Active management (also called active investing) refers to a portfolio management strategy where the manager makes specific investments with the goal of outperforming an investment benchmark index. Investors or mutual funds that do not aspire to create a return in excess of a benchmark index will often invest in an index fund that replicates as closely as possible the investment weighting and returns of that index; this is called passive management. Active management is the opposite of passive management, because in passive management the manager does not seek to outperform the benchmark index.
Ideally, the active manager exploits market inefficiencies by purchasing securities (stocks etc.) that are undervalued or by short selling securities that are overvalued. Either of these methods may be used alone or in combination. Depending on the goals of the specific investment portfolio, hedge fund or mutual fund, active management may also serve to create less volatility (or risk) than the benchmark index. The reduction of risk may be instead of, or in addition to, the goal of creating an investment return greater than the benchmark.
Active portfolio managers may use a variety of factors and strategies to construct their portfolio(s). These include quantitative measures such as price/earnings ratio P/E ratios and PEG ratios, sector investments that attempt to anticipate long-term macroeconomic trends (such as a focus on energy or housing stocks), and purchasing stocks of companies that are temporarily out-of-favor or selling at a discount to their intrinsic value. Some actively managed funds also pursue strategies such as merger arbitrage, short positions, option writing, and asset allocation.
The effectiveness of an actively-managed investment portfolio obviously depends on the skill of the manager and research staff. In reality, the majority of actively managed collective investment schemes rarely outperform their index counterparts over an extended period of time, assuming that they are benchmarked correctly. For example, the Standard & Poor's Index Versus Active (SPIVA) quarterly scorecards demonstrate that only a minority of actively managed mutual funds have gains better than the Standard & Poor's (S&P) index benchmark. As the time period for comparison increases, the percentage of actively-managed funds whose gains exceed the S&P benchmark declines further. 
Due to mutual fund fees and/or expenses, it is possible that an active or passively managed mutual fund could underperform compared to the benchmark index, even though the securities that comprise the mutual fund are outperforming the benchmark. However, since many investors are not satisfied with a benchmark return a demand for actively-managed continues to exist. In addition, many investors find active management an attractive investment strategy when investing in market segments that are less likely to be profitable when considered as whole. These kinds of sectors might include a sector such as small cap stocks.
Advantages of active management
The primary attraction of active management is that it allows selection of a variety of investments instead of investing in the market as a whole. Investors may have a variety of motivations for following such a strategy:
- They may be skeptical of the efficient market theory, or believe that some market segments are less efficient in creating profits than others.
- They may want to manage volatility by investing in less-risky, high-quality companies rather than in the market as a whole, even at the cost of slightly lower returns.
- Conversely, some investors may want to take on additional risk in exchange for the opportunity of obtaining higher-than-market returns.
- Investments that are not highly correlated to the market are useful as a portfolio diversifier and may reduce overall portfolio volatiity.
- Some investors may wish to follow a strategy that avoids or underweights certain industries compared to the market as a whole, and may find an actively-managed fund more in line with their particular investment goals. (For instance, an employee of a high-technology growth company who receives company stock or stock options as a benefit might prefer not to have additional funds invested in the same industry.)
Several of the actively-managed mutual funds with strong long-term records invest in value stocks. Passively-managed funds that track broad market indices such as the S&P 500 have money invested in all the securities in that index ie. both growth and value stocks.
The use of managed funds in certain emerging markets has been recommended by Burton Malkiel, a proponent of the efficient market theory who normally considers index funds to be superior to active management in developed markets.
Disadvantages of active management
The most obvious disadvantage of active management is that the fund manager may make bad investment choices or follow an unsound theory in managing the portfolio. The fees associated with active management are also higher than those associated with passive management, even if frequent trading is not present. Those who are considering investing in an actively-managed mutual fund should evaluate the fund's prospectus carefully. Data from recent decades demonstrates that the majority of actively-managed large and mid-cap stock funds in United States fail to outperform their passive stock index counterparts.
Active fund management strategies that involve frequent trading generate higher transaction costs which diminish the fund's return. In addition, the short-term capital gains resulting from frequent trades often have an unfavorable income tax impact when such funds are held in a taxable account.
When the asset base of an actively-managed fund becomes too large, it begins to take on index-like characteristics because it must invest in an increasingly diverse set of investments instead of those limited to the fund manager's best ideas. Many mutual fund companies close their funds before they reach this point, but there is potential for a conflict of interest between mutual fund management and shareholders because closing the fund will result in a loss of income (management fees) for the mutual fund company.
Real active management
Most mutual funds do not have board members and directors with an equity stake in the mutual fund that their manager(s) are administrating. In other words, the directors and board members don't directly impact the future performance of the fund. Real active management then, is when every manager and director has a vested interest in the success of the fund. Private-equity is often real active management since a privately owned company usually has just one owner that make strategy decisions at the board level.
However, the problem with this business model where the manager's money is invested plus he receives a fee dependent on the performance of the managed vehicle was observed in 2008. It was heralded as the perfect solution as it combines the interest of the client with the ones of the manager. Many money managers who had their own money invested in these vehicles saw their income being reduced to pure management fees rather than performance fees. In some cases the losses incurred by their funds had been so big that it was almost impossible to recuperate these losses over the next couple of years. Hence they decided to close their funds. By doing that they robbed the investors of the chance that their investments recover.
- Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, W. W. Norton, 1996, ISBN 0-393-03888-2
- John Bogle, Bogle on Mutual Funds: New Perspectives for the Intelligent Investor, Dell, 1994, ISBN 0-440-50682-4
- Mark T. Hebner, Index Funds: The 12-Step Program for Active Investors, IFA Publishing, 2007, ISBN 0-976-80230-9
- Article: Do Active Mutual Fund Managers Have An Inherent Conflict of Interest?
- The Arithmetic of Active Management, where William F. Sharpe demonstrates that passive management will always outperform active management on average.
- National Association of Active Investment Managers