latamen
The era of index hugging is behind us

The era of index hugging is behind us

17-03-2016 | Insight

Rarely deviating from the index but charging for active management is something that ‘5 to 15% of active investment funds’ are guilty of, according to data published by the European financial watchdog ESMA in February. The regulator reviewed 260 investment funds, after the alarm was raised by Swedish investors.

  • Peter  Ferket
    Peter
    Ferket
    CIO Equity & Co-head investment products

Speed read

  • ‘5% to 15%’ of active funds rarely deviate from the index
  • Costs of active funds must be related to their potential to generate alpha
  • Active asset managers' product range must be continuously improved

The ESMA has not published the names of these index huggers – or to use their official name, ‘closet index funds’ – and measures are not likely to be taken against them. Or, at least, not by the ESMA – as it believes that this is a task for the national regulators. Peter Ferket, CIO Equities at Robeco, thinks that much of what the study has exposed are remnants of a bygone era – sleeping funds that have forgotten to wake up to a rapidly changing world.

“The ESMA hasn’t provided a list of names, but many of these closet index funds are likely to date from 15 to 20 years ago, when – certainly in Europe – there were very few passive products on the market. So, these funds contain client assets and there is no natural incentive for asset managers to close them. Basically, I think that this is primarily a legacy of our industry's past. The ESMA’s list won't include many funds that have been launched in the past five years.”

Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates
Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates
Subscribe

Fair prices

Nevertheless, we still can’t overlook the fact that the providers of these funds could have reduced their costs in the interest of their clients, suggests Ferket. “It’s safe to say that these types of funds are much too expensive now. You have to relate the price of an active product to that of a passive solution. Twenty years ago you might have paid 40 or 50 basis points for a global index tracker; now it’s less than 20. This means you can’t ask people to pay 70 basis points for a closet index fund anymore, like you could twenty years ago.”

It's about fair prices, according to Ferket. “The costs of a passive product form the basis for establishing these. Then there should be a reasonable charge for the alpha that you think your fund can generate. And if the passive solution gets cheaper, of course the price of the active alternative should move accordingly.”

By nature closet index funds deviate too little from the index in order to recoup their higher costs. Cremers and Patajisto (Yale University) reached this conclusion in their study into active share (‘How active is your fund manager?’). Recent research by Morningstar confirms their findings: closet index funds achieve the weakest returns of all active investment fund types. This proves once again that the high costs of these funds are unjustifiable.

Away from the index

Nevertheless, many providers of these products seemed to have overlooked that fact that we have entered the 21st century. While passive solutions were getting cheaper and cheaper, they just rested on their laurels. As a result, they are now much more expensive than passive solutions, even though their structure enables them to generate little or no alpha. “We decided to move further away from the index years ago,” explains Ferket. The Robeco Fund is a good example: a globally invested fund with an active share (a percentage that indicates the absolute level of deviation from the benchmark) of above 80%.

“We were faced with a choice for this fund: lower the costs or allow the fund to deviate further from the benchmark, with higher expected alpha as a result. We chose the latter,” – a decision that according to Ferket was motivated more by the investment philosophy than by commercial interests.

Currently under pressure from dissatisfied investors and regulators, closet index funds seem to be on the path to extinction. People's perception of their added value has vanished like snow before the sun due to the increased popularity of index trackers and ETFs. And they also seem to have played out their roles in this sector. “Initially there were truly active core products; then passive ones appeared too. But we now know that a combination of the two styles – passive for beta and active for alpha – is more effective than a single core fund.

“By combining ETFs with funds that are truly benchmark-agnostic, you can easily adjust your portfolio to achieve the desired level of active share or tracking error,” explains Ferket. “That’s why at Robeco we focus on both our quant products – a better alternative to passive funds – and on high conviction funds.”

Raising the bar

According to Ferket, it is very clear that the increased popularity of ETFs has resulted in a different product range at active managers, where active strategies are becoming increasingly close to hedge funds. Ferket also points out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the different styles in terms of the way they operate. “You used to have core funds, passive products and hedge funds. They were three different worlds. Now you have largely passive at the one end of the product range, high conviction funds at the other end and smart beta in the middle.”

Ferket does not see any significant growth potential for smart beta ETFs. “It’s a bit like the situation with hedge funds at the beginning of this century. The best managers start with them and achieve superior returns, but then they become more mainstream, supply increases and average performance deteriorates, while the risk of upsets at individual providers increases.”

But the increased popularity of smart beta indices is raising the bar for active factor funds. “Value funds or low volatility funds are no longer compared with the MSCI World Index, but with the MSCI Value Index or MSCI Min Vol Index. This means you can no longer just get away with harvesting the value or volatility premium.”

This is the new reality – where active fund managers, hounded by competition from the passive market, are being forced to innovate and continuously re-examine and improve their products. It is a world in which the asset management industry regularly sheds its skin, as it is doing now in the case of closet index funds. And everyone benefits from this.

Subjects related to this article are:

Important information

The Robeco Capital Growth Funds have not been registered under the United States Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended, nor the United States Securities Act of 1933, as amended. None of the shares may be offered or sold, directly or indirectly in the United States or to any US Person.

This website is intended for use only by non-U.S. Persons outside of the United States (within the meaning of Regulation S promulgated under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the “Securities Act”)) who are professional investors. By clicking “I Agree” below and accessing the information on this website, including any subdomain thereof, you are certifying and agreeing to the following: (i) you have read, understood and agree to this disclaimer, (ii) you have informed yourself of any applicable legal restrictions and represent that by accessing the information contained on this website, you are not in violation of, and will not be causing Robeco or any of its affiliated entities or issuers to violate, any applicable laws and, as a result, you are legally authorized to access such information, (iii) you understand and acknowledge that certain information presented herein relates to securities that have not been registered under the Securities Act, and may be offered or sold only outside the United States (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act) and only to, or for the account or benefit of, non-U.S. Persons (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act), (iv) you are a non-U.S. Person (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act) located outside of the United States (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act) and (v) you are a professional non-retail investor.

Access to this website has been limited so that it shall not constitute directed selling efforts (as defined in Regulation S under the Securities Act) in the United States.

Nothing contained herein constitutes an offer to sell securities or solicitation of an offer to purchase any securities in any jurisdiction.

We reserve the right to deny access to any visitor, including, but not limited to, those visitors with IP addresses residing in the United States.

This website has been carefully prepared by Robeco Institutional Asset Management B.V. (Robeco). The information contained in this publication is based upon sources of information believed to be reliable. Robeco is not answerable for the accuracy or completeness of the facts, opinions, expectations and results referred to therein. Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of this website, we do not accept any responsibility for damage of any kind resulting from incorrect or incomplete information. This website is subject to change without notice. The value of the investments may fluctuate. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. If the currency in which the past performance is displayed differs from the currency of the country in which you reside, then you should be aware that due to exchange rate fluctuations the performance shown may increase or decrease if converted into your local currency. For investment professional use only. Not for use with the general public.
I Disagree