Index Funds vs Mutual Funds

Index Funds vs Mutual Funds

Twice a year, Standard and Poors updates their comparison of Index Funds vs Mutual Funds, called SPIVA (S&P Index versus Active report). I have written about SPIVA a number of times, and it is worth repeating, because the data is remarkably consistent.

The majority of actively managed funds do worse than a benchmark or index. The newest report was published today, covering all US Funds through June 30, 2023. When we look at long-term returns, here are the percentage of active mutual funds that performed worse than their benchmark:

All Domestic Stock Funds89.08%90.19%93.15%93.12%
International Stock81.84%84.78%85.33%92.50%
Emerging Markets70.70%87.56%89.58%92.42%
Source: SPIVA US Mid Year 2023

The evidence comparing index funds versus mutual funds is clear: Index funds are the hands down winner. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, there continues to be overwhelming evidence that index funds do better than the vast majority of active funds over the long-term. And this finding is remarkably consistent, regardless of whether we are in a Bull or Bear market.

Equal Weight Index

2023 has been a strange year in the market, with narrow breadth of performance. Looking at the S&P 500, performance has been concentrated in a small handful of names, with five large stocks up more than 100% in the first half of the year. So for strategies which didn’t own these high flyers, it was tough to keep up. Value, Small Cap, and other strategies have lagged the Large Caps this year.

But that is likely to reverse, as it has been quite extreme. I’ve written previously about Equal Weight funds, specifically the S&P 500 Equal Weight. It owns the same 500 or so stocks as the S&P 500, but in equal proportion. The standard S&P 500 which weights each stock on its size (“market capitalization”).

Over the very long-term, the Equal Weight strategy (EW) has outperformed. From 1991 through 6/30/2023, the EW S&P 500 index has a return of 11.82% a year, versus 10.55% for the regular S&P 500. That is a noteworthy, long-term improvement in performance, and is typically attributed to the idea that EW has less of the “over-valued” stocks and more of the “under-valued” stocks.

While EW has outperformed over 30+ years, it has not done so consistently or every year. But what is interesting is that when EW has underperformed to an extreme level, it has historically snapped back. And that is where we are today: EW lagged by 9.9% for the first half of 2023. In the chart below from S&P, previous 6-month periods of EW underperformance were followed by periods of strong EW outperformance. The returns have been mean reverting, with EW providing long-term returns in excess of the cap-weighted index

Mean Reversion Ahead?

This would suggest that the outperformance by the Mega-Cap names of the S&P 500 is unlikely to continue. We own some Value and Mid Cap funds which have not kept up with the S&P 500 this year. That can be frustrating and make investors want to pile into those high flying stocks. But the reality is that the outperformance of the biggest stocks versus EW may be overdone. In fact, it is in the 2nd percentile for the first half of the year, more extreme than 98% of previous 6-month periods. Generally, I believe mean reversion is more likely than an extreme trend continuing indefinitely.

We diversify our portfolios broadly and tilt towards areas of better relative value. This has us owning Value funds, multi-factor strategies, small and mid-cap, and Emerging Markets. Why? Our belief in the two topics we discussed today:

  • Passive, index strategies are better than active management over the long-term
  • We count on mean reversion rather than performance chasing

Both of these approaches are well-grounded in research, but require patience and discipline to stay the course. That’s where we are today. And the data reminds us that this still makes sense. The question of Index funds vs mutual funds is just the beginning. There will be ups and downs, which no one can predict or time, so our focus is on having a good investment process and understanding the fundamentals.

Increase Returns Without Increasing Your Risk

In theory, Return and Risk are linked – you cannot get a higher rate of return on an asset allocation without taking more risk. However, portfolios can be inefficient and there are a number of ways we can improve your return without adding risk or changing your asset allocation. Here are five ways to increase your returns:

1. Lower Expense Ratios. Many mutual funds offer different “share classes” with different expense ratios. The holdings are the same, but if one share class has 0.25% more in expenses, those shareholders will under perform by 0.25% a year. Here at Good Life Wealth Management, we have access to Institutional shares which have the lowest expense ratio. Generally, these funds are available only to institutions or individuals who invest over $1 million. We can buy these shares for our investors, without a minimum, which frequently offer savings of 0.25% or more versus “retail” share classes.

