Changing of the Guard
Over previous decades, there has been a continual battle between the merits of active versus passive management. Passive management being what I like to call the “do nothing” strategy, in which a basket of securities is purchased, and the underlying positions remain largely static. For all intents and purposes, the passive management strategy is controlled by a computer. Rather than solely using a computer, active management pays professionals six or seven figures to fly around to conferences, interview executive management teams, and apply their secret sauce tactics. Unlike passive managers, active managers do their best to determine which winning securities to buy and which losing ones to sell in their mutual funds and hedge funds.
Caught in the middle of this multi-decade war between passive and active management are Vanguard Group (founded in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1975 by John Bogle) and Fidelity Investments (founded in 1946 in Boston, Massachusetts by Edward C. Johnson II). Currently John Bogle and Vanguard’s passive philosophy is winning the war. A changing of the guard, similar to the daily ceremony witnessed in front of Buckingham Palace is happening today in the mutual fund industry. Specifically, Vanguard, the company spearheading passive investing, has passed Fidelity Investments as the largest mutual fund company according to assets under management. Before 2010, Fidelity topped the list of largest firms every year since 1988, when it passed the then previous leader, Merrill Lynch & Co (BAC).
As of July 2010, Vanguard stands at the top of the mutual fund hill, managing $1.31 trillion versus Fidelity’s $1.24 trillion. Vanguard is sufficiently diversified if one considers its largest fund, the Vanguard Total stock Market Index Fund (VITSX), sits at around $127 billion in assets. The picture looks worse for Fidelity, if you also account for the $113 billion in additional ETF assets (Exchange Traded Funds) Vanguard manages – Fidelity is relatively absent in the ETF segment (State Street). Once famous active funds, such as Fidelity Magellan (now managed by Harry Lange – FMAGX) have underperformed the market over the last ten years causing peak assets of $110 billion in 2000 to decline to around $22 billion today. The $68 billion Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), managed by Will Danhoff, has not grown sufficiently to offset Magellan’s (and other funds) declines.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Some in the industry defend the merits of active management, and through some clever cherry-picking and data mining come to the conclusion that passive investing is overrated. If you believe that money goes where it is treated best, then the proof in the pudding suggests active management is the discipline actually suffering the beating (see Darts, Monkeys & Pros). The differences among the active-passive war of ideals have become even more apparent during the heart of the financial crisis. Since the beginning of 2008 through August 2010, Morningstar shows $301 billion in assets hemorrhaging from actively managed U.S. equity funds, while passive equity-index funds have soaked up $113 billion of inflows.
On a firm-specific basis, InvestmentNews substantiated Vanguard’s gains with the following figures:
In the 10 years ended Dec. 31, Vanguard’s stock and bond funds attracted $440 billion, compared with $101 billion for Fidelity, Morningstar estimates. This year through August, Vanguard pulled in $49 billion while Fidelity had withdrawals of $2.8 billion, according to the research firm.
Vanguard is gaining share on the bond side of the house too:
Vanguard also benefited from the popularity of bond funds. From Jan. 1, 2008, through Aug. 31, 2010, the company’s fixed- income portfolios pulled in $134 billion while Fidelity’s attracted $33 billion (InvestmentNews).
Vanguard is not the only one taking share away from Fidelity. Fido is also getting pinched by my neighbor PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company), the $1.1 trillion assets under management fixed income powerhouse based in Newport Beach, California. Bond guru Bill Gross leads the $248 billion Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), which has helped the firm bring in $54 billion in assets thus far in 2010.
Passive Investing Winning but Game Not Over
Even with the market share gains of Vanguard and passive investing, active management assets still dwarf the assets controlled by “do-nothing” products. According to the Vanguard Group and the Investment Company Institute, about 25% of institutional assets and about 12% of individual investors’ assets are currently indexed (2009). The analysis gets a little more muddied once you add ETFs to the mix.
Passive investing may be winning the game of share gains, but is it winning the performance game? The academic research has been very one-sided in favor of passive investing ever since Burton Malkiel came out with his book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street. More recently, a study came out in June 2010 by Standard & Poor’s Indices Versus Active Funds (SPIVA) division showing more than 75% of active fixed income managers underperforming their index on a five-year basis. From an equity standpoint, SPIVA confirmed that more than 60% domestic equity funds and more than 84% international equity funds underperformed their benchmark on a five-year basis. InvestmentNews provides some challenging data to active-management superiority, however it is unclear whether survivorship bias, asset-weighting, style drift, and other factors result in apples being compared to oranges. SPIVA notes the complexity over the last three years has increased due to 20% of domestic equity funds, 13% of international equity funds, and 12% of fixed income funds liquidating or merging.
Regardless of the data, investors are voting with their dollars and happily accepting the superior performance, while at the same time paying less in fees. The positive aspects associated with passive investment products, such as index funds and ETFs, are not only offering superior performance like a Ferrari, but that enhanced quality also comes at the low price equivalent of a Hyundai. On a dollar-adjusted basis, stock-index funds charge an average of 29 cents per $100, compared with 95 cents for active funds (almost a 70% discount), according to research firm Lipper. For example, Vanguard’s passive VITSX fund charges clients as little as 6 cents for every $100 invested (Morningstar).
There has indeed been a changing of the market share guard and Fidelity may also be losing the debate over active versus passive management, but you do not need to shed a tear for them. Fidelity is not going to the poorhouse and will not be filing for Chapter 11 anytime soon. Last year Fidelity reported $11.5 billion in revenue and $2.5 billion in operating income. Those Fidelity profits should be more than enough to cover the demoted guard’s job retraining program and retirement plan benefits.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in VITSX, PTTAX, BAC, FCNTX, FMAGX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.