The passive investing in ETFs and index funds has experienced a massive influx of money in the past ten years. The US ETF market is quickly approaching $3 trillion in assets under management. As of March 29, 2017, the total AUM for US ETFs was equal to $2.78 trillion. The value is still dwarfing the $16-trillion mutual fund business. However, it is growing at a steady pace of $300-400 billion annually and slowly catching up. Inevitably, passive investing will continue to grow while active investing will shrink over time until they reach some equilibrium. A lot has been said and written in the media about the benefits of passive investing and indexing. However, I would like to point out 5 Myths and One True Fact about passive investing.
1. Passive investing is cheap
One of the main slogans of the passive investing campaign is that is cheaper than active investing i.e mutual funds. Indeed, the large US ETFs are now charging as low as 0.04% while many active managers are still asking for 1% – 1.5% in management fees.
However, some less obvious costs remain hidden and misunderstood by the average investor. ETFs have two large expense categories – transaction and holding costs.
Transaction costs include trade commissions, bid-ask spread, and market impact. Holding costs include management fees, index tracking error, and taxes.Without getting too technical, holding larger and more liquid ETFs like SPY and VTI will minimize these costs. While, trading smaller ETFs can drive higher hidden costs due to poor trade execution, higher fees, significant index tracking error, and even taxes.
2. Passive investing always beats active investing
According to a recent study by PIMCO, 46% of all active equity fund managers and 84% of all active bond managers over performed their median passive peers in the past five years. In practice, passive investing will perform very well in efficient market segments such as large cap stocks where most companies receive a good amount of publicity and research coverage. On the other hand, active managers will do better in less efficient asset classes like small-cap, emerging markets, and fixed income. These markets have a lot bigger room for mispricing and price discovery due to fragmentation of market players and lower research coverage.
3. Passive investing gives you control
Intuitively it makes sense to think that passive investing provides more control over your investment decisions. After all, you are not paying an active manager to pick and choose your stock holdings. But, and there is always but, most passive investment strategies are market cap weighted. That means whether you invest in S&P 500 (SPY) or Total Equity Market (VTI), a significant portion of your money will go to companies like Apple, Microsoft, Exxon Mobile, Amazon, Johnson and Johnson, General Electric, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo. In fact, you have no choice. The top 10 companies in S&P 500 make up 19% on the index and the remaining 490 stocks make up 81%. Indices are already set and you will follow their performance.
4. Passive investing is less risky
Investing comes with risk. And passive investing is as risky as any other form of investing. Passive investors are equally exposed to losses during bear markets, sudden market corrections or just following the wrong index. In fact, many ETFs are becoming a popular tool amongst traders and hedge fund managers to park extra cash or quickly get in and out of certain positions. Sudden large inflows and selloffs can impose significant risks to smaller retail investors due to an imbalance of trading volume between ETFs and underlying securities.
I also want to point out the increasing presence of Exchange Traded Notes, leveraged, inverse, commodity and volatility ETFs. They carry significant risk to investors and should not be used for long-term retirement planning.
In contrast to that, many active managers use risk-adjusted measures like Sharpe ratio, information ratio, Treynor Ratio and Alpha when assessing their performance to their respective benchmark. Furthermore, many iconic active mutual funds lost a lot less than similar ETFs during the last bear market in 2008-2009 mainly because of their strong risk management policies.
5. Passive investing is efficient
ETFs trade daily and have intra-day pricing like any other stock on the exchange. Naturally, ETFs were designed as a vehicle to provide liquidity and transparency in the marketplace.
However, there have been numerous occasions of significant ETF market mispricing, On August 24, 2015, due to a flash sale, several ETFs lost more than 40% – 50% of their value in a matter of seconds before they recover.
More recently, on March 20, a computer glitch on the largest ETF Exchange, NYSE Arca, caused significant delays and mispricing of thousands of ETFs.
6. The act of choosing passive investing is, in fact, active investing
While the “passive” in the name implies a lack of involvement in the investment decision making, in reality, there is no true passive investing. Passive investing is a type of active investment management. Choosing between passive and active funds is an active choice. Selecting which index to follow is an active decision. Allocating between different asset classes is an act of investment election. Even, the process of deciding when to buy and when to sell an index fund or an ETF is an active decision.
About the author: Stoyan Panayotov, CFA is a fee-only financial advisor based in Walnut Creek, CA. His firm Babylon Wealth Management offers fiduciary investment management and financial planning services to individuals and families.