The Debate Between Active vs. Passive Investing


To be sure, there is no shortage of free "research" available these days.

Everywhere one turns, there is an article or a fresh white paper from any number of experts espousing this or that. But recently, there has been a raft of papers on the question of passive investing versus active investing. And cutting to the chase, this particular question isn't even worth asking.

Continue Reading Below

The bottom line on this debate - and this is indeed one of the more lively debates in the investing game - is that when used consistently, an active approach (aka a buy-and-sell strategy) beats the passive buy-and-hope approach hands down. It's no contest.

The Decade Where Buy-and-Hope Went to Die

Yet every time the bulls start rolling for a few years, the passive crowd starts jumping up and down proclaiming that there is simply no reason for an investor to ever leave the market (or more appropriately, there is no reason to ever sell their mutual funds!).

Never mind the 50+ percent drubbing that occurred when the "technology bubble" burst between 2000 and 2002. Forget about that 55 percent loss created by the "credit crisis" between 2008 and early 2009. Just buy and hold, it'll be fine!

While it may be true that the blue chip indices have recovered nicely from the two monster bear markets that occurred between 2000 and early 2009, a great many investors, as well as the NASDAQ composite have not. In fact, although the S&P 500, the Russell 2000, and the S&P 400 Midcap indices all hit record highs this week, the NASDAQ still needs to gain more than 1100 points - or almost 29 percent - in order reach the all-time high set in early 2000.

So, if an investor was technology-oriented at the turn of the century and owned a big slug of the NASDAQ index via mutual funds or ETFs, they are still waiting to get back to break even. For most investors, being forced to wait for thirteen years to get back to where they started at the turn of the century isn't a realistic expectation - especially when the market crashes and burns not once but twice during that period!

There Is a Better Way

The first point is that most investors don't have the emotional make-up to "set it and forget it" when their retirement is on the line. Nope, when an investor watches their "401K turn into a 201K" all that "long-term" stuff they agreed to when they started investing tends to go right out the window.

As such, having a strategy to get the heck out of the way when the bears come to call and then to re-enter the market when the bulls return and the bears go back into hibernation, is the way to go. In fact, it is a safe bet that the vast majority of investors would love to have such a strategy in place going forward.

Yes Virginia, You Can Beat The Market

While the Vanguard's of the world have spent gazillions of dollars trying to convince the public that there is simply no way to beat the market, their argument is patently false. There are any number of strategies that will handily outperform the stock market over long periods of time.

To prove the point, let's review a handful of strategies designed to (a) keep investors in stocks during bull markets and (b) get investors out of stocks during bear markets.

A Trend-Following System

Trend-following gets a bad rap because while such a strategy can keep one on the right side of the really big moves, it can also chop up an investor during whipsaw periods. But with that said, take a look at the chart below.

S&P 500 Monthly & 15-Month MA

The black line is the S&P 500 on a monthly, closing basis. The blue line is a 15-month, weighted moving average, which has been moved forward two periods. The idea is to buy and hold when the S&P is above the blue line and then move to a short position when the S&P is below the blue line.

Since 1995, assuming no trading costs, the hypothetical trend-following system would have shown a return of 555.6 percent while the buy-and-hold approach would have sported a return of 281.5 percent. Not bad, eh?

A Sentiment System

Another approach would be to buy stocks when sentiment indicators say investors have become too bearish and sell when they are too bullish. Using data from Investor's Intelligence, one can craft a strategy that has given sell signals before the big declines seen in 1974, 1977, 1987, 1998, 2000, 2008 and 2011. In fact 94 percent of the trades since September 4, 1970 would have been accurate. Again, not too shabby, right?

A Momentum System

Yet another approach is to be invested in the stock market based on the market's internal momentum. For example, studies show that when both the index and an advance/decline line are above their 45-day moving averages, the stock market has gained ground at an annualized rate of 18.2 percent per year since 1998. When both the index and the advance/decline line are below their respective moving averages, the market has lost ground. And when either the index or the A/D line (but not both) are above the moving average, stocks have gained just 6.3 percent per year. So, obviously paying attention to this approach might not be a bad idea.

A Volume-Based System

A final example of a method where an "active" investor might be able to outperform the stock market by a wide margin involves the idea of "demand volume" and "supply volume." Getting straight to the results, since 1982, this study shows that when demand volume is above supply volume, the S&P 500 has gained at a rate of 11.6 percent per year. And when supply volume is above demand volume, the S&P 500 has lost -1.2 percent per year. Although hypothetical, using such a strategy would have kept an investor out of stocks for the vast majority of both the 2000-02 and 2008 bear markets.