2. Increase your Cash Returns. If you have a significant amount of cash in your holdings, make sure you are getting a competitive return. Many banks are still paying 0% or close to zero, when we could be making 1.5% to 2% elsewhere.

3. Buy Treasury Bills. If you have a bond mutual fund and it charges 0.60%, that expense reduces your yield. If the bonds they own yield 2.8%, subtracting the expense ratio leaves you with an estimated return of 2.2%. Today, we can get that level of yield by buying Treasury Bills, such as the 26-week or 1-year Bill, which have a short duration and no credit risk. If you are in a high expense bond fund, especially a AAA-rated fund, it may be preferable to own Treasury bonds directly and cut out the mutual fund expenses. We participate in Treasury auctions to buy bonds for our clients.

4. Buy an Index Fund. If you have a large-cap mutual fund, how has it done compared to the S&P 500 Index over the past 5 and 10 years? According to the S&P Index Versus Active report, for the 10-years ended December 2017, 89.51% of all large-cap funds did worse than the S&P 500 Index. Keep your same allocation, replace actively managed funds with index funds, and there’s a good chance you will come out ahead over the long term.

5. Reduce Taxes. Two funds may have identical returns, but one may have much higher capital gains distributions, producing higher taxes for its shareholders. If you’re investing in a taxable account, take some time to look at the “tax-adjusted return” listed in Morningstar, under the “tax” tab, and not just the gross returns. Even better: stick with Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) which typically have much lower or even zero capital gains distributions. This is where an 8% return of one fund can be better than an 8% return of another fund! We prefer to hold ETFs until we can achieve long-term capital gains, and especially want to avoid funds that distribute short-term gains. We also look to harvest losses annually, when they occur, to offset gains elsewhere.

How can we help you with your investment portfolio? We’d welcome the chance to discuss our approach and see if we would be a good fit with your goals.

Manager Risk: Avoidable and Unnecessary

You can choose between two funds, A or B. If Fund A has an 85% chance of beating Fund B over five years, would those be good enough odds for you to want to pick Fund B?

More and more investors are realizing that using active equity managers is a bad bet. This is Manager Risk, which is the risk that your portfolio fails to achieve your target returns because of the active managers you selected. When there is a significant probability that a manager lags an index fund and only a small chance that a manager beats that index, taking that risk is going to be a losing proposition for the majority of investors.

Here are three ways Manager Risk can bite you:

1. Performance chasing doesn’t work. Top funds often have a good story about their “disciplined process”, or “fundamental research” approach, but there are so many reasons why today’s leader is often tomorrow’s laggard:

  • Massive in-flows of cash into popular funds make it more difficult for managers to be nimble and to find enough good investment ideas to execute.
  • It’s possible that the fund’s specific approach (style, size, sector, country, etc.) was in-favor recently and then goes out of favor.
  • With thousands of funds, some are going to be randomly lucky and have a period of strong performance that is not repeatable or attributable to skill.

2. The data is clear: over a long-period, the vast majority of funds do not keep up with their index. According to the Standard and Poors Index Versus Active (SPIVA) report: 84.23% of large cap funds failed to keep pace with the S&P 500 Index over the five-years through December 29, 2017.

If 17 out of 20 large cap funds do worse than the S&P 500, why do people bother trying to pick a winning fund, instead of just investing in an Index Fund? I think some of it is that over shorter periods, it can be pretty easy to fund funds that are out-performing and people mistakenly think that recent leaders are going to continue their winning streak.

Consider, amazingly, that nearly 85% of Small Cap Growth funds did better than their benchmark in 2017 according to SPIVA. What a great environment for active managers, right? They must have a lot of skill! But let’s look back further: over the past 15 years, 98.73% of those Small Cap Growth funds lagged their index. That is the worst performance of any investment category in the SPIVA report.

If your odds of outperforming the index over 15 years is only 1 in 100, you’d be crazy to bet on an active manager. It’s a risk that isn’t worth taking.

3. In some categories, there are 10-20% of managers who do outperform the benchmark over five or more years, which means that there might be dozens of funds which have done a nice job for their shareholders. Why not just pick one of those funds?

