Is Low Cost Enough For Active Management Success?

by: Vanguard

By Bill McNabb

Over the three years ended August 31, 2016, investors poured more than $1 trillion into index funds. Indexing now accounts for nearly a third of all mutual fund assets-more than double what it did a decade ago and eight times its share two decades ago.1

By contrast, active management's commercial struggles have reflected its disappointing investment performance. Over the decade ended December 31, 2015, 82% of actively managed stock funds and 81% of active bond funds have either underperformed their benchmarks or shut down.2

This subpar performance has fueled the explosion of asset growth in indexing among individual, retirement, and nonprofit investors. So what might the trend mean for the future of actively managed funds?

Our research and experience indicate that active management can survive-and even succeed-but only if it's offered at much lower expense.

High costs, which can limit a manager's ability to deliver benchmark-beating returns, are the biggest reason active has lagged. Industrywide as of December 31, 2015, the average expense ratio for all active stock funds is 1.14%, compared with 0.76% for stock index funds. And the expense difference is even wider for bonds; the average expense ratio for an active bond fund is 0.93%, compared with 0.43% for bond index funds.3

But even these big differences understate the real gap. These days, it's not hard to find an index fund that charges maybe 0.05% or 0.10%. So even if you have identified active managers who are skilled at selecting stocks and bonds, to match the return of a comparable (much cheaper) index fund would require significant outperformance. Think about it. Any fund that charges 1.00% in expenses-not even the high end of the range-will likely find it extraordinarily difficult to overcome the index fund's head start.

Active management also has taken a hit from a regulatory environment that favors low-cost strategies. The U.S. Department of Labor several years ago mandated greater disclosure of retirement plan fees. And its new fiduciary rule, which is set to take effect in April, requires financial advisors to demonstrate that their recommendations are aligned with their clients' best interest. Both changes encourage the use of lower-cost investments, including index funds.

The future of active management

In light of all this, people have been asking me whether active management is "dead." My response is both yes and no. High-cost active management is dead, and rightly so. It has never been a winning proposition for investors. Low-cost active funds, though, can potentially play an important role for investors who seek to outperform the market.

Paying less for your funds is one way to improve your odds of achieving success in active management. But even if you have found an active manager with low costs, the odds of outperforming the market are still long. You have to be able to identify talented stock and bond portfolio managers with long time horizons and clear investment strategies. Look for managers with consistent track records and the discipline to stick closely to their investment strategy.

Know what you own and why

Despite the well-deserved reputation of indexing and the challenges for active managers, there's still a place for traditional active strategies that are low-cost, diversified, and highly disciplined, and are run by talented managers who focus on the long term.

Vanguard has always applied these principles to our active strategies, and investors have benefited as a majority of our active funds outperformed their benchmarks and bested their peer group average annual return over the ten years ended September 30, 2016.4

But it's crucial to be patient. Even active managers with the best track records frequently underperform their benchmarks when their investment styles are out of favor. Such periods, though temporary, can persist. So it's important when entrusting your assets to an active strategy to be in it for the long haul.

For a more in-depth look, check out our research Keys to improving the odds of active management success.


  1. The Wall Street Journal; Morningstar, Inc.; and Investment Company Institute, 2016.
  2. Vanguard calculations based on data from Morningstar, Inc.
  3. Lipper, a Thomson Reuters Company
  4. For the ten-year period ended September 30, 2016, 95% of Vanguard actively managed funds (109 of 115) outperformed their peer-group averages; results will vary for other time periods. Only actively managed funds with a minimum ten-year history were included in the comparisons. (Source: Lipper, a Thomson Reuters Company) Note that the competitive performance data shown represent past performance, which is not a guarantee of future results, and that all investments are subject to risks. For the most recent performance, visit our website at


All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

Bill McNabb

F. William McNabb III is chairman and chief executive officer of Vanguard. Mr. McNabb joined Vanguard in 1986, became chief executive officer in 2008, and chairman of the board of directors and the board of trustees in 2010. Previously, he led each of Vanguard's client-facing business divisions. Mr. McNabb is active in the investment management industry and serves as the chairman of the Investment Company Institute. He also serves as chairman of the board of directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia and on the board of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, the Wharton Leadership Advisory Board, and the Dartmouth Athletics Advisory Board. Mr. McNabb earned an A.B. at Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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