A recent blog on CNBC almost made you feel sorry for active managers It referenced a study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch which found that active managers were having "a rough year." Only 23 percent of large-cap managers beat the S&P 500 index and only 27 percent topped the performance of the Russell 1000.
There is a certain irony in the fact that Bank of America Merrill Lynch is the source of this information. The merger of these two mega active managers was triggered by what the New York Times characterized as Merrill's "billions of dollars in mortgage-related mistakes." Merrill's active management of its own portfolio did little to inspire confidence in its investment expertise.
But I digress.
Active managers were quick to explain their underperformance. Mark Lamkin, the CEO and "chief investment strategist" at Lamkin Wealth Management, blamed his underperformance on "headline risk," noting: "Nine of the last 11 years my active strategies have beaten the market, and I'm underperforming this market. It's all headline risk."
"Headline risk" is the possibility that a negative news story will adversely affect the price of a stock.
I tried to verify Mr. Lamkin's claim that his active strategies have "beaten the market" in nine of the last eleven years and was unable to do so. His firm does not publish the results of its portfolios on its web page. I called his office and asked for additional information but received no response.
Analyzing the significance of claims that a fund manager or advisor "beat the markets" is not uncomplicated. You need to understand how much risk the manager took and whether the benchmark used for comparison is an appropriate benchmark, comprised of a proportionately weighted mix of stocks and bonds.
Mr. Lamkin's lament about "headline risk" is troublesome. Unexpected news is a reason for under performance by active managers, but it is not an excuse that active managers should use to explain their inability to "beat the markets." Tomorrow's news drives stock prices. Active managers don't know tomorrow's news. They can't anticipate what they don't know. "Headline risk" is one of many reasons why active managers historically have underperformed the markets and are likely to continue to do so in the future.
According to a mid-year 2011 study by Standard and Poors, Over the past three years, 63.96% of actively managed large-cap funds were outperformed by the S&P 500, 75.07% of mid-cap funds were outperformed by the S&P MidCap 400 and 63.08% of the small-cap funds were outperformed by the S&P SmallCap 600. Passive management trumped actively managed in nearly all major domestic and international stock categories.
The results for this year, while worse than in previous years, are not unexpected. The skill of active managers is not in "beating the markets." It's convincing you they are likely to do so in the future, and coming up with lame explanations for why they have not done so in the past.
That's my headline.
Dan Solin is a Senior Vice-President of Index Funds Advisors (ifa.com). He is the author of the New York Times best sellers The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read, The Smartest 401(k) Book You'll Ever Read, and The Smartest Retirement Book You'll Ever Read. His new book, The Smartest Portfolio You'll Ever Own, was released in September, 2011.The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. Returns from index funds do not represent the performance of any investment advisory firm. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Readers who require investment advice should retain the services of a competent investment professional. The information on this blog is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any securities or class of securities mentioned herein. Furthermore, the information on this blog should not be construed as an offer of advisory services. Please note that the author does not recommend specific securities nor is he responsible for comments made by persons posting on this blog.