is either too biased or too noisy to be useful. I have almost as much processing power on my personal computer as these analysts do on theirs and can perhaps even put it to better use. In fact, the only area where institutions (or at least some of them) may have an advantage over me is in being able to access information on trading data in real time and investing instantaneously and in large quantities on that information, leading to breast beating about the unfairness of it all. If history is any guide, the returns to these strategies fade quickly, as other large players with just as much trading power are drawn into the game. In fact, while much ink was spilt on flash trading and how it has put those who cannot partake at a disadvantage, it is worth noting that the returns to flash trading, while lucrative at first, have faded, while attracting smaller players into the game. In summary, if the edge that institutional active investors have had over individual active investors was rooted in information and processing power, it has almost disappeared in the United States and has eroded in much of the rest of the world.
- No Core Philosophy: There is an old saying that if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything, and it applies to much of active investing. Successful investing starts with an investment philosophy, a set of core beliefs about market behavior that give birth to investment strategies. Too many active investors, when asked to characterize their investment philosophies, will describe themselves as “value investors” (the most mushy of all investment descriptions, since it can mean almost anything you want it to mean), “just like Warren Buffett” (a give away of lack of authenticity) or “investors in low PE stocks” (confusing an investment strategy with a philosophy). The absence of a core philosophy has two predictable consequences: (a) a lack of consistency, where active investors veer from one strategy to another, often drawn to whatever strategy worked best during the last time period and (b) me-tooism, as they chase momentum stocks to keep up with the rest. The evidence for both can be seen in the graph below, which looks at the percentages of funds in each style group who remain in that group three and five years later and finds that about half of all US funds change styles within the next five years.
- Bloated Cost Structures: If there is a core lesson that comes from looking at the performance of active investors, it is that the larger the drag on returns from the costs of being active, the more difficult it is to beat passive counterparts. One component of these costs is trading costs, and the absence of a core investment philosophy, referenced above, leads to more trading/turnover, as fund managers undo entire portfolios and redo them to match their latest active investing avatars. Another is the overhead cost of maintaining an active investing infrastructure that was built for a different market in a different era. The third cost is that of active management fees, set at levels that are not justified by either the services provided or by the returns delivered by that management team. Active money managers are feeling the pressure to cut costs, as can be seen in expense ratios declining over time, and the fund flows away from active money managers has been greatest at highest cost funds. I can only speak for myself but there is not one active investor (nope, not even him, and not even if he was forty years younger) in the world that I have enough reverence for that I would pay 2% (or even .5%) of my portfolio and 20% (or 5%) of my excess returns every year, no matter what his or her track record may be. To those who would counter that this is the price you have to pay for smart money, my response is that the smart money does not stay smart for very long, as evidenced by how quickly hedge fund returns have come back to earth.
- Career Protection: Active money managers are human and it should come as no surprise that they act in ways that increase their compensation and reduce their chances of losing their jobs. First, to the extent that their income is a function of assets under management (AUM), it is very difficult, if not impossible, to fight the urge to scale up a strategy to accommodate new inflows, even if it is not scaleable. Second, if you are a money manager running an established fund, it is far less risky (from a career perspective) to adopt a strategy of sustained, low-level mediocrity than one that tries to beat the market by substantial amounts, with the always present