S&P Keeps Score

There's something about keeping score that appeals to the competitive animal in all of us. This goes beyond sports and, not surprisingly, into investing. (Who was it that said investing is just sandlot football for grownups?)

For those who like to follow the titanic struggle between passive and active investing, Standard and Poor's has found a way to appeal to our stats-loving natures: The Standard & Poor's Indices Versus Active Funds Scorecard (SPIVA).

The first edition was released this past Halloween, and subsequent reports will be released quarterly. When most people talk about index investing, they usually mean investing in a fund that tries to keep up with the S&P 500 or the Wilshire 5000. But the Scorecard breaks the active and passive funds down in 13 categories, based on size (large, mid, and small cap) and style (growth, value, and a "blend" of the two).

So, according to the October Scorecard, who's winning, active or passive investors? Based on returns up to Sept. 30, 2002, the indexers have done better over the past five years: The S&P 1500 (which comprises the S&P 500, the MidCap 400, and the SmallCap 600 indexes, accounting for 87% of the total equity U.S. equity market) beat 62% of all domestic equity funds, posting a -1.2% annualized return vs. a -2.9% average annual return for funds. Likewise, the S&P 500 beat 63% of domestic large-cap funds.

However, over the past three years, active management has taken the upper hand, confirming the old maxim that a bear market is a stockpicker's market. The S&P 1500 and S&P 500 have beaten just 45% and 46%, respectively, of actively managed funds.

Moving to the other investment categories, we find some other interesting results. Common wisdom holds that indexing is most effective with large-cap stocks, since those markets are more "efficient," and that active management is the way to go with mid- and small-cap stocks. However, the SPIVA Scorecard tells a different story.

The S&P MidCap 400 has beaten 73% of actively managed mid-cap funds over the past three years, and 90% over the past five years. The S&P SmallCap 600 has bested 68% and 62% of small-cap funds over trailing three-year and five-year periods, respectively.

It's difficult for actively managed funds to overcome the drag trading fees, management expenses, sales commissions, and marketing budgets have on their returns. And it's difficult for investors to find exactly which fund will consistently outperform the market. The lesson: Over the long term, most investors will do better in an index fund.

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