Active investing is like betting on who will win the Super Bowl, while passive investing would be like owning the entire NFL, and thus collecting profits on the gross ticket and merchandise sales, regardless of which team wins each year.
Active investing means you (or a mutual fund manager or another investment advisor) are going to use an investment approach that typically involves research such as fundamental analysis, micro, and macroeconomic analysis and/or technical analysis because you think picking investments in this way can deliver a better outcome than owning the market in its entirety.
Using the NFL Investment Analogy
Using the NFL analogy, you would study all the players and coaches, go to preseason training, and based on your research make an educated bet as to which teams would be on top for the year. Would you be willing to bet your money on your ability to choose correctly? An active investor or active strategy is doing just that.
With a passive investment approach, you would buy index funds and own the entire spectrum of available stocks and bonds. It would be like owning the NFL; not every team is going to win, but you don't care because you know some merchandise is bound to be sold each year. With a passive approach, you simply want to make money based on the collective outcome of all stocks and bonds pooled together.
A Comparison of Actively Managed Funds vs. Passively Managed Funds
When you look at mutual funds, an actively managed large-cap mutual fund will try to pick the best 100-200 stocks listed in the S&P 500 Index. A passive fund, or index fund, will own all 500 stocks that are listed in the S&P 500 Index with no attempt to pick and choose among them.
Each year academic studies are conducted to compare the returns of actively managed mutual funds to the returns of passively managed mutual funds. Studies show that in the aggregate over long periods actively managed funds do not generally deliver returns higher than their passive counterparts and the reason why has to do with fees.
Active funds usually incur higher costs. The fund manager must first garner additional returns to cover the costs before the investor would begin to see a performance that was higher than the comparable index fund.
Why does an active approach cost more? It takes time to do research, and actively managed funds tend to spend more money on overhead and staffing. Also, they have higher trading costs as they move in and out of stocks. If the index earns 10%, and the fund has 3% a year in costs, it must earn 13% just to have a net return equivalent to its index.
There is also a difference between passive investment funds and index funds. All index funds are a form of passive investing, but not all passively managed funds are index funds.
Misunderstandings About Active vs. Passive Investing
Most of the time the active vs. passive debate is focused on whether a mutual fund can outperform its index. For example, studies may look at how many large-cap funds outperform the S&P 500 Index. However, many funds and investment approaches are not restricted to a type of stock or bond.
For example, multi-cap funds may be able to own large or small-cap stocks depending on what the research analysts think might offer the best performance. In this case, you might measure the long term results of such a fund against something like Vanguard's Total Stock Market Index Fund.
Additional confusion comes from the fact that investment advisors may use passive index funds, but use a tactical asset allocation approach to decide when the portfolio should own more or less of a particular asset class. In this way, passive mutual funds are being used within an active or semi-active approach overlay.
Passive Investing Captures Returns of an Entire Market
When you take this football analogy and apply it to investing, you look at the entire market of available stocks. A passive investor wants to own all the stocks, because they think as a whole, over long periods, capitalism works, and they are likely to receive higher returns from investing in the entire stock market than by trying to pick which individual stocks which will outperform the market as a whole.
The point of passive market approaches is to take advantage of something called the equity risk premium which says you should be compensated for taking on equity risk with higher returns.
Passive Investing Is More Tax Efficient
Not a lot of trading is done with passive funds, so they have lower fees. They also have less capital gain distributions that will flow through to your tax return. If you invest using non-retirement accounts, this means a passive investment approach used consistently should reduce your ongoing tax bill.
If you want to combine active and passive approaches you may look at putting actively managed funds inside tax-sheltered accounts like IRAs while using a passive approach or a tax-managed fund for non-retirement accounts.
Passive Investing Best for Most Investors
How many of your friends or coworkers have ever said that they employ a passive investing strategy? Probably very few but that's what they should be doing. Very few people can make money as an active investor, and for those who can, a small percentage of those people will beat the market over time.
Don't look at investing as a way to make money fast. The most successful investors are those that invest for the long term and understand that gains compounded over time with reasonable risk are how to build wealth.