When Alternatives to Passive Index Investing are Appropriate

There are a wide range of reasons for choosing an alternative to passive investing over and above the traditional industry debate that focuses on whether active management can outperform an index.

Reasons for considering alternatives include no readily replicable market index exists, available indices are unsuitable in meeting an investor’s objectives, and/or there are some imbedded inefficiency within the Index.

Under these circumstances a passive approach no longer becomes optimal nor appropriate.

Or quite simply, an active manager with skill can be identified, this alone is sufficient to consider an alternative to passive indexing.

Importantly, the decision to choose an alternative to passive investing is likely to vary across asset classes, investors, and time.

Also, the active versus passive debate needs to be broadened, which to date seems too narrowly focused on comparing passive investments with the average returns from active equity managers.

Framework for choosing an Alternative to Passive Investing

This article by Warren and Ezra, When Should Investors Consider an Alternative to Passive Investing?, seeks to reconfigure and broaden the active versus passive debate.

They do this by presenting a framework for a more comprehensive consideration of alternatives to passively replicating a standard capitalisation-weighted index in any particular asset class.  

In doing so they provide examples of circumstances under which a particular alternative to passive management might be preferred.

They offer no conclusions as to whether any specific approach is intrinsically superior. “Indeed, the overarching message is that best choices can vary across asset classes, investor circumstances, and perhaps even time.”

Warren and Ezra provide the following Framework for choosing an Alternative to Passive Investing:

Their framework appreciably widens the range of reasons for choosing an alternative to passive investing.

As can be seen in the Table above, they have identify five potential reasons investors should seek an alternative to passive index.

The first three reflect situations where a passive index is either unavailable or unsuitable, and two relate to investor expectations that active management can outperform passive benchmarks.

Below I have provided a description of the five reasons investors should seek an alternative to passive index.

Back ground Comments

Warren and Ezra provide some general comments on the state of the industry debate:

  • They think it is unreasonable to base broad conclusions about the relative efficacy of passive indexing on active managers’ average results in a single asset class or subclass, such as U.S. equities. They note, “What holds true in one market segment may not hold in another.”
  • They also object to the “implicit assumption that in the absence of demonstrable stock-selection skills among managers, passive index replication provides optimal exposure for investors.” This assumption does not take into account differences in investor objectives and circumstances. This is one of the core points of their article.

They maintain, what is missing in the industry debate is “recognition that appropriate structuring and management of investments may well depend on investors’ relative situations.”

Some Context

The default position for passive investing is a capitalisation-weighted (cap-weighting) index, such as the New Zealand NZSX 50 Index and US S&P 500.

Although somewhat technical, the application of a cap-weighting index rests on the three assumptions outlined below.

A breach in any of the following assumptions could justify giving consideration to an alternative approach to passive indexing.

Market efficiency.

Cap-weighting should be chosen under an assumption of perfectly efficient markets, where prices are always correct. Investors may consider alternatives if they believe markets are not fully efficient and that the repercussions of any inefficiencies can be either avoided or exploited.

Cap-weighting is aligned with investor objectives.

It is assumed that cap-weighting indices are aligned with investor objectives. However, this is not always the case. As we see below, a Defined Benefit plan most likely has different objectives relative to a cap-weighted fixed income index.

The same is true for an endowment, insurance company, or foundation.

Index efficacy.

The view of passive indexing as the default assumes that an index is available for the intended purpose. The theoretical view calls for indexes that effectively embody the market portfolio. The industry view requires indexes that deliver the desired type of asset class exposure. In practice, it is possible that for a given asset class no market index exists, or that available indexes have shortcomings in their construction.

The five reasons below for when investors might prefer an alternative to a passive approach are in situations where these three critical assumptions for passive indexing are broken. In such situations passive index is likely to be inappropriate.

The reasons below, also highlight the point that the active versus passive debate often fails to take into account differences in investor objectives and circumstances. The debate needs to be broadened.

Reason #1: No Readily Replicable Index is Available

Passive investing assumes an effective index exists that can be easily and readily replicated.

In some instances, an appropriate index to replicate is simply not available, for example:

  • Unlisted assets such as Private Equity, unlisted infrastructure and direct property
  • Within listed markets were a lack of liquidity exists it becomes difficult to replicate the index, such as small caps, emerging market equities, and high-yield debt.

In these incidences, although a passive product may be available, they “might not deliver a faithful replication of the asset class at low cost.” Accordingly passive investing is not appropriate.

Reason #2: The Passive Index Is at Odds with the Investor’s Objectives

Often a passive index is badly aligned with an investor’s objectives. In such cases an alternative approach may better meet these objectives, often requiring active management to deliver a more tailored investment solution.

By way of example:

Defined Benefit Pension Plan and tailored fixed-income mandates.

Best practice for a Defined Benefit (DB) plan is to implement a tailored fixed income mandate that closely matches expected liabilities.

In such a case a passive index approach is not appropriate given the duration and cashflows of the DB plan are unique and highly unlikely to be replicated by an investment into a passive index based on market capitalisation weights.

DB plan managers may also likely prefer more control over other exposures, such as credit quality relative to a passive index.

Such situations also exits for insurance companies, endowments, and foundations.

