Global Investing

Active vs passive debate: the case of “monkeys”

As CalPERS considers switching all of its portfolios to passive investing,  questioning the effectiveness of active equity investment, there have been some interesting findings that would stir up the active vs passive debate.

Researchers at Cass Business School find that equity indexes constructed randomly by “monkeys” would have produced higher risk-adjusted returns (ie return adjusted by measuring how much risk is involved in producing that return) than an equivalent market capitalisation-weighted index over the last 40 years.

How does this work? Using 43 years of U.S. equity data, researchers programmed a computer to randomly pick and weight each of the 1,000 stocks in the sample, effectively simulating the stock-picking abilities of a monkey.The process was repeated 10 million times over each of the 32 years of the study.  Nearly all 10 million indices weighted by chance delivered vastly superior returns to the market cap approach. Andrew Clare, co-author of the paper, says:

“The results of this experiment showed that many of the monkey fund managers would have generated a superior performance than was produced by some of the alternative indexing techniques.  However, perhaps most shockingly we found that nearly every one of the 10 million monkey fund managers beat the performance of the market cap-weighted index.”

But investment advisers are not fully convinced that active is the way. A survey by housing investment specialist Castle Trust shows one in three advisers do not believe they can beat the index over five years. Sean Oldfield, chief executive officer, Castle Trust says:

from Funds Hub:

Passive, aggressive

CHINAThe days when active managers could ride a market rally and charge high fees for doing so could be drawing to a close. Passive managers are hoping to paint their active rivals into a corner by delivering better than market returns at a lower cost. The development of so-called "smart beta" products based on non-traditional benchmarks is expected to force active managers to sharpen up or get out of the game.

Fundamental indices, which use a variety of criteria to weight stocks, and minimum volatility indices, are beginning to gain traction with institutional investors.  The latter, developed by MSCI for fund firms running managed volatility strategies, aim to deliver close to market returns but with about a third less risk, giving a better return per unit of risk, thereby improving the overall efficiency of an institutional investor’s portfolio.

BlackRock's head of index equity, Eleanor de Freitas, said that to date investors were dipping a toe in the water, using these types of index as a complement to their core passive portfolios.  “All our client queries at the moment are from existing index clients. We don’t view these products as an alternative to active investing,” she said.

The art of being passive

Hundreds or even thousands of  ”active” fund managers are competing to add alpha to beat benchmark indexes, be it in stocks, bonds or alternatives.

water

The market is so efficient, historical performance is no guide to the future. It’s nearly impossible to find a reliable method to pick advisers who deliver the best industry returns year in and out. There are also costs, from visible ones such as management fees and custody and administration expenses to “below water” costs such as trading commissions (due to higher turnover), bid/ask spread (price to buy, another to sell) and market impact costs (larger buy/sell orders affecting price).

Given this, is there a point in investing in active funds? What about just diversifing your assets through passive indexes?

The case for active/passive investment

Fund managers come back to this recurring question — is it better to invest passively, tracking benchmarks, or manage your money actively, taking risks?

Standard & Poor’s five-year data shows the S&P 500 index — a plain vanilla bet on U.S. stocks — outperformed 62.9 percent of actively managed large cap funds.

The S&P Midcap 400 index outperformed 73.4 percent of active mid-cap funds and the S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed more than one in two actively managed small funds.