Active vs. passive: Should you use both in fixed income?

  Active vs Passive The active versus passive management debate has always been an intriguing one in fixed income. On the one hand, the allure of cheap market exposure to a low-volatility asset class is tempting. On the other hand, history suggests that the median bond manager rather consistently beats the standard benchmark1 and does so far more frequently than in, say, large-cap U.S. equities—not to mention the fact that market-cap-weighted indexes use a very undesirable methodology for weighting securities from a lender’s perspective2. In reality, the decision isn’t, nor has it ever been, so stark as an either-or.

The dirty little secret

Based on our 40 years of manager research at Russell Investments, we have observed that active fixed income managers have almost universally emphasized the importance of security selection in their investment process, and as one of the key drivers of why they have typically been able to outperform passive alternatives over time. But when we analyze the performance of individual bonds across investment-grade portfolios, the bulk of that performance can be explained by systematic factors rather than security-specific risk2. In such a low-volatility asset class, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to generate high excess returns through security selection alone. In fact, overcoming active management fees through security selection only would imply a rather implausibly high batting average on security picks for an investment-grade portfolio. In truth, the historical success of the median active bond manager1 versus indexes in this space rests heavily on strategic factor tailwinds that they have built into their portfolios, whether by design or not.

Strategic factor exposures

In analyzing active management’s periods of greatest success against indexes, much of that success can be attributed to a single strategic factor bias shared across the active management bond community: credit. We believe most managers tilt toward lower-rated, higher-yielding credit securities than the benchmark, and over time that added credit risk is usually rewarded with higher returns almost irrespective of the underlying security selection. To be sure, there is added return to be had from positive security selection within that credit exposure, but those idiosyncratic risks rarely outweigh the importance of the generic factor risk to credit. Some active managers are more than just a one-trick pony with respect to their factor exposure in fixed income. The other crucial factor in fixed income is interest rate risk, or duration. That investors will get paid to take interest rate risk over time is the basic premise of the fixed-income asset class. Yet, it is perplexing that so few managers strategically take advantage of this factor. A select few do bias their portfolios toward a long duration position. They do so in recognition of the additional long-term return as well as the diversification benefits, when used in conjunction with a credit bias. Overall, however, active managers actually tend to tie one hand behind their backs by either remaining strategically neutral or even biased toward a short duration stance, out of fear that Godot might actually arrive one day—and clients will be proven right in their perpetual fear of rapidly rising rates. Duration and credit exposure may be the most well-known factors influencing fixed income, but they are not the only ones. We believe there are value and momentum factors at work within interest rate markets that investors can tilt toward to systematically generate returns. Within credit markets, we also believe in a value factor at an individual security level. This belief can take strategic factor investing in credit beyond just the generic overweight to the factor so common in the active universe.

Tactical opportunity

Of course, strategically allocating to a factor is not the only way to add value with passive factor exposures. We believe tactically tilting on these factors offers an opportunity for adding additional returns. On this front, we believe the record of active managers is more mixed. While tactically tilting on credit based on mean reversion seems like a simple enough strategy, it requires a great deal of discipline to not chase yield at the top of the market. On the duration front, active managers have proven even less adept at tactical timing with any semblance of consistency. It all brings to mind the old adage of just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. We do believe that some active strategies for tactical tilting, such as mean reversion in credit spreads, work over time. But investors should rightly consider how much risk they really want to be allocating to such tactical strategies relative to the greater certainty we see in strategic exposures to such factors.

The bottom line

We believe investors should bring together fully active and factor-based bond management, with the goal of enhancing returns and managing risk on multiple levels. We believe strategic factor exposures in the portfolio construction phase of the process can help. Active security selection in appropriate sectors and tactical factor rotation in measured size may further enhance returns. In other words, we believe a hybrid of fully active and more passive factor investing may lead investors to better return outcomes with their fixed-income allocations. 
Disclosures: 1 Claim based on eVestment Active Core universe performance versus the Bloomberg-Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index as of 3/31/2017. 2 The most commonly used indexes weight securities based on market capitalization. This forces true passive investors to hold more exposure of companies that have more debt outstanding, which is not necessarily an advisable static strategy in most lenders’ opinion. 3 Fama, Eugene and Kenneth French, “Common Risk Factors in the Returns on Stocks and Bonds”, Journal of Financial Economics, Vol. 33 (1), February 1993, pp 3-56. These views are subject to change at any time based upon market or other conditions and are current as of the date at the top of the page. The information, analysis, and opinions expressed herein are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or entity. This material is not an offer, solicitation or recommendation to purchase any security. Forecasting represents predictions of market prices and/or volume patterns utilizing varying analytical data. It is not representative of a projection of the stock market, or of any specific investment. Nothing contained in this material is intended to constitute legal, tax, securities or investment advice, nor an opinion regarding the appropriateness of any investment. The general information contained in this publication should not be acted upon without obtaining specific legal, tax and investment advice from a licensed professional. Please remember that all investments carry some level of risk, including the potential loss of principal invested. They do not typically grow at an even rate of return and may experience negative growth. As with any type of portfolio structuring, attempting to reduce risk and increase return could, at certain times, unintentionally reduce returns. The information, analysis and opinions expressed herein are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual entity. Russell Investments’ ownership is composed of a majority stake held by funds managed by TA Associates with minority stakes held by funds managed by Reverence Capital Partners and Russell Investments’ management. Frank Russell Company is the owner of the Russell trademarks contained in this material and all trademark rights related to the Russell trademarks, which the members of the Russell Investments group of companies are permitted to use under license from Frank Russell Company. The members of the Russell Investments group of companies are not affiliated in any manner with Frank Russell Company or any entity operating under the “FTSE RUSSELL” brand. The Russell logo is a trademark and service mark of Russell Investments. Copyright © Russell Investments Group, LLC 2017. All rights reserved. This material is proprietary and may not be reproduced, transferred, or distributed in any form without prior written permission from Russell Investments. It is delivered on an “as is” basis without warranty. Russell Investments Financial Services, LLC, member FINRA (, part of Russell Investments. RIFIS: 18952