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Active Management – Can You Win the Loser’s Game?

Investors are faced with a choice between more than 8,000 distinct mutual funds (excluding multiple share classes of the same fund), according to data from Morningstar. How can investors be expected to choose wisely from such a large investment universe? As it turns out, the first step may well be to filter out all actively-managed mutual funds.

Standard & Poor’s, a leading financial market benchmarking firm, prepares a semi-annual analysis called the S&P Indices Versus Active Funds Scorecard, or SPIVA Scorecard. The Scorecard seeks to compare the performance of various mutual funds to relevant benchmarks tracked by S&P. The Scorecard is particularly useful for the following reasons:

  1. S&P considers all funds available at the beginning of a sample period, and not just those funds which survived through until today, thereby eliminating survivorship bias.
  2. The Scorecard compares each mutual fund to a relevant benchmark, as opposed to comparing all funds to a single benchmark such as the S&P 500.
  3. S&P provides analysis on an asset-weighted basis, which reflects the fact that an investor is more likely to have access to, say, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund ($463 billion in assets) than the Nuveen Growth Fund ($49 million in assets).

For the period ending 06/30/2016, the SPIVA Scorecard showed that on a 10-year trailing basis, between 68% and 99% of US equity mutual funds were outperformed by a relevant S&P index. This means that even in the best-performing category of US equity mutual funds (those in the Large Cap Value space), only 32% of funds outperformed their benchmark. This lends strong evidence to the wisdom of utilizing index funds (rather than actively-managed funds) to assemble a portfolio.

We find two common objections to the advice to avoid actively-managed funds – the first is to only use actively-managed funds in the “less-efficient” asset classes, such as small-company stocks or emerging markets stocks. However, the SPIVA Scorecard confirms that active-manager underperformance is as robust in these asset classes as it is in more common asset classes such as large-cap US stocks. The second objection we hear is that investors should limit their choice of actively-managed funds to those with good track records. Bradford Cornell’s 2008 paper “Luck, Skill and Investment Performance invalidates this strategy. His results “indicate that most of the annual variation in [fund] performance is due to luck, not skill.” If skill is scarce while luck dominates, then past performance should not be relied upon to make investment decisions for the future. As we are told time and time again, past performance is not indicative of future results.

Finance author Charles Ellis offered this sage advice in his book ‘Winning the Loser’s Game’: “Everything I know is known by the market and worked in to the market…The best way to invest is through benign neglect. Get your asset allocation right and leave your investments alone.” We couldn’t agree more!

Dan_BDaniel Bauer, CFP® serves as the Chief Investment Officer of AllSquare Wealth Management, LLC. In this capacity, his responsibilities include developing, implementing, and monitoring investment portfolios for customers of the firm.


AAllSquare Wealth Management is a Federally Registered Investment Advisory Firm.
AllSquare Wealth Management, LLC is a registered investment adviser.


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