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The typical discussion surrounding active investing relates to a comparison with passive investing.  Active investing is normally defined as investing money with money managers that select individual stocks or bonds with the overall goal of beating the performance of the stock or bond market indexes.  An example might be a large cap stock mutual fund that attempts to have a total return better than the S&P 500 index.  Passive investing is normally defined as investing money in an index mutual fund or ETF that simply selects the individual stocks or bonds within a particular stock or bond index.  There is no attempt to beat that index.  Why would an individual investor choose this route?  While it may seem that settling on a strategy to be only average is “giving up” on great returns, it has been shown in numerous studies that active money managers achieve lower returns than their index over long periods of time.  In fact, if you look up this particular topic on the Internet, there will be a plethora of articles and information that looks at this topic in much greater depth.  However, I would like to look at this topic from a different standpoint.  The topics discussed below still relate to active investing, but the view looks more at an individual investor’s entire portfolio.  Well, let’s dig into the details.

  1. Active money managers may not be fully invested in the stocks or bonds that you expect at all times.

Most individual investors think that the active money managers they choose are always fully invested.  In fact, that is not normally the case when it comes to mutual funds.  Mutual funds will be used for the  purpose of our discussion since they are the most common investment held by individual investors when it comes to active investing.  A lot of portfolio managers decide that the stock or bond market may be poised to decline at any given time.  Since they have this belief in the future direction of the market, they sell stocks or bonds and raise cash in the mutual fund.  Thus, they do not hold 100% of the assets in the mutual fund in the stated investments for the investment strategy.  Why does this matter?  It is easiest to see within the context of an example.

We can examine what happens using a hypothetical portfolio for an individual investor.  Let us assume that an individual investor has a $1,000,000 portfolio.  Further assume that this investor devotes 40% of this total to large cap stocks (i.e. stocks from the S&P 500 index).  That assumption would mean that the total portfolio holds $400,000 ($1,000,000 * 40%) worth of large cap stocks.  Now we assume that the individual investor chooses one active mutual fund to invest with.  What if that active money manager decides that a large decline is coming in large cap stocks, so he/she reduces the exposure of the mutual fund to 70% invested in large cap stocks and 30% invested in cash?  The individual investors’ portfolio now has $280,000 ($400,000 * 70%) invested in large cap stocks and an additional $120,000 ($400,000 * 30%) in cash.  The portfolio is now 28% large cap stocks and 12% more in cash.  Why is this important for the individual investor?

The consequences are enormous.  When this investor initially decides on his/her portfolio allocation and tolerance for risk in relation to achieving financial goals, he/she is assuming that the portfolio will be 40% in large cap stocks.  In the aforementioned example, unbeknownst to this investor, he/she has a lot less exposure to large cap stocks and a lot more of the portfolio in cash.  The important thing to remember here is that when an individual investor embarks upon a passive investment strategy he/she is assured that the exact percentage of any given type of investment is selected.  Another thing to remember is that the individual investor could have chosen to invest only 28% in large cap stocks and an extra 12% in cash to begin with.  The decisions of the active portfolio manager thwart the individual investor’s attempts to build a portfolio of investments that meets his/her needs.  The active portfolio manager is timing the stock or bond market, and the individual investor does not know to what extent that money manager is doing at any given time.

2.  Active money managers have great latitude in the investments they choose and may not be invested in the stocks or bonds an individual investor thinks.

Most individual investors do not look at the prospectus for the mutual fund that they invest in.  The prospectus is a document required by the SEC to be given to all investors.  It includes many pieces of information like expenses of the fund and all sorts of legalese components that are very hard to understand.  One important section of the prospectus is the section that discusses the types of investments the mutual fund may choose.  Since the portfolio manager does not want to be handicapped during times of market turmoil or when unusual investment opportunities present themselves, the types of investments allowed is very broad.  For a stock mutual fund that invests in technology stocks, this section will still include the option to invest in different sectors of the stock market.  This practice is not uncommon in the industry.  What does this mean for your portfolio?

The most important consequence for your portfolio is that you may own stocks or bonds that you do not expect, or you may own the same investment in two or more different active mutual funds.  As it relates to the former, you might own an active stock mutual fund that invests in US stocks.  However, if the portfolio manager decides that an international stock is a great investment, he/she may invest in that stock as long as it has been disclosed in the prospectus as being allowable.  As an investor, you may not want to take on the extra risk of investing in international stocks.  As it relates to the latter, there are times when an active portfolio manager invests in a stock or bond that begins in one category of investment and morphs into another over the holding period of that stock or bond.  An example here would be in the case of a small cap mutual fund.  Most people define a small cap stock as a company with a market capitalization of $1 billion to $5 billion.  There are times when an active mutual fund invests in a larger small cap company that does well over time and becomes a mid cap stock by definition.  Why is this important?  Well, if an individual investor selects the desired percentages of particular stocks or bonds he/she wants to have exposure to, he/she may have overlap between different stocks or bonds in different mutual funds without knowing.  A great way to determine how pervasive this phenomenon is within your portfolio is to use the Instant X-Ray feature of Morningstar.  Here is the link:

http://portfolio.morningstar.com/NewPort/Free/InstantXRayDEntry.aspx

You will be able to see how many stocks or bonds are included in two or more mutual funds that you own.  The great advantage of using a passive investing strategy is that the index mutual funds and ETFs are totally transparent.  Individual investors are able to ensure that they never invest in stocks or bonds they do not want or invest extra amounts in the same investment.

