The danger in focusing on past performance

What historical fund returns can and can’t tell you.
Investors and advisors continue to use past performance because it offers a way to make sense of a difficult decision. But they need to gather additional information and consider more than just the figures. Picture: Shutterstock

For most investors who are choosing unit trusts, the first, and often only, thing they consider is past performance. This is despite the well-worn disclaimer on every fund fact sheet that past performance is no indication of what might happen in the future, and decades of research that proves it isn’t.

Yet it is not unreasonable. People need to base their decisions on something, and historical returns are an obvious choice.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that performance is the easiest thing to measure,” says Anil Jugmohan, senior investment analyst Nedgroup Investments. “That’s why everyone does it.”

Humans are also predisposed to extrapolate what has happened in the recent past into the future. This is a natural cognitive bias because the world is generally confusing, and we can only ever see a small bit of it. We have to fill in the rest. Particularly since we cannot know what the future holds, we tend to believe that it will be similar to the past.

Investors and financial advisors therefore continue to use past performance, despite its flaws, not because they are stupid. They do it because it offers a way to make sense of a difficult decision. The only way to remedy this, therefore, is to gather more information.

Fill the void

As a starting point, it’s important to recognise the shortcomings of looking only at history. To illustrate this, Nedgroup Investments compared the three-year returns of unit trusts in the South African multi-asset high equity category over two consecutive three-year periods: from January 1, 2013 to December 31, 2015, and from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2018.

The results were remarkable, and are illustrated in the chart below. Each marker on the chart shows a particular fund with its performance over the first three years plotted on the horizontal axis, and the second three years on the vertical axis.

The two blocks shaded in teal blue show that the funds that performed particularly well in one period delivered distinctly weak returns in the other. This stands out because it is at the extremes, but even among the funds in the middle green block, persistency is hard to find.

“If you run a correlation analysis on those funds, what you find is that it is almost close to zero in terms of their performance in one period and the subsequent period,” Jugmohan points out. “So, even ignoring the extreme outcomes, this shows very little performance consistency.”

What makes this analysis particularly interesting is that Nhlanhla Nene was fired as minister of finance at almost the exact mid-point – December 2015. This marked a distinct change in markets as bond yields blew out and the rand collapsed. It’s notable, therefore, that the managers who benefited most from the market conditions before this happened, were in the worst position afterwards, and vice versa.

This raises serious questions about how much skill was involved in that outperformance. At either extreme, were managers simply positioned for a single market outcome, which made them look clever when it worked in their favour, and much less so when it went the other way?

Through the cycle

It’s true that this was an unusual period, but when looking back at the two that preceded it, the picture does not change much.

Comparing fund returns for the three years from 2012 to 2015 with their performance between 2009 and 2012 there is a slightly higher correlation, although it is still low. These were however two consecutive periods when markets were buoyant and there was little change in the overall environment.

If one goes a further three years back, however, just about any sign of performance consistency once again disappears. Comparing returns from 2006 to 2009 with those between 2009 and 2012 delivers almost zero correlation.

The first period in that analysis includes the financial crisis and the 2008 market crash, so this is once again looking at two distinctly different market environments. It shows that doing well in one period is no guarantee that a manager will do well in another.

Do managers back up their talk?

So if consistency is so absent, does this mean that past performance tells investors nothing? Not entirely. Only looking at the numbers themselves may be inadequate, but there are lessons to be learnt from them.

“There is definitely value in past performance, particularly if you look at how a fund is positioned and how it performs before, during and after a market crash,” Jugmohan argues. “It helps you to understand whether a manager is doing what they actually say they are going to do, according to their stated philosophy and process.”

This is, again, about gathering more information.

“The man in the street can’t set up a meeting with the investment team at Allan Gray or Coronation,” Jugmohan says. “But they can at least read through the quarterly commentaries on fund fact sheets, where managers go into a lot of detail about how they position their funds. Most of the time you will find a fair amount of honesty there. Go back and read through what they have said over the years. It can take a long time, but you also have to prioritise this and say this is my future that I am investing for.”

