Active management is about the right call

Melanie Tringham

The investment industry has come in for a lot of flak in recent years over what value they actually deliver.

As the FCA's study of closet trackers has discovered, many of these funds hug the benchmark, offering little by way of alpha. Whether this is due to the policy of the fund houses or the proclivity of the fund manager is open to question.

Some fund managers may be instinctively cautious about sticking their heads above the parapet: they may see a good opportunity but feel it is too much of a judgement to go the whole hog.

Or maybe they see an opportunity but the fund house's policies prevent them from making that call.

What is apparent is that many fund houses' main priority is to beat its benchmark, rather than simply make money.

Beating the benchmark is something measurable, and allows risk controls to be built in, rather than have a supposedly much riskier free-for-all. But sometimes, these fund houses are happy that they have done their day's work, simply by beating their benchmark, even if they have still lost clients' money.

Is this what active management is all about? 

I heard of a fund manager yesterday who argued the case with his superiors while running a tech fund at Blackrock. He decided to make a call on Apple. Back in 2008 the tech firm could do no wrong. The iPhone was making its presence felt on the market, it was a leader in its field and customers were queueing out the door.

But in 2012, this had changed, in this fund managers's opinion. The market had caught up with the company, suppliers were no longer dependent on what they saw as Apple's unreasonable demands and earlier iPhones did the job just as well as later iterations.

So he argued the case for pulling out of the stock. And the company agreed with him, despite it completely messing up its control parameters that sought to have some equity of his tech fund in Apple.

The fund he managed produced 15 per cent annualised returns (the tech sector was about 13 per cent, while the market was about 5 per cent.)

This is presumably what active management is about - paying clever fund managers to make the right judgement, even if it means arguing the case for breaking the company's rules.