Jeff Ptak, CFA, is the global head of manager research at Morningstar Research Services, LLC, and past president & chief investment officer ofÂ Morningstar Investment Services. He also Co-hosts Morningstar’s “The Long View” podcast with Christen Benz. Jeff has deep knowledge of active and passive investment strategies, and our talk focuses on key aspects of the active versus passive debate.
Episode 033- guest Jeff Ptak
Rick Ferri, May 2, 2021
Rick Ferri: Welcome everyone to the 33rd Edition of Bogleheads on Investing. Today our special guest is Jeff Ptak. Jeff has been an analyst and manager at Morningstar for nearly 20 years. And today we’re going to talk about active management versus passive index investing.
Hi everyone. My name is Rick Ferri and I’m the host of Bogleheads on Investing. This podcast, as with all podcasts, is sponsored by the John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that you can find at boglecenter.net where your tax deductible contributions are greatly appreciated.
Today, our special guest is Jeff Ptak. Jeff has been an analyst at Morningstar for almost 20 years. He has in depth knowledge of active management strategies, index versus active management and Jeff knows the score. Now, some of the terms you are going to here today might be a little geekish, like five factor model, three factor model ,regression analysis,and so forth. We kind of throw them around a little bit, but try to bear with us when we’re talking about all of that. We’re trying to decipher whether or not the active managers actually have skill and outperforming their benchmark and if so, how many by how much and for how long? So with no further ado, let me introduce Jeff Ptack. Welcome to the Bogleheads on Investing podcast, Jeff.Today, our special guest is Jeff Ptak. Jeff has been an analyst at Morningstar for almost 20 years. He has in depth knowledge of active management strategies, index versus active management and Jeff knows the score. Now, some of the terms you are going to here today might be a little geekish, like five factor model, three factor model ,regression analysis,and so forth. We kind of throw them around a little bit, but try to bear with us when we’re talking about all of that. We’re trying to decipher whether or not the active managers actually have skill and outperforming their benchmark and if so, how many by how much and for how long? So with no further ado, let me introduce Jeff Ptack. Welcome to the Bogleheads on Investing podcast, Jeff.
Jeff Ptak: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Rick Ferri: Jeff, you’ve been in the portfolio management analysis business for oh, just about twenty years and you’ve been on all aspects of it. You’ve actually been an advisor for Morningstar, you’re an analyst for Morningstar, you’re an equity analyst for Morningstar. You have a tremendous background in the active versus passive debate. But before we dig into that debate, I’d like to get a little background on you. Tell us a little bit about your history and some interesting facts.
Jeff Ptak: Sure, sure. I’m happy to. And thanks again for having me. Yeah, I’m a Chicago area product. They can’t get rid of me. I was born and raised here, went away for four years to school up at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in accounting and promptly returned to Chicago and entered the public accounting profession, which is where I spent the first eight years of my career. First two of which were kind of banging the balance sheet, so to speak, as a commercial line auditor. And the last six of which were where I was part of a national technical accounting and auditing think tank, I suppose you would say, which was, it so happened, based in the Chicago area. And then when Anderson met its untimely demise, that was actually the catalyst for me to move over to Morningstar, which is what I did in 2002.
So the silver lining for me was finding Morningstar, which is where I’ve made my career ever since. And as you mentioned, I’ve done stints I originally started out as a fund analyst and then I’ve done stints in equity research, ETF research, I spent some time in the investment management part of our business, and then more recently I returned to research, heading up our global manager research team. And the way to put that into context is we’ve got a team of over 100 analysts globally whose job it is to assess active and indexed mutual funds and ETFs and their equivalents on a qualitative basis that culminates in a rating called the analysts rating that they assign. And so I work arm in arm, I suppose you would say with them, in helping them to assign those ratings and push thought leadership into the market. So that’s been a tour to this point. And then more recently they asked me if I could help out as chief ratings officer so now I spend a little bit more time focused on our rating systems and making sure that they’re as usable and effective as possible.
Rick Ferri: Well, thanks. I want to frame today’s conversation because this is my area, meaning I’ve written a number of books on index funds. My first one that I wrote was back in the 1990s and then books on indexes, asset allocation using index funds, ETFs, history of index investing and so forth. This is my thing, so to speak. So I’d like to just get into the conversation. But I want to frame it for you. This is the way I framed it in a book I wrote called The Power of Passive Investing.
That, starting out with the history of mutual funds, and why they were created to begin with the first mutual fund being created in 1924 and it was for a very different purpose. Everything was actively managed back then and the mutual funds were created basically to offer people the ability to have a diversified portfolio of securities that they otherwise maybe could not have afforded. But it wasn’t, according to John Bogle’s 1951 thesis from Princeton, it wasn’t for the purpose of outperforming the market. It was a convenience thing. Is that how you see it?
