Sep

22

 "Nobel winner Fama: Active management 'never' good":

Eugene Fama, the University of Chicago investing researcher who won the Nobel Prize in economics last year, once again warned investors against the lure of active management.

"The question is when is active management good? The answer is never," Fama said to laughs Thursday at the Morningstar ETF Conference in Chicago .

"If active managers win, it has to be at the expense of other active managers. And when you add them all up, the returns of active managers have to be literally zero, before costs. Then after costs, it's a big negative sign," Fama added.

He's known as the father of the efficient-markets theory, which says that asset prices reflect all available information; investment managers can never truly get an edge.

Fama dismissed the idea that it was possible to pick the best managers.

"The good ones might be good or they might be lucky. The bad ones might be bad or they might be unlucky. We can't really tell the difference," he said. "I don't know if it would ever make sense, even if the fees were zero, I don't think you'd be better off because you'd be investing in an undiversified way."

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Asked about Warren Buffett's long-term record of picking good companies, Fama said the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) chief actually agreed with his index-based thesis. Buffett said recently he actually has directed much of his fortune to be placed in passive index funds after he dies.

"He's, like, my hero," Fama said. "What he says is, 'I can pick a company every couple years, but if you have to form a portfolio, you're better off going passive.'"

"All the behavioral people say the same thing," Fama added. "In the end, they realize that the game of doing something active is fraught with problems."

Fama was also asked about hedging against big crashes, like what happened to the markets in 2008. Attempting to protect against them, he said, was the unwinnable game of market-timing.

"If you sold when the market crashed, you made a big mistake, and if you saw it coming you're a genius," Fama said.

Gary Rogan writes:

Everything that The Sage deems right and proper will happen after he dies, the charities, index investing, who knows what else. I guess it's no longer politically correct to say "Après nous, le déluge".

The statement "If active managers win, it has to be at the expense of other active managers. And when you add them all up, the returns of active managers have to be literally zero, before costs." is probably mostly correct but given that some active managers are also activist managers it's not completely correct. Also imagine that every single person in the world was an index investor, that would be an absurd situation where nothing in particular but the inflow of new money would determine the price of all stocks. And still, if the average of all managers, aren't some managers better than indexing? At the very least Fama could say that no person is capable of either being or choosing a better-than-average active manager, but he isn't actually saying this.

Bill Rafter writes: 

That's a poor logical argument by the good professor. While Dr. Fama may be right that before costs the average return of all active managers must be zero, clearly it is possible (if not likely) that there will be serial winners and losers. Speaking only of the latter, several years ago we were asked to propose solutions to a shop that had managed to underperform the S&P for every one of the prior 15 years. They did not like our proposals and also rejected proposals from other research providers, continuing with their own methods. They are now 0-18 versus the S&P. Since it is possible for some to get this investment "thing" totally wrong, it is perfectly logical to assume that some others have better than average performance with consistency.

anonymous writes: 

In the case of Buffett you might ask: cui bono? His non Berkshire index assets could fill an Omaha thimble. Is it not the same press release as Betfair put out about their fixed odds versus exchange book on the Scots referendum?


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2 Comments so far

  1. David Higgs on September 22, 2014 11:52 pm

    Since we’re talking about Nobel Prize winners, William “Bill” Sharpe of Stanford U. a 1990 Economic recipient, was interviewed by AAII Journal this month (September). The question posed to him, ” should people allocate by rebalancing?” His answer similar to Fama, was no ( I can hear him laughing at his answer given). He goes on to say that he’d like to see a “very-low cost index fund” that buys all the stocks and bonds traded in the world. But he doesn’t think one exists…..o. How much fun would it be to have these two guys in the same room.?
    Might as well sell everything, buy a dozen chickens and sell eggs on the side of the road, eggs are the good food now, if you haven’t heard,

  2. RL on September 23, 2014 9:36 pm

    We know that if everyone went passive than its time to go active but the question i have is what is that point? At what X% of passive do you go active?

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