Swedroe: Tax Managed Funds Fail To Impress

September 21, 2015

There is an overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that active management is a loser’s game when it comes to both stock and bond investing. The evidence led author Charles Ellis to call active management just that—a loser’s game—because while it’s possible to win, the odds of doing so are so poor that it isn’t prudent to try.

The evidence applies even to investors who don’t pay taxes, such as endowments, and investors in tax-advantaged accounts, such as an IRA or 401(k). The odds of winning become dramatically worse, however, in the presence of taxes because taxes are often the largest expense incurred by taxable investors in actively managed funds.

Here’s what active manager Ted Aronson of AJO Partners (which has about $26 billion in assets under management) had to say on the subject of taxable investing and active management: “None of my clients are taxable. Because, once you introduce taxes … active management probably has an insurmountable hurdle. We have been asked to run taxable money—and declined. The costs of our active strategies are high enough without paying Uncle Sam. Capital gains taxes, when combined with transactions costs and fees, make indexing profoundly advantaged, I am sorry to say.”

While Aronson invests his personal tax-advantaged assets in his own fund (thus following his own advice), he invests taxable assets in index funds. In an interview with Barron’s, he stated: “My wife, three children and I have taxable money in eight of the Vanguard index funds.”

To try and address the tax cost issue, actively managed fund families have created tax-managed versions of their funds. These funds focus on reducing the negative drag that taxes have on after-tax returns. The question is: Do active tax-managed funds produce superior results relative to passively managed funds?

Tax-Managed Funds Study
To answer that question, Dale Domian, Philip Gibson and David Nanigian—authors of the study “Is Your Tax-Managed Fund Manager Hiding in the Closet?”, which appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Journal of Wealth Management—examined the tax efficiency, performance and expense of domestic equity mutual funds with a stated goal of minimizing the taxes paid by their shareholders.

Their study used the Morningstar database (which includes about 2,000 U.S. equity funds) and the Carhart four-factor (beta, size, value and momentum) model to compare the returns of tax-managed funds with the returns of actively managed funds that were not tax-managed, and index funds and ETFs. The study covered the period 2010 through 2014. Following is a summary of the authors’ main findings:

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