If you’re wondering about active versus passive investing performance, you’ve come to the right place. Overall, it’s better to be a passive investor because it is very hard to outperform various stock market indices long term. The vast majority of active equity and fixed income fund managers underperform their respective indices.
One of the reasons why I left institutional equities in 2012 was because I felt it was a dying business. Trading commissions were getting squeezed due to algorithmic trading and other technological advancements.
Further, assets under management (AUM) for active money managers was also declining due to poor performance. It was obvious to me that passive investing was winning out over active investing.
The Rise Of Active Investing
Working harder and getting paid less was already demoralizing. Watching my clients I cared about work harder and underperform their respective indices made me feel like my job was pointless. When you feel like your job is pointless, it’s time to do something new. I also grew tired of being an active investor.
Since the time I left my day job, the business has only gotten worse for actively managed funds. Yes, it is true that passive money managers gained a tremendous amount of assets during this time period.
As a career, however, there is no excitement speaking to an index fund manager or analyst because they don’t do any analysis. All they do is follow the moves of their benchmark indices. For example, if the S&P 500 removes one name from its index, so does the index fund manager.
As of 2023, the market share of passively managed equity funds has risen to 45 percent according to Bank Of America. For passively managed bond funds, the market share is roughly 25 percent. The market share gains will likely continue.
Let’s look at some active versus passive investing performance in equities and fixed income over the past 10 years. The results are shocking!
Active Versus Passive Investing Performance
Since 2002, S&P Dow Jones Indices has been publishing the SPIVA U.S. Scorecard. The scorecard measures the performance of actively managed equity funds investing in domestic and international equity, as well as fixed-income funds, against their respective benchmarks.
The University of Chicago’s Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP) Survivor-Bias-Free US Mutual Fund Database serves as the underlying data source for the scorecard. As the CRSP database consists of publicly traded open-ended mutual funds, the fee structure primarily reflects retail products rather than institutional accounts.
Let’s take a look at the 10-year historical performance of equities first and then fixed income second.
Equity Institutional Manager Performance
Institutional managers, in this case, are actively-run funds that manage institutional money versus retail money. An example of institutional money is the firefighter’s pension of Texas. Another example is the sovereign wealth fund from Saudi Arabia. It gave Softbank $45 billion in capital to help create the $100 billion Vision Fund. What a mistake.
The below chart highlights that the majority of Institutional Managers in every equity investment category underperform their respective benchmarks, gross and net of fees.
The categories for percentage of funds that underperformed the most include: Large-Cap Core Funds (87.82% underperformed net of fees), Mid-Cap Core Funds (85%.11%), Multi-Cap Core Funds (84.29%), Large-Cap Growth Funds (81.69%). If you want to invest in actively managed equity funds, stay away from these categories.
The categories for percentage of funds that underperformed the least include: International Small-Cap Funds (59.52% underperformed), International Funds (66.28%), Multi-Cap Value Funds (66.94%), and Large-Cap Value Funds (65.28%). If you want to invest in actively managed funds, these are the categories where you have the best chance of outperforming.
Equity Mutual Fund Performance
Mutual funds are actively run funds that can be invested in by anybody who has a 401(k), IRA, or online brokerage account. Mutual funds are for retail investors.
The performance across all categories looks even more dismal than the performance from actively run institutional funds. Take a look at the chart below.
Only in the Equity Mutual Funds list do you see 90%+ of funds underperforming in categories such as Large-Cap Core Funds (93.27%), Mid-Cap Core Funds (90.23%), Small-Cap Core Funds (92.97%), and Multi-Cap Core Funds (91.79%).
Once again, the categories where actively run equity funds underperformed the least were International Funds (81% underperformed) and International Small-Cap Funds (64.15%). But saying that only 81% of the International Funds underperformed is like giving them trophies for getting Ds on their exams.
Overall, 77.97% of large-cap mutual fund managers and 73.21% of institutional accounts underperformed the S&P 500® on a gross-of-fees basis over the 10-year horizon.
