Swedroe: Sorting Luck From Skill

May 15, 2017

Stated differently, the very-best-performing traditional active managers have delivered returns in excess of the Fama-French three-factor model. However, their returns have not been high enough to be confident in concluding they have enough skill to cover their costs or their past performance will persist.

Fama and French concluded: “For (active) fund investors the simulation results are disheartening.” They did concede their results appear better when looking at gross returns (the returns without the expense ratio). But gross returns are irrelevant to investors unless they can find an active manager willing to work for free.

Declining Alpha
Our third study is “Conviction in Equity Investing” by Mike Sebastian and Sudhakar Attaluri, which appears in the Summer 2014 issue of The Journal of Portfolio Management. Their study is of interest because it shows a declining ability to generate alpha. The authors found:

  • Since 1989, the percentage of managers who evidenced enough skill to basically match their costs (showed no net alpha) has ranged from about 70% to as high as about 90%, and by 2011 was about 82%.
  • The percentage of unskilled managers has ranged from about 10% to about 20%, and by 2011 was about 16%.
  • The percentage of skilled managers—those showing net alphas (demonstrating enough skill to more than cover their costs)—began the period at about 10%, rose to as high as about 20% in 1993, and by 2011, had fallen to just 1.6%, virtually matching the results of the paper by Fama and French.

Our fourth study is “Scale and Skill in Active Management,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Financial Economics. The authors, Lubos Pastor, Robert Stambaugh and Lucian Taylor, provided further insight into why the hurdles to generating alpha have been growing. Their study covered the period 1979 to 2011 and more than 3,000 mutual funds. They concluded that fund managers have become more skillful over time.

They wrote: “We find that the average fund’s skill has increased substantially over time, from -5 basis points (bp) per month in 1979 to +13 bp per month in 2011.” However, they also found that the higher skill level has not translated into better performance.

More Skill Needed

They reconcile the upward trend in skill with no trend in performance by noting: “Growing industry size makes it harder for fund managers to outperform despite their improving skill. The active management industry today is bigger and more competitive than it was 30 years ago, so it takes more skill just to keep up with the rest of the pack.”

Pastor, Stambaugh and Taylor came to another interesting conclusion: The rising skill level they observed was not due to increasing skill within firms. Instead, they found that “the new funds entering the industry are more skilled on average than the existing funds. Consistent with this interpretation, we find that younger funds outperform older funds in a typical month.”

For example, the authors found that “funds aged up to three years outperform those aged more than 10 years by a statistically significant 0.9% per year.”

The authors hypothesized this is the result of newer funds having managers who are better educated or better acquainted with new technology, though they provide no evidence to support that thesis. They also found all fund performance deteriorates with age as industry growth creates decreasing returns to scale, and newer, and more skilled, funds create more competition.

 

 

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