Jeff Ptak: That’s right. I think that traces the beginning of the arc of the industry and basically giving investors the ability to pool their capital so to speak. And maybe in ways where they don’t court onerous trade-offs that they would have courted if they’ve been trying to to invest in individual securities.Transaction costs being an example, not that it was a free ride in the early mutual funds, but I’m sure that there were some efficiencies that investors, in addition to conveniences they gained, there were efficiencies that they also reached.
Rick Ferri: Let’s bring forward to again, some of the early research on active mutual fund performance was done well before the first index funds were created. The work that I did in looking at data and studies that were done and back, far back as the 1930s by Alfred Cowles. But by going forward over the years, by Bogle and various academics in the 1960s all seem to point to the fact that these actively managed funds were in fact not outperforming the markets, and in fact some of them did, but most, by and large, did not. But again, it wasn’t a concern at the time because the purpose for having mutual funds was to just get diversification in a relatively easy way by pooling capital together, as you said.
But it was these studies on active management that led to a lot of questions about, well, why isn’t there an index fund that tracks, say, the S&P 500? Why do you suppose that was? Why did it take so long to create an S&P 500 index fund, which, by the way, we didn’t get created until 1975, and actually went public in 1976.
Jeff Ptak: So I think that that maybe not to widen out too much, but I think that maybe it’s something that’s innate to the American spirit, weâ€™re strivers. And I think that perhaps it just comes naturally to us to not just try to attain a goal, but to exceed it. And you know, say what you will about active management, but the name of the game there is to try to clear the bar. And so I think that that’s probably one reason. I think that incentives are probably another reason. There’s probably a whole sort of litany of reasons that we can cite why it took a while. I would suppose another barrier was, it just, it seems counterintuitive and we still find ourselves having to dispel this notion, but there’s sort of that whole idea, why would you settle for average in an index fund, which is literally what it strives to deliver you in so far as it does a good job of tracking whatever market segment it’s seeking to track.
Where it’s above average is once you take fees into consideration and other frictions you would otherwise encounter in an active strategy. You end up doing better than average and those excess returns compound over time and that’s one of the reasons why index funds are as formidable as they are in many market segments.
You know, but that could be a tough sell. It doesn’t intuit, I think, for a lot of people. And so I think that when you take the three of those things together, we’re strivers, there’s incentives that maybe conspire against indexing, and it’s also something that doesn’t immediately intuit. That’s probably three reasons why indexing took a little while to really take root.
Rick Ferri: I will add a fourth reason and that is cost, meaning that prior to, I think it was 1975, there were fixed commissions in the exchanges where it costs a lot of money to buy 500 stocks in a fund. If you had money coming in and out of a mutual fund, like an index fund would have, they would have to go to the market and in order to keep it somewhat balanced or tracking the index, they’d have to buy and sell a lot of individual securities and with fixed commissions, I think it probably made it prohibitively expensive until, I believe it was 1975, when Congress did away with fixed commission costs. And that spawned companies like Charles Schwab and discount brokerage firms.
Jeff Ptak: That’s right. And then I think if we were to focus on maybe the last decade or so, and we’ve seen this torrential shift from commission based to fee based advice. I mean, changes in advice practices are probably something else that have ushered in indexing. You know, indexing, it arrived by then and I think that some of the factors that we focused on explain why it had arrived, but I think if we’re looking for one of the factors that explains why the demand for indexing has accelerated to the extent that it has in recent years, I think that’s probably a pretty pivotal shift to talk about.
The fact that for many advice givers, it was more about planning or what they might call behavioral modification or tax management rather than going out and trying to capture alpha. And so the name of the game became to try to lower the internal cost, investment costs of whatever it is they were delivering. That’s a pretty pivotal development I think in the overall adoption of indexing, which is a bit unique to I think the last ten or fifteen years.
Rick Ferri: Well, I have a thesis and I know you may not agree with it and that I wrote about in the Power of Passive Investing and I said several times that the evolution of mutual funds into indexing caused actively managed funds to become obsolete, at least for the purpose in which they were created, which was simply to offer people a diversified portfolio of individual securities, not trying to outperform the market, but just have a portfolio that’s diversified by pooling your assets together in a fairly low cost way rather than going out and trying to buy a portfolio of multiple stocks with high commissions and so forth. That when indexing came along, it was a better mousetrap. I mean, it did that better than actively managed funds, at least that portion of it.
Which is probably why Ed Johnson from Fidelity said this when John Bogle launched the first index mutual fund at Vanguard — now the S&P 500 Fund — he said, â€œI can’t believe that the great mass of investors are going to be satisfied with just receiving average returns. The name of the game is to be the best.â€ And this gets to your concept of, well, people are having animal spirits and are trying to outperform.
But to me, this was a big shift in active management. Up until the time indexing came along in the 1970s, it was more about being able to get a diversified portfolio of stocks at a relatively reasonable cost and not about beating the market, but the introduction of index funds in the 1970s caused this pivot in active management. Now, the name of the game was to beat the market. Would you agree with that?