Standard and Poors also produces The Persistence Scorecard, which evaluates how funds perform in subsequent periods. Let’s look at two five year periods, in other words, the past 10 years. Imagine that five years ago, you looked at the top quartile (the top 25%) of all US Equity funds. How did those top funds do over the next five years (through December 2017)?

25.34% remained in the top quartile
21.56% fell to the 2nd quartile
18.87% fell to the 3rd quartile
23.45% sank to the bottom quartile (the worst 25% of all funds)
10.24% were liquidated or merged, which is the way fund companies make their lousy funds’ track records disappear.

So, if you picked a top quartile fund, you had about only a one-in-four chance (25.34%) that your fund stayed in the top quartile (which is no guarantee that you outperformed the index, by the way). But, you had a one-in-three chance (33.69%) that your fund fell to the bottom quartile or was liquidated and didn’t even exist five years later. Again, those are not odds that are in your favor.

This is why fund companies are required to state, Past performance is no guarantee of future results. We can look backwards at fund history, but that information has no predictive value for how the fund will perform going forward.

It’s an unnecessary risk for investors to use actively managed funds. And that’s why I have moved away from trying to pick 5-star actively managed funds, and have embraced using Index funds.

From time to time, you may hear, “this is a stock picker’s market”, because of volatility, or concentrated returns, or whatever. Don’t believe it. Even when active managers are able to have a good month, quarter, or year, the vast majority remain unable to string together enough good years in a row to beat their benchmark.

There’s enough risk in investing as it is. Let’s reject Manager Risk and instead recognize that an Index Fund is the most likely way to beat 80, 90% or more active funds over the long-term.

Do Top Performing Funds Persist?

How do you pick the funds for your 401(k)? I know a lot of people will look at the most recent performance chart and put their money into the funds with the best recent returns. After all, you’d want to be in the top funds, not the worst funds, right? You’d want to invest with the managers who have the most skill, based on their results.

We’ve all heard that “past performance is no guarantee of future results”, and yet our behavior often suggests that we actually believe the opposite: if a fund has out-performed for 1, 3, or 5 years, we believe it is due to manager skill and the fund is indeed more likely to continue to out-perform than other funds.

But is that true? Do better performing funds continue to stay at the top? We know the answer to this question, thanks to the people at S&P Dow Jones Indices, who twice a year publish their Persistence Scorecard (link).

Looking at the entire universe of actively managed mutual funds, they rank fund performance by quartiles, with the 1st quartile being the top performing 25% of funds, and the 4th quartile being the bottom 25% of funds.

Let’s consider the “Five Year Transition Matrix”, which ranks funds over five years and then follows how they perform in the subsequent five year period. For the most recent Persistence Scorecard, published in December 2016, this looks at funds’ five-year performance in September 2011, and then how they ranked five years later in September 2016.

Here’s how the top quartile of all domestic funds fared in the subsequent 5-year period:
20.09% remained in the top quartile
18.93% fell to the second quartile
20.56% fell to the third quartile
27.80% fell to the bottom quartile
10.75% were merged or liquidated, and did not exist five years later

The sad thing is that if you picked a fund in the top quartile, there was only a 20% chance that your fund remained in the top quartile for the next five years. But there was a more than 38% chance that your top performing fund became a worst performing fund or was shut down completely in the next five years.

Another interesting statistic: the percentage of large cap funds that stayed in the top half for five years in a row was 4.47%. If you simply did a coin flip, you’d expect this number to be 6.25%. The number of funds that stayed in the top half is slightly worse than random.

The Persistence Scorecard is a pretty big blow to the notion of picking a fund based on its past performance. And it’s significant evidence that we should not be making investment choices based on Morningstar ratings or advertisements touting funds which were top performers.

Should you do the opposite? I wish it was as simple as buying the bottom-performing funds, but they don’t fare any better. Funds in the bottom quartile had a similarly random distribution into the other three quartiles, but had a much higher chance of being merged or liquidated.

There are a couple of possible explanations for funds’ lack of persistence:

  • Styles can go out of favor; a “value” manager may out-perform in one period and not the following period. Hence a seemingly perpetual rotation of leaders.
  • Successful managers may attract large amounts of capital, making them less agile and less likely to out-perform.
  • There may be more randomness and luck to managers’ returns, rather than skill, than they would like to have us believe.

