I was a doctoral student at UCLA, in 1983 and 1984, when I was assigned to be research assistant to Professor Eugene Fama, who wisely abandoned the University of Chicago during the cold winters for the beaches and tennis courts of Southern California. Professor Fama won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2013, primarily for laying the foundations for efficient markets in this paper and refining them in his work in the decades after. The debate between passive and active investing that he and others at the University of Chicago initiated has been part of the landscape for more than four decades, with passionate advocates on both sides, but even the most ardent promoters of active investing have to admit that passive investing is winning the battle. In fact, the mutual fund industry seems to have realized that they face an existential threat not just to their growth but to their very existence and many of them are responding by cutting fees and offering passive investment choices.
Passive Investing is winning!
When Jack Bogle started the Vanguard 500 Index fund in 1975, I am sure that even he could not have foreseen how successful it would become in changing the way we invest. Not only have index funds become an increasing part of the landscape, but exchange traded funds have also added to the passive investing mix and index-based investing has expanded well beyond the S&P 500 to cover almost every traded asset market in the world. Today, you can put together a portfolio composed of index funds and ETFs to create any market exposure that you want in stocks, bonds or commodities. The growth of passive investing can be seen in the graph below, where I plot the proportion of the US equity market held by passive investors (in the form of ETFs and index funds) and active investors from 2005 to 2016:
In 2016, passive investing accounted for approximately 40% of all institutional money in the equity market, more than doubling its share since 2005. Since 2008, the flight away from active investing has accelerated and the fund flows to active and passive investing during the last decade tell the story.
The question is no longer whether passive investing is growing but how quickly and at what expense to active investing. The answer will have profound consequences not only for our investment choices going forward, but also for the many employed, from portfolio managers to sales people to financial advisors, in the active investing business.
Aided and Abetted by Active Investing
To understand the shift to passive investing and why it has accelerated in recent years, we have to look no further than the investment reports that millions of investors get each year from their brokerage houses or financial advisors, chronicling the damage done to their portfolios during the course of the year by frenetic activity. Put bluntly, investors are more aware than ever before that they are often paying active money managers to lose money for them and that they now have the option to do something about this disservice.
1. Collectively, active investing cannot beat passive investing (ever)!
Before you attack me for being a dyed-in-the-wool efficient marketer, there is a simple mathematical reason why this statement has to be true. During 2015, for instance, about 40% of institutional money in equities was invested in index funds and ETFs and about 60% in active investing of all types. The money invested in index funds and ETFs will track the index, with a very small percentage (about 0.11%) going to cover the minimal transactions costs. Thus, active money managers have to start off with the recognition that they collectively cannot beat the index and that their costs (transactions and management fees) will have to come out of the index returns. Not surprisingly, therefore, active investors will collectively generate less than the index during every period and more than half of them will usually underperform the index. To back up the first statement, here are the median returns for all actively managed funds, relative to passive index funds for various time periods ending in 2015:
Source: S&P (SPIVA)
The median active equity fund manager underperformed the index by about 1.21% a year between 2006 and 2015 and by far larger amounts over one-year (-2.92%), three year (-2.78%) and five year (-2.90%). Thus, it should come as no surprise that well over half of all active fund managers have been outperformed by the index over different time periods:
Note that in this graph, active fund managers in equity, bond and real estate all under perform their passive counterparts, suggesting that poor performance is not restricted just to equity markets.
If active money managers cannot beat the market, by construct, how do you explain the few studies that claims to find that they do? There are three possibilities. The first is that they look at subsets of active investors (perhaps hedge funds or professional money managers) rather than all active investors and find that these subsets win, at the expense of other subsets of active investors. The second is that they compare the returns generated by mutual funds to the return on a stock index during the period, a comparison that will yield the not-surprising result that active money managers, who tend to hold some of their portfolios in cash, earn higher returns than the index in down markets, entirely because of their cash holdings. You can perhaps use this as evidence that mutual fund managers are good at market timing, but only if they can generate excess returns over long periods. The third is that these studies are comparing returns earned by active investors to a market index that might not reflect the investment choices made by the investors. Thus, comparing small cap active investors to the S&P 500 or global investors to the MSCI may reveal more about the limitations of the index than it does about active investing.
2. No sub-group of active investors seems to be able to beat the market
The standard defense that most active investors would offer to the critique that they collectively underperform the market is that the collective includes a lot of sub-standard active investors. I have spent a lifetime talking to active investors who contend that the group (hedge funds, value investors, Buffett followers) that they belong to is not part of the collective and that it is the other, less enlightened groups that are responsible for the sorry state of active investing. In fact, they are quick to point to evidence often unearthed by academics looking at past data that stocks with specific characteristics (low PE, low Price to book, high dividend yield or price/earnings momentum) have beaten the market (by generating returns higher than what you would expect on a risk-adjusted basis). Even if you conclude that these findings are right, and they are debatable, you cannot use them to defend active investing, since you can create passive investing vehicles (index funds of