Jeff Ptak: I would agree with that. One of the predicates like you point out of active funds was to deliver that market exposure. So it was beta and alpha. And as you say, as some of these barriers and frictions were sanded away, as maybe some of the intellectual resistance to indexing fell away, then beta also fell away as a predicate for active and it became all about alpha. And so like you say, the value proposition has changed and and as those expectations have shifted, I think that you can argue that it’s become an even more stiflingly competitive environment for active funds than before, which somewhat turns on its head the early orthodoxy, which held that as more people embrace passive, it would create greater inefficiency in the market and it would be a turkey shoot for active funds because they would have all these opportunities that they could easily pick off.
Rick Ferri: I have to give a shout out to Larry Swedroe, who co-wrote a book, The Incredible Shrinking Alpha which highlights exactly what you’re talking about. You would think that with all of this index and going on that active managers would have an easier time of outperforming when in fact it’s become more competitive and more difficult to outperform. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that an increase in indexing has caused better performance in the active management space. In fact, you can make an argument that the opposite has actually occurred.
Let me jump into some research that I did. And that is, portfolios of index funds versus portfolios of actively managed funds. And here is a little bit different dynamic. Since it’s so difficult for active managers to outperform the markets, it doesn’t matter what the category is — could be bonds, could be stocks and we’re going to get into the data in a little bit here — but if all you had was a portfolio of a few index funds, the probability of that portfolio outperforming a portfolio of actively managed funds is higher than the probability of any of the individual index funds outperforming active funds in their particular category.
So as we look at each individual category, we can see that US stock large cap, there’s an X percent chance index funds will outperform; and then international same way; and bonds same way. And so you have all these individual silos, individual categories. But when you’re looking at portfolios, if all you did was put together a portfolio of all index funds the probability that that portfolio will outperform a portfolio of all active funds actually goes up even higher than the individual silos.
Jeff Ptak: It would make sense. I know we’re not talking about taxable versus pre-tax. If it’s taxable then it’s fairly academic. That’s not something we talked about to this point and maybe we will later in the conversation. But I know that you and we have done work looking at the performance of active funds after tax and it’s grim. You basically, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re looking to invest actively do it in a qualified account because if you do it in a taxable account you’re likely to be eaten alive by taxes over time to say nothing of just the challenges you face in succeeding with active. It’s possible, but it’s very, very difficult within a taxable account.
As far as a qualified account and kind of doing the kind of acid test you describe, that makes sense to me. The cost advantages compound. I wonder if, and maybe your research found this, there were also some benefits to style purity and unadulterated market exposure that you would get through index products that perhaps you wouldn’t get through a basket of comparatively messier active funds that have exposures to different styles. I know that our research has found that, generally speaking, you will find that active funds do a little bit better in markets that are selling off — and we can talk again about why that is — but in rising markets, generally speaking, index products will do better just because they tend to be a bit more style pure. And so I wonder if you’re picking up a little bit of that as well. But, generally speaking, if you keep the cost down, you keep it simple, and you keep your market exposures on, and the market cooperates with you, I would expect that kind of outcome.
Rick Ferri: Let’s get into the style purity and also something called survivorship bias in a lot of the data. There is a concept called Dunn’s Law. Have you ever heard of Dunn’s Law?
Jeff Ptak: I have. Yes.
Rick Ferri: Basically it just says exactly what you said that when markets are going up, in that portion of the market that is outperforming index funds tend to outperform because the managers are messy and they’re not style pure. But in that segment of the market that’s not doing well is underperforming the rest of the market, the active managers tend to do better because the active managers are messy and they’re not holding to their style. Style purity and the consistency of active managers to maintain their style is a big factor and creates a big difficulty, does it not in determining whether an active manager has skill or not?
Jeff Ptak: It does. It does. And that’s one of the reasons why it can become valuable. Important to look at performance through a number of different lenses. Maybe not just raw returns, but risk adjusted and maybe not just sort of a single factor regression, but a multi factor regression. And so I think that things like Fama French three or Carhart four, now we’ve got five, six, seven. I mean pick your multi factor regression, but those are ways to separate alpha from beta. And as you rightly point out because active funds arenâ€™t style pure, they tend to be messier to other styles, you want to control for those sorts of things.
And that can be especially important over shorter periods of time. Markets are noisy, managers are messy, and so the nexus of those two things is, you know, manager success rates can cycle up and down. You and I know from reading the press that this is the story line that always keeps giving: is that managers are one category, active managers, I should say are prospering, others in another category are in a deep slump. And in many cases the reason why you see those sorts of variations is Dunnâ€™s Law, because you have managers that perhaps are in one area of one specialty where they’ve had a tail wind and, and that’s propelled them past their index over some period of time. Whereas conversely, you’ve got managers that maybe hew to a different style or invest in a different way that have encountered a headwind and that explains their slump. And so Dunnâ€™s Law is a pretty handy concept to keep in mind just as you’re trying to make sense of it all.
