Is “Picking Winners” Actually a Loser’s Game?

Victor Levinson Comments, Financial Life 201

For decades, Wall Street firms have marketed their ability to beat the market with their active investing strategies. The claim hinged on each firm’s ability to “pick winners,” stocks whose returns would beat the market’s. This market-beating ability would, in turn, justify the firms’ high fees.

But in fact, active management rarely provides better investment results than what could be earned simply by owning and holding broad market indexes. A recent “Your Money” column by the New York Times’ Jeff Sommer (“How Many Mutual Funds Routinely Rout the Market?  Zero,” March 15, 2015) cites a substantial body of research showing that, over the past five years, not a single actively managed mutual fund has “actually managed to outperform the rising market.”

Sommer’s column discussed recent research that looked at the following: Starting with 2,862 actively managed domestic stock mutual funds in operation through the 12-month period between April 2009-March 2010, the study selected the top quartile of funds for those 12 months, then analyzed which of those funds continued in the top quarter for each of the next four 12-month periods through March 2014.

The answer: two. Out of the total pool of 2,862, only two – less than 1/1000 of the total pool – had consistently beaten the market. Keep in mind: all of these funds are run by smart, sophisticated investment professionals, yet they could not keep pace with market returns. Sommer notes that the two funds that had done well for the four years through March 2014 have since experienced “a mediocre stretch, at best.”

In Sommer’s concluding words: “The study seems to support the considerable body of evidence suggesting that most people should not even try to beat the market: Just pick low-cost index funds, assemble a balanced and appropriate portfolio for your specific needs, and give up on active fund management.”  

This customized allocation approach, using low-cost indexed investments, has been PPA’s consistent strategy since its founding in 2003. Sommer’s column can be read in its entirety here: