When a fund is actively managed, it employs a professional portfolio manager, or team of managers, to decide which underlying investments to choose for its portfolio. In fact, one reason you might choose a specific fund is to benefit from the expertise of its professional managers. A successful fund manager has the experience, the knowledge, and the time to seek and track investments—key attributes that you may lack.
The goal of an active fund manager is to beat the market—to get better returns by choosing investments he or she believes to be top-performing selections. While there is a range of ways to measure market performance, each fund is measured against the appropriate market index, or benchmark, based on its stated investment strategy and the types of investments it makes.
For instance, many large-cap stock funds typically use the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index as the benchmark for their performance. A fund that invests in stocks across market capitalizations might use the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Total Stock Market Index, which despite its name measures more than 5,000 stocks, including small-, mid-, and large-company stocks. Other indices that track only stocks issued by companies of a certain size, or that follow stocks in a particular industry, are the benchmarks for mutual funds investing in those segments of the market. Similarly, bond funds measure their performance against a standard, such as the yield from the 10-year Treasury bond, or against a broad bond index that tracks the yields of many bonds.
One of the challenges that portfolio managers face in providing stronger-than-benchmark returns is that their funds’ performance needs to compensate for their operating costs. The returns of actively managed funds are reduced first by the cost of hiring a professional fund manager and second by the cost of buying and selling investments in the fund. Suppose, for example, that the management and administrative fees of an actively managed fund are 1.5 percent of the fund’s total assets and the fund’s benchmark provided a 9 percent return. To beat that benchmark, the portfolio manager would need to assemble a fund portfolio that returned higher than 10.5 percent before fees were taken out. Anything less, and the fund’s returns would lag its benchmark.
In any given year, most actively managed funds do not beat the market. In fact, studies show that very few actively managed funds provide stronger-than-benchmark returns over long periods of time, including those with impressive short term performance records. That’s why many individuals invest in funds that don’t try to beat the market at all. These are passively managed funds, otherwise known as index funds.
Passive funds seek to replicate the performance of their benchmarks instead of outperforming them. For instance, the manager of an index fund that tracks the performance of the S&P 500 typically buys a portfolio that includes all of the stocks in that index in the same proportions as they are represented in the index. If the S&P 500 were to drop a company from the list, the fund would sell it, and if the S&P 500 were to add a company, the fund would buy it. Because index funds don’t need to retain active professional managers, and because their holdings aren’t as frequently traded, they normally have lower operating costs than actively managed funds. However, the fees vary from index fund to index fund, which means the return on these funds varies as well.
Some index funds, which go by names such as enhanced index funds, are hybrids. Their managers pick and choose among the investments tracked by the benchmark index in order to provide a superior return. In bad years, this hybrid approach may produce positive returns, or returns that are slightly better than the overall index. Of course, it’s always possible that this type of hybrid fund will not do as well as the overall index. In addition, the fees for these enhanced funds may be higher than the average for index funds.