Rick Ferri: What’s the report that Morningstar has that does some of this analysis?
Jeff Ptak: My colleague Ben Johnson and others on our passive team published this. It’s called The Active/Passive Barometer. We go category by category and we see how many active funds were able to outperform a composite of passive funds that make up that category. And those categories are constructed based on holdings based analysis.That’s how we determine which funds to lump together into peer groups by looking at the attributes of their holdings and then per our Morningstar category classification methodology, assigning them to a category. So like in the case of, let’s say, a large value fund, these are funds that are exhibiting the traits through their holdings of funds that favor the stocks of larger companies that are inexpensive by a number of measures.
We do try to point out some of these puts and takes that you get for the reasons that you mentioned. Again, that’s Dunnâ€™s Law, so to speak. The fact that, you know, if you have a manager like if we focus on maybe the most recent decade, it’s a large cap manager and they really skewed towards mega, and maybe lean towards growth. That’s probably been a good fact over the past decade or so just because that part of the style box has done quite quite well. Conversely if you had another manager that maybe it was in that large growth box but they owned quite a bit of mid and maybe they mixed in some core and even some sort of busted growth stories that are sitting in the value side of the ledger, a manager like that probably wouldn’t have done as well, and so a simple success ratio isn’t necessarily going to do that attribution for you. But through our research we try to make sure that we point those things out so that people understand what might be driving some of the trends that they’re seeing.
Rick Ferri: So indexes have certainly changed. Well I shouldn’t say they’ve changed. Indexes have certainly been expanded, what the definition of an index is has expanded significantly in the past, I’ll call it 15 years or 20 years. Where well prior to say 2003 or 2004 an index was the S&P 500 or the Total Stock Market or the Total Bond Market or the Total International Market or something but they were very big large gorilla type composites of securities from US and international and fixed income.
But that has changed dramatically and the definition of an index — I don’t think it’s a definition based on what John Bogle’s standard would be of what an index is — but there have been in my view a lot of actively managed products that are now calling themselves indexing and I believe that Morningstar calls them strategic indexes. Is that the name that you use?
Jeff Ptak: Strategic beta, that’s right. The industry refers to it as smart beta. We think that it’s self-serving so we call it strategic beta. It’s exactly what you described Rick, which is that theyâ€™re indexes, quote unquote but what it really is, is a rules-based implementation of active management. It’s those rules which dictate which types of securities you will select. It’s really not about faithfully tracking a given market segment, let alone a sort of a wide swath of the market. Typically what it’s about is sort of narrowing in on a specific set of securities that possess certain attributes for the rules that have been specified and we call that strategic beta.
Rick Ferri: And in my work I did on the ETF book that I wrote I broke down these strategic indexes — tongue-in-cheek I called them special purpose indexes, SP indexes, or spindexes for short. Now because there was a lot of spin going on in the marketplace here about what these things actually were. And without my opinion so these strategic indexes have really expanded.
But there’s two things going on here. It’s not only the investment selection and so what goes in the index that’s different. Let’s say you’re going to do some quantitative work to determine which individual securities go into the strategic index. But it’s also the weighting of those strategic indexes that have changed, where they’re selecting securities based on some quantitative or qualitative factor like ESG or such, but how they weight those stocks or bonds in the index is also changed to using the same factors in many ways you might have a factor weighted into how how small cap is it or how valuey is it or how ESG prone is it. So it’s not only individual security selection, it’s individual weighting and this to me, I mean this is active management but the SEC allows these products to be called index funds because they track, as you said, a model of some sort, or at least a methodology. To me it’s a little kind of unfair and it’s a little, itâ€™s a little bit of a way of which active management companies to get back at the indexers. How do you feel about that?
Jeff Ptak: You know I do agree that there has maybe been a certain lack of discipline when it’s come to devising some of these strategies. I mean I think that we can look at something that’s fairly plain vanilla like a value index. I mean technically one could argue, given the fact that it’s literally factor tilting, that it’s aiming to do something apart from the broad cap weighted market. And I don’t think that probably you or I would look at that and be like okay this isn’t prudent at all or there’s not a body of research that undergirds this. So I think that what you’re referring to is this proliferation of products that we’ve seen that have targeted the very narrow market segments or maybe data mine their way to a particular index methodology and then they put that out there and it kind of promptly rolls over. It’s just a bit of gimmickry. We have seen a lack of discipline in some of the products that we’ve seen come out there and so that’s why we’ve tried to take some steps through some of the methodologies that we’ve developed. Again this is Ben Johnson and his team who have been at the forefront of coming up with strategic beta tags and different classification metrics that we can try to make available to investors so that they can make more informed decisions about what are active strategies albeit those that are implemented through a set of rules that are delivered in the form of an index.
