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.

Investing for the Long-term: Productivity of Capital Markets Expectations, and Portfolio Management

DSC_3571CFA Society Chicago presented a two-part symposium on Investing for the Long-term on March 7th at the Standard Club. Approximately 150 members and guests attended to hear Robert Gordon, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Emerita Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago present their perspectives on productivity trends. Francisco Torralba, CFA, Senior Economist, Morningstar, Robert Browne, CFA, Northern Trust Bank, and Rick Rieder, CIO Global Fixed Income, BlackRock, then presented their outlooks for the capital markets.

Gordon highlighted the sharp slowdown in US GDP growth from 3.12% from the 1974 to 2004 to 1.56% from 2004 to 2015. He said that this slowdown resulted from a reduction in productivity growth and the labor force participation rate. He noted the Kalman Trend Annualized Growth in Total Economic Productivity, which rose to 2.5% in the 1990s because of the technology revolution, but has recently fallen to near 0.5%. The labor force participation rate has been affected by an aging population, fewer 18 to 25-year-old people in the work force, and passing the peak rate of growth for women in the labor force.

DSC_3590Gordon noted that growth and productivity are probably under estimated, but have always been under stated. He sees no indications that the distortions are worse today. He expects that both lower productivity growth and labor force growth will produce slower economic growth over the next decade.

McCloskey acknowledged that the current level of productivity growth has fallen. She observed that “falling sky” DSC_3579forecasts always follow events like the 2008 financial crisis and noted the perils of trying to predict future enhancements in productivity. She also stated that global economic growth will be positively impacted by developments in countries like China and India.

DSC_3587McCloskey highlighted her work on the role a change in attitude toward capitalism in the 1700s that augmented the 1st Industrial Revolution. She noted the evolution in literature from Shakespeare to Jane Austin in the portrayal of capitalist and the return on capital that they earn. Changes in attitude toward capitalism could drive growth in emerging economies.

An area of agreement between Gordon and McCloskey is the role of minimum wage laws and other restrictions on the labor market that prevent economic growth in areas like the west side of Chicago. They also support efforts to stop the “war on drugs” and support a negative income tax for low income people.

Outlook for Investors

DSC_3591Rick Rieder, CIO Global Fixed Income, BlackRock, noted the aging population and its demand for income and the role of technology pressing down inflation. He believes that the US economy is exiting an investment & goods recession. He also believes that September 2016 marked a turning point away from expansionary global monetary policy. He sees better economic growth leading to higher interest rates, and the potential for higher stock prices because of sales growth.

Francisco Torralba, CFA, Senior Economist, Morningstar, supports McCloskey view that trends in productivity cannot be predicted. He also foresees a pickup in economic growth and cited a Financial Analyst Journal article that links the payout growth rate to the GDP growth rate. A higher level of economic growth could be a positive development for equity investors through higher dividends.

Robert Browne, CFA, Northern Trust Bank, suggested that forecasters begin with “what’s easier to forecast.” He believes that identifying what is cheap is easier that what is expensive. In contrast, much of the forecast has been centered on the expensive, low yield bond market. He also noted that anticipating a range over the short-term is easier. Here, he believes that the election of President Trump may pull forward economic growth, which would be a positive for equity investors.

The consensus outlook seemed to be that long-term real returns for equities would be in the 4% to 5% range. These analysts generally favor US equities, US high yield bonds, natural resources, and emerging markets debt.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Charles Evans, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

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Charles Evans, President and Chief Executive Officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (Photo courtesy of Ping Homeric)

Charles Evans, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, addressed approximately 250 members and guests of the CFA Society Chicago on Thursday, February 9th at the Standard Club. The event was also webcast for those who could not attend the luncheon. Mr. Evans spoke about the U.S. economy, fiscal stimulus and monetary policy. He completed his presentation with responses to questions from the audience.

Mr. Evans expects a modest acceleration in economic growth to the 2.0% to 2.5% rate, and a rise in inflation to near 2.0% over the next several years. As a result, the Fed’s most likely course of action is three 0.25% increases in the Fed Funds rate in each of the next three years. These increases would elevate this rate to near 3.0% by the end of 2019. The primary risk to this outlook is that inflation does not rise to 2.0%.

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Chicago Fed President Charles Evans and CFA Society Chicago Board Members (Photo courtesy of Ping Homeric)

Fiscal policy could positively impact growth by near 0.25% a year. Lower tax rates might contribute to higher growth over the intermediate term. Additionally, optimistic consumer sentiment, resulting from healthy employment data, should contribute to growth. Average monthly gains of 180K employees over the past year have reduced the unemployment rate to 4.8%. A constraint has been business investment during the recovery, which shows no real sign of improvement.

Mr. Evans expects a decline in the unemployment rate to 4.25% by late 2019. His forecast is slightly lower than Fed’s consensus of 4.5%. The natural rate appears to be near 4.7%. A decline to the 4.25% to 4.50% range would suggest a Fed move from ease to neutral to tightening over the next several years. The downside risk to this outlook is weak foreign economies. The upside would be a greater boost from fiscal policy and regulatory ease.

Inflation has averaged 1.5% since 2009. The “Core” rate has moved up to 1.7%. Mr. Evans expects core inflation to reach 2.0% over the next three years. The downside risk is low global inflation and a strong dollar.

The structural equilibrium neutral Fed Funds rate has fallen to a lower level. Low interest rates, throughout the world, provide the central banks with less room for ease in the next downturn. The Fed has typically lowered the Fed Funds by greater than 5.0%, during easing periods and currently believes that the neutral rate is near 3.0% (1% real and 2.0% inflation). Therefore, they may not have as much room to lower rates during next recession. The secondary tools would be quantitative easing and guidance for how long rates would remain low. These non-conventional methods are “second best” to the ability to lower rates.


Distinguished Speaker Series featuring Charles Evans


From 1960 to 2000, the economy grew at a 3.5% annual rate. Post 2000, the growth rate has been lower. The labor force participation rate has fallen over the past 15 years; because of retiring baby boomers, passing the peak inflow of women into the labor force, and a falling rate of employment for 18 to 24-year-old individuals. The potential real GDP growth rate has probably fallen to near 1.75%.

During the questions and answers segment, Mr. Evans addressed the following topics:

  1. CFA-Society-Cindy-Anggraini-from-Indonesia-010917-PingHomeric-0G1A5073

    President Charles Evans responds to questions from the audience.              (Photo courtesy of Ping Homeric)

    Long-term interest rates have risen 0.50% since the election, suggesting that the markets expect some positive impact from fiscal and regulatory policies. He noted that changes in tax policy (i.e. eliminate deductions, border adjusting tax, etc.) can be disruptive in the intermediate term, even though positive in the long-term.

  2. The Fed’s balance sheet grew from $800 M to $4.5 T. Eventually, this level is likely to fall back to near $1.5 T. The Most likely path would be through not re-invest principal payments.
  3. The impact of technology on productivity was apparent in 1995 to 2005 data. Since then, it has not been. He referenced the “gee-wiz” nature of more recent new technologies and quick obsolescence.
  4. The Fed chose not to use negative interest rates, even though the Taylor Rule suggested -4.0% at the low point. The Fed chose quantitative easing instead- sold short bonds and bought long. He noted some positive effect in Europe, which could influence future Fed boards.
  5. Finally, he noted that more global trade is better, provided it’s fair. Trade increases competition, which encourages higher productivity. The United Kingdom is likely to face a complicated period ahead to exit from the EU and establish new trade agreements.