February 22, 2016 4:01 am

When Active Fund Management Makes Sense for Investors

Reshare from USNews;


In some areas of your portfolio, it may make sense to opt for an actively managed fund.

Magnifying glass and descending line graph and list of share prices

High-yield municipal bonds and international small cap funds are solid choices for active management.

The debate between active and passive management may never be settled, particularly in the media. Plenty of investors, advisors and academics hold strong views on either side.

But there are some who believe that a combination of active and passive management styles is in investors’ best interest.

Daniel Kern, president and chief investment officer at Advisor Partners in Walnut Creek, California, is co-author of a 2014 research report, “Investment Selection: A Framework for Combining Active and Passive Investments.”

The researchers used three metrics to evaluate passive and active funds in various asset classes: payoff, persistence and predictability.

Kern explains the criteria, saying, “Payoff means: Does active pay enough to justify the higher risk and cost? Persistence is: How frequently do winners continue to win? Predictability is: How often do active managers outperform?”

Kern and his colleagues identified a few areas of the market where active funds met those criteria. International small cap is one example. At Advisor Partners, Kern uses the Oakmark International Small Cap Fund, managed by David Herro.

Another aspect of Kern’s analysis is evaluating whether traditional benchmarks appropriately capture the investments and risk profiles he wants to include in client portfolios. In the case of high-yield bonds, his firm gravitates toward active management.

“We think the benchmarks used for high yield are fundamentally flawed,” he says. “Bond benchmarks reward those who borrow the most. Or, in less kind terms, benchmarks may reward bad behavior instead of good behavior.”

When credit analysts and managers actively oversee a high-yield fund, they can focus on specific sectors and regions, and even narrow down selections to the better-quality bonds within the high-yield universe. Such selectivity isn’t possible for a fund that simply tracks a benchmark.

“With an asset class like high yield, we’ll use an actively managed fund, largely for risk-management purposes,” Kern says. “We like having an experienced credit team at the helm making that choice about how much to invest in high-yield energy debt, in the international fixed-income market, in the debt of peripheral European economies.”

Michael Ball, president and lead portfolio manager at Weatherstone Capital Management in Denver, says active management is the better choice when it comes to high-yield municipal bonds.

“We prefer to have active managers who say, ‘There are problems. We don’t want bonds from Illinois or Detroit or Puerto Rico.’ We like that people dig into some of those areas where it’s often difficult to get a good view. It’s not like looking at Pepsi versus Coke,” Ball says.

He notes that an active manager can analyze several factors before deciding whether to include a holding. For example, with high-yield municipal bonds, it may not be readily apparent why a particular issue is rated lower than investment grade. “Is it a smaller issue, and they didn’t go out and get rating for it? What type of a revenue bond is it? There are a multitude of factors that come into play,” he says.

Ball leans toward tactical allocation, meaning he will adjust portfolios according to market conditions and other factors. He currently uses the Nuveen High Yield Municipal Bond in client accounts.

Rick Ferri, founder and managing partner at Portfolio Solutions in Troy, Michigan, has written extensively about the advantages of using index funds. His books include “The Power of Passive Investing: More Wealth with Less Work” and “All About Index Funds: The Easy Way to Get Started.”

However, he has identified three areas of the market where active management is advantageous: municipal bonds, high-yield corporate bonds and value-stock strategies.

Ferri says value stocks are not a unique asset class, although many investors and advisors refer to them as such.

That’s because value stocks offer exposure to a risk factor that is not sensitive to market-capitalization weightings. For example, market-capitalization sensitivity is typical in a passive investment that tracks a benchmark such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index or the Russell 2000 index.