By Mack Bekeza

Investors have been debating if it is better to have an active investment strategy or a passive one. On one side, investors claim that being active will allow them to capture the best investment opportunities and optimally manage risk. On the other side, investors claim that going passive will help them secure long-term returns while being able to diversify unnecessary risk. Is one side more accurate than the other? We can’t really say. However, we can say that there is one thing that plays a very significant role in this argument…fees!

How do fees affect investment returns? First, let’s review the three common places fees show up in our investments, particularly mutual funds: Sales-loads, management fees, and 12b-1 fees.

How do these fees affect overall investment performance? Recently, Standard and Poor’s conducted research on how fees affect active managers’ performance against their benchmarks and came out with some noteworthy results. For U.S equity funds,       70% – 92% of active funds in their respective categories underperformed their benchmarks[1] over five years, net of fees. In other words, the vast majority of actively managed U.S equity funds underperformed U.S equity index funds over the course of five years[2] after fees. However, only 30-65% of actively managed fixed-income funds in their categories (excluding long term government, high-yield, and emerging markets) have underperformed their benchmarks after fees. International equity funds have also experienced a smaller percentage of their funds underperforming after fees, ranging from 47%-79% in their categories.

So, what does this mean for those who invest in mutual funds? Although there could be a case made that going active in fixed-income has benefited investors, being passive (investing in market index funds) has been more rewarding to investors over the course of five years. Will this trend continue? We don’t know. However, we do know this: index funds have posted better long-term performance than active funds due to having fewer fees and by mimicking the market, rather than trying to beat it.

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[1] Note that the benchmarks in this study are indexes made by Standard and Poor’s, this writing only mentions returns after fees with retail mutual funds, not institutional mutual funds. Here is the study that we are referencing:

[2] Index funds are not the benchmarks themselves, rather they attempt to mimic them.