There was one bright spot in 2018, however, and that’s Mid-cap Growth funds. Mid-cap Growth funds offered the best relative performance among equity categories in 2018; an impressive 81.60% outperformed the S&P MidCap 400® Growth’s 10.34% decline last year.
See the 2018 performance chart below. Relatively speaking, 2018 was a great year for actively run equity funds compared to its 10-year history. But over the long term, sustained outperformance is virtually impossible.
Fixed Income Active Fund Performance
Now let’s look at the performance of actively-run fixed income funds by Institutional Managers and Mutual Fund managers over the past 10 years. Overall, the percentage of funds underperforming by category is lower compared to actively run equity funds.
Institutional fixed income funds typically performed better than their benchmarks, gross of-fees, compared with their Mutual Fund counterparts. However, California municipal debt mutual funds posted the best relative performance figures over the 10-year horizon, gross-of fees.
But once you bake in the fees for California municipal debt mutual funds, the underperformance percentage goes from 26.32% to 36.84%. That is a huge 42% increase in the number of funds that underperformed. The percentage jump is even worse for NY municipal debt mutual funds.
Active Fund Management Fees Are A Big Killer For Investors
In other words, fees matter greatly. Fees matter much more in fixed income. The reason is because the average annual return for fixed income is lower than the average annual return for equity funds. Therefore, fees account for a greater drag on performance.
Hedge fund managers and venture capitalists get so rich is due to their exorbitant fee structure. Charting 2% of assets under management and 20% of profits or more is enormous!
Alas, I still like to invest in private funds for diversification purposes. It’s my way to invest in promising startups.
Related: How A Bond-Investing Homeowner Can Profit Thrice
Why Do Investors Still Invest In Actively Managed Funds?
Based on the data, it is clear that investing in actively run equity or fixed income funds is a suboptimal financial decision over the long run. You can get lucky in the short-run, but in the long run, sustained outperformance is practically impossible.
One of the main reasons why Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard was not a billionaire is because of low fees. If you want to get rich, then it’s a good idea to work for an active institutional investor. Be a portfolio manager or analyst. You’ll get paid big bucks to underperform!
Investing in a fund that performs better over the long-run and has lower fees is a no-brainer. Yet institutional and retail money continue to invest in actively run funds due to the following reasons: 1) hope, 2) marketing, and 3) pedigree.
Investors love to gamble. Despite the data saying that buying lottery tickets is a waste of money, the lottery system is still big business. The same goes for investors who invest in actively run funds. They are gambling the funds they invest in will finally outperform and make them richer.
Suckers For Great Marketing And Hope
Even though active versus passive investing performance makes passive investing in stocks and bonds better, we all like to dream.
Investors also get sucked in by great marketing and strong branding. Beautifully crafted words can make a difference in attracting capital. Over the short-run, slick websites and touching commercials also do wonders to attract capital. Great marketing often blinds you to the actual performance numbers until it’s too late.
Finally, many investors feel better when an old guy who went to an Ivy League school is managing their money. When a computer or a guy who is just following index weighting changes, it’s natural not to feel you’re getting your money’s worth. People tend to invest more when they feel more comfortable with the person at the helm.
Passive Over Active Investing All Day
The vast majority of your equity and fixed income investments should be in passively run funds. Your asset allocation between active and passive investments is up to you. I wouldn’t invest more than 50% of my investable assets in active funds.
Here is my recommended split between active and passive investing for various types of people.
I personally shoot for ~80% passive and ~20% active investments. The reason is because I still have an affinity to some of the clients I used to cover. I also love buying individual stocks if I’m a consumer of their products. For over a decade, I own individual stocks such as Apple and Google.
If you still love the idea of actively run funds, know that there is a level of active involvement in deciding what goes into a particular benchmark and its weighting. For example, variables such as market capitalization, profitability, float and liquidity, and geographic revenue composition play a factor in determining the S&P 500 index composition.
Further, if you insist on investing in active funds, you should look for categories that have less than 50% of the funds underperforming their respective benchmarks.