Unfortunately, the S&P data shows that for whatever reason, there is little evidence for persistence. Investors need a more sophisticated investment approach than picking the funds which had the best performance. The Persistence Scorecard highlights why performance chasing doesn’t work for investors: yesterday’s winners are often tomorrow’s losers.

What to do then? We focus on creating a target asset allocation, using a core of low-cost, tax efficient index ETFs and a satellite component of assets with attractive fundamentals. What we don’t do is change funds every year because another fund performed better than ours. That kind of activity has the potential for being highly damaging to your long-term returns.

I hope you will take the time to read the Persistence Scorecard. It will give you actual data to understand better why we say past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Why You Need to Drop Your Mutual Funds for ETFs


We just finished the third quarter this week and it was a tough one. The market struggled to make new highs all year before it finally ran out of steam during the week ending August 21. The S&P 500 Index traded above 2100 in July, but dropped roughly 10% to 1920 to close the quarter on September 30. Year to date, the index is down 6.75%.

While it was a disappointing quarter, we should remember that we’ve had an exceptionally long run without a correction of any size. Still, no one likes to open their quarterly statements and see that their accounts are down.

One of the myths of active fund management is that managers are able to add value during corrections through their defensive strategies. At least, that’s what we’re told when they lag during a bull market. So how did actively managed funds fare during the third quarter?

According to a report this week by JPMorgan, 67% of active funds performed worse than their benchmark in Q3. Half of those funds (34%) lagged their benchmark by at least 2.50%.

The long-term picture is even worse for active management. The Standard & Poors Index Versus Active (SPIVA) Scorecard was recently updated with data through June 30, 2015. They found that over the past 10 years, 79.59% of all Large Cap funds were outperformed by the S&P 500 Index. Over this period, the index produced an annualized return of 7.89%, versus 7.03% for the average large cap fund.

If you are still using actively managed mutual funds, chances are good that 1) your Q3 returns are even uglier than the overall market, and 2) your long-term performance has suffered significantly. That’s why we use Index Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as the core positions in our model portfolios. Investing in an index doesn’t mean “settling” for average returns, it has actually been the most likely and consistent way to ensure your performance is better than the average active fund.

If that isn’t enough to get you to trade in your mutual funds for an ETF portfolio, then read this article from Morningstar on mutual fund capital gains. Morningstar notes that after a 6-year rally, many mutual funds have used up their tax losses and are increasingly likely to distribute capital gains to fund shareholders at the end of this year. If this quarter’s drop causes a large outflow of capital, active fund managers will be forced to liquidate positions, creating a tax bill for the shareholders who remain in December.

It’s entirely possible for an actively managed mutual fund to be down for the year and still create capital gains for shareholders, due to trading within the portfolio. We haven’t seen this scenario in a number of years, but it looks like a distinct possibility for 2015. Index ETFs on the other hand, are extremely tax-efficient; it is quite rare for an equity index ETF to distribute capital gains, thanks to their unique structure.

If you’re a client, thank you for sticking with the plan when the market is down. We know it is frustrating. Corrections are a natural and inevitable part of the market cycle. You can take solace knowing that our Index ETF approach is demonstrating its merit both in its relative performance in Q3 and in its long-term outperformance over actively managed funds.

If you’re not currently a client, please give me a call and we can discuss how our disciplined portfolio management process can help you accomplish your financial goals. While we can’t control what the market is going to do, we can benefit greatly by focusing on what we can control, including tax efficiency, minimizing expenses, diversification, and using a time-tested index methodology.

Fixed Income: Four Ways to Invest


Fixed Income is an essential piece of our portfolio construction, a component which can provide cash flow, stability, and diversification to balance out the risk on the equity side of the portfolio. Although fixed income investing might seem dull compared to the excitement of the stock market, there are actually many different categories of fixed income and ways to invest. As an overview, we’re going to briefly introduce the various tools we use in our fixed income allocations.

1) Mutual Funds. Funds provide diversification, which is vitally important in categories with elevated risks such as high yield bonds, emerging market debt, or floating rate loans. In those riskier areas, we want to avoid individual securities and will instead choose a fund which offers investors access to hundreds of different bonds. A good manager may be able to add value through security selection or yield curve positioning.

