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10 Good Reasons To Use A Passive Approach In CAPs

Nest egg in a treeLooking at passive versus active from a fiduciary perspective highlights the benefits of a passive approach for all CAP stakeholders.     

The issue of passive versus active investing has been passionately debated for years and generally focuses on risk and return. If fiduciary issues are considered, however, the advantages of a passive approach for CAPs become obvious. Theory, return history, the methodology for CAP asset mix recommendations, and administration are key issues.

The Theory

Much of the theory focuses on work of Gary P. Brinson, Roger Ibbotson, William Sharpe, Harry Markowitz, and Eugene Fama. Brinson, for example, found that 94 per cent of the variation in total plan return was a result of investment policy. Ibbotson concluded that the impact of asset allocation depends on an individual's investing style and that for long-term passive investors, the asset allocation decision is by far the most important decision. Sharpe concluded that "properly measured, the average actively managed dollar must underperform the average passively managed dollar net of cost."  Markowitz argued that investors should consider both risk and return and use an optimizer to build mean variance efficient portfolios. Fama described why market prices are always efficient hence investors cannot beat the market in the long term. Steven Dunn's law is also interesting: "when an asset class does relatively well, an index fund in that class does even better."

DC members are viewed as long- term investors: asset allocation and diversification are emphasized.

Return Performance

The value added from active management has also been challenged. Jane Li recently concluded that "on average, active managers provided some downside protection in bear markets … but gave up some potential in bull markets". Morningstar's Ben Johnson concludes that "an active manager's odds of consistently besting the market are slim, the odds of selecting a regular market-beater slimmer, and the costs of active management, on average, wash out the benefits". Over the last decade Canadian actively managed funds have "fared poorly" and "relative underperformance has been consistent across asset classes" (Vanguard). In Canada it was concluded that "Canadian actively managed funds have fared poorly, on average, versus. index benchmarks" and "relative underperformance has been consistent across asset classes and sub asset classes…" (Vanguard: The case for indexing: Canada). Instances of active fund managers who are effectively 'closet' indexers, but charge active management fees, have also been an issue.

CAP members are not encouraged to churn their investments or focus on tactical investment approaches. The average CAP member is generally an unsophisticated, uninvolved, long-term investor. Return and risk performance are, therefore, important fiduciary issues and must be judged after fees which impact member asset accumulations over time.

Financial institutions usually provide risk profiling and asset mix recommendations for CAP members. The methodology used to determine the asset mixes likely utilizes a mean – a mean variance efficient portfolio approach based on index returns. Given the use of index returns in developing CAP asset mix recommendation, it follows that using index funds in a CAP would be a prudent approach to minimizing deviations in returns and risk.

Administrative And Fiduciary Issues

From a fiduciary, administration and performance perspective, a passive approach has many advantages, including:

Index funds can also present challenges. The administrator may want to consider different indexing methods. In addition, ETFs, in their simplest form, could be considered. Fees, while less of an issue, still require constant monitoring. And although governance is simpler, a strong governance framework is still required.

These are troubled times in terms of economics, interest rates, and market volatility. From a fiduciary perspective, potential risks appear be lower and members, over the long term, would appear to be better or as well off. The combination of research and net realized returns present a compelling argument for a passive approach for CAPs. A passive approach presents an effective and prudent approach for CAP sponsors and plan members. Simpler, effective and less costly for all stakeholders, it does seem odd that a passive approach is not more common.

Gerry Wahl is managing director of Ampersand Advisory Group (

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