Life’s too short to hunt down a decent active fund manager

The active fund management industry wants you to believe you should seek out good active managers, says John Stepek. There are more profitable ways to spend your time.


Hunting out active fund managers there are better ways to spend your time

When you invest in a fund, you have two basic choices. You can go active. Or you can go passive.

Active funds are expensive. Passive funds are cheap.

Why are active funds expensive? Because they are meant to beat the market.

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That's why you pay more for them.

Passive funds just try to track the market, using an automated process. That's why you pay less for them.

Here's the snag. The vast majority of active funds don't beat the market. So most of the time, you're paying for a service that you don't get. As a result, logic suggests that most investors could do better by investing in passive' funds which are cheaper, and which merely promise to track the index.

Any objections to that premise? Well, the industry has a go in the FT this morning. But they utterly fail to address the key problem at the heart of all this.

The real problem with active management the price

Those figures demonstrated not for the first time just how badly active fund managers do compared to their benchmarks.

So how do the active managers respond?

Well, they don't deny it. Instead, the solution they say is for private investors to work harder at finding decent active managers.

Um. OK. That sounds like a great idea. Let me just take a break from picking through the grains of sand on this beach, hunting for the single gold flake I've been told is definitely in here somewhere, so that I can track down a decent fund manager.

Or here's an idea why don't I just stick my money in a cheap passive fund instead of sifting an entire industry for the handful of people who can actually do the job I'm paying them to do?

Good grief! It's harder than finding a reliable plumber. Though not as messy.

Unsurprisingly enough, none of the active fund managers mentioned in the piece highlight the biggest problem: their fees.

Your average active fund charges about 1.5% a year. Passive funds average 0.6%, according to Deloitte, but in all honesty, that sounds high to me. You can get passive trackers on mainstream indices for far, far less than that.

So active managers are handicapped from the off.

There is only one certainty in this argument. Those managers would find it easier to beat their benchmarks if they charged less for their services.

The truth is, if an active fund manager is doing their job correctly, then the job shouldn't involve that much "busy" work. You choose a strategy. You find a decent selection of companies or investments that fit the bill you already know that anything more than 20 doesn't add much to performance, so why have a lot more than that?

Having picked your favoured investments, you sit on them, topping up as and when necessary. You keep an eye on the results. Every so often you rebalance the portfolio.

I'm not saying it's easy. But there's no need to be at it 60 hours a week either. You could make a perfectly decent living at this while charging a lot less, or charging a flat fee.

The good news on the active management front is that increased competition and awareness from investors is driving more competition here.

Active managers are experimenting with new fee structures (in fact, Merryn recently interviewed one manager who she reckons may have come up with the "perfect" fee structure see the piece here).

Meanwhile, furore over "closet trackers" (active funds which basically do nothing more than copy passive ones) is putting pressure on active managers to live up to their name and run more concentrated portfolios and take more specific bets.

However, change is happening at a glacial pace. So as we already said, unless you're willing to do your homework and take a more active interest in your investments yourself, you are better sticking with passive funds.

(Alternatively, you should look at investment trusts. These generally have a better track record and we're very keen on them. However, I'll deal with these in another Money Morning running out of space this morning.)

Forget passive vs active let's call it cheap vs expensive

Every investment decision you make is active'. You could split your portfolio five ways between Japan, the US, the UK, high-yield bonds and cash. Or you could split between gold, Vietnamese equities, US index-linked Treasuries and seven other asset types. Or you could lump the lot into a buy-to-let in Basingstoke. (Needless to say, none of these represents a recommendation on may part)

In virtually every case, you could choose either an active' or a passive' fund to invest in each of those asset classes (well, except the buy-to-let). But every single one of those portfolios represents an awful lot of "active" allocation on your part.

So maybe we should stop using the terms active' and "passive". Maybe "expensive" and "cheap" would clarify the difference. Is it worth paying up for the "expensive" option? If it offers good value and something that you can't get from the "cheap" route, then yes. Otherwise, stick with the "cheap" option.

John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.