Passive Investing Trends

July 01, 2001

Index funds are on the rise. Assets flowing into index mutual funds have been grow-ing rapidly both in absolute terms and rel-ative to inflows into actively managed funds. The million-dollar question is whether these inflows have resulted from investors seeing the light and investing in the passive funds on merit or simply chasing returns. Only recently has the body of data become suffi-cient to properly analyze the question. Given the implicit cautiousness of index funds, it is both ironic and telling that they have boomed relative to active funds during the roll-out-the-barrels bull market of recent years.

So what is ironic, and how is it telling? The ironic part is that ostensibly one would think that a penny-pinching index strategy that forgoes any bet and plays every num-ber on the roulette wheel for even money at minimum cost would appeal in down mar-kets, when every basis point counts. Telling is the fact that return-chasing money moved into index funds. Why did it move? By and large, index fund returns throttle the active competition, particularly in bull mar-kets. When the market is steaming ahead, every dollar not invested in the market by a fund is a cash drag against returns. That, coupled with the ever-present reality that transaction and management costs go up with, well, the additional transactions and management required by active manage-ment, led to significant outperformance of active funds by the market, as represented by the Wilshire 5000. The data seems to indicate that this is what has driven the indexing boom. Quite simply, over the 1990-2000 period, inflows into mutu-al funds generally reached their highest levels,
both in absolute terms and relative to total mutual fund inflows, when the markets were doing best. The chart below and the table on the following page examine Financial Research Corp. (FRC) and Investment Company Institute (ICI) data and present index fund inflow data both in absolute terms and as a percentage of total inflows.

The Big Picture

While the first retail index mutual fund, the Vanguard 500, was launched in 1976, according to Financial Research Corp. data, it took until 1989 for inflows into index funds to top $1 billion. Of course the trickle soon became a deluge, though, and by April of 2000, right in the vicinity of both the broad stock market's and the technology sector's peaks, the Vanguard 500 assumed the man-tle of largest mutual fund by capitalization. Why? Framed in that way, the question seems to answer itself: Assets peak just as returns peak. A number of issues bear examination, however. How have relative inflows looked in up and down markets? When have inflows been hit the hardest relative to total mutual fund inflows? Here, of course, is where we find our Occam's razor. When are index fund inflows at their highest level relative to all funds and why? When is their fall in inflow, relative to all funds, greatest and again why? For purposes of our analysis, and in the previous table, we examine the 10-year 1991-2001 period. Using Investment Company Institute (ICI) data for the total uni-verse and FRC data to examine index fund inflows, we can examine the facts:

  • The all-time high for inflows into index funds, domestic equity funds and the Vanguard 500 in absolute and relative terms occurred in the first quarter of 1999 the last year of the freight train bull market that steamed through the five years of 1995-1999.
  • In 2000, the first losing year for the S&P 500 since 1990, equity index inflows fell 63% off the record year, amounting to just 7% of equity mutual fund inflows (down from 29% in 1999). This abysmal trend continued into the first quarter of 2001 with active managers, finally getting a chance to harvest the fruits of a merciful bear market, banging the drums. Q1 index fund inflows were at their lowest level since Q3 1995, when the magical run got under way.
  • Pre-bull, the data is somewhat less con-clusive. In fact, though index inflows more than doubled from 1990, when the market was down, to 1991, when it returned more than 30%, index fund inflows as a per-centageof total fund inflow actually decreased, from 4.5% to 3.9%.
  • In a middling market, that percentage continued to decline nominally until it reached 3.4% of the total in 1993. In the faltering market of 1994, index fund inflow increased to 5% of the total as mutual fund inflows fell by more than 50%. More telling though, is the fact that in the weaker 1990-1994 market, equity fund inflows fell steadily from 14% to 8.8%, 6.8%, 5.4% and ulti-mately to 3.4% in the down market of
  • Welcome 1995: Equity index fund inflows parallel the rocketing market, amounting to 8.3%, 10.5%, 13.5%, 24.1% and 28.9% of equity inflows from 1995-1999.


Index Equity Inflows Relative To All
Equity Inflows And Wilshire 5000 Return

Total Equity Equity Index Index as

  Fund Inflow Fund Inflows Percentage Wilshire 5000
Year $ Billions $ Billions of Total Inflow Return %
1989 5.8 .9 15.5% 29.17%
1990 12.9 1.8 14.0% -6.18%
1991 39.9 3.5 8.8% 34.21%
1992 79.0 5.4 6.8% 8.97%
1993 127.3 6.9 5.4% 11.28%
1994 114.5 3.9 3.4% -0.07%
1995 124.4 10.3 8.3% 36.45%
1996 217.0 22.8 10.5% 21.2%
1997 227.1 30.7 13.5% 31.29%
1998 157.0 37.8 24.1% 23.43%
1999 187.7 54.3 28.9% 23.56%
2000 309.6 21.6 7.0% -10.9%
Average 133.5 16.7 12.2% 16.87%

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