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Why active managers do better in some periods than others

Alex Bryan  |  15 Mar 2018Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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Most active managers have struggled to beat their index counterparts over the long term. But active managers have had greater success in some periods than others. A theory known as Dunn's Law suggests that this pattern can be explained by stylistic differences between active and index portfolios.

The idea is that indexes tend to be more style pure than their active counterparts, so they should be more difficult to beat when the style they represent has strong relative performance. Conversely, they should be easier to beat when their style has weak relative performance.

We conducted a study to put Dunn's theory to the test, using data from the Morningstar Active/Passive Barometer for 12 Morningstar Categories.
The study found:

  • Dunn's Law has some merit, though the results didn't always align with the theory's predictions.
  • Although the relationships we examined didn't always match the predictions of Dunn's Law, the returns to various investment styles and risk factors explained much of the variation in the success rates observed from September 2002 through December 2017.
  • Active managers' success rates are noisy and tough to predict. Attempting to time exposure between index and active managers is akin to timing just about anything else in the market and not advisable.

Research design

This study compares the performance of active managers against actual index funds in 12 Morningstar categories.

The Active/Passive Barometer defines success rates as the percentage of active managers in each category that both survived and outperformed a composite of all index mutual funds and index-tracking exchange-traded funds in their category over a given period.

Success rates tend to be more volatile over shorter horizons, so we focused this analysis on the quarterly rolling one-, three-, and five-year success rates from September 2002 through December 2017.

We built a regression model to explain the variation in active managers' success rates within each category over time. For the nine U.S. equity categories, the explanatory variables in the model included the returns to market risk, small size, value, and international relative to U.S. stocks. We calculated each of these explanatory variables (or factors) using index return spreads.

We set up similar regression models for the foreign large-blend and diversified emerging-markets categories, using region-specific indexes to construct the explanatory factors. Similar to the U.S. model, we included market risk, small size, and value factors in these regressions. To capture potential differences in geographic exposure between active and index funds, we added a U.S. and emerging-markets factor to the foreign large-blend model, and a developed-markets factor to the model for diversified emerging-markets funds. We also added a currency risk factor to both models.

The model for the intermediate-term bond category included market, credit, and interest-rate risk factors.

These regression models measure how closely the variation in active managers' success rates is linked to the payoff of potential style differences between active and index managers.

For example, if active managers in the large-value category have greater exposure to mid-cap value stocks than their index peers, their success rates should improve when smaller stocks beat larger stocks. The regression would detect that relationship.


However, these models don't capture every way in which active funds differ from their index peers. For example, they ignore differences in security selection and sector exposure unrelated to the factors, which may limit the models' explanatory power.

Results

The results of this analysis demonstrate that differences in investment style between active and index funds can help explain the variation in success rates. However, the data did not clearly follow all the predictions of Dunn's Law.

Exhibits 1-3 show the results of the regression analysis for the nine U.S. equity categories. The numbers in all but the last column are the regression co-efficients. The bolded coefficients are statistically significant.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

Wxhibit 3

 

The cells highlighted in dark green are statistically significant with the sign Dunn's Law predicts (that is, the direction of the relationship between the variable and success rates mirrors the prediction of Dunn's Law); those highlighted in light green have the right sign, but are not statistically significant. Cells highlighted in red have the wrong sign and are significant, while those highlighted in light red only have the wrong sign.

There were no clear predictions from Dunn's Law for those cells that are not highlighted. The adjusted R-squared figures show the proportion of the variability in success rates that the regression explains.

The best explanation for why there isn't a clean inverse relationship between the returns to active managers' investment style and their success rates is that these success rates are noisy. Changes in success rates are partially random and influenced by many variables the model does not capture.

While it's possible that some periods may be more conducive to stock-picking than others, stock-picking success across managers is not highly correlated, so success rates are partially driven by luck of the draw.

Conclusion

The results of this study suggest there is some truth to Dunn's Law, but it doesn't always hold. Even though they don't always conform to the predictions of Dunn's Law, differences in investment style between active and index funds can explain much of the variation in success rates over time.

But just as it is difficult to predict when the market will do well, it is difficult to predict when certain investment styles will be in favour. So, it's best to accept that active managers' success rates will be volatile and not try to time exposure between active and passive funds.

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Alex Bryan is a director of passive strategies with Morningstar, based in Chicago.

© 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. Neither Morningstar, its affiliates, nor the content providers guarantee the data or content contained herein to be accurate, complete or timely nor will they have any liability for its use or distribution. This information is to be used for personal, non-commercial purposes only. No reproduction is permitted without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Any general advice or 'class service' have been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), or its Authorised Representatives, and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. Please refer to our Financial Services Guide (FSG) for more information at www.morningstar.com.au/s/fsg.pdf. Our publications, ratings and products should be viewed as an additional investment resource, not as your sole source of information. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product's future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a licensed financial adviser. Some material is copyright and published under licence from ASX Operations Pty Ltd ACN 004 523 782 ("ASXO"). The article is current as at date of publication.

is director of passive strategies research, North America, for Morningstar.

© 2020 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. Neither Morningstar, its affiliates, nor the content providers guarantee the data or content contained herein to be accurate, complete or timely nor will they have any liability for its use or distribution. This information is to be used for personal, non-commercial purposes only. No reproduction is permitted without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Any general advice or 'class service' have been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), or its Authorised Representatives, and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. Please refer to our Financial Services Guide (FSG) for more information at www.morningstar.com.au/s/fsg.pdf. Our publications, ratings and products should be viewed as an additional investment resource, not as your sole source of information. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product's future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a licensed financial adviser. Some material is copyright and published under licence from ASX Operations Pty Ltd ACN 004 523 782. The article is current as at date of publication.

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