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Active Vs. Index Debate: In Search Of Evidence - Thursday, 04/04/2013

The lyrics of "I Can See Clearly Now," a 1972 hit song, came to mind recently when I was revisiting one investment theme that is commonly raised around this time of year as individuals prepare to pay their taxes and consider strategies for tweaking their portfolios: which performs better — active or passive management?

The "clarity" came in a biannual report published by S&P Dow Jones entitled "S&P Indices Versus Active Funds (SPIVA) Scorecard1." It threw some light on this interesting question.

In any given year, to varying magnitudes, benchmark indices outperform managers. In the year-end 2012 edition, the report indicates that in the General Muni Debt category, 29.03% of active muni funds were outperformed by the S&P National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Index2 for the 1-year period ending 12/31/12.

However, what caught my eye was data for the 3- and 5-year periods ending on the same date. For the 3-year period, 44.44% of general muni debt funds failed to outperform the S&P benchmark. And for the 5-year period, well more than half (60.00% of the funds) did not beat the index. (See table below.)


Percentage of Active Municipal Funds Outperformed by Benchmarks
Percentage of Active Municipal Funds Outperformed by Benchmarks Chart

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices, CRSP. For periods ended Dec. 31, 2012. Outperformance is based upon equal weighted fund counts. All index returns used are total returns. Charts are provided for illustrative purposes. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.


The concept that helped drive the development of index-based equity ETFs as well as the growing acceptance of indexed strategies appears to also have basis for the muni ETF market. While we must be careful not to generalize, this study does create a base for informed discussion on how to employ a muni investment strategy.

1The full report is available for download.

2The S&P National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Index is a broad, comprehensive, market value-weighted index designed to measure the performance of the investment-grade tax-exempt U.S. municipal bond market.


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