Without that information, using past performance alone as a guide carries little value. For it to be worthwhile, investors need to appreciate how that performance was generated, and therefore how repeatable it is likely to be.

“On a superficial level, using past performance is dangerous,” Jugmohan says. “But if you are willing to do the hard work and dig deeper, then there is a lot to gain out of it.”



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“Prediction is hard, especially when it is about the future.” Your analysis and the article yesterday about fund manager performance, including latest SPIVA data, demonstrates that their ability to predict which businesses will outperform is non-existent. The man in the street is surely better served by buying a smattering of ETFs like Sygnia Wolrd or Satrix World, Sygnia Global Property and Satrix/Sygnia Top 40 and Divi


I like Gryphon, they are an underappreciated manager, but a closer inspection of their ALSI Tracker fund will show you the reality of index investing: YOU WILL UNDERPERFORM THE INDEX OVER TIME.

Sadly, but understandably, far too much emphasis is placed on past performance and far too little attention paid to risk, which is the more consistent measure over time. This is because most people don’t have a good sense of risk, probably because there are few, if any, really understandable and visual illustrations of risk over time that are helpful to non-professional investors.

One of the biggest issues with using past performance is the compounding effect, especially in the case for those managers with a long term track record.

A manager can hug the benchmark for a period, and have one year of out performance in the region of 1%. This out performance grows over time as it is compounded by Beta/market/benchmark. So when you look at the long term numbers, that 1% out performance in one single year skews the total return.

This is why it is crucial to look at the returns on a discrete performance basis.

Didn’t Nedgroup fire the manager of the Nedgroup Managed Fund (RECM) at the end of 2015 after a period (especially the period from beginning 2013) of poor performance only to replace them with one of the highfliers of the period beginning 2013 (Truffle)? Post this decision RECM has been one of the highfliers and Truffle has really struggled! I guess Nedgroup should be listening to their own advice?

It was a mistake but overall Nedgroup must also be praised because their best-of-breed approach has proven successful and they have roster of high-quality sub-advisors.

These articles plus the input from the fund manager/investment analyst merely demonstrate that active managers are really a motley lot who don’t justify the fees the funds levy against their clients. If one is going to do so much investigative research into investing in these unit trusts one might as well invest directly into the stock exchange and/or purchase a range of ETF’s

So where do you invest R7m in a LA now. Max draw down for next 30 years will be 2.5% and the investment must grow with at least with inflation of 6% ( after the 2.5% draw down )You have the following funds to choose from :
Sygnia MSCI world etf
Sygnia MSCI USA etf
Sygnia SMP500 etf
Allan Gray Balanced fund
Satrix SWIX Top 40 ETF

What percentage in which fund ?

Why the Allan Gray Balanced Fund? Classic case of chasing yesterdays hero?.This is a case of everyone’s bias of picking recent outperformers! The data suggests that this is exactly what you shouldn’t do….see the above comments about Nedgroup and RECM…dumping the underperformer.

If you want a balanced fund, why not go passive? SPIVA would predict that this is the best strategy (for a balanced fund and for your RA/preservation/providend fund). The Sygnia Skeleton Balanced 70 comes 10th out of 135 funds in the SA Multi Asset High Equity class over 5 years. Remarkable that in this category, where fund managers have the entire suite of financial assets as their investment oyster, 125 out of 135 cannot beat a passive??? The objective evidence shows that in share selection and in asset allocation, active fund managers, in the vast majority of cases underperform the passives. The Satrix Balanced comes 21st out of 135 funds. No doubt the numbers will be even more damning for active fund managers over 10 years.

See the data here–Multi%20Asset–High%20Equity&period=5yr

One sees the four funds that did so well up to 2015 then were disastrous since. We should never ignore that fiendish thing called entropy. It manifests in that if you have what has been an average performer, then next, you will lose. Entropy is devilishly sneaky.

End of comments.




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