Diversify Your Net Worth
The main things you can do to grow your net worth through investing is minimizing fees, being objective about the performance data, investing consistently, and making sure you have a risk-appropriate asset allocation. Once you do those things, all you’ve got to do is wait and you will eventually grow rich.
When it comes to active versus passive investing performance, there really is no comparison. Passive investing is the way to go for the vast majority of people. Beyond stocks, I strong encourage investors to also diversify into real estate. Real estate is a more stable asset class that generates passive income and provides utility.
For me, roughly 30% of my net worth is in equities. 40% of my net worth is in real estate. The rest of my net worth is in bonds, business equity, and private equity investments.
Stay On Top Of Your Investmeents
To get rich, you need to stay on top of you investments. Sign up for Personal Capital, the web’s #1 free wealth management tool. It will allow you to x-ray your portfolio for excessive fees that you didn’t know you were paying. You’ll also see snap shot of your asset allocation and receive suggested allocation weightings based on your objectives.
After you link all your accounts, use their Retirement Planning calculator. It pulls your real data to give you as pure an estimation of your financial future as possible.
I’ve been using Personal Capital since 2012 to manage my money. In this time, my net worth has skyrocketed partially thanks to better money management.
Diversify Into Real Estate
Look to diversify your real estate investments across the country where valuations are lowerand net rental yields are higher. Thanks to demographic trends post pandemic, growth rates may be higher too.
Check out Fundrise and their real estate funds. Fundrise enables investors to diversify their real estate exposure with lower volatility compared to stocks. Income is completely passive and there is much less concentration risk. For most people, investing in a diversified real estate fund is appropriate.
If you are bullish on the demographic shift towards lower-cost areas of the country, check out CrowdStreet. CrowdStreet focuses on individual commercial real estate opportunities in 18-hour cities. If you have extra capital, you can build your own select real estate fund.
Both platforms are free to sign up and explore. I’ve personally invested $810,000 in real estate crowdfunding to take advantage of deals in the heartland of America.
Active vs. Passive Investing Performance is a Financial Samurai original post.
Mike M says
Might be neat to see a revision of this article in light of the recent market turmoil with COVID. Did active managers actually manage anything during the crash?
And did Robovisors do any better than comparable indexes?
Morningstar recently released a report on this topic as well. You have to jump through some hoops to get the actual report, but it’s called “Active/Passive Barometer” if anyone’s interested in reading it. The big difference between that report and this one is that Morningstar compare active fund performance to actual passive funds, not against benchmarks that have no fees at all (and in some cases are not even investable at all).
The conclusions remain broadly the same, however. It’s almost impossible for active management to add value in the heavily covered US large-cap space, whereas low-fee managers in less traveled areas like high-yield bonds and foreign small caps can and do outperform.
There’s a bubble in index fund investing. All the sheep who are piling into sp500 and total market index funds will get slaughtered as per usual whenever the masses latch on to something. People don’t realize that its not what investment you have or use it’s investor behavior that determines performance. Nobody is an excel spreadsheet – when the bear/panic comes – it will come hard for these investments and we’ll see a wipeout and people losing money by selling – including the next cyberattack on the market will target the biggest investments (sp500 index funds, etf)
Financial Samurai says
Sounds great. What are you doing to protect yourself from the next Armageddon? And are you financially independent? Would love to hear your story b/c I love doomsday scenarios!
I’m not here to shout out a “doomsday’ scenario. I’m here to point out what most sharp investors see and that’s everyone stampeding into index funds and index etfs (read Michael Burry latest observation). When the beast comes all the sheep will be liquidating into bonds right at the bottom and what they think are safe index funds will get rug pulled out. Not yet though, there’s too much cash on sidelines (and people continuing to exit stocks and miss this bull market we will never see again) and this market will may experience the next melt up (sp 5000?) like never seen before – then we get a rollover. Perhaps we are still very very early in this bull market and let the recession predictors (inverted yield curve) keep ringing the bell cause it’s not gonna happen with interest rates this low. You should know this, don’t ever fight the Fed Financial Samurai Guy.