Rick Ferri: If you take the S&P 500 and you divide it between value and growth, to me the purpose isn’t to recommend either value or growth; it’s just simply to take an index like the S&P 500 and create a value and a growth segment of it. Or take the total market and divide it into large cap, mid cap, small cap. When you put these things all back together again it’s still the total market. Similar with industries. In other words you could take the eleven industry classifications and you can make, and they have made indexes or indices out of each of the eleven, but when you put them all back together again it’s still the total market. So that’s one type of slicing and dicing, and I don’t have any problem with that. It’s the other stuff, it’s the stuff that is selecting securities and then weighting them differently, the active management stuff that’s being called indexes that I have a problem with.
Because it really has confused people with this idea that fundamental indexing, for example, is better than traditional indexing. Well fundamental indexing is a selection process and then a weighting process. It’s an active management process. It’s not the same as buying the whole market.
Jeff Ptak: No, I think you’re right. I think buyer beware is the right mentality to take into that. You know the one thing that I could say in defense of a thoughtful smart beta or strategic beta approach, one that follows a prudently constructed index, that’s maybe founded on robust research that’s been conducted in a careful way: the index isn’t going to lose its nerve, which sounds a bit glib but one of the things that investors do have to confront when they invest with an active manager is agency risk or career risk. It’s this notion that if things go against the active manager he or she might be likely to buckle under the pressure. And so maybe they are tilting sort of towards a set of securities that have been underperforming, and the phones are ringing off the hook, clients are upset, they want a piece of the action and the action is not where that manager is investing at the moment. And so what do they do? They sell the under performance and maybe they climb onto the index or buy into the part of the market that’s been doing better. And what happens, performance suffers because they tend to buy into the market segment that’s about to roll over. And we see this repeat again and again and again.
And contrast that with the strategic beta product. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they’re all well constructed or thoughtful, but the index shouldn’t lose its nerve. It’s going to keep doing what it’s designed to do. Maybe again, take our sort of quintessential value index it’s going to probably keep buying or rebalancing towards stocks that look cheap by price to book or what have you, whereas maybe another manager who is tilting towards that style maybe because of the agency risk, maybe because of that career risk, they might not be as committed to doing that when push comes to shove.
So I think that’s one thing that you could say. And then insofar as they’re wrapped in the ETF structure, there are certain tax advantages, but that’s more of a wrapper thing ETFs versus open-end mutual funds than it is an indexing thing. I think thatâ€™s probably something I would just focus on, if you’re evaluating a strategic beta product.
Rick Ferri: Let’s get into the percentages. These are the tables that you do, and Vanguard has done, Standard and Poors does them through their SPIVA studies, there have been several academics who have put together performance tables to show the percentage of time that active management, in each category, outperforms. These are usually done either annually or semi-annually. I look at all these studies and I’ve been looking at them for years. Standard and Poors have been doing them for twenty years, and I know you’ve been doing them for a long time and Vanguard, of course, has been looking at this data a long time. And there have been a lot of other academic studies and they all come out to, from what I see, just about the same numbers. And to me that numbers are over any five-year period of time, if you start out with 100 funds that are trying to outperform say the market, that 25 percent of those funds will go out of business or merge and usually that’s because of very very poor performance. The other– another 50 percent will underperform, of which half, or 25 percent, will underperform by more than one percent, and then the other 25 percent will underperform by maybe less than one percent. And then last you have the 25 percent that outperforms, and this generally will outperform by call it a half a percent.
There are 25 percent of the active managers who have in the past outperformed over a five-year period of time and the problem is figuring out who they’re going to be before it happens. So are my numbers fairly accurate, at least on the equity side?
Jeff Ptak: They are and maybe I’ll sort of back up a little bit. I did a little bit of sifting around in our database going back in time. And over time there have been around 58,000 funds and ETFs in existence, and this includes all the different share classes. These are US funds and ETFs. Of that roughly 58,000 around 31,000 or 53 percent have died. So that just gives you a sense, I mean you go back through time at some point there has been a sum total of nearly 60,000 funds and ETFS and around 31,000 of those have perished. They’ve been merged or liquidated, obsoleted in some way. And so that is one obstacle that you are facing right off the bat, is just perishability. Many funds it’s basically a coin flip whether your fund is going to live or not.
As far as the rest of your numbers, so you know you’ve got a certain percentage of funds that are going to perish, they’re going to fall away. Yes it breaks down around the way you describe. For instance, in our most recent Active/ Passive Barometer report, which is a report I referenced before that my colleague Ben Johnson and others on his passive research team conduct, you know we found in the large cap category–so this is US equity– it was around 15 – 20 percent of the funds in those categories beat the passive proxy. And so those are very sobering numbers. And as you can imagine, as you extend that time horizon further out to 10 to 15 to 20 years it tends to telescope even lower. And so I think that it’s not contradictory to say that it’s not hopeless to succeed with active investing while at the same time acknowledging that it’s a very sobering picture when you look at the data the odds are not stacked in your favor.
