What Matters when Picking Funds

Dan Tersigni, CFA · April 25 2017


Which fund would you pick?

Past 5 years

If you’re like most people, you would choose ABC because it’s performed better during the past five years. Not many folks would be persuaded to buy an asset that has recently lost money. But is that really the wisest way to construct your portfolio?

The example above isn’t hypothetical. It's based on research from Morningstar. They divided up thousands of U.S. equity mutual funds into quartiles based on their average management expense ratio (MER) and then again into quartiles based on their performance from 2000 to 2005, creating 16 individual groupings of mutual funds.

ABC represents the average characteristics of the best returning funds in the most expensive group while XYZ represents the worst returning funds in the cheapest group of funds.

Morningstar then calculated the performance of these funds from 2005 to 2015 to see which factors gave the best insight into future performance.

What did they find?

Funds that had the characteristics of ABC went on to return an average of 5.5% a year over the next 10 years. Funds that had the characteristics of XYZ, meanwhile, went on to return 7.4%. For context, the flagship U.S. stock market index, the S&P 500, earned 7.3% annually during the same stretch.

This is more evidence of why you should keep your costs low. Researchers agree: the costs a fund incurs (both from management fees and implicit trading costs) are the single best predictor of how well it will fare relative to its peers in the future. Low-cost funds do better and high cost funds do worse. This is why Wealthsimple builds portfolios using low-cost ETFs, many of which have MERs of less than 0.1%.

Another interesting takeaway from Morningstar's work is that past performance really doesn’t predict future performance: it’s not just a disclaimer. In fact, to the extent past performance is correlated with future performance at all, it seems to be inversely. The accompanying chart shows even among funds of similar cost, those that had performed best from 2000 to 2005 subsequently did worse than the funds that had performed poorly. This was true in every fee quartile.

Best performers 2000-2005

One possible explanation for this seemingly counter-intuitive finding is that the funds that performed best from 2000 to 2005 owned assets whose valuations had become elevated. This is the very reason they performed so well, but it also may have set them up for poor subsequent performance. Conversely, the funds that had lousy performance may have owned assets that fell out of favour with the market and became more attractively valued. This set them up for improved future performance.

Bottom Line

The common practice of selecting funds based on what has recently done well is likely to leave you disappointed. Focus on what research shows actually matters. Build a well-diversified portfolio of the lowest-cost funds (preferably ETFs) and stick with them through the ups and downs, periodically rebalancing along the way.