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Why we believe NOW is the time for active equities

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March 6, 2020

When does active management play a role in equity portfolios, if at all? We think now could be the right time.

Over the last decade or so roaring equity markets seem to have challenged active management to its very core. Contrastingly, the recent market downturn may offer skilled active managers an opportunity to outperform.

At heart, most investors recognise that recent conditions prove the importance of dynamic portfolio management and maintaining the ability to actively manage your allocation to equity markets. But huge flows into passive management and ensuing fee pressure on active managers are all signs that investors have had enough. So why is this? And importantly, why have active managers been left behind?

This trend has caused some to wonder whether active managers still have a role to play in equity portfolios. We’ve taken a hard look at the space and believe they do and would argue that now is a good time to consider or even re-consider active equity.

Beware of concentration risk

A first factor to consider is rising concentration risk associated with passive indices.

40%
Proportion of the MSCI World Index the top 100 stocks account for

Many investors take refuge in the idea that they are making a ‘safe’ choice when they choose to invest passively. The MSCI World Index is made up of around 1,600 stocks, so that means its diversified, right? No, the reality is that the top 100 stocks now make up over 40% of the index and it’s these 100 stocks that now dominate performance.

The problem with this asset concentration, of course, is that should any of these stocks perform poorly, the impact would be significant. And it’s not that concentration risk hasn’t caught out the market in the past either. We need only to look back to the so-called ‘Nifty 50’ valuations of the 1960s to 1970s for an example.

The natural cyclicality of active and passive management

Of course, market cycles, and therefore corrections, are unavoidable and expected when investing. But investors need to be astute enough to resist the urge to heavily focus on recent performance and instead recognise that the tables may turn, even if no one can predict exactly when. And, just as importantly, be in a position to be able to do something about it.

The most recent 10 years’ performance has clearly seen passive strategies dominate over active, as reflected in the decline of the median relative performance of active global equity managers versus the MSCI World Index. But could this cycle shift and if so what would the potential implications be?

We know the gap between growth and value stocks in the MSCI World Index has been prolonged for well over a decade now and has recently become historically wide. Looking at longer data, value stocks have also seen a fair amount of success, notably in the 2000s, before the global financial crisis. This shows that styles go in and out of favour over time and the number of days under the sun (or in the shadows) varies.

Chart comparing the performance of  Value and Growth stocks
Rolling three-year annualised returns in USD of the MSCI World Value Index relative to the MSCI World Growth Index

Source: MSCI, as at 31 December 2019. Each data point is calculated by subtracting the thee-year annualised performance of the MSCI World Growth Index from the three-year annualised performance of the MSCI World Value Index, at monthly intervals. Area above zero indicates periods where Value outperformed Growth. Area below zero indicate periods where Value underperformed Growth. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns.

Going forward, we expect a better environment for skilled stock pickers to generate alpha. We believe skilled active managers can outperform. What drove the market up, may well drive it down when the tide turns. The advantage for skilled active managers is that they can be more versatile and respond to changing market conditions more quickly, dodging bumps in the road and working to select the winners (versus the losers) over time. This toolkit will be critical in a sell-off environment.

The growing importance of sustainable strategies

Thirdly, sustainable investment is a critical factor for long term success and this topic has gained significant momentum in the active versus passive equity debate.

Sustainable investment is a critical factor for long term success

Investors of all shapes and sizes are under increasing pressure to demonstrate their environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. This potentially impacts not only the stocks they hold, but also the need to exercise their shareholder voting rights and engage with companies to bring about positive and progressive change in the wider business community. Moreover, with pension regulators now urging plans to set targets aligned with net zero emission investment, the need for deliberate and sustainable portfolio management is ever-growing; looking ahead we can see active management therefore becoming an increasingly important part of responsible investment.

Turn strategy into action

We don’t claim to be able to time bull or bear markets, shifts from growth to value, large to small caps, or between regions or sectors – and believe anyone who does is likely going to get caught out. However, we do firmly believe in the benefit of active equity management, when you have found truly talented stock pickers and crucially when you own a more balanced and well-constructed portfolio.

More specifically, we are strong believers in high conviction active management, as opposed to quasi active benchmark hugging. By tapping into the top 10 to 20 stocks of multiple managers (say eight to twelve managers in total) we believe you can blend a portfolio together to ensure what you own in aggregate is well diversified and suitably risk controlled across style, country, sector and market cap.

Based on an approach like this, we believe the arguments in favour of increasing active equity investment allocation are now more compelling.

Disclaimer

Towers Watson Limited (trading as Willis Towers Watson) has prepared this material for general information purposes only and it should not be considered a substitute for specific professional advice. In particular, its contents are not intended by Towers Watson Limited to be construed as the provision of investment, legal, accounting, tax or other professional advice or recommendations of any kind, or to form the basis of any decision to do or to refrain from doing anything. As such, this material should not be relied upon for investment or other financial decisions and no such decisions should be taken on the basis of its contents without seeking specific advice.

This material is based on information available to Towers Watson Limited at the date of this material and takes no account of subsequent developments after that date. Additionally, material developments may occur subsequent to this presentation rendering it incomplete and inaccurate. Towers Watson Limited assumes no obligation to advise you of any such developments or to update the presentation to reflect such developments. In preparing this material we may have relied upon data supplied to us by third parties. In such cases, whilst reasonable care has been taken to gauge the reliability of this data, we provide no guarantee as to the accuracy or completeness of this data and Towers Watson Limited and its affiliates and their respective directors, officers and employees accept no responsibility and will not be liable for any errors or misrepresentations in the data made by any third party.

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