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SPIVA study and the myth of active management outperformance

In the perennial debate about the merits of active vs. passive management, the main claim of active managers is that the higher fees they typically charge are justified by their ability to outperform market benchmarks, and by extension, passive funds that aim to track those benchmarks.

The SPIVA Scorecard1 is a widely-referenced research piece conducted and published by S&P Global that compares actively managed funds against their appropriate benchmarks on a semi-annual basis.

A theme that has emerged over time is that the majority of actively managed funds historically have tended to underperform their benchmarks over short- and long-term periods – a finding that has held true (with some exceptions) across countries and regions.

For example, considering Australian equity general funds at 31 December 2019:

  • 61.5% of funds underperformed the S&P/ASX 200 Index over 12 months
  • 74.5% of funds underperformed the S&P/ASX 200 Index over 3 years
  • 80.8% of funds underperformed the S&P/ASX 200 Index over 5 years

Another recurring theme is that those actively managed funds that did manage to outperform in one time period typically failed to do so over subsequent periods.

The SPIVA ‘Persistence Scorecard’ tracks the ‘staying power’ of the top active performers over time. This is an important variable to consider, as the ability to consistently outperform is the only credible way to demonstrate that a manager’s results are due to skill rather than luck.

In this regard, the recently released SPIVA Australian Persistence Scorecard2 makes for interesting reading, and shows that most active managers who have experienced strong past performance are unlikely to reproduce this outperformance into the future.

Can you pick an active fund based on its track record?

SPIVA shows that you must be very good (or maybe lucky) to pick a manager who persistently outperforms year after year.

Of the funds that fell into the top quartile (i.e. top 25%) of actively managed funds for the year ending December 2015:

  • none of the 107 Australian Equities funds remained top quartile for each of the next four years
  • only one of 58 Global Equities funds remained top quartile for each of the next four years
  • less than 20% of these 2015 top quartile Australian and Global Equities funds even remained in the top quartile the following year – arguably a worse outcome than the proverbial monkey and a dartboard!

Of the Australian Bond funds, only one out of 14 remained top quartile for each of the next four years.

What would have happened if you had picked a top-performing active manager five years ago, or three years ago?

The short answer is, your investment would most probably have underperformed.

SPIVA looked at active funds with strong performance over the 5-year period ending December 2014, and compared this with their performance for the following 5-year period ending December 2019:

  • of Australian and Global Equities funds that were previously in the top quartile, less than 50% remained in even the top half of their peer group for the subsequent 5-year window
  • of all funds that previously outperformed the benchmark, only 27% outperformed for the subsequent 5-year window. 57% underperformed and 16% were liquidated/closed.

Looking at the active funds that did well in 2017: of the 179 Australian Equities funds that outperformed their benchmark in 2017, only 14.5% outperformed in each of the subsequent two years.

How did active managers fare during the market sell-off in Q1 2020?

SPIVA studies have generally found active managers underperformed the benchmark over time periods of a year or more. Given the extreme market volatility we have been experiencing in 2020, SPIVA recently published results for the first quarter of 2020.

SPIVA found that in the March 2020 sell-off more than half the Australian-domiciled unlisted active funds underperformed the benchmark, debunking the myth that active managers will shine in down markets3.

This underperformance was evident across all fund categories, with the exception of A-REIT funds. For example, 61% of funds categorised as ‘Australian Equity General’ failed to beat the S&P/ASX 200 Index over the quarter.

The figures were better for Australian equities in the month of March, during the worst of the drawdown, where ‘only’ 51% of Australian Equity General funds underperformed. However, the ability of these active managers to take a defensive tilt during a bear market appears to have had a muted effect, at best, on relative performance.


SPIVA’s research demonstrates that not only did active fund managers generally underperform their benchmark over both the long and the short term, but also those funds that did achieve outperformance in a given time period typically were unable to maintain that outperformance in subsequent time periods. Of course the reports do indicate that outperformance over passive benchmarks is indeed possible, but reinforce the importance of being highly selective and/or focused on active managers who provide exposures that are less amenable to being accessed passively.

Article and synopsis from by Cameron Gleeson.

As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions.

One Comment

  • Robert says:

    It seems that the definition “active” means constantly working- whereas it seems-“passive” is more a “set and forget. It’s like asking whether plants in a garden will grow better if there is a gardener/ than plants left in a garden to grow wild. While I suspect that as long as there is a God/ both will grow. And if growth is all that matters- why pay a gardener.?
    But look at the garden- the fences, the hedges, the gates, waterfalls and fruit. There is simply no comparison- when both gardens come up for sale/ which one would you buy?
    Trouble with most financial planners- they fail to take a holistic view -(a whole garden view)of the clients garden- they concentrate on just the cabbage plot. But a good gardener cares for the entire garden. And a good financial planner cares for the clients whole life.
    Mortgages, property investments, business structures, children’s education, superannuation and tax, pre- retirement planning and retirement planning, Centrelink and age pensions, age care and wills and succession.
    For example- a client couple who has a million dollars in super- will get no age pension- whereas one who has $400,000 in super will likely get full age pension- that’s worth $41,000 per year and rises every 6 months. That’s equivalent to having a million dollars in the bank earning 4% ( and still have $400,000. If they can live on $60,000 a year- they can live this way for twenty years- by which time they will be nearly 90.
    Most financial planners don’t ask for and don’t comment on clients wills. If they do ask- it’s “Have you got a will? If the answer is yes- they tick the yes box and move on. They might have a house worth a couple of million dollars. Yet if one of a couple which has a million in super needs to go to a nursing home/ their share of the million ($500,000 ) means they will have to pay the full cost of their room and means tested fees as well. If ( probably should say “when” ) the other has also has to go to a nursing home, the two million dollar home will cause both of them- the one already in care and the one now going into care) to have substantial increases in their nursing home costs-
    Yet- they likely had concentrated in the last 19 years trying to choose the super fund that had the lowest fees- when they should have concentrated on their life’s work, retirement, Centrelink pensions, age care costs and planning and transfer of wealth to their children. I’m afraid for most financial planners- it is rocket science.
    The clients biggest risk is not- what they have invested in- it’s the financial planner they choose.

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