A reader writes in, asking about a particular mutual fund manager. They’ve read The Value of Simple, but aren’t sure if they should switch to DIY index investing considering their particular funds have outperformed net of fees the past few years, and have won Lipper and Morningstar awards.
This was an interesting email to receive. The reader had four different ways of saying that past performance for the particular fund was good.
The Lipper and Morningstar awards are basically useless as indicators of a fund’s ability to out-perform their fees in the future. The Lipper awards in particular are completely focused on past performance, so winning one doesn’t tell you anything a screen of past performance wouldn’t already. The Morningstar award includes “style consistency” and “tax efficiency” as other criteria, but is again basically just a metric of past performance.
There are studies that show that past performance is not a criteria for finding winning mutual funds, so by extension, the Morningstar and Lipper awards shouldn’t have any bearing, either. Indeed, I went back and spot-checked the 2010 Lipper winner, and they badly under-performed in the subsequent ~5 years. Their 10-year average (including the out-performance that won them the award and subsequent under-performance) is now equal to the index. I then quickly checked all the 3-year winners in the Canadian equity category from 2007-2014 (the range data is available from Lipper), and all but one of them went on to under-perform the index. (I didn’t check all of the winners in all categories because they have dozens and dozens of categories to try to spread the love around)
So why is past performance not a good indicator of future performance, when it is for say, job performance for an engineer or a sales associate? There’s always a combination of luck and skill in performance and outcomes, but the proportions change for different tasks. The engineer’s outcomes might be mostly skill and a bit of luck, so a good one in 2010 will probably still be good in 2015. A sales associate might have an equal mix of factors affecting their past performance — finding the skill may not be too hard, but it may not be immediately apparent in past results. But for mutual funds the skill can be completely swamped by luck, so it’s quite hard to find, especially from the customer’s chair.
I’m not dogmatic about indexing and active management, but pragmatic: I think some people can out-perform due to skill, maybe even enough to beat their fees if they do it professionally. However, identifying that small percentage of managers is a task that’s comparable in difficulty to just being an out-performing active investor yourself, and that is very difficult in my mind. You have to have a good understanding of what skill looks like to be able to spot it amongst all the luck and marketing. And the MER acts as a huge hurdle: these guys might be very skilled, but out-performing by even 2% every year is quite an achievement, and that would be needed just get you back to even. In my opinion, going with indexing is the better bet.
Another consideration is what value you get for the MER paid. A big issue in the industry is that typical big bank/big firm advisors just sell funds and don’t provide the detailed plans, hand-holding, tax advice, or other services they claim in newspaper articles are reasons to avoid DIY investing. If you’re getting good service, then you have to decide whether it’s worth 2% — or whatever the fee difference is — to keep getting that level of service, or if you’d rather do it yourself and save on the fees and avoid the risk of their performance streak ending. If you’re not getting good service for what you pay, then paying the higher MER is purely a bet on their ability to out-perform, and historically that has not been a good bet to take. Demand better service to get your money’s worth, or take matters into your own hands (which may include paying fee-for-service for the expertise you need to supplement your own efforts in indexing).