In a post earlier this week I wrote about famed hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt’s impressive track record from the late-1960s to the late-1970s. A few readers commented to me that nothing could be discerned from Steinhardt’s track record because it’s nearly impossible to separate luck from skill when making these types of historical performance comparisons.
The basic premise is that there are always going to be big winners, but no one knows for sure if it’s because they’re actually skilled investors or if it’s because they happen to be the luckiest dart-thrower that came out on top. While I agree that it’s difficult to quantify luck vs. skill and the markets are highly unpredictable, I would never go so far as to say that there are no skilled investors out there. That hasn’t been my experience.
The problem for asset allocators and individual investors is the fact that participating in that outperformance is always the hardest part. Timing matters when trying to beat the market, not because professional investors are ignorant or greedy, but because there are more highly skilled investors than ever before. With the amount of information available in today’s markets, it’s difficult to go unnoticed for very long if you put together a decent track record. This is both a blessing and a curse for portfolio managers.
Elizabeth MacBride of Stanford Business School shared some interesting research on this very topic this week:
In fact, research by Jonathan Berk of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Jules H. van Binsbergen, formerly of Stanford and now at Wharton, suggests that the typical mutual fund manager is persistently skilled, and that top performers are especially good. It’s just that the market is so hypercompetitive that most investors can’t benefit from the skill — it is competed away too quickly as money pours into emerging managers’ funds. The managers and their companies, rather than investors, capture the value of the total market earnings and fees charged to investors.
In the study cited by MacBride, researchers looked at nearly 6,000 mutual funds from 1969 to 2011 and compared their results to comparable Vanguard funds. They found the funds that made the most money in the past also continued to make money in the future relative to their benchmark. So the really great investors can definitely add value.
But here’s the catch (and there’s always a catch) — when investors discovered a great portfolio manager, they showered them with money. Since size is the enemy of outperformance, a larger asset base makes it much more difficult for the skilled managers to outperform at the same magnitude as they did in the past. They still earn more money than other managers, but it’s achieved through much lower returns because it’s spread out among a larger investor base.
By the time you subtract the fees paid, investors miss out on any of the remaining outperformance. Unless you’re a very early investor in the fund, you’re fighting for a much narrower slice of the outperformance pie with the increased competition for that manager’s abilities. So some mutual fund managers are skilled, but most investors probably can’t or won’t benefit from that skill. Competition is making it harder and harder to outperform at scale.
I also see this phenomenon as one of the reasons that index funds will never completely overtake active funds. The temptation will always be there to locate or chase the next best performing fund manager. The cycle will continue to repeat itself over and over again.
Here are a few questions investors should ask themselves when considering chasing the next best thing in active mutual funds:
- Can the strategy scale in terms of assets under management?
- Is there a legitimate reason for past outperformance to continue?
- Do I understand the process of this fund or manager enough to see it through or add money during the inevitable dry spells?
- How tax efficient is the fund’s trading activity?
- Have I chased fund performance in the past? How well did it work out for me?
In terms of trying to decipher the role of luck and skill on an investor’s results, I’ve found that my experience with the best investors I’ve met with or read about is that they’re usually the first ones to admit that luck has played a role in their success. Humility is a requirement for longevity in the markets because nothing lasts forever.
Now here’s what I’ve been reading lately:
- Better the devil you know and diversification (EightAteEight)
- 10 word investment philosophies (Motley Fool)
- 11 rules to live by (Big Picture)
- A dozen business lessons from Ben Horowitz (25iq)
- Should I really be buying stocks or bonds at these levels? (Oblivious Investor)
- The problem with naive diversification (Mullooly)
- The fear of getting started when investing (Abnormal Returns)
- A visual history of market crash predictions (Fund Reference)
- Inefficient markets are still hard to beat (WSJ)
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