While we largely prefer index investing in equities, the evidence for indexing is not as conclusive in fixed income. According to the Standard & Poor’s Index Versus Active (SPIVA) Scorecard, only 41% of Intermediate Investment Grade bond funds failed to beat their index over the five years through 12/31/2014. Compare that to the 81% of domestic equity funds which lagged their benchmark over the same five year period, and you can see there may still be an argument for active management in fixed income.

2) Individual Bonds. We can buy individual bonds for select portfolios, but restrict our purchases to investment grade bonds from government, corporate, and municipal issuers. The advantage of an individual bond is that we have a set coupon and a known yield, if held to maturity. While there will still be price fluctuation in a bond, investors take comfort in knowing that even if the price drops to 90 today, the bond will still mature at 100. It’s difficult for a fund manager to outperform individual bonds today if their fund has a high expense ratio. You cannot have a 1% expense ratio, invest in 3% and 4% bonds, and not have a drag on performance.

Those are the advantages of individual bonds, but there are disadvantages compared to funds, including liquidity, poor pricing for individual investors, and the inability to easily reinvest your interest payments. Most importantly, an investor in individual bonds will have default risk if we should happen to own the next Lehman Brothers, Enron, or Detroit. Bankruptcies can occur, and that’s why we only use individual bonds in larger portfolios where we can keep position sizes small.

3) Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs offer diversified exposure to a fixed income category, but often with a much lower expense ratio than actively managed funds. ETFs can allow us to track a broad benchmark or to pinpoint our exposure to a more narrow category, with strict consistency. Fixed income ETFs  have lagged behind equity ETFs in terms of development and adoption, but there is no doubt that bond ETFs are gaining in popularity and use each year.

4) Closed End Funds (CEFs). CEFs have been around for decades, but are not well known to many investors. Closed End Funds have a manager, like a mutual fund, but issue a fixed number of shares which trade on a stock exchange. The result is a pool of assets which the fund can manage without worry about inflows or redemptions, giving them a more beneficial long-term approach. With this structure, however, CEFs can trade at a premium or a discount to their Net Asset Value (NAV). When we can find a quality fund trading at a steep discount, it can be a good opportunity for an investor to make a purchase. Unfortunately, CEFs tend to have higher volatility than other fixed income vehicles, which can be disconcerting. We don’t currently have any CEF holdings as core positions in our portfolio models, but do make purchases for some clients who have a higher risk tolerance.

Where fixed income investing can become complicated is that within each category (such as municipal bond, high yield, international bond, etc), you also have to compare these four very different ways of investing: mutual funds, individual bonds, ETFs, or CEFs. They each have advantages and risks, so it’s not as easy as simply choosing the one with the highest yield or the strongest past performance. And that’s where we dive in to each option to examine holdings, concentrations, duration, pricing and costs.

There are other ways to invest in fixed income, such as CDs, or annuities, and we can help with those, too. But most of our fixed income investing will be done with mutual funds and ETFs. In larger portfolios, we may have some individual bonds, but will always have funds or ETFs for riskier categories.

Investors want three things from fixed income: high yield, safety, and liquidity. Unfortunately, no investment offers all three; you only get to pick two. Where we aim to create value is through a highly diversified allocation that is tactical in looking for the best risk/reward categories within fixed income.

Three Studies for Smart Investors

Over the last several years, my investment approach has become more systematic and disciplined.  In place of stock picking or manager selection, I believe clients are better served by a focus on strategic asset allocation. Today, we offer investors a series of 5 portfolio models, using ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) and mutual funds. This approach offers a number of benefits, including diversification, low cost, transparency, and tax efficiency.

This evolution in approach occurred gradually as a result of continued research, personal experience, and pursuing the goal of a consistent client experience.  In my previous position, I managed $375 million in client portfolios, performing investment research, designing asset allocation models, rebalancing and implementing trades.  I am grateful for having this experience and want to share the reasons why I believe investors are best served by the approach we’re using today.

