Active vs Passive Investing: Differences Explained

By AJ Smith · May 18, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Active vs Passive Investing: Differences Explained

Key Points

•   Active investing strategies often underperform the market over time, while passive strategies tend to outperform.

•   Active funds typically have higher fees, which can lower returns, while passive funds have lower fees.

•   Active investing relies on human intelligence and skill to capture market upsides, while passive investing relies on algorithms to track market returns.

•   Active investing is generally less tax efficient, while passive investing is typically more tax efficient.

•   Passive investing may be less tied to market volatility, while active investing is more vulnerable to market shocks.

Active investing vs. passive investing generally refers to the two main approaches to structuring mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) portfolios. Active investing is a strategy where human portfolio managers pick investments they believe will outperform the market — whereas passive investing relies on a formula to mirror the performance of certain market sectors.

Which approach is better, active investing vs. passive? There seems to be no end to this debate, but there are factors that investors can consider — especially the difference in cost. Because active investing typically requires a team of analysts and investment managers, these funds are more expensive and come with higher expense ratios. Passive funds, which require little or no involvement from live professionals because they track an index, cost less.

Also, there is a body of research demonstrating that indexing typically performs better than active management. When you add in the impact of cost — i.e. active funds having higher fees — this also lowers the average return of many active funds. Following are a few more factors to consider when choosing active investing vs. passive strategies.

Active vs Passive Investing: Key Differences

The following table recaps the main differences between passive and active strategies.

Active Funds

Passive Funds

Many studies show the vast majority of active strategies underperform the market on average, over time. Most passive strategies outperform active ones over time.
Higher fees can further lower returns. Lower fees don’t impact returns as much.
Human intelligence and skill may capture market upsides. A passive algorithm captures market returns, which are typically higher on average.
Typically not tax efficient. Typically more tax efficient.
Potentially less tied to market volatility. Tied to market volatility and more vulnerable to market shocks.

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Active Investing Definition

What is active investing? Active investing is a strategy where an investor attempts to beat the market by trading individual stocks, bonds, or other securities.

With active investing, either an individual investor could be the one trading securities in their own portfolios, or portfolio managers of actively managed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds could be the one buying and selling assets to outperform the market or a specific sector.

Active investors and actively-managed funds often trade stocks and securities to profit in the short term. Short-term trading, like day trading, can be difficult as it requires the investor to be an expert on the financial markets and the factors impacting stock prices. It also requires the investor to have a good deal of discipline, as short-term stock picking can be a volatile and risky endeavor.

Active Investing Pros and Cons

Active investing is what live portfolio managers do; they analyze and then select investments based on their growth potential. Active strategies have a number of pros and cons to consider when comparing them with passive strategies.

Pros and Cons of Active Investing

Pros

Cons

May be fun to follow the market and make your own investment decisions Difficult to beat the market
May profit in up, down, and sideways markets Time consuming
Can tailor a strategy based on your goals and risk tolerance Higher fees and commissions

Pros

•   One potential advantage of having a real person crunching numbers and making investment decisions is that they may be able to spot market opportunities and take advantage of them. A computer algorithm is not designed to pivot the way a human can, which might benefit the performance of an actively managed ETF or mutual fund.

•   Whereas a passive strategy is designed to follow one market sector index (e.g. the performance of large cap U.S. companies via the S&P 500® index), an active manager can be more creative and is not limited to a single sector.

•   The number of actively managed mutual funds in the U.S. stood at about 6,585 as of June 2023 vs. 517 index funds, according to Statista. Given that there are many more active funds than passive funds, investors may be able to select active managers who have the kind of track record they are seeking.

Cons

•   The chief downside of active investing is the cost. Hedge funds and private equity managers are one example, charging enormous fees (sometimes 10%, 15%, 20% of returns) for their investing acumen.

But even standard actively managed funds, which may charge 1% or 1.5% or even 2% annually, are far higher than the investment fees of most passive funds, where the annual expense ratio might be only a few basis points.

