Active Versus Passive Investing

Active investing is a strategy investors use when trying to beat a market or appropriate benchmark. Active investors rely on speculation about short-term future market movements and ignore the lessons embedded in vast amounts of historical data. They commonly engage in picking stocks, times, managers or investment styles. As later steps demonstrate, active investors who claim the ability to outperform a market are in essence claiming to divine the future. When accurately measured, this is simply not possible. Surprisingly, the analytical techniques that active investors use are best described as qualitative or speculative, largely including predictions of future movements of stocks or the stock market. Bottom line, these methods prove self-defeating for active investors and actually lead them to underperform the very markets they seek to beat.

The first step in any 12-Step Program focuses on recognizing and admitting a problem exists. In this case, this means identifying the behaviors that define an active investor.
These include:

  • Owning actively managed mutual funds
  • Picking individual stocks
  • Picking times to be in and out of the market
  • Picking a fund manager based on recent performance
  • Picking the next hot investment style
  • Disregarding high taxes, fees and commissions
  • Investing without considering risk
  • Investing without a clear understanding of the value of long-term historical data

There are sharp contrasts between the behaviors of active and passive investors. Passive investors don’t try to pick stocks, times, managers or styles. Instead, they buy and hold globally diversified portfolios of passively managed funds. The term “passive” translates into less trading, more favorable tax consequences and lower fees and expenses than actively managed strategies.

A passively managed fund or index fund can be defined as a mutual or exchange-traded fund (ETF) with specific rules of construction that are adhered to regardless of market conditions. An index fund’s rules of construction clearly identify the type of companies suitable for the fund and the trading rules to implement the fund. Equity index funds would include groups of stocks with similar characteristics such as size, value, profitability and geographic location of a company. A group of stocks may include companies from the United States, international developed or emerging countries. Additional indexes within these markets may include segments such as small value, large value, small growth, large growth, real estate and fixed-income. Companies are purchased and held within the index fund when they meet specific index parameters and are sold when they move outside of those parameters. Think of an index fund as an investment utilizing rules-based investing.

Figure 1-1 illustrates the different characteristics between active and passive investing. Introduced in the early 1970’s, index fund investing has caught on, and for good reason. As the chart shows, index fund investors have fared better in returns and incurred lower taxes and turnover than active investors. They are also able to invest and relax.

Figure 1-11


Past performance does not guarantee future results. Performance contains both live and backtested data. Please refer to for Sources, Updates and Disclosures.


    -1 Reference for Figure 1-1

    i. Standard and Poor’s Index Versus Active Scorecard as of 6/30/2013, p. 5. 

    ii. DALBAR 2018 Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior

    iii. Internal calculations performed by Index Fund Advisors per guidelines stated in

    iv. Bogle, John C. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Market Returns. Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley & Sons, 2009, chapter 6, p. 60-68.

    v. Internal calculations performed by Index Fund Advisors using data from Morningstar Direct.

Step 1