Global Investing

Investing in active funds: what’s the point?

Active vs passive investment is a long-lasting debate: active funds will tell you they deliver alpha (extra returns), but for a fee. Passive investment simply tracks the index so it’s cheaper. The risk is you may underperform your peers.

New research from Thomson Reuters Lipper throws up an interesting twist in the debate: It found that less than half of the actively managed mutual funds in Europe outperformed their benchmarks over the past 20 years.

The proportion of funds that outperformed varied from 26.7% in 2011, 40% over 3 years and 34.9% over the past 10 years. While bond funds fare better over 3 years with 45.4% outperforming, the proportion tailed off dramatically over the 10-year period, falling to 16.2%.

For long-term investors, the fact that an active manager does not outperform in every calendar year is likely to be less significant than whether he/she can outperform over a longer period. However, the result here is equally unimpressive. The data showed that the proportion of equity funds beating benchmarks in terms of rolling returns fell to 39.7% over a 10-year period (and just 17.4% for bonds). Your best bet seems to be in active equity funds investing in Asia Pacific ex-Japan (54.4% over 10 years).

Despite the findings, active funds are a big industry: Assets of actively managed equity funds in Europe stand at just under 1.5 trillion euros, while index trackers have 160 billion euros and ETFs 139 billion euros. In other words, of the equity funds pot, passively managed products make up less than 17%.

State vs entrepreneurial capitalism

The post-crisis world has been in part shaped by the growing presence of sovereign wealth funds, which have become an important source of funding with their $4 trillion assets, replacing private equity and hedge funds. But some people are wondering whether state capitalism really is the way forward, to boost the potential growth rate of the post-crisis world.

Robert Litan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that in fact it’s entrepreneurs who would play a key role, and it’s important for policymakers to come up with a mechanism to help them.

Litan estimates that the United States needs 30-60 new “home-run” firms a year with annual sales of $1 billion to boost U.S. growth rate by one percentage point beyond its post-war average of 3 percent. This is double the past 150-year average of 15 firms a year.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Most U.S. banks passed their annual stress test driving shares higher. Where does this leave their valuation? Looking at price-to-book value in aggregate (1st chart) they are only just trading above a ratio of one, looking cheap compared to a 15-year average ratio of two.  However a premium is opening up over European banks which are still trading below book value, and analyst forecasts for return on equity suggest banks are in a very different environment to the last 15-years (2nd chart)

The UK could start issuing 100-year bonds as it seeks to lock in current low interest rates. Recent sales of long-dated UK gilts have met with strong demand, and  as the chart below shows yields on 50-year gilts hit a record low of around 3 percent in January.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

The German ZEW economic sentiment index for March smashed expectations, coming in at 22.3 against the Reuters poll of 10.0.  Over the last couple of years the German 10 year Bund yield has tended to track the ZEW, however this has broken down with yields staying below 2% despite the rebound in economic sentiment.

Improving earnings momentum has been backing up the rally in equities with fewer analysts taking the hatchet to earnings forecasts. The chart below shows that the 3-month average revisions ratio (the number of earnings  upgrades minus downgrades as a percent of the total) looks to have turned back towards positive – especially in Europe.

Are emerging markets joining the dividend race?.   As this chart of Datastream equity indices shows, the payout ratio for emerging market equities is now above that of the US. Traditionally seen as a growth-based investment, is this another sign of emerging market equities moving closer into line with developed?

Two months rally + long markets = correction?

The debate in global financial markets is whether the new year’s rally is either just pausing or coming to an end.

Many say the rally so far has been driven by only thin volumes (for more on volumes read this story) and thin volume rallies tend to outlive high volume stampedes.

The market certainly seems to be getting very long — which itself suggests that the market was due for a correction one way or another.

Becoming less negative on Europe

Markets are unimpressed today by Europe finally agreeing to bail out Greece for the second time, with European stocks down -0.6% on the day.

