Five points about active management

Peter Elston outlines five key points he believes are key when considering actively managed solutions.

1. Size of AUM - Small is beautiful (but not too small)

We think that small is beautiful when considering investments and companies.

Why is being small sometimes an advantage?

With less AUM, there are more investment opportunities available – think about a fishing net with smaller holes. And often, the smaller investments are the more interesting – in the case of equities, smaller companies have more potential to grow than larger ones. Why? There is more blue sky. It’s that simple.

2. High tracking error is bad but low tracking error is worse

Good active management is firstly about structuring funds such that they have the scope (potential) to produce alpha well in excess of fund costs, and secondly about having a strong investment style that will enable them to achieve this potential.

If a fund doesn’t have the potential to outperform, it doesn’t matter what investment style it adopts. So, in many ways, the first step is more important than the second.

What this first step says is that a fund must be sufficiently different from its benchmark index. If a fund is similar to the benchmark index, gross performance will be similar to the benchmark index, and net performance will be below the benchmark index.

To have the chance of producing gross alpha well in excess of fund costs, funds need to be different. Such difference can be measured by looking at tracking error. As a rule of thumb, my experience is that a fund’s tracking error should, over time, be around three times its OCF.

Anything less, beware.

3. Passive Multi-Asset funds do not capture the opportunity in ‘specialist assets’

Our three Multi-Asset funds are simple creatures, but they are more than just balanced funds. What makes them different to balanced funds are what we call ‘specialist assets’. These on the whole are listed specialist investment trusts that own illiquid tangible assets such as property, infrastructure, aircraft, and loans. Because these tangible assets are easy to understand – what can be less complicated than bricks and mortar or an airplane? The trusts themselves are easy to understand.

As a result, our funds are also easy to understand.*

Although in recent years they have been very popular, and indeed continue to be, passive Multi-Asset funds are not able to capture the opportunity offered by specialist assets. In fact, they are either balanced funds or close to being balanced funds.

Our ‘specialist assets’ offer useful features in relation to both bonds and equities, which is what makes them interesting.

As for price behaviour, their volatility is generally lower than that of equities, and they are lowly correlated with broad equity markets. So you can imagine what having a quarter of portfolios in these things, as we do, does to their Sharpe Ratios!

Shame to miss out on such a great opportunity.

4. Passive beats active in the ’single-asset’ space, but in Multi-Asset the opposite is the case

We’ve all seen the headlines:

“99% of actively managed US equity funds underperform”

“86% of active equity funds underperform”

“Nine out of 10 active funds underperform benchmark”

“87% of active UK equity funds underperformed in 2016”


All of the above headlines relate to pure equity funds, whether in the US, Europe, the UK or emerging markets. You never see such headlines in relation to active Multi-Asset funds.


What distinguishes a Multi-Asset fund from an equity fund (or a bond fund) is one key feature: asset allocation.

It is easier to add value from tactical asset allocation than it is from stock selection, so actively-managed Multi-Asset funds have an advantage over actively managed equity funds.

There is plenty of academic research that has found close relationships between the starting valuation of equity and bond markets on the one hand and subsequent performance on the other. This can be understood most easily with respect to bonds, where future performance is represented by the current yield.

There is a similar logic with respect to equity markets, but the link between yields and subsequent performance is not quite so stark.

5. Are there ‘suitability’ issues in relation to putting clients into passive Multi-Asset funds that have massive bond risk?

Back in 2008, the real 10-year Gilt yield was around 1%. Although this was low –10 years earlier real yields were 4% – one could still justify buying Gilts on the basis that the real yield was positive.

Fast forward to today and real 10-year interest rates in the UK are close to -2%. This means that if you buy them and hold them to maturity, your real return will be -2% per annum (-1.75% to be precise).**

To make money in real terms, real yields would have to fall further and you’d have to sell the bonds before maturity. But yields are already at -2%! Expecting them to fall to, say, -3% is, in my humble opinion, not investing but speculation.

In the previous section, I mentioned passive Multi-Asset funds. If you consider their offerings that sit in the IA Mixed Investment 20-60% Shares sector, they generally have around 40% in equities.

Where is the other 60%? All or mostly in bonds, where one has to be lucky to win.

In other words, are these funds really suitable for your clients?

*Many active Multi-Asset funds invest in complex investments such as derivative strategies, hedge funds, structured products or the like. We avoid these. Can’t understand, don’t invest.

**Source Bloomberg

Issued by Seneca Investment Managers

Important Information

Past performance is not a guide to future returns. The value of investments and any income may fluctuate and investors may not get back the full amount invested. This document is provided for the purpose of information only and if you are unsure of the suitability of these investments you should take independent advice. The views expressed are those of Peter Elston at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice.

They are not necessarily the views of Seneca Investment Managers and do not constitute investment advice. Whilst Seneca Investment Managers has used all reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this communication, we cannot guarantee the reliability, completeness or accuracy of the content. This communication provides information for professional use only and should not be relied upon by retail investors as the sole basis for investment. Seneca Investment Managers Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is registered in England No. 4325961 with its registered office at Tenth Floor, Horton House, Exchange Flags, Liverpool, L2 3YL. FP18 118