So Yes, One Can Beat The Market. But...

The takeaway from this oversimplified review of the active versus passive argument is there are many, many different systems that can keep investors long during bull markets and either out or short during bear markets. Therefore, there really is no debate to be had. One can indeed beat the market, if they so desire. It's that simple.

However, the key is that an investor must (a) define a strategy and then, more importantly (b) stick to the strategy when times get tough.

Anyone who has studied market history will attest that all investing strategies will struggle from time to time. And this is where all too many investors fail as they simply give up on a strategy the moment it doesn't perform up to expectations.

It is a fact that no system is perfect. No system works all the time. And no system works in all environments. Heck, even the strategy employed by the legendary Warren Buffett has been out of style at times. Does anybody remember the "Oracle of Omaha" saying he just didn't understand technology in the late 1990s?

Here is another example. That 15-month trend-following system discussed above would have nearly doubled the S&P 500 over an 18.75 year period, which is great. However, in 1998 the system would have lost -0.07 percent while the S&P gained 26.7 percent. That happened again in 2009... and in 2010... and again in 2011. For three straight years, the system would have lost money while the market was either up or flat. Now ask yourself, can you live with that?

So, the real bottom line is that investors CAN beat the market. An active approach, if designed properly, CAN keep investors out of danger when the bears come to call. But an active investor must also HAVE a system and UNDERSTAND that system so that they can live with it when it fouls up. Oh, and it WILL foul up!

But, if one has a good system and follows it, even when times are tough, they just might be able to outperform their passive friends, who insist on watching their account values be torn to shreds during bear markets.

Click Here For More "Daily State of the Markets" Commentary

Current Market Drivers

We strive to identify the driving forces behind the market action on a daily basis. The thinking is that if we can both identify and understand why stocks are doing what they are doing on a short-term basis; we are not likely to be surprised/blind-sided by a big move. Listed below are what we believe to be the driving forces of the current market (Listed in order of importance).

1. Overbought Condition 2. The State of Fed Policy 3. The State of the Earnings Season

The State of the Trend

We believe it is important to analyze the market using multiple time-frames. We define short-term as 3 days to 3 weeks, intermediate-term as 3 weeks to 3 months, and long-term as 3 months or more. Below are our current ratings of the three primary trends:

Short-Term Trend: Positive (Chart below is S&P 500 daily over past 1 month)

Intermediate-Term Trend: Positive (Chart below is S&P 500 daily over past 6 months)

Long-Term Trend: Positive (Chart below is S&P 500 daily over past 12 months)

Key Technical Areas:

Traders as well as computerized algorithms are generally keenly aware of the important technical levels on the charts from a short-term basis. Below are the levels we deem important to watch today:

  • Near-Term Support Zone(s) for S&P 500: 17240
  • Near-Term Resistance Zone(s): 1760

The State of the Tape

Momentum indicators are designed to tell us about the technical health of a trend - I.E. if there is any "oomph" behind the move. Below are a handful of our favorite indicators relating to the market's "mo"...

  • Trend and Breadth Confirmation Indicator: Positive
  • Price Thrust Indicator:Positive
  • Volume Thrust Indicator:Neutral
  • Breadth Thrust Indicator:Positive
  • Bull/Bear Volume Relationship: Moderately Positive
  • Technical Health of 100 Industry Groups: Positive

The Early Warning Indicators

Markets travel in cycles. Thus we must constantly be on the lookout for changes in the direction of the trend. Looking at market sentiment and the overbought/sold conditions can provide "early warning signs" that a trend change may be near.

  • Overbought/Oversold Condition: The S&P 500 is overbought from a short-term perspective and is overbought from an intermediate-term point of view.
  • Market Sentiment: Our primary sentiment model is Negative .

The State of the Market Environment

One of the keys to long-term success in the stock market is stay in tune with the market's "big picture" environment in terms of risk versus reward because different market environments require different investing strategies. To help us identify the current environment, we look to our longer-term State of the Markets Model. This model is designed to tell us when risk factors are high, low, or uncertain. In short, this longer-term oriented, weekly model tells us whether the odds favor the bulls, bears, or neither team.

Weekly State of the Market Model Reading: Positive

If you are looking for a disciplined, rules-based system to help guide your market exposure, check out The Daily Decision System.

