Vanguard: The Evolution Of Active Management

March 27, 2017

[This ETF Industry Perspective is sponsored by Vanguard.]

Factor investing is simply an evolutionary stage of active, and it can benefit client portfolios. Meanwhile, low-cost traditional active can survive.

Despite taking many lumps in recent years, active management remains relevant. But advisors and investors are fleeing high-cost, low-performing active that’s based on outdated strategies. Instead, the future of active lies in low expenses that allow investors to enjoy a comfortable share of returns. Active’s future also rests with such methods as factor and so-called smart-beta investing, which seek to isolate variables responsible for market outperformance.

That is the message from Tom Rampulla, managing director of Vanguard Financial Advisor Service™.

Yes, it is true, Rampulla said, that advisors and investors have siphoned money from traditional active funds for 10 years now. For example, $835 billion came out of domestic active equity mutual funds from 2007 through 2015, while $1.2 trillion in net new cash and reinvested dividends poured into U.S. equity index funds and ETFs.1

Assets In Index Funds And ETFs Have Continued To Increase



For a larger view, please click on the image above.

Source: Simfund as of 9/30/2016.

Such numbers are stark, and they reveal some of the underlying problems with traditional, high-cost active management, Rampulla said. First and foremost, it simply costs too much. Those costs drag down returns and contribute to often poor and unpredictable performance. In fact, a comparison of fees charged by active managers with the returns realized by investors in active funds paints quite the unflattering picture of the managers (see figure below).

High Fees: Good For Managers, Bad For Investors

Asset management fees versus excess returns

Source: Morningstar, Inc., as of 12/31/2015.

Notes: What investors paid: 10-year active management fees less fees of index funds multiplied by total assets. What investors received: 10-year average performance minus 10-year average performance of an index fund multiplied by total assets.

Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.


Percentage Of Active Managers Outperforming (Rolling 12-Month Average)


For a larger view, please click on the image above.


Source: Morningstar, Inc.

Notes: Data begin December 1991 and display the 12-month rolling outperformance from December 1993 through May 2016 of the percentage of funds outperforming their benchmarks. Manager outperformance was relative to the listed benchmarks. Benchmarks used: Emerging markets equity used MSCI Emerging Markets Index; high-yield fixed income used Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield Index through 12/31/1992, Bloomberg Barclays Global High Yield Index through 5/31/2007, and Bloomberg Barclays Global High Yield Corporate Index thereafter; U.S. equity large-cap used Russell 1000 Index; and U.S. equity small-cap used Russell 2000 Index.
Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot directly invest in an index. 

And the data suggest that active managers have been getting worse in their ability to outperform the markets over the decades. Ironically, a major reason for this has been the very rise of the professional investor class, Rampulla said. Several decades ago, it was easier for professional investment managers to beat the market, because market participants included a greater proportion of individual and other relatively untrained investors.

Even as the percentage of professionally managed assets has climbed, so has the number of investment professionals. “So instead of a handful of investment professionals trying to outsmart a bunch of individual investors, as you had in the past, you now have a bunch of professionals trying to outsmart one another,” Rampulla said.

Professionally Managed AUM And CFA Candidates

Sources: CFA Institute and Bogle Financial Markets Research Center.

For investors who placed their faith in those active managers, the result in recent years has more likely than not been disappointment.

“The markets incorporate new information into asset pricing almost immediately—so it’s really difficult to get an edge,” he said.

Yet that’s not to say that active management can’t be successful, he added. It can be.

“There clearly are successful managers, even if they do not always outperform, and there are reasons behind their success,” he said. “The secret sauce behind active outperformance is, in fact, being replicated in a lower-cost way.”

Research over the past 20 years has shown that particular factors can help securities outperform what would otherwise be expected in an efficient market, improving returns compared with those achievable by the broad market. At least seven factors appear to provide historical, if inconsistent, equity outperformance: market, low volatility, value, size, momentum, term, and credit. (See figure below)

Factor-Based Investment Excess Returns And Volatility


For a larger view, please click on the image above.