Notably, an individual investor has a unique set of future liabilities, represented by their own cashflows and duration. Accordingly, investing into a passive market index product may not be appropriate relative to their investment objectives. A more active decision should be made to meet cashflow, interest rate risk, and credit exposure objectives.

Listed infrastructure provides another example where the passive index may be at odds with the investor’s goals. Some investors may want to target certain sectors of the universe that provides greater inflation protection, thus requiring a different portfolio relative to that provided by a passive market index exposure.

The article also provides example in relation to Sustainable and ethical investing and Tax effectiveness.

Reason #3: The Standard Passive Index is Inefficiently Constructed

Where alternatives are available, it makes no sense to invest in an inefficient index. This represents a suboptimal approach, particularly if an alternative can deliver a better outcome.

The article presents two potential reasons an index might be inefficient and proves three examples.

They comment that an index might be inefficient for the following reasons:

  • the index is built on a narrow or unrepresentative universe; and
  • the index is constructed in a way that builds in some inefficiency.

As they highlight, these issues are best outlined through the discussion of examples. I briefly cover two.


Alternative indexing/passive approaches such as factor investing and fundamental investing are “active” decision relative to a market-capitalised index.

The basis for these alternative approaches is that equity capital market indices are flawed (Fundamental Investing) and inefficient (e.g. factor investing such as value and small caps outperform the broader market over time).

Fixed income

There are many shortcomings of fixed-income indices, the article focuses on two:

  • Fixed income indices do not fully represent the asset class. Therefore, more efficient portfolios may be built by including off-benchmark securities.
  • The largest issuers dominate fixed income indices and it can be argued these are the less attractive governments/companies to invest in, because they are most in need of funding (and hence of lower quality), or are issuing debt to take advantage of low interest rates, which are unattractive to the investor.

Reasons #4 and #5 The final two reasons are more aligned with the traditional question of whether investors can access managers that can be expected to outperform the index.

Reason #4 features that could lead to active investment managers outperforming the passive alternative in aggregate.

Active management is often defined as a zero-sum game before transaction costs, and a negative-sum game after transaction costs. Therefore, active management as a whole cannot outperform.

However, this dynamic need not apply to all investors and it is quite likely that there is a subsector of investors that can consistently outperform the index.

Therefore, a review of the environment in which managers operate might establish if they are able to maintain a competitive advantage.

The following features are outlined in the article to support such a situation:

Market inefficiency situations

Market inefficiencies offer the potential for active managers to outperform the index, nevertheless managers need to be appropriately placed to capture any excess rewards of these inefficiencies.

The following situations may provide a manager with a competitive advantage:

  • Information advantage: An active manager could have an advantage where the market is “widely populated by less-informed investors” e.g. emerging markets and small caps.
  • Preferential access to desirable assets: e.g. where active managers have better access to initial public offerings and sourcing lines of stock. In unlisted markets private equity manager has well established relationships and ability to provide capital and/or appropriate skills.
  • Economic value-add: e.g. in unlisted assets active management can add value to the underlying asset.

Opportunities arising from differing investor objectives

Opportunities for active management to benefit may exist when:

  • Some investors are comfortable with earning below-market returns e.g. investors who place greater weight on liquidity or are not willing to accept certain risk exposures
  • Investors have differing time horizons e.g. value investors exploit short-term focus of markets

Index fails to cover the opportunity set

The article makes the following points under this heading:

  • There is the potential to outperform by investing outside the index whenever the index does not provide a comprehensive coverage of the available market
  • The intensity of competition is also a factor in success or otherwise of an active manager. For example, the results on manager skill of the highly institutionalise US market may not translate into other markets and asset class where competition is less fierce.
  • Cyclicality of markets needs to be considered, with managers likely to perform in different market environments i.e. they tend to underperform when cross-sectional volatility is low, or markets are driven more by thematic forces. As they note, this has limited relevance in the long run, but may add a “timing element to any evaluation of active versus passive investment.”

Reason #5: Skilled Managers Can Be Identified

Where a skilled manager can be identified, this is a sufficient condition to adopt an alternative to passive management alone.

Nevertheless, the ability and capacity to identify a skilled manager is necessary where an alternative to passive management is to be contemplated.

The discussion makes the following points:

  • At the very least bad managers should be avoided
  • Markets can never be perfectly efficient, therefore some room exists for outperformance through skill
  • Not all fund managers are created equal, some are good and some are bad
  • The research capability and skill to identify and select a manager is an important consideration.

Implementation and Costs

It is important to note, the framework aims first to work out whether there is a case for rejecting a passive index default. The next step is then to ask how much an investor is willing to pay and how the alternative can be accessed.

“In most cases this alternative will be what is traditionally known as “actively managed investing.” In other circumstances this need not be the case, or the skills-based component may be minor.”

The cost versus the benefit and accessing the preferred alternative approach to passive index are key implementation issues.

Concluding Comments

Warren and Ezra make the point that too much of the debate on active versus Passive relies on the analysis of US equities, they think it is unreasonable to base broad conclusions about the efficiency of passive indexing on a single asset class or subclass.

They are not alone on this, as outlined on this previous Kiwi Investor Blog Post, there are many studies that challenge the conventional wisdom of active management.

For the record, please see this Post, Kiwi Wealth caught in an active storm, on my thoughts on the active vs passive debate, we really need to move on and broaden the discussion. The debate is not black vs White, as highlighted in this article, there are large grey areas.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s