Passive vs Active Investing Strategies – What Is the Difference?

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Unlike exercise, being passive is a lot more beneficial than being active when it comes to investing.
Active investing is generally more expensive because analysts and portfolio managers have to be paid, and more frequent trading adds to the cost. After accounting for expenses, active managers often fail to “beat the market,” such as achieving better returns than the S&P 500.
Still, active investing can have a place in an investment portfolio and can outperform passive investing more often when the market is volatile. Mixing both strategies can give an investor the best of both worlds.

Active vs passive investing

What's the difference between active and passive investing? Consider passive investing as where you put your money for a long period of time to slowly earn. For example, putting your money in low-cost mutual funds that aim to outperform the market while you sit back and do almost nothing, waiting for retirement.
On the flip side is active investing. You won't sit back and watch your money grow. Instead, you'll keep a close eye on performance and changes that may affect your earnings and move your money to more profitable places as you do both. An extreme example of active investing and its hands-on approach is the January stock market frenzy around GameStop stock. Shares of the video game retailer soared as high as $483 in January after some investors talked the stock up online, but the stock plummeted after news broke about the rise, and in late February it had dropped to $42 per share. And now, in March, it just hit a monthly peak of $264. An active — and successful — investor would have seen it happening early and jumped in to buy stocks, selling them as they peaked and just before they tanked. If you went in on stock at $42 per share and sold it for $483, you'd have earned a quick $441 per share within a month.
Active investing can have high rewards but also come with higher risk. Passive investing carries a much lower risk and provides steady but slow-growing rewards.

Passive investing

Passive investing and index investing are synonymous with the mutual fund company Vanguard. The company’s founder, John Bogle, started the first index fund in 1975 to track the S&P 500.
Vanguard is well known for having low fees, and its index funds helped start that trend.
Vanguard has low fees in part because it uses index sampling to track a benchmark index without having to replicate all of the holdings in an index. Holding every stock in an index is expensive, and Vanguard uses sampling to replicate the performance of a benchmark index without buying every stock in an index.
Passive investing is popular among investors for the simple reason that it doesn’t require much work. With almost no research required, investors can put their money in mutual funds that mirror the stock market in investments and try to replicate the overall stock market for returns.
This type of investing became popular with retirement accounts in the late 1980s and early 1990s when employers started moving from pensions to 401(k) retirement accounts that employees managed themselves.
Instead of buying and selling often, passive investors buy and hold index funds or other mutual funds for years, if not decades. Historically, this has led to passive investments earning more money than active investments.
It’s hard to beat the market, as any financial advisor will tell you, and not reacting to the stock market’s every big drop or rise can save you from trying to time your investments.
Index funds can be bought that follow the major indices like the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average, or DJIA. If the companies in either index change, the index funds automatically adjust their holdings by selling stocks that are leaving or buying stocks that are becoming part of the index.
When a company becomes big enough to be included in one of the major indices it can affect thousands of major funds. This is one reason why passive funds rely on diversification to improve their chances of beating the market average.

Active investing

Active investing is a more hands-on approach and is usually done by professional portfolio managers.
Their goal is to actively manage investments to beat the stock market’s average returns and profit from short-term price fluctuations in the stock market. It requires deep analysis of a particular stock or other assets, and to determine when the price will change in their favor.
Active management is more popular during rising markets as more investors try to ride the wave up and profit from it. This includes more people following active investment strategies on their own and managing their money.

Passive investment strategies

Generating passive income can come in different forms: dividends, interest, and rents are a few. The idea is to build a low-cost, diversified portfolio with a low turnover that will tend to produce an average market return without much work.
The long-term holdings should be in multiple industries, sectors, market capitalization sizes, and countries.
Another part of passive investing is to regularly buy stocks, bonds, or other assets through what is called dollar-cost averaging. You can do this by automatically transferring a certain amount of money each month to a brokerage account, and have it automatically invested in a mutual fund. Dividends should also be automatically reinvested.
No matter how low your holdings fall, don’t sell them as long as the fundamentals that you based your purchases on still exist. This can protect you from your own irrationality.
The Vanguard 500 Index, for example, has a turnover rate of only 3%, meaning the average stock is held for 33 years.

Look for low expense ratios

Vanguard and other funds charge expense ratios as their payment for managing funds, no matter how passive they are. Vanguard has some of the lowest expense ratios in the industry.
The expense ratio is calculated by dividing the fund’s operating costs by the assets under management, or AUM. The lower the ratio, the higher a return can be over time for an investor.
Vanguard gives the example of a hypothetical investment of $50,00 over 20 years and says that assuming a 6% annual rate of return, its low expense ratios could save the investor around $24,000 in expenses.
The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, or VTSAX, has a very low expense ratio of 0.04%.
For passive or index funds, the typical expense ratio is 0.2% but can be as low as 0.02% or less in some cases, according to one analysis.
A reasonable expense ratio for an actively managed portfolio, on the other hand, is about 0.5% to 0.75%. An expense ratio higher than 1.5% is considered high.
An expense ratio cost calculator can quickly show you the cost of a low ratio vs a high one. Suppose you made an initial investment of $10,000, and contributed $5,000 to it each year for 30 years, with an investment return of 6%.
Paying 0.2% in management fees would cost you $16,805 over 30 years. Paying 1% would cost $77,312 over the same time, or $60,506 more.
Paying a higher expense ratio not only pulls more money out of your pocket in fees each year but those fees you paid no longer have the ability to compound. Paying $1,000 in fees is $1,000 less that grows and compounds during your lifetime.

