The Active vs. Passive Debate













On Tuesday, June 13, approximately 400 people gathered at the Standard Club to attend CFA Society Chicago’s forum on trends, insights and case studies about active vs. passive investment strategies. An additional 200 joined the event via webcast. All of the participants agreed that the terms active and passive represent a spectrum. Nat Kellog, CFA, director of research at Marquette Associates, moderated the first debate.


Joel Dickson, Ph.D., global head of investment research and development with Vanguard, began the conversation by stating Vanguard’s objective to generate market performance at the lowest cost. He noted that if one group has a persistent information advantage than another must be disadvantaged because the aggregate investment results represent a zero sum game. The discussion then focused on whether or not empirical data suggests that the winners can be identified in advance.

Brett Hammond, research leader at the Capital Group stated the firm’s strategy of increasing the number of analyst visits with company management to make superior qualitative decisions about business strategy and execution. Hammond estimated that 1,600 domestic mutual funds employ a factor based approach to quantitatively structuring portfolios. He notes that these strategies represent a form of active management. He also believes that they create opportunities for investment management firms with a long term perspective and superior fundamental analysis.

Aye Soe, CFA, managing director, Global Research & Design at S&P Dow Jones Indices, noted that Paul Samuelson’s 1974 article Challenge to Judgement, promoted the idea of a portfolio that tracks the S&P 500.

Since then, indexes and index funds have evolved to tilt toward factors in an attempt to enhance returns. This evolution moves the objective from market returns to alpha, which is the goal of active management. Soe suggested that the nature of the bond market and bench mark indexes provide more opportunity for deviations (i.e. exclude Treasury bonds) from the market to enhance returns.

The conversation addressed the impact of the rise of index funds on the price discovery role of the securities markets. The Bernstein article- Why Passive Investing is Worse than Marxism may overstate the impact. Although index funds now own approximately 25% of US equity capitalization, they only represent about 5% of trading.


Bob Litterman then interviewed Eugene F. Fama, 2013 Nobel laureate in economic sciences and Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, to learn about the evolution of his thoughts over the past 50 years. Dr. Fama drew a distinction between active and passive approaches to factor tilts in portfolios. An attempt to time factor premiums or add an additional level of analysis produces an active approach.

Fama acknowledged the impact of micro-cap stocks noted in a May 2017 paper titled Replicating Anomalies. This paper concludes that the excess returns identified for most factor based strategies disappears when you adjust for the outsized impact of extremely small companies. Fama emphasized the need to adjust for this impact, a sound basis in financial economics and persistency in the results across markets and time. He noted the robustness of the value factor and the more limited effect of the size factor on portfolio returns. Momentum represents a factor that is evident in the data, but hard to exploit because of the extreme overweight required in illiquid, micro-cap stocks. Fama noted that momentum represents “the biggest embarrassment to the efficient market hypothesis” because it does not fit well into financial theory.

One trend identified over the past 50 years is the growth in the study of financial economics. In the 1960s, MIT and the University of Chicago dominated this area of study. Now, every major university devotes resources to data analysis for market anomalies.

Firms like Dimensional Fund Advisors and Vanguard devote substantial resources to fulfill their corporate governance responsibilities as shareholders. The firms also employ sophisticated trading strategies to obtain best execution. Fama noted that active managers who add value deserve to earn a return on their human capital. As a result, the excess return generally flows to the manager, not the investor in the fund.

The conversation concluded with comments about the future direction of the investment advisory industry. The movement from investment managers to financial advisors to wealth management may move the compensation model from a percentage of assets under management to an hourly or fee for service basis. The growth of “robo advisors” may create another tool for wealth managers to serve clients, versus a replacement for the advisor. The role of the advisor may shift toward a focus on the distribution of possible outcomes and the incorporation of uncertainty in financial plans.


Lisa Haag, CFA, director of investment strategy with The Boeing Company, presented the case for active management of defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plan assets. The Boeing Company’s defined benefit plan has 25% of its assets invested in publicly traded equities with only 5% employing passive strategies. The remainder of the plan’s assets is invested in long duration bonds and alternative investments.

Jason Laurie, CFA, of Altair works with near 300 high net worth family groups. Passive strategies represent 10% to 15% of assets. Laurie noted the firm’s size provides them with the opportunity to negotiate low fees for clients. He emphasized the importance of patience with active managers by noting that over 90% of top managers periodically experience one to three years of sub-par performance.

Marc Levinson, chair of the Illinois State Board of Investments, outlined the transition from active management toward passive management of the State’s pension assets since September 2015. The $4 billion of defined contribution assets moved from 75% active to all passive. The $17 billion defined benefit assets moved to 70% passive. The state moved from near 100 managers to less than 20. Levinson lead the Board from the political nature of “who are you going to replace my guy with” to a market approach that did not require hiring a manager with a sponsor.

In conclusion, two of the three entities continue a commitment to selecting managers who can beat the market after fees. In contrast, two of the first three panelists and Fama presented a case that the financial markets efficient from a beat the market after fees perspective. The debate goes on.


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