I’m fully invested and never see any point to own bonds or sit in cash/cds. Like I said the key is to control investor behavior which will outperform everyone else by virtue of not making emotional mistakes. There are 8 great mistakes that most investors make and that’s the key to making money in market. I’ll give you one: Know the difference between temporary declines and permanent losses.
NW is 4.5
Financial Samurai says
Sounds good. It’s great to see you’re so bullish and so bearish at the same time. How can you lose in this scenario right?
What I do believe is everything is rational in the end. And it certainly has been such a great ride making so much money over the years.
Good luck on your journey to $10 million NW. getting to the estate tax exemption limit of $11.4 million I think is one of the best financial goals you can shoot for. Life gets better at this level.
I know someone who likes to say that everybody is sheep too, but then they invest exactly like the sheep.
It’s a weird phenomenon where people believe everybody else is wrong but themselves. But the reality is, they are everybody else.
I also agree about getting to over $10 million net worth. It’s a next level of financial contentment.
Leonardo Candoza says
In the perfect world, active would always win. Being able to get in and out of positions at bottoms and tops is where a ton of money is made, alas this is incredibly difficult.
With the difficulty of market timing, and the time and effort required, my bias is towards passive investing.
I mostly invest in active funds. Our main retirement funds (TIAA and Australian superannuation funds) are nominally active but fairly close to passive with moderate fees. The other active funds are mostly small cap or listed hedge funds. So, there seems to be a bit of opportunity in small cap for managers to outperform and the hedge funds are supposed to reduce the downside risk.
Sam (or anyone here with an opinion they feel strongly about), do you think it’s ever prudent in a taxable account to invest solely in individual dividend paying stocks for the purpose of creating a rising and mostly reliable stream of income? You talk a lot about building investment income, which really resonates with me, but the only way this seems remotely attractive to me is buy the strategy outlined above. Personally, I only invest in individual dividend stocks because I like the predictable outcome of an always rising income stream. Helps me emotionally.
Financial Samurai says
Sure, you can build a portfolio of dividend paying stocks to generate passive income, or you can buy dividend ETFs that may achieve a similar goal.
Here are some top dividend ETFs:
Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM)
iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY)
ProShares S&P 500 Aristocrats (NOBL)
WisdomTree U.S. Dividend Growth Fund (DGRW)
Invesco Preferred ETF (PGX)
iShares International Select Dividend ETF (IDV)
I invest the way Jason does. Some years ago I looked at what stocks were held by seven dividend mutual funds, ETFs, plus the list of dividend aristocrats.
PG was on all seven lists, six stocks (ABT, ADP, JNJ, MCD, PEP, WMT) were on six of the lists and so on. I sorted based on dividend yield and purchased equal dollar amount of many stocks yielding >2.8%.
At the time, most of the dividend mutual funds and ETFs were yielding ~2.2%.
We do need to track what’s happening with a company or we might get hit with a GE scenario!
Thanks for sharing the analysis Sam – interesting to note that when you factor in the size of the sample – reflected by either duration of data points or the number of funds being evaluated – you see that most funds underperform the index most of the time.
I just had an advisor try to convince me that active management of small-/mid-cap international funds was still an option to be considered. Your analysis just emphasized that the “best performing” active group had the smallest sample size, so not necessarily reflective of over-performance, merely a statistical aberation that will revert to the mean(underperforming active managers) as more players enter the market for passive investment in this group
Financial Samurai says
Sure, that small/mid-cap international fund could outperform or it could not. It’s really just a gamble within an investment. Although relatively speaking, international is the best performer still.
Simple Money Man says
I have close to zero in active….all in passively managed index funds or ETFs (Vanguard or Schwab).
The numbers don’t lie. Active has higher fees and once your account grows, so do the fees that eat up your gains. And of course, performance is overall better in passive management.
I don’t know. Maybe if I grew up super-rich, I could somehow justify putting more of my “imaginary” wealth into actively managed funds and seek higher risk.
