This must-read appeared on the front page of Thursday’s National Post by Andrew Coyne. While Coyne is primarily a political writer and this piece is in part a political one, Coyne has always been a shrewd observer of the investing scene. Over the years, he’s occasionally weighed in on the relative merits of low-cost “passive” index-based investing and higher-cost “actively managed” investing epitomized by retail mutual funds, wrap accounts and (in the case of CPP), actively managed pension mandates.
Coyne doesn’t pull his punches. Near the end of the piece he writes:
It is simply a reflection of what is by now also widely recognized, among those without a vested interest in denying it. Active management is a crock. To consistently beat the market within a given asset class, a fund manager must be consistently smart and well-informed, he must be consistently smarter and better-informed than all the other smart and well-informed managers out there, all of whom are trying to do the same. That’s vanishingly unlikely.
CPP is playing the losers game
Clearly, Coyne is well aware of the arguments of major financial writers like John Bogle, Larry Swedroe, Mark Hebner, Dan Solin and many more. In particular, Charles Ellis’s Winning the Losers Game. (Click on the highlights for other representative books written by those authors. There also others by Canadians like Mark Noble, Howard Atkinson, Keith Matthews, Ted Cadsby and no doubt a few others I’ve neglected to mention.)
So, despite the overwhelming academic evidence that active management is—to use Coyne’s delightfully derogatory term—a “crock,” why then is the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) taking a flyer on Canadians’ collective retirement funds? It’s about money alright, but not so much about our retirement money than the compensation sought by CPPIB senior managers.
CPPIB salaries depend on willful ignorance
As Coyne points out, compensation for CPP senior managers has leapt from $1.56 million in 2007 to $3.3 million in 2014. Despite this, he adds, this “extraordinary executive bounty” has “hardly” been associated with a comparable increase in the fund. This seems to show the wisdom of the old saying attributed to Upton Sinclair that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Kudos to Andrew Coyne for putting the spotlight on this issue so central to the future retirement health of average Canadians. And it’s not just about CPP. When the federal government’s Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) were announced, I commented at the time that they should be primarily invested in passively managed ETFs from firms like Vanguard Canada, which had just arrived on our shores, or the low-cost “core” portfolios of BlackRock Canada’s iShares family of ETFs.
PRPPs also headed for the losers game
But the actively managed investment industry whose collective salaries depend on not “getting” indexing have mounted a formidable campaign to get a piece of the action of PRPPs, to the point I’m not optimistic we’ll see much takeup from the thousands of smaller employers that currently offer no pension plan at all to their workers.
The labour movement can talk all it wants to about the alternative of a “big” CPP, but if it entails the kind of active management that Coyne describes, it’s hard to advocate allowing the CPPIB to play the “fool’s game” with even more of our money.