3.  Some active money managers engage in “window dressing” their mutual funds.

The term window dressing is applied whenever an active money manager adds the best performing stocks or bonds to the mutual fund right before the end of the quarter or prior to a report being issued. There are times when an active money manager is underperforming relative to his/her benchmark index. One of the things he/she can do is to add stocks or bonds that have done particularly well during that time period. Thus, the mutual fund did not own that investment for the entire period. However, it looks great to investors because they assume that the portfolio manager is making savvy investment decisions. How does this occur? The main reason this occurs is that mutual funds do not report the purchase date of any stock or bond. They are only required to show how many shares/bonds are owned and the corresponding market value when applied to the closing price at the end of the time period. The only way to check to see if window dressing happens is a messy process. The individual investor must look back at prior reports to see if the stock or bond was actually owned then. Even using this method is imperfect because the portfolio manager may indeed have purchased the security in question at the beginning of the period. The main point is that window dressing is simply a shell game that misrepresents the portfolio manager’s stock or bond selection ability over the time period.

4.  Performance returns presented by mutual funds are only on a gross basis. The taxes an individual investor pays on dividends and capital gains are not reflected which provides a net basis of the actual performance return.

The first thing to point out is that this particular discussion only applies to taxable accounts.  If you have your investment in a 401(k), 403(b), Traditional or Roth IRA, or other tax-exempt accounts, you are not subject to income taxes.  Therefore, there are no tax consequences at this point in time that reduce your gross basis performance returns.  If you only have tax-exempt accounts, you can skip this discussion or read on simply for your own knowledge.

Now it is not the fault of mutual funds for neglecting to present net basis performance returns after tax.  Why?  Well, each individual investor is in a different tax bracket and may have different tax situation.  With that being said, it is important to note that active mutual funds almost always have more taxable items than any passive index mutual fund or ETF.  The reason for this occurrence is due to turnover of the mutual fund.  What is turnover?   The definition of turnover is how many times a mutual fund (or any investment vehicle for that matter) buys and sells the entire grouping of stocks or bonds during any given year.  The simplest example is a turnover of 100%.  A turnover of 100% means that the mutual fund bought and sold all stocks or bonds during the year.  Another way of putting it in more simple terms is that the mutual fund held the stocks or bonds for one year on average prior to selling.  A turnover of 200% means that the average holding period was six months.   A turnover of 50% equates to an average holding period of two years.

Higher turnover in the mutual fund means that there are more capital gains (and capital losses too).  Thus, there are more tax consequences to the individual investor.  Recent studies have shown that the average turnover for an active mutual fund is roughly 80%.  When you contrast that with passive index mutual funds or ETFs, the turnover is low by definition.  The index providers usually only make changes to the members of that index annually.  There are usually only a small number of stocks or bonds added to or deleted from the index.  This means that turnover is very low; it can be 10%-20%.  The main thing to remember for individual investors is that gross returns are all right for a baseline of performance.  However, he/she really should focus on after-tax performance returns of the mutual fund.  It is the money you have left in your brokerage account.

Summary

The hidden dangers of active investing touched on within this article are the main ones.  The importance of these hidden dangers is mainly that, if an individual investor uses active money managers to build his/her investment portfolio, it is nearly impossible to do with any degree of confidence.  When you create an investment portfolio yourself or with the guidance of a financial professional, you are doing two things.  You are looking at your tolerance for risk and determining what your financial goals are for your lifetime.  The second step is deciding what types of investments should be included in your portfolio and what percentages are appropriate to allocate to each type of investment.  As we have seen above (especially in the first three dangers), there are constant forces working against an individual investor when using active money managers to keep the portfolio as designed.  If you choose the passive route to investing via index mutual funds or ETFs, you are assured of obtaining the percentages within each investment category that you desire.

The argument of the merits of active investing or passive investing will go on and on.  However, that discussion usually looks at a single type of investment vehicle choosing stocks or bonds for individual investors.  Did this mutual fund beat its benchmark index this year?  When it comes to individual investors, it is far more important to decide on the proper investment allocation of his/her portfolio in order to achieve one’s financial goals.  The cross currents and confluence of having numerous active mutual funds makes it infinitely more complex to set up a portfolio.  Passive investment vehicles are transparent at all times, so the individual investor is able to choose the exposure to large cap stocks, small cap stocks, international stocks, domestic bonds, international bonds, emerging market stocks, and so on that may be appropriate given his/her risk tolerance and financial goals.  An individual investor can try to establish a portfolio using active managers.  However, the discussion points (hidden dangers) above show the difficulty in this approach.  First, the active money manager may not be fully invested.  Second, the active money manager may invest in stocks or bonds that the individual investor does not intend or replicate holdings by different money managers.  Third, the active money manager may engage in window dressing making it difficult to measure that money manager’s ability to choose the best performing stocks or bonds.

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