We invest with a company that uses a large assortment of ETF’s, no actively managed mutual funds, although they take .8% commission. What I have observed is there is an art to “actively” managing these “passive” etf’s. E.G. how much VTI or VEA in the portfolio? How much emerging market, bond funds. Although mostly all Vanguard, the mix could make a difference. It would be interesting to see a study that compared actively managed low cost ETF performance vs. passive.
thanks for the great info!
Financial Samurai says
For sure. Once you decide the percentage between active and passive, then you’ve got to decide what the passive allocation and active allocation are! Never ending nuances. What company charges a 0.8% commission? Or do you mean 0.8% AUM annual fee?
“But once you bake in the fees for California municipal debt mutual funds, the underperformance percentage goes from 33.33% to 54.55%, for a whopping 63.6% increase in the number of funds that underperformed.”
I believe the percentages referenced above are actually for the New York Municipal Debt Funds in the Exhibit 4 chart. Same point applies though when you do the math for California Municipal Debt Mutual Funds :)
Thank you so much for the very informative post! I really enjoy reading your blog and the thorough analysis you provide in your posts.
Financial Samurai says
Good catch! Corrected. thx.
Little Seeds of Wealth says
People hope they’ll achieve returns like the top 1% of active managers. I read about Yale’s asset allocation the other day. Pretty interesting how they’ve made a big shift away from domestic equity to hedge fund & private equity. Given their influence on the investing world, I imagine people will continue pouring money into active funds chasing high hopes. I’m 100% passive and can sleep well knowing I’ll at least not do worse than the market.
Marvin McConoughey says
You hit on a key point. Sleeping well at night. That is partly why we are in passively managed funds. A second reason is that I admired, and still do, the late John Bogle. But, I wonder: how does the long term performance of Berkshire Hathaway stack up to the long term performance of passively managed funds? Warren Buffett has had good things to say about passively managed funds, yet he is an active (somewhat) investment manager.
About 5 years ago I switched my company from a SEP plan to a 401k. In the old SEP plan I would give my employees 7 percent of their gross wages and send it to Vanguard. The majority of my employees would have their paperwork to Vanguard cashing out their contributions before the check even cleared. Yes, they would pay the penalty and taxes and use the money as a bonus.
I instead set up a 401K plan with only a 4 percent match with American Funds but was able to put in a lot more restrictions about when they would be allowed to take the money out. Take the money out early and you lose my match. The employees loved it!! Even though they got less money from me it forced them to keep the money in the plan.
These are the people who still invest in actively managed funds. They need their hand held and someone to tell them what to do.
I had the same problem with my employees. They saw the SEP plan as little more than a bonus.
Very sad…. you can lead a horse to water but…
Financial Samurai says
Good stuff. Hand holding / forced savings is why the retirement systems are so robust in places like Singapore and Australia.
And if you are in share class R6, the fund fees are very competitive!
Sam, from 1991 to 2013, I invested primarily in actively managed funds. I started investing in 1991 and didn’t know much about passively managed funds and then in 1993 to 2013 worked 20 years for an active management fund company where all of my 401K, Taxable Investments where. So in essence I was encouraged and honestly incented to eat our own dog food. Since leaving the organization in 2013, I have moved everything out over the years into passive funds with a much lower fee structure. So I would say that I’m 100% and per Personal Capital, I’m paying close to .15% (annual average) in fees compared to approximately 1.00% (annual average). I like to justify the 1.00% as it came back to me through some high bonuses and executive stock options over those 20 years :-)
Financial Samurai says
Hah, nice. Well tell me, over the 20 years at the active management fund company, how many years did your fund you worked on outperform?
I’m sure you got paid handsomely! I will happily recommend anybody looking to get rich to join a large, long-only, value-oriented active fund management company like Dodge & Cox or Capital Group.
Why can’t the active fund companies lower their fees? That will make them more competitive with passive funds. With the current fee structure, they will keep losing customers. Customers don’t want to underperform passive index funds.
Currently, we have about 75% in passive funds. I manage the rest. They’re mostly in dividend stocks.
