Three Questions to Answer Before Investing in an Active Fund

There are still too many people investing in active funds. Not because they are unnecessary, but because owning them comes with a unique set of behavioural challenges that we are often unprepared for. If we are to have any hope of benefitting from holding them, we must accept and embrace these. The worst – and all too common – scenario is investing in active funds whilst holding entirely unrealistic expectations about the realities of doing so. This dooms us to almost inevitable failure and disappointment. Before investing in active funds there are three questions we need to answer:

– Am I willing to own a fund for the long-term?

– Can I discount short-term performance?

– Can I withstand long periods of underperformance?

Let’s take these in turn:

Am I investing for the long-term?

As the investment industry has become increasingly myopic, I have had to moderate my view on what the long-term is because it seems too outlandish. I have heard people discuss the long-term as three years or more, but this is far too short  – it is much closer to 10 years. The longer our time horizon, the greater the odds of investment success.  Why is an extended time horizon so important? Because the shorter it is, the more our results are beholden to randomness and fickle swings in market sentiment. If we believe there is a strategy with an edge, we must give it time to play out, for fundamentals to exert themselves over noise. This does not mean that we must persist with an active fund whatever happens or that simply increasing our time horizon guarantees better results, but it at least gives us a fighting chance.

Can I discount short-term performance?

It is one thing to say that we are willing to own a fund for the long-term, doing it is another thing entirely. The biggest impediment to long-term investing is obsessing over short-term performance. Not only is it an entirely fruitless activity that sees us attempt to read patterns in the chaotic fluctuations of financial markets, but we persistently make poor decisions based on such fleeting observations. Each time we check performance, write a report or hold a meeting we are creating a decision point; another opportunity to make a near-sighted judgment. We need to be realistic about our situation – if the short-term matters (whether we want it to or not) active funds really should not be for us – it will simply mean constant anxiety and frequently poor choices.

Can I withstand long periods of underperformance?

Although incredibly damaging, the hardest part of active fund investing is not the senseless fascination with short-term performance, but the prolonged and painful periods of underperformance that are an inevitable feature of any active strategy. All skilful (and unskilful) active fund managers will go through years of underperformance – this is inescapable. Living though this on a day-by-day basis is exhausting and exacting. The doubts about the strategy – whether the manager has lost her edge, whether the process is broken or the market environment irrecoverably changed – will often be overwhelming. Yet if we want to successfully invest in active funds then we need to find a way to withstand them.  The alternative is believing that we can time our investment into active funds so that we capture the good times and avoid the bad (we can’t).

The problem with this required fortitude is that it is music to the ears of the unskilled active fund manager who will be delighted if we persist in investing with them despite their lack of ability, but this is the job of the active fund investor – to identify skill without relying on past performance.  If we cannot tolerate lengthy spells of poor relative returns, we should not be investing in active funds.

If we answer these three questions in the affirmative, it does not mean that we should invest in active funds; these are simply the minimum entry requirements before we even consider attempting it. If we answer any of them negatively, we really should not be doing it at all.

None of these features are easy to deal with or manage, in fact the behavioural aspects of active fund investing are just as tough as finding a manager or strategy with an edge. Far too many investors neglect this and leave themselves in a position where the odds of success become vanishingly small. 

My first book has just been published! The Intelligent Fund Investor explores the beliefs and behaviours that lead investors astray, and shows how we can make better decisions. You can order a copy here.

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