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Will 2023 truly be the year of active bond managers?

Commentary by: Jeffrey A. Johnson, Principal, Head of Fixed Income Product

After a brutal year for fixed income, I often hear two recurring themes in the industry—that bonds are back, and that 2023 will be the year when active management will truly shine. But both need caveats.

After a dismal 2022, it’s true that bond valuations are now lower, yields are up, and so are long-term expected returns. But central banks aren’t necessarily finished hiking interest rates, and a recession is still possible. All that means we’re not done with volatility over the short term.

Greater volatility can mean greater opportunity for active management. But greater opportunity does not necessarily guarantee greater outcomes. Before we go there, let’s look at what does put the odds in favor of active managers.

Setting the odds in favor of winning active fixed income managers

Vanguard believes in both active and passive investing, but our faith in active is contingent on managers meeting a number of criteria. Among them:

  • A deep and experienced team, with expertise across sectors and global regions.
  • A clear investment philosophy and robust investment process. If a manager cannot explain their approach, stay away.
  • A true-to-label approach with transparency. Bonds are meant to be a defensive asset class. They should behave that way, with no surprises.
  • Stringent and systematic risk controls, preferably with independent teams that can provide objective opinions and risk assessments.
  • Relative consistency in performance and in the portfolio, not causing a whiplash experience for investors.

All the above should be packaged with low costs, as even the most talented managers cannot consistently overcome the hurdle of high operating and transaction costs. According to Lipper data as of year-end 2022, the average five-year annualized return for investment-grade intermediate fund category (which includes funds that we consider to be core holdings) lagged the return of the benchmark (the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index) by a mere 8 basis points, or 0.08 percentage point. According to the Investment Company Institute, the average expense ratio for bond funds in 2022 was 0.37%. Choosing funds with lower expense ratios by itself stacks the odds more in favor of active managers.

The challenges facing active management

If it was easy for active managers to outperform benchmarks in volatile times, then a larger share of managers would have outperformed their indexes not just in 2022, but also over longer periods that capture varying environments for interest rates and inflation.

Instead, at best, the record was mixed. The chart that follows shows the percentages of funds in select categories that underperformed their benchmark indexes over various periods as of year-end 2022. The longer periods include volatile years in the bond markets—among them 2008, 2013, 2015, 2020, and 2022. The results demonstrate that active managers who can add alpha are a shrinking minority over longer periods, even when opportunities abound in the form of market disruption and wider dispersion of returns.

Fewer active bond managers outpaced benchmarks over time

Notes: This chart illustrates the data for five representative categories from the last semiannual SPIVA U.S. Scorecard. The full scorecard had data for 17 fixed income fund categories and compared their performance against the relevant Bloomberg, Standard & Poor’s, or iBoxx indexes as benchmarks. Over one year, 11 out of 17 categories had a majority (more than 50%) underperform; over three years, 12 of 17 categories had the majority underperform; over five years, 16 of 17 categories had the majority underperform; and over 10 and 15 years, 16 of 16 fund categories had the majority underperform (one fund category did not have a full track record over 10 and 15 years).

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.

Sources: Vanguard, using data from the SPIVA U.S. Scorecard as of December 31, 2022.

The bottom line for investors

Identifying that shrinking minority in advance—the future elite among managers who beat their bogies over the long run—is the real challenge for investors who choose to go down the active route.

But it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” decision. There’s room for both active and passive investments. Ultimately, for investors, it’s a matter of preference. Some might prefer the predictability (relative to market benchmarks) of passive funds. Others have the appetite for potential outperformance and the risk tolerance to accept potential underperformance. Still others might hedge with both.

For those who want active management, whether wholeheartedly or partially, the outlook for active is supported by where we are in the economic cycle. As the economy slows and different sectors and issuers diverge in navigating the contraction, some disciplined active manager will successfully separate the winners from the losers and dynamically adapt to new information and new conditions.

Although outperformance is never guaranteed, investors who use a disciplined manager selection process, coupled with low costs, increase the potential for positive and consistent alpha over the long term. Investors should have the patience to let these factors play out, not just in 2023 but over the next decade.


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