Rick Ferri: Different categories of active funds do outperform for a while and it might have to do with Dunnâ€™s Law, but that they don’t tend to persist, they tend to fall back. We’ve noticed this even at fixed income, and fixed income, right now when you look at it you would say â€œGee, I should do active management fixed income.â€ But that would only be if you were looking at say the last 10 years of fixed income. Because 10 years ago you wouldn’t have been saying that. You would have been saying I should just do index funds. So these things do streak and it’s hard to pick the category where you’re going to have more active funds outperform, but it does happen. I could look at any data from any five-year or ten-year period and there will be a category or two where the active funds have been outperforming, but it doesn’t persist. So can you talk with us about persistence.
Jeff Ptak: No you’re right. Yes because when over the shorter periods of time where maybe you see a bunch of active funds in a category or a style outperform usually there’s some sort of stylistic tailwind that they’re enjoying. And I’m, that’s not to denigrate active investors. You know they’re a very sort of accomplished, educated, well-trained lot. But it’s very competitive and it can be difficult to unearth truly undiscovered ideas. And so what you tend to find is that maybe they skew towards one style or another, and so when that style has the wind at its back that’s when you’d see them outperform.
Maybe I’ll give you an example of kind of how the numbers–this will just sort of further, I suppose, underscore what you said before–using an actual category as an example. This is from our most recent Active/ Passive Barometer report which was as of December 31st 2020. And if you look as of that date within the Europe stock category — so these are funds that invest primarily in stocks that are domiciled somewhere on the broader European continent — 74 percent of the funds in that category outperformed over the year ended December 31st 2020. But then as you extend the time period to three to five to ten to fifteen years what you find is that the numbers shrink way down. So for instance over the trailing ten years through December 31st 2020 around a third of active European stock funds beat their benchmark. And so that’s inclusive of the great year that they had in 2020 that probably boosted the 10-year number a little bit than it otherwise would have been, but it’s still quite low.
And that’s kind of a constant when you look across the different categories that we study. I mean the category for instance over the trailing ten years ended December 31st 2020 that had the highest success ratio was global real estate and that was 48 percent, meaning that 48 percent of the active global real estate funds that existed 10 years before we began that December 31st 2020 measurement period beat their benchmark. And so it’s very, very difficult as you extend this over longer periods of time and you experience mean reversion. As a fund that stylistic tailwind becomes a headwind, and then other sort of realities intrude such as the economic viability of the product, if it doesn’t perform the manager probably is going to be tempted to moth-ball it, to merge it with something else or just to liquidate it, so that it’s got a better offering of funds to show. And so that’s how those numbers end up falling and you end up with those low success rates that you see.
Rick Ferri: Let’s look at fees. How fees factor into this. There’s been a lot of academic work and you’ve done a lot of work on fees. You do your annual fee study every year and pretty much there is a very high persistent correlation among all asset classes between the fee that the active managers charge and their performance. There’s a lot of closet indexing going on where a lot of managers are just buying basically what’s in the index and charging a higher fee for it. But can you talk about the correlation between fees and active returns versus the index of funds?
Jeff Ptak: We’ve done quite a bit of work here. I would highlight some work that my colleague Russ Kinnel did some years ago where he looked at a multitude of different factors to determine which seemed to be the most predictive. And you know the fact that really stood out was fees. So the lower they were the likelier it was that that fund would succeed, but by different measures. To give you a more recent example I might return that Active/ Passive Barometer report that I referred to before–and this is available to any of your listeners; if they google for it they should be able to pull it up and and download it free of charge; it’s available publicly so you can see for yourself– but not only do we tally up the number of active funds that have beaten their composite benchmark over time but we also break those categories into cost quintiles. And so what we take a look at is: how did funds that were grouped not only by style but also by cost do relatively speaking? And what you find is that almost uniformly the lowest cost quintile outperforms the index at a higher clip than the highest cost quintile and usually you’re talking about multiples of difference. Now granted it doesn’t necessarily upend one’s thinking about whether it’s better to be active versus indexed in these categories but I think it does give you an appreciation for how much costs can tilt the odds in your favor.
Just to give sort of a quick example using a category that I think is familiar to a lot of investors, US large blend. The lowest cost quintile over the trailing ten years ended December 31st 2020, 17 percent of the active funds in that lowest cost quintile managed to beat their benchmark. Contrast that with the highest cost quintile, just four percent of those high cost large blend funds beat their benchmark over that trailing ten year period I mentioned. The odds go from vanishingly small to slightly better if you focus on cost but when you look across these 20 categories that we track as part of this report, with the exception of just a few, you find that cost does tilt odds in your favor and so certainly if I were making my pecking list, that would be way up there on the list of criteria that I’d be focused on.
