What Winning Looks Like (Probably Not What You Expect)

The blog Basis Pointing has an excellent write up on the performance profile of winning funds.  I suspect most investors will be very surprised at its findings.  It’s not that winning funds don’t exist–they most definitely do.  Rather, it is that the path to long-term outperformance is far lumpier than most investors probably expect.

Investors tend to have some pretty ingrained misconceptions of what “winning” funds look like. For instance, winning funds lay waste to the index and category peers; they do so over the short- and long-term; they corner really well, deftly avoiding big drawdowns and rocking during rallies; they don’t rattle around much; they succeed like clockwork. They’re Tom Brady.

For those who have gotten to know markets, randomness, and the resultant unpredictability of short and even intermediate-term performance, we know this is nuts. Winning funds do not succeed anywhere near linearly. Performance is jagged; success and failure arrive abruptly; it often takes years to grind out an advantage; and so forth. This is pure torture for many investors, who bail (and that pattern reveals itself in the form of hideous dollar-weighted returns; if there’s any consistency in markets, it’s that, but I digress).


However, this concept is often too abstract so I thought I’d try to semi-simply illustrate it through an example. Here’s what I did (which will win no points for elegance or precision but last time I checked this blog was free):

  1. Grouped together all diversified U.S. open-end equity mutual funds (i.e., the nine style-box categories; active and index funds; no ETFs)
  2. Limited to unique funds (i.e., oldest shareclass)
  3. Calculated the twenty year annual excess returns of the unique funds I grouped (excess returns = fund’s total return minus return of benchmark index assigned to the category that fund was assigned to)
  4. Sorted the funds into deciles by excess returns (top=group with highest excess returns; bottom=group with lowest excess returns)

There were around 680 unique funds that had twenty-year excess returns, so we’re talking about 68 per decile grouping.


Here’s the predictable stairstep pattern from the top to bottom decile when sorted by excess return:


Click here to read all of the different elements of this study, be see below for the one that I found most interesting:

As shown below the more-successful funds did indeed lag less often (measured as number of rolling 36-month periods during the twenty year span where the decile grouping had negative average excess returns) than the less-successful funds.


But it’s not like they were strangers to underperformance. In fact, the best-performing funds lagged their indexes in more than one of every three rolling three-year periods.So, investors in these funds spent roughly a third of the past two decades looking up, not down, at the index (when measured over rolling three-year periods).

My emphasis added.  As shown in the first chart, there are plenty of funds that have outperformed over the past 20 years.  However, any investor who expected consistent outperformance would have been sorely disappointed.  Even the best performing funds lagged their benchmark about one third of rolling 3-year periods.  The lessons should be clear.  Investors would be well served to do meaningful due diligence on active strategies before putting money to work.  Once investors feel confident that they have settled on strategies/management teams that they believe are likely to outperform over time, they would be well served to demonstrate a very high level of patience.

There may be times where all investments and strategies are unfavorable and depreciate in value.

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