Thought For The Day...

No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness. -Aristotle

Looking for Guidance in the Markets?

The Daily Decision: If you want a disciplined approach to managing stock market risk on a daily basis - Check the "Daily Decision" System. Forget the fast money and the latest, greatest option trade. Investors first need is a strategy to keep them "in" the stock market during bull markets and on the sidelines (or short) during bear markets. The Daily Decision system was up 30.3% in 2012, is up more than 25% in 2013, and the system sports an average compound rate of return of more than 30% per year.

The Insiders Portfolio: If you are looking for a truly unique approach to stock picking - Check out The Insiders Portfolio. We buy what those who know their company's best are buying - but ONLY when they are buying heavily! P.S. The Insiders is up over 30% in 2013 and has nearly doubled the S&P 500 since 2009.

The IRA/401K Advisor: Stop ignoring your 401K! Our long-term oriented service designed for IRAs and 401Ks strives to keep accounts positioned on the right side of the markets. This is a service you really can't afford not to use.

The Top 5 Portfolio: We keep things simple here by focusing on our five favorite positions. This concentrated stock portfolio employs a rigorous custom stock selection approach to identify market leaders. Risk management strategies are built in to every position.

All Premium Services include a 30-day money-back guarantee!

Got Research?

Remember, you can receive email alerts for more than 20 free research report alerts from including:

State's Chart of the Day - Each day we highlight a top rated stock with a positive technical setup.

The Risk Manager Report - Stay in tune with the market's risk/reward environment.

The 10.0 Report - These are the REAL best-of-breed companies.

The Insiders Report - See what the people who know their company's best are buying.

ETF Leaders Report - Looking for the top performing ETF's? You've come to the right place.

The SOTM 100 Portfolio - The top rated stocks in each market sector.

State's Market Models - Each week we quantify the "state of the market" with a series of models.

The Focus List - Think of the focus list as your own private research department. We do all the work and highlight our top picks each trading day

Mission Statement

At, our goal is to provide everything you need to be a more successful investor: The must-read headlines, market commentary, market research, stock analysis, proprietary risk management models, and most importantly actionable portfolios with live trade alerts.

Finally, we are here to help - so don't hesitate to call with questions, comments, or ideas at 1-877-440-9464.

Wishing you green screens and all the best for a great day,

David D. Moenning Founder and Chief Investment Strategist

For up to the minute updates on the market's driving forces, Follow Me on Twitter: @StateDave (Twitter is the new Ticker Tape)

Positions in stocks mentioned: none

The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of David Moenning, founder of and may not actually come to pass. Mr. Moenning's opinions and viewpoints regarding the future of the markets should not be construed as recommendations. The analysis and information in this report and on our website is for informational purposes only. No part of the material presented in this report or on our websites is intended as an investment recommendation or investment advice. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed nor any Portfolio constitutes a solicitation to purchase or sell securities or any investment program. The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of the editors of TopStockPortfolios and may not actually come to pass. The opinions and viewpoints regarding the future of the markets should not be construed as recommendations of any specific security nor specific investment advice. One should always consult an investment professional before making any investment.

Any investment decisions must in all cases be made by the reader or by his or her investment adviser. Do NOT ever purchase any security without doing sufficient research. There is no guarantee that the investment objectives outlined will actually come to pass. All opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. Neither the editor, employees, nor any of their affiliates shall have any liability for any loss sustained by anyone who has relied on the information provided.

The analysis provided is based on both technical and fundamental research and is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. Although the information contained is derived from sources which are believed to be reliable, they cannot be guaranteed.

The information contained in our websites and publications is provided by Ridge Publishing Co. Inc. (Ridge). One of the principals of Ridge, Mr. David Moenning, is also President and majority shareholder of Heritage Capital Management, Inc. (HCM) a Chicago-based money management firm. HCM is registered as an investment adviser. HCM also serves as a sub-advisor to other investment advisory firms. Ridge is a publisher and has not registered as an investment adviser. Neither HCM nor Ridge is registered as a broker-dealer.

Employees and affiliates of HCM and Ridge may at times have positions in the securities referred to and may make purchases or sales of these securities while publications are in circulation. Editors will indicate whether they or HCM has a position in stocks or other securities mentioned in any publication. The disclosures will be accurate as of the time of publication and may change thereafter without notice.

Investments in equities carry an inherent element of risk including the potential for significant loss of principal. Past performance is not an indication of future results.

(c) 2013 Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.