Rick Ferri: In the study that I did with Alex Benke — of Betterment at the time — on active mutual fund portfolios versus index fund portfolios we did go in and carve out just the lower cost active funds and reran the numbers and these were the active funds that were in the 50 percentile or lower as far as fees so they were the least expensive or lowest half of the funds. Now we did find that it did make a difference, say over a ten-year period of time if you included all active funds in a portfolio, call it a five fund portfolio of different US stock, international stock, a couple of bond funds and maybe a small cap fund of some sort. If you included all active funds in there versus an all index fund portfolio of the same mix that the index fund portfolio outperformed over 90 percent of the time. However when you just use the lower cost active funds in the study the index fund portfolios outperformed the active funds about 80 percent of the time. So there was an incremental benefit to just using lower cost active funds. So that didn’t really move the needle that much but it did move the needle.
But back to my other point that I made earlier is that what I found in a different research was that when looking at the funds that actually did have alpha, the managers that did outperform and you could literally say they — using information ratios and other statistics that they had skill — was that their funds were not the cheapest nor the most expensive, that the they tended to run between 0.7 and a little less than 1 percent. I imagine that would be almost required if you really do have skill you have to put some research dollars into finding those opportunities.
Jeff Ptak: No, no. That makes sense to me when you consider the fact that you have some fairly accomplished successful boutiques out there who are not going to be the cheapest game in town. I would imagine that was probably part of your cohort where you were seeing some high performers that weren’t the lowest cost. Perhaps you had some in there that maybe were investing in styles that are a little bit more costly to implement. Maybe you would think of small company stocks or non-US stocks especially EM. Typically those charge a little bit more. So that does make sense to me that you would find that. I think that overall though when you’re trying to think about sort of those odds of success, focusing on cost is something that will well serve investors.
Rick Ferri: I want to get into a couple of other areas where you have measured the gap between the performance of markets and the performance of investors in those markets and you call it â€œmind the gapâ€. And these studies I find to be very interesting because they’re performance gap studies. And I’ve seen an interesting trend here where it appears as though investors are getting better at managing their portfolios. Is that what these studies are telling me?
Jeff Ptak: Yeah. So you’re right. The report is called Mind the Gap. It was pioneered by someone I mentioned before, Russ Kinnel, some years ago and then we’ve had other analysts that have been conducting the study since then. Amy Arnott, my colleague, most recently we conducted our most recent Mind the Gap study for the period end of December 31st 2019. We’re in the process of updating the version, that’ll be as of 12/31/2020 so stay tuned, be on the lookout for that. But when we did the most recent one which again was as of 12/ 31/19, when we looked at that 10-year period ended then we found that there was virtually no gap between the dollar weighted return that investors earned in their funds and the returns of those funds.
And for sake of clarification when we talk about the dollar weighted return you’d liken that to an internal rate of return. So essentially what you’re doing is you’re taking into account the assets that were invested in funds, the cash flows over some period of time, and you’re trying to solve for the return that would explain how you ended up with the sum of assets at the end, that you ended up with, taking into account the beginning balance and the cash flows in the interim.
And I would say that it’s an encouraging story that we’ve seen the gap close, because I think that when we’ve conducted this study in the past we found that there could be a fairly sizable gap, a percentage point, even two percentage points that separated investorsâ€™ returns from their fundsâ€™ returns. Meaning that they had inopportunely timed their purchases and their sales.
You know the most vivid example of this would be investors who are chasing performance and they end up buying high and selling low. In situations like those you find that the dollar weighted returns, the investor return, far trails the total return, that is the return of the funds. And so it’s encouraging to see that these two numbers have converged over time and it does suggest that we’re seeing better habits or at least we’re seeing some of the less self-harmful behaviors from investors that we had seen before. Again though, that this was just through the end of 2019. We haven’t quite tallied up what we saw in 2020, and there was some evidence of misbehavior then so we’ll see what this next installment shows.
Rick Ferri: I’m curious if your data is able to separate out advised portfolios from self-managed portfolios and if you’re seeing different trends in advised portfolios than self-managed portfolios.
Jeff Ptak: I wish we could but we can’t. It used to be, as you know, that share class would tell you to a certain extent which of the funds are advised, where there’s a financial advisor that’s involved versus say a no load share class or an institutional share class where we can safely say that it’s an individual investing on their own, or doing so in a self-directed way, say within a retirement plan. But those boundaries have basically been blown to smithereens, especially institutional share classes, those are no longer the sole province of institutions. We’ve got many individuals that are self-directing and investing in those share classes which they’re able to access in their retirement plan. So it’s a long-winded way of saying we can’t separate it out quite that cleanly.
What we can do is look at other dimensions. Asset class, Morningstar category, we’ve done some work looking at it by volatility level or cost of the funds concerned. And there are some interesting findings there. I would say that probably the one that really jumps out is allocation funds. Allocation funds would include things like target date funds which have become a mainstay in defined contribution plans. And over the 10-year period ended December 31st 2019 what we found is that the average dollar that investors in allocation funds put to work out earned the funds. So they actually by regularly contributing into these funds as is the practice with the defined contribution plans as you know, they ended up reaping a slightly higher return than their funds did, to the tune of about a 40 basis point positive gap annualized. And so that’s a really, really encouraging outcome to see just knowing the central role the defined contribution plans will play in the retirement future of so many folks who are in the workforce. So that was something that certainly did jump out from a most recent report.