•   The majority of active strategies don’t generate higher returns over the long haul. According to the well-known SPIVA (S&P Indices vs. Active) 2022 year end scorecard report, 95% of U.S. active equity funds underperformed their respective S&P indexes over the last two decades. So investors who are willing to pay more for the insight and skill of a live manager may not reap the rewards they seek.

•   A professional manager may create more churn in an actively managed fund, which could lead to higher capital gains tax.

💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

Passive Investing Definition

Passive investing strategy is when an investor buys and holds a mix of assets for an extended period. Many passive investors will invest in passively-managed index funds, which attempt to replicate the performance of a benchmark index. Passive investors are not necessarily trying to beat the market.

Passive Investing Pros and Cons

The term “passive investing” may not have a strong positive connotation, yet the funds that follow an indexing strategy typically do well vs. their active counterparts.

Pros

•   Passive strategies are more transparent. Because index funds simply track an index like the S&P 500 or Russell 2000, there’s really no mystery how the constituents in the fund are selected nor the performance of the fund (both match the index).

•   As noted above, index funds outperformed 79% of active funds, according to the SPIVA scorecard.

•   Passive strategies are generally much cheaper than active strategies.

•   Passive strategies can be more tax efficient as there is generally much less turnover in these funds.

Cons

•   Because passive funds use an algorithm to track an existing index, there is no opportunity for a live manager to intervene and make a better or more nimble choice. This could lead to lost opportunities.

•   Passive strategies are more vulnerable to market shocks, which can lead to more investment risk.

Which Should You Pick: Active or Passive Investing?

Deciding between active and passive strategies is a highly personal choice. It comes down to whether you believe that the active manager you pick could be among the few hundred who won’t underperform their benchmarks; and that the skill of an active manager is worth paying the higher investment costs these strategies command.

You could also avoid treating the active vs. passive investing debate as a forced dichotomy and select the best funds in either category that suit your goals.

The Takeaway

Active vs. passive investing is an ongoing debate for many investors who can see the advantages and disadvantages of both strategies. Despite the evidence suggesting that passive strategies, which track the performance of an index, tend to outperform human investment managers, the case isn’t closed.

After all, passive investing may be more cost efficient, but it means being tied to a certain market sector — up, down, and sideways. That timing may or may not work in your favor. Active investing costs more, but a professional may be able to seize market opportunities that an indexing algorithm isn’t designed to perceive.

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FAQ

What is the difference between active and passive investing?

The main difference between active and passive investing is that active investing is when a portfolio manager — or the investor themselves — manages their portfolio, buying and selling investments to try to outperform the market. Passive investing is when an investor buys assets and holds onto them for a long period. Passive investing usually means investing in index funds, which track the performance of an index.

What are the examples of active funds?

According to a Morningstar February 2024 analysis, some examples of actively managed ETFs include the Avantis U.S. Equity ETF (AVUS), the Capital Group Dividend Value ETF (CGDV), and the Dimensional Core U.S. Equity 1 ETF (DCOR). Note that these are just examples. An investor should always do their own research before making any investments.

Does active investing have high risk?

Active investing is considered higher risk. Active investors and actively-managed funds often trade stocks and securities to profit in the short term. Short-term trading typically requires knowledge about financial markets and the factors impacting stock prices. It can be volatile and risky.

Should I invest in active or passive funds?

Deciding whether to invest in active or passive funds is a personal choice that only you can make. It depends on your personal situation, goals, and risk tolerance, among other factors. In general, passive investing is better for beginners, and active investing is better for experienced investors with knowledge of the market and who understand the risk involved.

Are ETFs active or passive?

ETFs can be active or passive. Passive ETFs track indexes such as the S&P 500 and may make sense for investors pursuing a buy and hold strategy. Active ETFs rely on portfolio managers to select and allocate assets in an effort to try to outperform the market.


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