Dimensional Fund Advisors Part III

This article is one in a long series which I hope will help explain the ins and outs of DFA – Dimensional Fund Advisors. NOTE: This is my interpretation and explanation only. For the final word, please refer to the DFA Canada Website.

While many readers of this blog are completely up to speed on the debate between active and passive management and are eager to move beyond this, I feel it is necessary to continue with supporting this background information for those readers who are new to this concept. So for those who find this information redundant, I will ask you to please bear with me a bit longer… :)

The Warren Buffett Argument

Undoubtedly one of the best defenses surrounding active management has to be the performance record of Warren Buffett. But consider that Warren Buffett himself has indicated that he only comes up with a few good ideas every couple of years and then contrast this to the average money manager who may easily have 100 ideas per year. Clearly we are dealing with two separate schools of thought on active management and even though there are many money managers out there declaring they follow a deep value investment philosophy, they do not have the same results as good old Warren. Part of this is due to the ‘institutional imperative’.

The institutional imperative can be thought of as the tendency for managers to do what everyone else is doing out of fear (or ignorance). For example, if a manager follows the crowd there is less chance that he will get fired as if everyone does poorly he can simply point to his relative performance being no worse than everyone else. If everyone does well, than he can look good because he has done well notwithstanding how everyone else has done. But consider what happens when someone decides to stick their neck out and do something different. In this case, if you outperform the crowd you can look like a star. But if you underperform the crowd than you are more likely to be pointed towards the door.

So, if you follow the crowd you should be fine. If you stick your neck out and do something different, you stand to potentially lose your job (or investors who invest their money with you). In order for a money manager to reference Warren Buffett as proof that active management works, they will need to be as different from the crowd as Buffett is. Otherwise, it’s a meaningless assertion in my mind.

The Berk Green Study

In the 2002 paper entitled Mutual Fund Flows and Performance in Rational Markets the authors find that 80% of money managers actually have enough skill to make back their fees. However, while some people have erroneously cited this paper as being support for actively managed investing, that is not the case the paper is trying to make. Rather, it explains that capital flows freely to managers who are perceived to add value to the point where the manager can no longer add value. The paper is in effect an argument for capitalism. In a rational market, investors will see the past performance of a manager and direct their capital to the exceptional managers to the point where the inflows become less and less effectively deployed by the manager. In the end, the study concludes that partly due to this reason, future outperformance cannot be predicted by past performance.

In Part IV of this series, we are going to look at investing versus gambling after which I will start getting into some of the details I know many people have been waiting for. Part V will start by examining the Capital Asset Pricing Model – which is where we get the concepts of Alpha and Beta from – and serves as a good launching point to get into the Fama-French 3 Factor model details which plays an instrumental part of DFA’s philosophy and products.


Preet Banerjee
Preet Banerjee
...is an independent consultant to the financial services industry and a personal finance commentator. You can learn more about Preet at his personal website and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.
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  • Jordan Clark

    As I’m sure you and everyone is aware Warren Buffet has also said repeatedly that the average investor should invest in low cost passively managed index funds. Here are a number of his quotes that I found.

    In a 1996 investment letter to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders: “…the best way to own common stocks is through index funds….”

    In his 1997 letter he writes: “Let me add a few thoughts about your own investments. Most investors, both institutional and individual, will find that the best way to own common stocks is through an index fund that charges minimal fees. Those following this path are sure to beat the net results (after fees and expenses) delivered by the great majority of investment professionals.”

    In his 2003 shareholder letter: “…those index funds that are very low cost (such as Vanguard’s) are investor friendly by definition and are the best selection for most of those who wish to own equities.

    In his 2004 shareholder letter: “Over the [past] 35 years, American business has delivered terrific results. It should therefore have been easy for investors to earn juicy returns: All they had to do was piggyback corporate America in a diversified, low-expense way. An index fund that they never touched would have done the job. Instead many investors have had experiences ranging from mediocre to disastrous.”

    In the 2007 annual meeting: “A very low-cost index is going to beat a majority of the amateur-managed money or professionally-managed money… The gross performance may be reasonably decent, but the fees will eat up a significant percentage of the returns”

  • Michael James

    I agree with your assessment that money managers follow the crowd. They get paid roughly the same no matter what their performance is, unless they get fired. So, the goal is to not do too poorly. This is best done by following the crowd.

    It seems hard to believe that 80% of money managers outperform the average enough to cover their fees. Does this mean that the other 20% underperform by 5 times their fees? It`s not possible for everyone to be above average.

    P.S. You meant “bear” at the end of the first paragraph.

  • Preet

    @ Jordan – thanks for putting together those wonderful quotes. Indeed some of the best money managers of all time share this notion and I will dig up their similar quotes as well.

    @ Michael James – yes, I was scratching my head at that. I’m sure there is more to it and it probably warrants a separate blog post (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) :) You’d be much better at deciphering the math in that paper than I could ever dream of.

    p.s. thanks for the proof-read

  • Joe Dolan

    Jerry Javasky of Mackenzie ivy canadian fund is an example of an active fund manager who severely underperformed the market in the last five years. Mr. J. had an aversion towards resources and materials.

    If you had simply bought the xiu five years ago and held it you would have left Mr.J in the dust.

    All the best——–Joe

  • Preet

    @ Michael James – Although I didn’t go over the paper again, I think that perhaps the claim that 80% of managers can earn back their fee might be a temporary advantage that exists until the market identifies them and puts the money into the funds. Over time underperformance will creep in. I think I remember hearing something to that effect and the following argument was that there exist managers who can outperform, but by the time you can identify them, the advantage will have disappeared – or put another way, there is no way to identify them in advance.

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