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  • David Bojan

Are Active Fund Managers worth paying for?

Updated: Mar 8

The debate between passive vs active investment management has long been a source of debate for investors who are seeking to optimise their returns. The question of whether or not active fund managers are worth paying for is at the heart of this topic, sparking debate among investors and financial investors alike.


David Bojan, the founder of H Capital, has over 30 years of knowledge and experience in financial advice and investment planning, and tackles this subject below.


Quick jump:


Woman holding money

The differences between active and passive investment funds


  • Actively managed investment funds employ an investment management team that pick stocks or securities that they expect to outperform their benchmark or otherwise generate superior investment returns.

  • Therefore, actively managed funds offer investors the opportunity to benefit from returns that are better than the market average.

  • Both actively managed and passive investment funds include fees, of course, but the formers fees are higher to pay for the investment management team, and there is no guarantee that superior returns will be achieved consistently.

  • Passively managed funds simply track and mirror the performance of a market index (such as the FTSE100 or S&P500 for example) and don't have managers making investment decisions.

  • Passively managed funds are cheaper, therefore, but the investment returns will always be no better than average.


Why are investors turning to passive investment products?

Investors are increasingly turning to passive investment products such as tracker funds

and exchange-traded funds as they seek a low-cost, easy way to invest in the markets.

There are numerous reasons why they are attracting attention.


Underperformance by active managers is one reason – only 36% of active managers

beat the average passive alternative in 2023 across seven key equity sectors, according

to Investment Association data.


That said, it is unreasonable to expect fund managers to outperform every single year. Even the very best managers will likely have a poor year or two out of five, in which case it’s essential the other three or four years make up for that.


Paying for outperformance

Investors typically pay a higher fee to use an active fund or investment trust versus a

tracker or ETF as that additional money covers the cost of the fund manager managing

the portfolio.


Charges eat into returns over a long period and investors are right to think about switching to a cheaper passive alternative if they aren’t getting the outperformance they are paying for.


Man writing on paper on black desk

The advantages of passive funds


  1. Simple and Easy One of the major advantages of passive investing compared with active investing is that it is simple to understand. The primary requirement is to track a benchmark or an index. Most passive investments are pooled funds offered by well-known fund managers and financial institutions.

  2. Minimal Cost There is a wide variety of investments to choose from and some, such as mutual and unit trust funds have quite low initial investment amounts. Also, the buy-and-hold philosophy of this investment strategy means the underlying transaction costs and fees are minimal.

  3. Ideal for Beginners Both its simplicity and low cost make passive investing ideal for individuals who do not have the relevant expertise to analyse assets and securities nor the time to learn and monitor the different facets of their investments or have only modest sums of money available to invest that most money managers would not be able to manage cost-effectively.

  4. Long-Term Growth The buy-and-hold philosophy can easily be translated to an invest-and-forget approach to investing. Passive investing is ideal for those who want to invest for the long haul. These include individuals who are building their retirement funds or preparing for the education of their children.

  5. Diversification Options Investors who wish to diversify their investment portfolio can do so by investing in different funds that include a good mix of high-risk and high-return funds such as equity funds, average-risk, and average-return funds such as bond funds, or low-risk-and low-return options such as bank deposits.


The disadvantages of passive funds


Of course, because it involves a less hands-on approach to investing, passive investing

has notable drawbacks and limitations that can make active investing a more enticing

approach for some.


  1. Lacks Flexibility: There is no scope for tweaking a passive investment portfolio to respond to conditions and the outlook of relevant financial markets. Diversification possibilities are also limited to fund selection. It’s also impossible to take advantage of or minimize losses from short-term market changes.

  2. Lower Returns: Compared with active investing, passive offers lower earnings potential. Investment returns from passive funds will never outperform benchmarks or indices in theory because the approach centres on tracking market performance, not beating it. It’s necessary to take a long-term view which will not suit investors looking for fast returns.

  3. Limited Control Passive investors do not have the option to select specific assets or securities because their choice is limited to a selection of static asset classes.



Person at wooden desk with laptop

The advantages of active funds


  1. Professional Management: Instead of researching markets and individual investments yourself, if you possess the skill and inclination, an actively managed fund manager will do all of that for you.

  2. Potential Outperformance Skilled managers offer the potential to generate above-average investment returns that beat the market.

  3. Suitable for Complex Markets Active funds can be used to access niche or under-researched sectors that may generate superior returns.

  4. In-Depth Research Active managers analyse holdings thoroughly, both initially and ongoing making changes when considered appropriate.


The disadvantages of active funds


  1. Market Underperformance Some managers fail to perform well.

  2. Higher Fees Active funds cost more primarily to pay for the professional investment management team.

  3. Closet Tracking Some actively managed funds mimic market allocations closely, which means the underlying investments are almost identical to the index which defeats the objective of active management and fails to justify the additional fees.


Can an active manager sustain their success?

Investors should judge active managers over three-plus years as there will be times

when the manager's investment style is out of favour, or they go through a bad

patch as mentioned earlier.


The key unknown, however, is whether a fund manager can

sustain their success over the long term. If they can, even an extra 1% or 2% p.a. of

active returns will have a huge positive effect on the portfolio value simply through the

power of compounding, if you add that up over decades through to retirement for

example.



Jar of coins tipped over onto table

Investors move out of cash

The past few years have seen outflows from equities into cash, as investors took

advantage of higher interest rates on savings accounts.


