‘Active Management Isn’t Dead, It’s Evolving’

Vanguard’s Tom Rampulla offers his take on the state of active management and ETFs.

Reviewed by: Cinthia Murphy
Edited by: Cinthia Murphy

The days of big-name active managers such as Peter Lynch may be over, thanks largely to consistent underperformance relative to benchmarks over time. The numbers aren’t flattering for active managers.

But that doesn’t mean active management is dead, according to Tom Rampulla, head of U.S. financial intermediaries at Vanguard. Speaking at Inside ETFs Monday, Rampulla put it simply: Active management isn’t dead; it’s evolving in an effort to survive.

From the mid-1970s when Jack Bogle introduced the first index mutual fund for retail investors through to today, active has been losing ground to passive in a trend that is still gathering steam. Last year alone, active mutual funds and ETFs bled more than $200 billion in net redemptions, while passive strategies gained as much in inflows, according to Vanguard data.

“Somewhere along the line, active lost its sizzle [from the days of Peter Lynch],” Rampulla said, adding that from the early 2000s to today, we’ve seen some $1 trillion in flows go into passive versus active.

Passive Winning For Two Reasons

The first reason is cost. Consider this stat: Investors paid an estimated $437 billion in fees to asset managers in the past decade. During that time, these same investors underperformed the market to the tune of $545 billion versus index returns.

It’s no surprise that investors are increasingly turning to lower-fee products. In the past 15 years, some $611 billion has gone into the lowest-cost funds in the market compared to some $550 billion in outflows from the highest-cost U.S. equity funds, Rampulla says.

“This trend will continue,” he said. “Regulation has been a tail wind for passive investing, and despite the massive growth, passive investing is only one-fifth of all global assets invested. Passive is an effective investment strategy.”

The second reason is poor performance. Active managers haven’t cut it. It’s tough to overcome the high costs, Rampulla says.

For instance, in the U.S. large-cap equity space, only 16% of active managers have outperformed the index in a rolling 12-month average since 1993. In emerging market equities, where there’s a lot of value placed on boots-on-the-ground active research, 32% of active managers have outperformed in the last 20-plus years. Even then, the odds aren’t very good.


Outperformance Increasingly Difficult

And outperforming is only getting harder, because the world of investing is no longer dominated by small, retail investors trying to figure out what to do with their money. Today 68% of assets are professionally managed (up from 17% in 1963).

Professionals are trying to outsmart each other, making competition in the search for outperformance tougher and tougher, Rampulla says: “High cost and low performance makes active management tough. Money is leaving the active industry, and it’s accelerating.”  

The Evolution Of Active

The new face—or evolving face—of active management can be seen in three booming trends.

  • The first is low cost. Traditional active managers have cut their prices a lot to have a chance to outperform. Active managers who are not saddled by high fees do better. “Low-cost active can work,” Rampulla said.
  • Actively managed passive portfolios is another evolution. It’s using passive ETFs actively. This is a growing phenomenon that, at least according to Morningstar data, already comprises some 370 ETF managed portfolios with $88 billion in 2016.
  • The third face of active management is factor investing. Up to 80% of active excess returns can be explained by factor returns, research shows. Factors can be a very efficient way to get alpha, and can be crucial in making a difference in manager outperformance. They can also be harnessed directly via ETFs by investors, and be used both strategically and tactically. “Factor investing is active management, and it’s growing rapidly,” he said.

“So is active management dead? No. But old active is unlikely to survive. It needs to evolve to survive,” Rampulla said. “Lower-cost, actively managed passive portfolio, and factor investing are three evolutions in active management.”

Contact Cinthia Murphy at [email protected]


Cinthia Murphy is head of digital experience, advocating for the user in all that etf.com does. She previously served as managing editor and writer for etf.com, specializing in ETF content and multimedia. Cinthia’s experience includes time at Dow Jones and former BridgeNews, covering commodity futures markets in Chicago and Brazil equities in Sao Paulo. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.