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Mutual Funds-Should You Pay Extra for Active Management?

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I was recently quoted in the industry publication Investment News in an article discussing how many Large CapCommon Sense on Mutual Funds: New Imperatives ... domestic equity mutual funds have become very highly correlated with their benchmark index.

The article’s author cited the American Funds Growth Fund of America as an example with its three year R-squared to the Russell 1000 Index having increased to 98% from 77% just five years ago.  R-squared measures the strength of the statistical relationship, in this case between the fund and its benchmark.

Here are my two quotes from the article:

“If I buy an active fund in the large-cap space, I want somebody who’s going to do something over the long term to outperform,” said Roger Wohlner, a financial planner at Asset Strategy Consultants. “Why pay 70 or 80 basis points for active management that doesn’t give you much differentiation from the index?” 

“Downside protection is one of the reasons that led Mr. Wohlner to rush some of his clients into the $5.5 billion Sequoia Fund (SEQUX) when it briefly opened to new investors in 2008. As the S&P 500 fell 37% in 2008, the Sequoia Fund fell 27%.” 

Both quotes reflect my belief that an active mutual fund manager needs to add value beyond what you can find in an index mutual fund or ETF.

Index Funds Often Outperform Their Actively Managed Peers

Especially with Large Cap funds, quite often index funds out perform a large percentage of their actively managed peers.  Let’s look at an example:

Vanguard Growth Index Signal (VIGSX) – Large Growth Category

YTD

1 year

3 years

5 years

10 years

Fund Return

10.77%

6.49%

17.66%

3.06%

5.97%

Category percentile

24

8

14

17

28

# Funds in category

1,543

1,499

1,328

1,137

736

As of June 30, 2012 via Fi360.com

By way of explanation:

  • Category percentile represents its ranking among all of the mutual funds and ETFs in this Morningstar Category.  For example for the three years ended June 30 the fund ranked in the top 14% of the 1,328 funds in the category with a three year track record.
  • The fund delivered these results quite cheaply.  The fund’s expense ratio is 0.10%.  This compares to the average mutual fund/ETF in this category of 1.22% as reported by Morningstar.
  • While this share class may not be available to all individual investors, the Admiral Share class ($10,000 minimum investment) and the ETF version (which can be traded commission-free at Vanguard) of this fund also carry a 0.10% expense ratio.  Even the basic Investor share class is very cheap to own with a $3,000 minimum investment and a 0.24% expense ratio.  In addition there are many other excellent index ETFs in this category that are solid low cost choices.

Why Pick an Actively Managed Fund? 

A bit over half of the money that I have invested on behalf of my clients is in some sort of index product, across both mutual funds and ETFs.

That said I still use a number of actively managed mutual funds as well.  What am I looking for in an active fund?

  • A long-term track record of excellence.  There are still a number of active fund managers who in my opinion add value.
  • A manager who excels at controlling their fund’s downside risk when the markets drop.
  • Superior management in an investment style that is not well-represented by index products.

As we have seen especially over the market cycle of the past decade, it is increasingly difficult for actively managed mutual funds to add value to investors over and above what inexpensive index funds deliver.   This is especially true with equity funds.  If your financial advisor suggests a portfolio of pricey actively managed mutual funds ask why (especially if these funds are proprietary products of their employer).  What added value do these funds provide over less expensive index alternatives?  If you advisor is paid all or in part via commissions I’ll bet his/her compensation is part of the answer.

Please feel free to contact me with your investing and financial planning questions.

For you do-it-yourselfers, check out Morningstar.com to analyze your investments and to get a free trial for their premium services.  Please check out our Resources page for links to some additional tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Comments

  1. Jim says:

    Roger,

    Keep up the good work and thank you for your take on actively managed funds! With the continued struggles the broad equity markets have had since 2000 investors are starting to take notice of the added value of active funds. Could you provide some examples of these actively managed mutual funds with a long-term track record of excellence?

    Many Thanks in Advance,
    Jim

    • Roger Wohlner says:

      Jim thanks for your comment. Just to be clear, I am more of an indexer than a user of active funds. That said, two that I have used in client accounts are Artisan Mid Cap Value (ARTQX) and Sequoia (SEQUX). Both as you are probably aware are currently closed to new investors. Note this should not be construed as any sort of investment recommendation or advice. My preferences might not be appropriate for other investors.

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