Every year, the market provides us with some important lessons on prudent investment strategy. Many times, the market will offer investors remedial courses, covering lessons that it has already delivered in previous years. That’s why one of my favorite sayings is that there’s nothing new in investing—there’s only investment history you don’t yet know.
Last year gave us nine lessons. As you may note, many of them have appeared before. Unfortunately, many investors fail to learn from them. Rather, they keep repeating the same errors, which is what Albert Einstein called the definition of insanity. We’ll begin with my personal favorite, a lesson the market, if measured properly, teaches each and every year.
Lesson 1: Active Management Is a Loser’s Game
Despite an overwhelming amount of research that demonstrates passive investing is far more likely to allow you to achieve your financial goals, the vast majority of individual investor assets are still invested in active funds. And, unfortunately, investors in active funds continue to pay for their “triumph of hope over wisdom and experience.”
2016 was another year where the large majority of active funds underperformed, despite the great opportunity for active managers to generate alpha in the very large dispersion of returns between the best and worst performers.
For example, while the S&P 500 returned 12.0% for the year, there were 25 stocks in the index that returned at least 45.5%. Oneck Inc. (OKE) returned 132.8%, while Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) returned 223.9%. All an active manager had to do to outperform was to overweight these superperformers.
On the other side of the coin, there were 25 stocks in the index that lost at least 22.9%. Endo International (ENDP) lost 73.1% and First Solar (FSLR) lost 51.4%. To outperform, all an active manager had to do was to underweight, let alone avoid, these “dogs.”
It’s important to note that this wide dispersion of returns is not at all unusual. Yet despite the opportunity, year after year, in aggregate, active managers persistently fail to outperform. The table below shows the percentile rankings for funds from two leading providers of passively managed funds, Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) and Vanguard, for both 2016 and the 15-year period ending December 2016. (Full disclosure: My firm, Buckingham, recommends DFA funds in constructing client portfolios.)
Note that Morningstar’s data contains survivorship bias, as it only considers funds that have survived the full period. And the bias is significant, as about 7% of actively managed funds disappear every year and their returns are buried in the mutual fund graveyard. Thus, the longer the period, the worse the survivorship bias, and at 15 years, it’s quite large.