Notes: Returns are U.S.-dollar-denominated excess returns above the “risk-free rate.” Market factor is calculated using MSCI All Country World Index (total return); low-volatility factor is calculated using MSCI World Minimum Volatility Index (total return); long/short value factor is calculated as global large-cap value portfolio minus global large-cap growth portfolio (Kenneth R. French website); long-only value factor is calculated using global large-cap value portfolio (Kenneth French website); long/short size factor is calculated as MSCI All Country World Small Cap Index (total return) minus MSCI All Country World Large Cap Index (total return); long-only size factor is calculated using MSCI All Country World Small Cap Index (total return); long/short momentum factor is calculated as global large-cap high momentum portfolio minus global large-cap low-momentum portfolio (Kenneth French website); long-only momentum factor is calculated as global large-cap high-momentum portfolio (Kenneth French website); term factor is calculated using Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Government Treasury Index (total return); long/short credit factor is calculated using Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Credit Index (total return) minus (duration matched) Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Government Treasury Index (total return); long-only credit factor is calculated using Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Credit Index (total return); and risk-free rate is calculated using the one-month LIBOR rate. Data cover the period from January 1, 2000, through December 31, 2014.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index. 

Sources: Vanguard calculations, using data from FactSet and the Kenneth R French website http://mba.tuck. ken.french/data_library.html.


Active managers are aware of these, and studies show that factor exposure is responsible for the majority of active managers’ success in delivering excess returns. One study asserted that up to 80% of the alpha generated by active managers could be credited to factors.2

Now factors are being implemented with passive tools and wielded—especially by advisors—in an undeniably active way. Subasset-class index ETFs and nonmarket-cap-weighted indexes are replacing traditional, active methods of portfolio construction—allowing portfolio managers, and advisors, to express their views about the market.

“The factorization of active management will count as a major evolution of active management,” Rampulla said. “Yes, it does have a role in client portfolios, as does low-cost active in general.”

One example of an effective factor product, Rampulla added, is the Vanguard Global Minimum Volatility Fund. It is an active fund, not an ETF, but it is based on a quantitative model and offered at a fraction of the cost of many traditional active funds.

“For retired clients who are drawing down their portfolio, a product like this helps them potentially get equity exposure and returns with less risk, and so it makes sense for an advisor to use minimum volatility at the core of such a portfolio,” Rampulla said.

Factors don’t just work in isolation. In fact, they can be combined to potentially reduce risk. “That can create a powerful combination,” Rampulla said.

However, there are three caveats to factor investing.

First, factors should be implemented as part of a global portfolio, to increase diversification.

Second, factors tend to be cyclical, and they can produce long periods of underperformance. That’s where advisors can help clients, Rampulla said. Advisors can act as behavioral coaches when strategies require a level of patience over a period of time that could stretch on for years.

Finally, factor investing should come at a lower cost, because it can be implemented systematically, and that should help increase portfolio returns.

Rampulla said the more nuanced approach of factor investing using ETFs provides: greater transparency, because holdings will be reported daily; control, because securities selection should not migrate into various area of the market; and lower cost, because managers are not trying to, for example, select individual stocks or make macroeconomic predictions. “For many of your clients, broad passive vehicles will suit their performance needs by simply staying true to a benchmark,” he said. “But for those seeking to outperform—and who accept the corresponding additional risk—we think a rules-based implementation of factors will provide an easier way to target the exposures you and your clients want in a portfolio.”

As for traditional active management, Rampulla said, that will survive, too, but not in its present high-cost format. “Costs matter. They always will,” Rampulla said. “In a low-return environment, like that which we’re expecting for the foreseeable future, costs become even more critical.

“You can use factor ETFs to potentially help enhance client risk-adjusted returns, or you can hire active managers, who themselves will likely use some form of factor investing. In either case, your clients can win, and if your clients win, you win.”


  1. Investment Company Institute, 2016. 2016 Investment Company Fact Book. Washington, D.C.: Investment Company Institute.
  2. Jennifer Bender, P. Brett Hammond, and William Mok, 2014. Can Alpha Be Captured by Risk Premia? The Journal of Portfolio Management 40(2):18–29.


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