My investment approach is underpinned by three academic studies.  These studies look at long-term investment performance, are updated annually, and offer great insight into what is actually working or not working for investors. As an analyst, I am very interested in what data tells us, and how this may differ from what we think will work or what should work in theory.  But even if you aren’t a numbers geek like me, these studies instruct us about investor behavior and where you should focus your efforts and energy.  I’m going to give a very brief summary of each study and include a link if you’d like to read more.

Published semi-annually, SPIVA looks at all actively managed mutual funds and calculates how many active managers outperform their benchmarks. The long-term results are consistently disappointing.  As of December 31, 2013, 72.72% of all large cap funds lagged the S&P 500 Index over the previous five years.

Sometimes, I hear that Small Cap or Emerging Market funds are better suited for active management because they invest in smaller, less efficient markets.  This sounds plausible, but the numbers do not confirm this.  The data from SPIVA shows that 66.77% of small cap funds lagged their benchmark and 80.00% (!) of Emerging Market funds under performed over the past five years.

The lesson from SPIVA is that using an index fund or ETF to track a benchmark is a sensible long-term approach.  Indexing may not be exciting or produce the best performance in any given year, but it has produced good results over time and reduces the risk that we select the wrong fund or manager.  Our approach is to use Index funds as a core component to our portfolio models.

The other conclusion I draw from SPIVA is that if large mutual fund companies, with hundreds of analysts, cannot consistently beat the benchmark, it would be foolish to think that a lone financial advisor picking individual stocks could do better.

After looking at SPIVA, it may occur to investors that 20-35% of funds actually did beat their benchmarks over 5 years.  Why not just pick those funds?  Why settle for average when you can be in a top-performing fund?

The S&P Persistence Scorecard looks at mutual funds over the past 10 years.  At the 5-year mark, the scorecard ranks funds in quartiles by performance and looks at how the funds’ returns were in the subsequent five years. This tells us if a top performing fund is likely to remain a leader.

Looking at all US Equity funds, we start with the funds which were in the top quartile in September 2008. Below is breakdown of how those top quartile funds ranked in the subsequent five years, through September 30, 2013:
1st Quartile:  22.43%
2nd Quartile  27.92%
3rd Quartile:  20.53%
4th Quartile:  16.71%
Merged/Liquidated:  12.41%

Of the funds in the 1st Quartile in 2008, only 22% remained in the top category in the following 5 years.  29%, however, fell to the bottom quartile or were merged or liquidated in the following 5 years.  So, if your method is to go to Morningstar and find the best performing fund, please be warned,past performance is no guarantee of future results.  In fact, the Persistence Scorecard tells us that not only is past performance not a guarantee, it isn’t even a good indicator of future results.  The results above aren’t much different than a random chance of 1 in 4 (25%).  Albeit disappointing and counter-intuitive, the reality is that past performance offers virtually no predictive information.

Now in its 20th year, QAIB compares mutual fund returns to investor returns.  The reason why they differ is because of the timing of investors’ contributions and withdrawals from mutual funds.  For example, people may think that it is safer to invest when the market is doing well and they buy at a high.  Or, investors chase last year’s hot sector and sell out of a fund that is at a low and just about to turn around.  Investor decisions are consistently so poor that we can actually measure the gap between the average investor’s return and the benchmark.  You might want to sit down for this one – over the 20 year period through 2013, the S&P 500 Index returned 9.22% annually, but the average investor return from equity mutual funds was only 5.02%.  The behavior gap cost investors 4.20% a year over two decades.
We can draw three very important conclusions from QAIB:
– We should avoid trying to time the market (buy/sell);
– Chasing performance is more likely to hurt returns than improve returns;
– Without a disciplined approach, including a target asset allocation and monitoring/rebalancing process, what may feel like a good investment decision at the time may ultimately prove to be a poor choice in hindsight.

These three studies are so important that I carry excerpts from the reports with me to discuss with investors. They’re fundamental to my investment approach, and hopefully, their significance can easily be grasped and appreciated by all our clients.

While we’ve focused exclusively on investment philosophy in this post, I would be remiss to not add that the benefits of working with a CFP(R) practitioner are not limited to portfolio management.  A comprehensive financial plan includes many elements, such as savings/debt analysis, risk management, tax strategies, and estate planning.  The investment management component tends to get the greatest attention, but the other elements of a personal financial plan are equally important in creating a foundation for your financial security.