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Active vs. passive vs. discretionary investing: Which strategy is best?

Active vs. passive vs. discretionary investing: Which strategy is best?

Think of all the different investment strategies you’ve heard about throughout the years. Remember the Turtle Traders in the 1980s? What about the Dogs of the Dow in the early 1990s?

Then in the 2000s, Index Funds and ETFs became increasingly popular, followed by the rise of High-Frequency, Computerized Trading from 2010 to the present. 

Now, you may be asking yourself:

  • Why are there so many different investment methods out there?
  • Which ones work? 
  • And out of the ones that “work,” which one is right for you?

Though likely not the most important element of a financial plan, investment strategy often receives a disproportionate amount of focus and attention from financial news outlets, financial advice literature, and financial advisors.

Investments are sexy.

They’re exciting.

They can attract and hold attention like little else in the financial planning world. 

It may come as a surprise to hear us say that there is no one “right” way to invest.  There are actually about as many different investment models as there are names you can think up to keep them straight, and many different methods can work. 

Most investment systems can be grouped into one of two broad categories: active or passive investing. In this article, I want to do a comparison of these two strategies, as well as touch on a third commonly-used but rarely-successful strategy – what we’ll call discretionary investing. 

What is an active investment strategy?

Active investment strategy refers to any type of hands-on investing in which trades are placed by an investor or portfolio manager in response to specific prices, rules, or events as outlined in his trading system. 

The goal may be to achieve short-term profits, limit large losses, and/or capitalize on trends that may outperform the overall market.

Is active investing right for you?

This may be an attractive option for investors who are nearer to or already in retirement; active investing may help manage their risk by moving out of more aggressive positions during periods of economic uncertainty and/or market downturn. 

Active investing may also be good for investors with specialized investment needs such as targeted diversification, income, or return goals.

Pros of active investing

  • Risk management (HUGE benefit)
  • Short-term opportunities
  • More specialized investment outcomes
  • May achieve above market returns

Cons of active investing

  • More frequent trading
  • May be less tax efficient
  • May be more expensive
  • May experience market lag, whiplash, or lower-than-market returns

Our approach to active investing

In many of our models at Sound Financial Strategies Group, we take an active approach. Our Dividend Growth Equity model is a great example:

  1. We actively screen for stocks based on certain criteria – specifically, large cap stocks paying increasing annual dividends over 25 years
  2. We then rank these stocks by momentum, taking the top 50 names based on 12 month trailing total returns
  3. We monitor these stocks monthly and make adjustments according to our rules, following economic and market cycle indicators
  4. At the end of March each year thereafter, we run the screen again – ensuring that our holdings remain in line with our rules and your investment objectives.

Another great example is seen in our Dynamic Fixed Income sleeve, which is used for the bond portion of our balanced and conservative models:

  1. We select ETFs which track different sectors of the bond market: ultra-short term, short-term, and longer-term Treasuries, as well as high-yield corporate bonds
  2. We tactically rotate between sectors based on 3 month trailing returns
  3. We monitor these ETFs and make adjustments as often as weekly

What is a passive investment strategy?

Also known as “buy-and-hold” investing, a passive investment strategy refers to buying a broadly diversified group of stocks and bonds with the intent to hold them for the long-term. 

The goal is long-term growth that neither outperforms nor grossly underperforms the overall market. This is based on the fact that historically, over long periods, both stocks and bonds have produced positive returns — though with significant drawdowns during market declines.

Is passive investing right for you?

This may be ideal for the investor who has a long time horizon. Because stocks and bonds have produced positive returns over long periods, the investor needs a long investment period to achieve similar results. 

Passive investing may also be good for investors who value simplicity and tax efficiency over the potential for greater performance.  

Pros of passive investing

  • Simple
  • Minimal trading
  • May be more tax efficient 
  • May be less expensive 

Cons of active investing

  • More limited in investment options
  • Will never achieve above market performance
  • Highly susceptible to market risk
  • May experience significant losses

Our approach to passive investing

One popular strategy is buy-and-hold index investing, made famous by founder of The Vanguard Group, John C. Bogle.

Create a well-diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds using index funds – low-cost mutual funds that seek to track the performance of their underlying index. You could do this with as few as 3 funds: 

  • a Total US Stock Market Index Fund, 
  • a Total International Stock Market Index Fund, and 
  • a Total Bond Market Fund

As part of your asset allocation strategy, choose a stock/bond mix that is in line with your risk tolerance and your time horizon. 

For example, if you’re 40, you plan to retire at 65, and you have a moderately high tolerance for market risk, a portfolio composed of 50% US stocks, 20% international stocks, and 30% bonds may be ideal for you. 

Over time, your investments will drift away from your desired asset allocation. However, regular rebalancing (quarterly, annually, etc.) can help to get your portfolio back on track. 

As you get nearer to (or deeper into) retirement, scale back your risk by methodically reducing your stock holdings and increasing bonds, annuities, or other guaranteed investment options. 

Both active and passive investment strategies can work quite well. They are both systematic and rules-based, and if followed correctly, both methods can limit the destructive role emotions often play in our investment decisions.  

Now let’s look at a third strategy. We’ll call it a discretionary investment strategy.

What is a discretionary investment strategy?

This refers to investment decisions based on emotions (primarily fear and greed), intuition, and gut-feeling. This “strategy” is non-systematic, and definitely not rules-based. The goal is usually to experience positive emotion or escape from negative emotion, with the hope that everything will somehow work out ok (positive investment performance would be nice).

Discretionary investing is not a viable long-term investment strategy for anyone. 

Yes, this approach can feel exciting.

It may even feel “right,” provide you something to talk about at parties, and you may even get lucky on a handful of occasions. However, the potential is high for catastrophic losses and ruining your retirement plans, as there is no system for decision-making or pre-defined methods for course correction.

Examples of discretionary investing

  • Buying a hot stock because your buddy on the golf course says he’s making a killing on it.
  • Holding all of your equity exposure in your company’s stock because you understand your company and your industry. Because it somehow feels safer than venturing out into the broader market (“I’m conservative. I have all my money in company stock.” Yes, we’ve actually heard that statement.)
  • Selling your investments and sitting in cash because you don’t trust how the current President (or Congress, or the House of Representatives) will govern our country.

This third strategy is based on emotions and gut feelings, and it simply does not result in long-term investment success — in fact, our role is to help you avoid discretionary investing altogether!  

What does result in long-term success is a well-planned, rules-based methodology that you can stick with over your entire investment career. For you, that may be an active momentum strategy, it may be buy-and-hold index investing, or it could be something completely different altogether.

At Sound Financial Strategies Group, our number one desire is to match you with a financial plan, including an investment strategy, that fits you and enables you to achieve your financial goals.

Have questions or want to start a conversation? We’re here to simplify the complex and help you take the right next step. Reach out and start a conversation or ask your question today.

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