Financial Samurai says
You would think right?! Maybe they think that lowering their fees doesn’t create more capital in flow. It just immediately makes all employees poorer.
Thanks for the great post. When in my 20s, my gut told me there were problems with actively managed funds. The reason was because my retirement funds almost routinely kept closing due to “under performance” and my money was moved to another fund which they were sure would do better.
Sadly, I didn’t know what an index fund was and even if I had, I didn’t have access to them through my retirement accounts. Thankfully, today my wife and I do and I think everything but about $3,000 is in index funds with very low fees. Now that I write this…I’d say it’s time for me to move that $3,000 to an index fund.
You are putting on a financial blog clinic with recent posts…great content! Please keep it up, sir!
Banker On FIRE says
I think the biggest reason institutions (i.e. college endowments, pension schemes) continue to invest in active managers is because institutional money managers need to justify their existence. All they really should be doing is ensuring appropriate capital allocation across asset classes but you don’t need an army of well-paid people to do it. You also lose all the great job perks (dining, entertainment, travel) when you become an index investor. Classic principal-agent problem.
Financial Samurai says
Yes! Probably right. After decades of making big bucks off their clients, it’s hard to ruin yourself out of existence. You can always sell the hope of outperforming one day.
It will take at least a generation to change the old ways of doing things. Probably two generations.
Paper Tiger says
I think another reason is they are looking for some investments that are not so tightly correlated to the market. This diversification is especially helpful when a market is over-heated, the bulls have run long and hard and rumors of a recession continue to persist. At least this is why I have moved some of our assets into some of these PE funds. With rates coming back down and fixed income paying so little again, there are not a lot of other good options to diversify and get a decent return.
Ring the bell says
Sam rings the bell.
Thank you, Sam, for you excellent blog. I appreciate your content and frequency of posts.
I happen to be on the Pension Committee at work ever since I joined in 2006. After I became financially woke, I petitioned the rest of the committee to add index funds to the 401k offerings because of the very points you mentioned.
I created a PowerPoint slideshow and gave links to various articles (including ones where other 401k plans were getting sued by its members when they discovered there plans did not have low cost options).
The arguments I put forth (including the fact that the great oracle of Omaha Buffet actually stipulated that when he dies he wanted his wife’s portfolio to be predominantly in index funds) convinced the members and we added vanguard index funds (total stock, total international, total bond, REIT) to our plan.
We have an outside consulting firm that helps manage the plan and I always got some ribbing from them for adding index funds as they felt active was better. They have mentioned that although passive funds have done great in the bull run and admit outperform most of the other offerings, the active managers will make their money in an economic downturn (I am still not sure I buy that argument).
I personally shifted all my 401k holdings to passive funds especially when I found out that some of the fees in individual holdings were being returned but not to me but to reduce the overall plan costs (I am not that generous with the limited amount of money I have to put into these plans because of IRS limits).
Sam, curious if there is data on the past 20 years rather than 10, as that will pick up the last recession and may shine some insight on the argument Xrayvsn’s active pension fund managers make. My sense is the answer will be more of the same – 70% or so underperform, you can’t tell if the 30% the overperform are good or lucky, and thus index still wins.
I would also be very interested in seeing this information for the last 20 or 25 year. I think it would provide more light on the managers ability if any in active funds for various asset classes in more than just a bull market.
Indian mama says
Desperately trying to understand this article. Do all 401ks, have access to passive funds!
It depends on your 401k plan and that is decided on by the committee overseeing it. If you do not have passive (i.e. index) fund options, you can petition your committee to include them. If they do not, they can put themselves at risk and be sued as has happened in the past.
No they don’t most go through the payroll companies 401k offering, I’ve been battling at work about it. You will have to request they offer or can find something similar
My 2 cents
1. Read the simple path to wealth by jl Collins, the same book is free on his blog as well just not in book format
2. Vanguard has been the easiest firm to invest actively with, set up an IRA with them.
Vtsax / vwax and vbtlx will be your best friends and easiest options.