Buy exchange-traded funds (ETFs)

Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, are a big part of passive investing. ETFs are a collection of securities, such as stocks, that often track an underlying index. They can also invest in industry sectors or use other strategies.
They’re similar to mutual funds, though ETFs are listed on exchanges like any single stock. An ETF can have a number of investments, such as stocks, bonds, and commodities, and has a price that can be bought and sold.
ETF prices can change throughout a trading day, while mutual funds only trade once a day after the market closes. They’re known for having low expense ratios and broker commissions.

Active investment strategies

Active investing is best for people with a lot of money to invest who can afford the risks of wild swings in stock prices.
If you have a lot of cash, one active investment strategy is to invest in ETFs after the market has fallen. This can create a buying opportunity for ETFs that were doing well before the market pulled back.
If you’re looking for income, stocks with dividend growth may be best if you’re willing to hold the stocks for a while. Dividends are cash payments companies give investors as a reward for owning the stock. Passive investors may want to reinvest the dividends in the company stock, while active investors may prefer taking the dividend as a cash payment.
Day trading is another option. Some people start this as a hobby and turn it into a full-time job. You may want to experiment with day trading slowly, and only use money that you can lose. Don’t expect to beat the experts.
Hedge funds are actively managed by a manager, who monitors the market and trades when they see a chance to make money. A hedge fund is an investment partnership that invests pooled funds much more aggressively than mutual funds with the goal of earning higher-than-average returns.
Another active investment strategy is to invest in niche markets that you’re interested in. These can be emerging companies or sectors, or just rare investing opportunities you’ve seen that you want to invest in.
Short-term profit may be your goal, such as making enough money in a few weeks or months to pay for a wedding or put a down payment on a home. Short-term profits can be difficult to earn, so don’t invest money that you aren’t willing to lose.

Investing apps, brokerages, and other accounts

Whether you’re going to be a passive or active investor or a little of each, you need to start by depositing money in a brokerage account or investing app so you can make trades.
Charles Schwab, Vanguard, and Fidelity are some of the biggest mutual fund companies where you can buy mutual funds and individual stocks. Some banks also offer these services.
You can also use investing apps. As little as $5 can be required to start. Some use automated software that picks funds based on your goals, and others leave the trading to you.
Many investing apps have zero fees for having an account. Investments are protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. (SIPC).
Some investment platforms use robo-advisors instead of human financial planners. You enter information about your finances and goals, and the robo-advisor gives you investing advice and invests your assets for you. They’re typically inexpensive and can be a good way to get your feet wet as an investor.
These may have no minimum balances while others range from $1 to $5,000. Monthly costs can be free, $1, or up to 0.50% of your portfolio value.
Check out these investing apps and robo advisors:
  • Acorns – Micro investing app
  • Ally Invest – Retirement funds and stocks
  • Betterment – Robo advising with $0 minimum balance
  • E*\TRADE – Active trading platform for DIYers
  • Robinhood – $0 commission investing
  • Stash – Fractional share investing

Pros and cons

These investment strategies are very different from each other. They have different timelines for when to expect results and can either be cheap or expensive depending on how often they’re used. Here are some pros and cons to consider for each:

Passive investing pros and cons

  • Low fees
  • Historically earn more than active investments
  • You can set it and forget it
  • Ideal for retirement funds
  • A buy-and-hold strategy that can avoid market turmoil
  • Often limited to a specific index or set of investments
  • Small returns that rarely beat the market since they’re often set to track the stock market

Active Investing pros and cons

  • Flexibility to buy stocks and indexes that you want
  • Can hedge bets through short sales and put options to make money when stock prices fall
  • Can exit specific stocks or sectors when risks become too big
  • Tax management benefits when selling losing investments to offset taxes on big winners.
  • Easier to invest in niche markets
  • Fees of 1.5% that eat away at compounding and any profits
  • Active buying and selling trigger more transaction costs
  • High risk
  • Pay capital gains tax on profits
  • Stock market volatility can hurt a portfolio quickly

The bottom line

A mix of passive and active investing is probably best for anyone, especially new investors.
Actively trading stocks can help them learn how the stock market works and how to research a company before buying stock in it. Both types of investing should be done with money you’re prepared to lose, though active investing carries a greater chance of this.
Retirement planning is probably best done with passive investing. Pick a few mutual funds, such as those set to mature the year you plan to retire, and contribute to them regularly and you should have a good retirement fund.
But if you’ve just come across a large amount of money and want to risk it, actively investing it in stocks that you buy now and sell soon after it has hopefully risen a lot in price, can be an exciting way to make your money work for you.
A little of each, however, may be better.

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