Trying to pick individual stocks is a losing game, and this doesn’t just apply to individual investors. It’s also true for professionally run, actively managed mutual funds.
Actively managed funds are tasked with picking a collection of stocks and bonds that will outperform market indices, or benchmarks, such as the S&P 500 or the Dow. They’re armed with Ph.D. analysts, hundreds of interns, and tools and research to which very few of us have access — but they can’t consistently beat their benchmarks by enough to justify their costs.
Eighty-six percent of actively managed funds failed to beat their benchmarks in 2014, according to the S&P Dow Jones Indices scorecard. “So what?” you may say, “That’s only one year.” But 89% of funds failed to beat their benchmarks during the past five years; 82% failed to do so during the last decade.
The following data helps illustrate how unlikely it is for active managers to beat the market over longer periods. During a one-year period, a high percentage of active managers in some categories may outperform their benchmarks. But over five- and 10-year periods, fewer active managers outperform.
Some managers do outperform the market, but picking a winning manager is as tricky as picking winning stocks. If you still think you can find “a good manager” who is the exception, consider this widely accepted Wall Street rule of thumb: Past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance. A manager who outperformed last year may not do it again this year.
Reasons for underperformance
There are a few main reasons actively managed funds underperform, aside from picking the wrong investments:
Many actively managed funds charge 1% to 2% per year in management fees, while a passively managed exchange-traded fund could charge as little as 0.1% to 0.2% per year. And many actively managed mutual funds are loaded funds, which means you’ll pay a sales charge, typically between 4% to 8% of your investment, when you buy or sell the fund — though the fee may decrease the longer you stay invested. Compounded over time, these higher fees can eat up a lot of gain, reducing overall returns.
Because actively managed funds try to time the market and pick winners, they buy and sell positions frequently. These transaction costs reduce the fund’s returns, and all the buying and selling can also create taxable gain. Fund managers have no incentive to avoid this because they simply pass those taxable gains on to you, the shareholder.
Some argue that markets are becoming more efficient, making it difficult to identify overvalued or undervalued stocks. The efficient market hypothesis states that stocks are constantly adjusting to news and information, and thus their share prices reflect their “fair value.” In simpler language, other than in the very short term, there are no undervalued stocks to buy or inflated stocks to sell. This makes it virtually impossible to outperform the market through individual stock selection and market timing.
An unsustainable approach
Whether active management can outperform is a controversial topic. Many experts dismiss the science and say that they can indeed beat the market. Some of them may even do so for a year or two, or even five, but what about over the long run? It’s simply not sustainable, and to think otherwise is dangerous.
If the data shows that the vast majority of the brightest and most well-equipped professional investors can’t beat their benchmarks, why should you believe anyone who says they can?
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