Rick Ferri: I think that most of those funds are not advised meaning there’s no extra fee being paid to any advisor on top of that, I think pretty much most of the money is in those funds is going to be just quote-unquote self-directed by the investor. Would you agree with that?
Jeff Ptak:I would agree with that. In a number of cases, as you know, we’ve got investors who are being defaulted into a target date fund. Now generally speaking the lion’s share I would guess of the assets that are in target date funds probably were not defaulted in just because it predated that practice, and that’s where the lion’s share of the assets are. But you’re right that I would expect the bulk of that is not advised.
Rick Ferri: So this investor gap that is shrinking or in some cases has gone away, at the same time huge flows have left active management and gone to indexing. Is there a link?
Jeff Ptak: Well I don’t know that I would necessarily say that indexing on its own would promote better behavior. I think that what we have to consider is context. In a number of these situations what we have seen is that we had investors who had maybe a small basket of active funds that were targeting particular styles and they’re switching into programs or strategies where they’re better diversified and really the name of the game isn’t to beat a benchmark it’s basically to construct an asset allocation that helps to advance the objectives that are called for by a more encompassing financial plan. And I think that context is important because I think that if you have investors that you know are maybe less jumpy because they’re not as focused on beating a benchmark over time but rather seeing that they’re making progress with their plan as implemented through a broader asset allocation framework that’s implemented with passives, they’re just going to be less prone to to buy and sell in inopportune times. They’ll stick with the plan.
And then there are certain mechanisms that enforce this, right. I mean we talked about defined contribution plans, that’s kind of the name of the game is you’re just putting your money in a regular fashion. It goes into the target date fund and it takes care of everything for you. And in some of those cases those target date funds are investing in index funds. And so I think that some of that context is important. I think that there probably is evidence, you know anecdotal or otherwise, that index investors, you know they approach investing in a slightly different way, they maybe are a bit more focused on the long term and managing what they can, like cost and tax efficiencies and therefore they don’t have the same propensity to trade around their portfolio as maybe another type of investor has a different set of motivations including beating the market, or maybe they’re a little bit more fixated on performance and perhaps they’re more tempted to chase.
Rick Ferri: Well it makes me circle back to my original comment at the beginning of this podcast that the original purpose back in 1924 for starting mutual funds was to give people a diversified portfolio and it wasn’t necessarily to outperform the market. And now index funds have become a better mousetrap and made active funds obsolete. And to me the performance gap data is showing that people are figuring this out.
Okay one last question. We hear a lot of stories in the media, and these come up all the time, negative stories about indexing. Indexing is going to blow up the market. Because so much of the market is in index funds now it’s causing the market to be way overvalued. Is there any relevance to any of these stories that we hear in the news media?
Jeff Ptak: I think that’s mostly bunk and self-serving. I think that the strongest proponents of arguments like those tend to be those that stand to gain from active investing, finding followers. And there’s many thoughtful defenders of active investing. I don’t want to denigrate them too, but it tends to be a self-serving argument. I think the most important thing to keep in mind and it’s a point I know that that you and other Bogleheads have made repeatedly and I think it’s a point well taken, is that a cap weighted index that does a good job of capturing a beta, of delivering a market exposure, by definition it should be mirroring the other the sum total of other participants that are investing in that same area, including active managers. And so sort of this notion that indexing is going to get so big that it’s going to be destabilizing or somehow fun house mirror distort markets, I mean to me that’s self-contradicting insofar as an index is like holding up a mirror. What you see is the sum total of what other participants are engaged in that market including active investors.
And so I don’t buy that argument. I continue to think that indexing is a prudent way for investors to get low-cost exposure to market segments. As part of a more encompassing plan I think that there can be a place for active investing but I think that investors should be judicious about it and one of the best ways to sort of really understand what your limits might be there is just to look at some of the data that we try to make available and that others have made available that would give you a sense of what the odds of success are, and know what sort of barriers stand in your way so that you know when you do put on an active exposure you know what you’re getting into and you’ve calibrated your expectations accordingly.
Rick Ferri: Well Jeff, it’s been wonderful to have you on Bogleheads on Investing. You are just a wealth of knowledge. Coming from an unbiased source, I would say that, you know Morningstar is not trying to manage money, not trying to outperform anything. Just trying to put out there the data as they see it. And thank you so much for being on Bogleheads on Investing today.
Jeff Ptak: Oh it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Rick Ferri: This concludes Bogleheads on Investing episode number 33. I’m your host, Rick Ferri. Join us each month as we have a new guest. In the meantime visit bogleheads.org, boglecenter.net, the Boglehead’s Wiki, view our new Boglehead’s Live Speaker Series, get involved in your local bogleheads chapter or a virtual community, and tell others about it. Thanks for listening.