Rates are, however, trending downwards in anticipation of Central Bank rate reductions later this year. Therefore, more investors are investing in equities again, and some are considering the age-old debate of whether to go passive or active with their fund decisions.


Despite most active managers underperforming, there are still plenty of managers that outperform and demonstrate stock-picking skills which as mentioned earlier makes a huge positive contribution to portfolio returns.


Conclusion

Given a large proportion of active managers don’t beat the markets consistently, passive

investments are an easy option for investors willing and able to take a long-term

approach.


However, active funds are worth considering for investors seeking faster

returns, especially in areas that are less well covered by the investment community,

such as “alternative investments” and smaller companies, for instance, where fewer

professionals are assessing and analysing businesses. Proprietary research can often uncover opportunities that are not widely acknowledged.


Active fund managers can potentially harness these opportunities for the benefit of their investors. But how do you narrow down the field of the several thousand investments available?


Here is a selection of characteristics we think are worth considering when selecting an

active fund. They reflect some of the principles we use when we select funds for

our Preferred Investments List.


What to consider when choosing an active fund:


1. Have a clear and consistent strategy

Understanding the process behind a fund is vital when assessing if, and in what

circumstances, it might outperform in the future.


For instance, the approach of some managers is more likely to mean outperformance in rising markets. Others tend to protect capital better during less favourable market conditions because they take a more conservative approach.


Whatever the approach, the outperformance and underperformance of active funds

tends to be lumpy and taking this into account can help put returns into perspective.


‘Style drift’, a departure from an established approach or philosophy, should be viewed

sceptically as it may mean it’s harder to predict whether a fund will do relatively well or

poorly going forward.


Chess board with chess pieces

2. Invest differently to the benchmark

You can only beat the market if you invest differently to the market. If a fund’s portfolio

is like the market’s constituents, then it can likely only offer average performance – and

probably below average given the generally higher fees of active management.


If you are paying for active management then that is what you should get. By comparing

how many holdings an active fund has in common to its benchmark it is possible to

establish how ‘different’ it is, and therefore the extent to which it may deviate from it in

terms of performance. This is what is known as ‘active share’.


Different doesn’t automatically equal better, though, and outperformance relies on the

skill of the fund manager. What you can expect from a fund with a high active share is that

performance could deviate significantly from its benchmark – for better or for worse.


This is why even the best active funds inevitably have poor periods and it’s important not

to run out of patience too soon. Shorter-term underperformance can be a result of a

certain style being out of fashion rather than a lack of ability, so it’s important to try and

understand the reasons behind a fund’s performance when deciding to buy or

sell.


3. Go for ‘high conviction’ fund management

By holding too many companies in a fund, a manager can ‘dilute’ their best ideas. In

general, we think it's best if managers have the courage of their convictions and limit the

number of stocks in their portfolio so that each one can contribute meaningfully to returns.


There’s no prescriptive answer to what we consider sensible but for equities, a 40 to 60

holding portfolio is often an appropriate size to balance the need to diversify risk while

ensuring the fund is ‘punchy’ enough to be able to generate significant outperformance.


There’s an argument for holding more as the companies in question get smaller, as well

as in more cautious areas such as bond funds where numbers of holdings tend to run

into the hundreds. This is due to the greater need to mitigate risk and the usually finite

life of each of the underlying assets.


Tape measure

4. Ensure you have an appropriate fund size

In general, it’s easier to beat the market with a small amount of money than with a lot.

While investors are undoubtedly attracted to ‘star’ managers and their ‘blockbuster’

funds, there is a lot to be said for funds that stay small and nimble.


They are more likely to be able to trade in and out of their holdings without having an impact on the price because they own a smaller quantity of stock. They are also less likely to run into difficulties of ‘illiquidity’ – not being able to buy or sell a holding in the quantity required.


Investors should be wary of fund management companies that put ‘asset gathering’

before performance – marketing funds as much as possible with little regard to how the

strategy can absorb the additional money. Allowing the fund’s size to become too large

can compromise the investment process, especially in areas that are less ‘liquid’ such as

smaller companies.


It’s sensible to prioritise managers seeking to grow assets sustainably and with a stable,

diverse range of investors, with a view to closing the fund to new investment if

necessary.


Certain funds can become victims of their own success, rapidly drawing in

new investment because of strong performance. In these situations, investors should be

sceptical that market-beating returns can be sustained in the longer term and should

think about what might unfold if flows into the fund reverse.


This factor isn’t such a problem for investment trusts. They have a fixed pool of capital

to invest rather than one that expands or contracts according to investor demand as with

unit trust funds. However, they can still grow through new share issuance.


5. Consider the fund management fees

Fund costs and transparency are increasingly in the spotlight, and rightly so. Fund charges can be a significant impediment to investors’ returns so it’s important to consider the charging structure of a fund, as well as its ‘add on’ costs.


Fund managers are now required to state the transaction costs that are charged to their

funds – the amount it costs them to buy and sell the underlying investments, on top of

the ongoing charges figure (OCF), which covers fund operating costs, including the fund

manager's fees for running the portfolio (the annual management charge or AMC, but

not any performance fees), along with other costs, such as administration, marketing

and regulation.



Lightbulb on yellow post-it note on cork board

Investment ideas

Looking for more ideas for your portfolio? Explore our Preferred List for a curated list of

funds and trusts that are overseen by experts.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is a passive investment fund?

A passive investment fund aims to match the returns of a specific market or index.

What is an active investment fund?

Is passive investing high risk?


Past performance is not a guide to future performance and some investments need to be held for the long term.

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