But here’s some encouraging news: Credit Suisse has become less negative on Continental European stocks for the first time in almost two years.

The bank has moved to benchmark weighting from 5% underweight for a currency hedged portfolio.

Central banks and the next bubble

Central bank balance sheets are expanding at what some say is an alarming pace. Can this cause the next bubble to form and burst?

JP Morgan estimates G4 (U.S., Japan, euro zone and Britain) balance sheets are now around 24% of GDP combined, with around 11% of GDP comprising bonds held for monetary purposes.

“The recent pace of balance sheet expansion is the fastest since the immediate aftermath of Lehman, largely down to the ECB. The increased BOJ purchases, more QE in the UK, and 200 bln euros upwards of increased ECB lending from this month’s LTRO together point to a further $600bln+ rise in G4 central bank balance sheets this year, to around 26% of GDP.”

Hedge funds still lagging behind

How are hedgies performing this year?

The latest performance data from Nice-based business school EDHEC-Risk Institute shows various hedge funds strategies returned on average 1.46% in January, far behind the S&P 500 index which gained almost 4.5%. Hedge Fund Strategies Jan 2012 YTD* Annual Average Return since January 2001 Annual Std Dev since January 2001 Sharpe Ratio Convertible Arbitrage 2.22% 2.2% 6.5% 7.3% 0.34 CTA Global 0.49% 0.5% 6.6% 8.6% 0.30 Distressed Securities 3.28% 3.3% 10.3% 6.3% 1.00 Emerging Markets 4.55% 4.5% 10.5% 10.7% 0.61 Equity Market Neutral 1.01% 1.0% 4.5% 3.0% 0.16 Event Driven 2.95% 2.9% 7.8% 6.1% 0.62 Fixed Income Arbitrage 1.33% 1.3% 6.0% 4.4% 0.46 Global Macro 2.05% 2.1% 7.0% 4.5% 0.68 Long/Short Equity 3.36% 3.4% 5.3% 7.3% 0.17 Merger Arbitrage 1.03% 1.0% 5.4% 3.3% 0.43 Relative Value 1.95% 1.9% 6.4% 4.8% 0.51 Short Selling -6.85% -6.9% 0.3% 14.1% -0.26 Funds of Funds 1.65% 1.7% 3.6% 5.1% -0.07


Emerging markets strategy was the best performing, with gains of 4.55%. Interestingly, this is less than half of how the benchmark MSCI EM index performed (up more than 11 percent in the same period).

Credit rally: Bubble or not?

Corporate bonds are back in vogue this year but how sustainable is it?

Just to highlight how bullish people have become, see following comments from fund managers:

“We do see scope for 2012 to deliver narrower corporate credit spreads and that will be the major positive contributor to fixed income returns this year.” – Chris Iggo, CIO Fixed Income, AXA Investment Managers)

“Corporate bonds should be a major source of performance for the bond component of Carmignac Patrimoine (fund) in 2012.” – French asset manager Carmignac Gestion

Money in containers. Many see big bucks in Russia’s infrastructure push

A lot of things are wrong with Russia, one of them being its rickety infrastructure.

Many see this as an investment opportunity, however, reckoning the planned $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade plan will get going, especially with the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 soccer World Cup looming. Bets on infrastructure have also gathered pace as the Kremlin, seeking to placate a mutinous populace, has pledged reforms, privatisations and a general push to reduce Russia’s dependence on oil exports.

Takouhi Tchertchian at asset managers Renaissance says one sector – shipping containers — reflects the potential for gains from infrastructure improvements. Such containers, usually made of steel, can be loaded and transported over long distances, and transferred easily and cheaply from sea to road to rail.  But Russia has among the lowest levels of containerisation in the world, at around 4 percent compared to the emerging markets average of 15 percent, Tchertchian says. Even in India, almost 3o percent of goods travel by container while in a developed country like Britain, the figure is 40 percent.