Cameron Passmore CIM, FMA, FCSI

Portfolio Manager

Benjamin Felix MBA, CFA, CFP

Associate Portfolio Manager
  • T613.237.5544 x 313
  • 1.800.230.5544
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  • 265 Carling Avenue,
    8th Floor,
  • Ottawa, Ontario K1S 2E1

Forget about fees: new research highlights a compelling reason for active manager underperformance

In a recent paper, Heaton, Polson, and Witte set out to explain why active equity managers tend to underperform a benchmark index. It is commonly accepted that the driving force behind active manager underperformance is high fees, however new research suggests that there may be another culprit. The research concludes that “the much higher cost of active management may be the inherently high chance of underperformance that comes with attempts to select stocks, since stock selection disproportionately increases the chance of underperformance relative to the chance of overperformance.”

This conclusion is based on the empirical observation that the best performing stocks in an index perform much better than the remaining stocks in that index. Worded mathematically, the median return for all possible actively managed portfolios will tend to be lower than the mean return. In plain English, the average performance of an index tends to be attributable to a small number of stocks. While choosing a subset of the total available stocks in an index (as an active fund manager does) leads to the possibility of outperforming the index, it also leads to the possibility of underperforming the index, where the chance of underperforming is greater than the chance of outperforming.

This can be (and is in the paper) explained with a simple mathematical example:

If we have an index consisting of five securities, four of which will return 10% and one of which will return 50% over a given time period, and we suppose that active managers will create portfolios using an equally weighted subset of one or two securities, there will be a set of fifteen possible actively managed portfolios. Ten of the fifteen portfolios will earn a 10% return due to omitting the 50% stock, and five of the fifteen portfolios will earn either a 30% return or a 50% return due to holding the 50% stock, depending on whether it is a one or two security portfolio. In this example, the mean average return of the stocks in the index, and all active fund managers, will be 18% (before fees), while the median will be 10%; two-thirds of the actively managed portfolios will underperform the index due to their omitting the 50% returning security, which is always included in the index.

We have been aware that higher explicit fees are a major factor in active manager underperformance, but the risk of missing top performing stocks due to holding only a subset of the total market may be an even bigger hurdle for active managers to overcome.

By: Ben Felix | 0 comments

If interest rates have nowhere to go but up, do bonds still have a positive expected return?

In answering this question, the first thing to note is that interest rates could remain where they are currently, or go lower. There are already instances of negative bond yields across the globe. However, for discussion, we will assume that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.

The factors that matter most are the magnitude and time span of the interest rate increase, and the average duration of the bond portfolio. If interest rates were to increase by 0.5%, the effect on bond prices would be minimal. If interest rates increased by 10%, bond prices would be impacted significantly. If interest rates climb to a peak over the course of one month, the impact on bond prices will be more pronounced than if it occurs over a number of years. Large, short term increases in interest rates will likely result in negative performance for fixed income holdings. These negative effects become more pronounced as the duration of the bond portfolio increases.

Price risk is top of mind in a low interest rate environment. If interest rates can only go up, it seems like fixed income returns have nowhere to go but down. However, as interest rates go up, new bonds are issued at the now higher rates. As a bond portfolio receives coupon payments from the bonds that it owns, these coupon payments are reinvested in new bonds, at higher rates. Bond prices may decline with rising interest rates, but over time it is expected that purchasing new bonds with higher coupons will result in positive performance. Expected returns are independent of future interest rate scenarios, but realizing an expected return may come with periods of bond price volatility. As interest rates rise, a bond portfolio may exhibit negative performance over the short term, however, as coupon payments and principal repayments are reinvested at the new higher rates, the bond portfolio will be positioned for recovery.

If an investor is concerned about large negative returns in their fixed income portfolio, it is advisable to tend toward shorter-maturity bonds. Diversification can also help, reducing the bond portfolio’s dependence on any single country’s interest rate environment. In a rising rate environment, a globally diversified short-maturity bond portfolio is positioned to benefit.

By: Ben Felix | 0 comments

If they’re so great, why doesn’t everyone invest in passive/index funds?

First off, in the U.S., everyone is investing in passive funds. Massive inflows into passive funds and outflows from active funds have continued in 2015. The story is not the same in Canada.

It is easy to talk about the merits of a passive, evidenced based investment philosophy, and, when presented with the evidence, people tend to agree that a passive investment philosophy is the only responsible approach to financial markets. However, in Canada, the vast majority of retail money is not invested this way. Despite the clear evidence that it is a losing game, investors tend to direct their money into actively managed strategies that claim to outperform the indexes, and provide downside protection in turbulent markets. Canadians tend to be intelligent people, but we face some road blocks in embracing evidence-based investing.

Good advice is hard to find. The financial services industry is wrought with conflicts of interest, and Canadian financial advisors are not immune. In many cases, the people holding themselves out as financial advisors are in fact salespeople pushing financial products to earn a commission. What does this have to do with index funds? Index funds and similar low-cost products do not pay the big upfront commissions that traditional financial products do. Most financial advisors are not even taught to recommend passive investment products because they are not profitable for the firms that they work for.

We rely on our Big Banks. Our banks are trusted and expected to be fiduciaries. But the banks suffer from the same conflicts of interest that the rest of the financial services industry suffers from; the financial products that are profitable for them are detrimental to their clients. However, to remain profitable, they need to sell these products. People tend to assume that when they walk into the bank they are getting advice that is in their best interest, but that is not the case. Bank employees are trained to sell profitable products, extol the skill of their fund managers, and entice clients away from those boring index funds.

It looks like someone is always making money. Traditional high-fee investment products still attract assets because they can leverage performance outliers. In any given year, some investors and mutual funds will significantly outperform the average. For example, so far this year the AGF U.S. Small-Mid Cap Series Q has returned 42.40%, compared to 1.25% for the Russell 2000 U.S small cap index. Why bother with index funds when active fund managers can produce such stellar returns?

This is where the evidence is important; the vast majority of active money managers consistently underperform their benchmark index over the long-term, predicting which active managers are going to outperform in a future year cannot be done consistently, and strong past performance is in no way an indication of future performance. Embracing a passive investment philosophy is obvious when the data is considered, but the data is often hidden behind sales pitches. As a result, passive investing has not yet gone mainstream in Canada.

By: Ben Felix | 0 comments