3Q 2021 Top Ten 401(k) AMVR “Cheat Sheet”

When InvestSense prepares a forensic analysis for a 401(k)/403(b) pension plan, a trust, an attorney, or an institutional client, we always do an analysis over five and ten-year time periods to analyze the consistency of performance. Since so many social media followers have asked this question, we are providing a forensic analysis for both time periods for our quarterly “cheat sheet” covering the third quarter of 2021.

At the end of each calendar quarter, we provide a forensic analysis of the top non-index mutual funds currently being used in U.S. 401(k) defined contribution plans. The list is derived from the annual survey conducted by “Pensions & Investments” and currently consists of six funds. Our forensic analysis is based on our proprietary metric, the Active Management Value Ratio™ 4.0 (AMVR).

The AMVR allows investors, fiduciaries and attorneys to determine the cost-efficiency of a fund relative to a comparable index fund. We typically use comparable Vanguard index funds for benchmarking purposes. People often ask why we do not use actual market indices like Morning star and actual funds. Actual market indices do not have costs, so they cannot be used to calculate a fund’s cost-efficiency.

In calculating a fund’s AMVR score, InvestSense compares a fund’s incremental risk-adjusted return to its incremental correlation adjusted costs. Five of the six funds do not qualify for an AMVR score, as they failed to provide a positive incremental return. While Dodge & Cost Stock did provide a positive incremental return, its, incremental correlation-adjusted costs exceeded its positive incremental risk-adjusted return. As a result, it would be deemed cost-inefficient under the AMVR.

Once again, five of the six funds do not qualify for an AMVR score, as they failed to provide a positive incremental return. While Dodge & Cost Stock did provide a positive incremental return, its, incremental correlation-adjusted costs exceeded its positive incremental risk-adjusted return. As a result, it would be deemed cost-inefficient under the AMVR.

People often ask about our uses of incremental risk-adjusted returns and incremental correlation-adjusted costs. As for our use of incremental returns, that is consistent with industry standards. While the financial services industry prefers to ignore risk-adjusted returns, “you can’t eat risk-adjusted returns,” it has no problem boasting about a good rating under Morningstar “star” system. I have to assume that the industry is not aware that Morningstar uses risk-adjusted returns in awarding its coveted stars.

The other justification for relying on risk-adjusted returns is that risk is generally thought to be a factor in return. As Section 90, comment h(2) 0f the Restatement (Third) of Trusts states, the use and/or recommendation of actively managed funds is imprudent unless it can be objectively determined that the active funds can be expected to provide investors with a commensurate return for the additional costs and risks associated with actively managed funds.

As for our use of correlation-adjusted costs, it allows us to use the AMVR to screen for “closet index” funds. Actively managed funds that have a high correlation to comparable, less-expensive are often referred to as “closet index” funds. Closet index funds are actively managed funds that tout the benefits of active management and charge higher fees than comparable index fund, but whose actual performance is actually similar to the comparable index funds. To be honest, “closet index” funds typically underperform comparable index funds.

Ross Miller created a metric, the Active Expense Ratio (AER), that allows investors and investment fiduciaries to determine the effective fee that they pay for actively managed mutual funds with high correlation, or R-squared, numbers. Miller explained the value of the AER:

Mutual funds appear to provide investment services for relatively low fees because they bundle passive and active fund management together in a way that understates the true cost of active management. In particular, funds engaging in closet or shadow indexing charge their investors for active management while providing them with little more than an indexed investment. Even the average mutual fund, which ostensibly provides only active management, will have over 90% of the variance in its returns explained by its benchmark index.

Martijn Cremers, creator of the Active Share metric, commented further on the importance of correlation of returns between actively managed mutual funds and comparable index funds, saying that

[A] large number of funds that purport to offer active management and charge fees accordingly, in fact persistently hold portfolios that substantially overlap with market indices…. Investors in a closet index fund are harmed by for fees for active management that they do not receive or receive only partially…. Such funds are not just poor investments; they promise investors a service that they fail to provide. 

With those quotes in mind, it is interesting to note that all six of the actively managed funds on the 3Q cheat sheet all have R-squared/correlation numbers in the mid to high 90s.

Going Forward
Those that follow me on Twitter and/or LinkedIn know that I have posted a lot on those sites regarding the upcoming Supreme Court hearings in the Hughes v. Northwestern University 401(b) case. The oral arguments in the case are scheduled for December 6, 2021.

I will be posting more about the case as we get closer to the oral arguments. However, for now, I will just say that if the Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, it would essentially require plans to prove that the investment options they chose for a plan were prudent when they chose them.

Based on my experience with the AMVR and numerous forensic analyses for clients, I believe plans would be hard pressed to carry that burden. While the simplicity of the AMVR is often credited for its growing acceptance and use, the AMVR is still a powerful tool in 401(k)/403(b) litigation and pension plan risk management.  

About jwatkins

I am a securities and ERISA attorney. I am a CFP Board Emeritus™ member and an Accredited Wealth Management Advisor™. I am a 1977 graduate of Georgia State University and a 1981 graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School. I am the author of "CommonSense InvestSense: The Power of the Informed Investor" and " The 401(k)/403(b) Investment Manual: What Plan Sponsors and Plan Participants REALLY Need To Know. " As a former compliance director, I have extensive experience in evaluating the legal prudence of various types of investments, including mutual funds and annuities. My goal is to combine my legal and compliance experience in order to help educate investors on sound, proven investment strategies that will help them protect their financial security.
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