Relative returns vs absolute performance

Posted by Robin Powell on October 11, 2021

Relative returns vs absolute performance


Some active fund managers tend to downplay the importance of benchmarks. What I’m focused on, they might say, is delivering an absolute return of X%; my relative returns don’t matter. So do they have a point? Do benchmarks really matter? CRAIG LAZZARA from S&P Dow Jones Indices takes a closer look.


I recently had the pleasure of participating in a webinar on the basics of passive management. A portfolio manager in the audience posed an important question which I’ll paraphrase: “If my goal is to earn a return of X%, why is an index’s performance relevant?” Otherwise said, if I want to earn a particular absolute return, why should I care about returns relative to an index?

This is a good question, and the answer, like the answer to many good questions, is that “it depends”. What it depends on is the answer to a subsidiary question: if an investor’s goal is to earn a return of X%, by what means does he intend to pursue that goal?

There are many asset classes out there: one might buy gold bars, or bitcoins, or Old Master paintings. But for the most part, investors and fiduciaries pursue their absolute return goals by investing in securities. And in securities markets, index returns are relevant for at least two reasons.

First, properly constructed benchmarks define the investor’s opportunity set. Capitalisation-weighted indices like the S&P 500 are designed, in part, to track the value of a stock market; changes in the aggregate value of the stock market are reflected directly in the returns of the index. If the investor’s goal is to earn 8% annually, and the market in which he’s invested declines by 20% this year, he’s almost certainly not going to make it. And if the market index rises by 20%, he’s almost certainly not going to be satisfied with 8%. Absolute return is an aspiration; relative return is actionable.

Second, the returns of a portfolio relative to a market index are evidence of a manager’s skill. Clients have choices: they can own a market passively or attempt to outperform it actively. If the measure of success for an active manager is to outperform a benchmark appropriate to his investment style, the evidence is clear that most active managers fail most of the time; indeed over long time horizons, the advantage of index management is enormous.

Investors who are willing to accept index returns, therefore, typically see better results than those who strive to outperform. A willingness to forgo relative returns may be the key to improving absolute performance.


CRAIG LAZZARA is Managing Director and Global Head of Index Investment Strategy at S&P Dow Jones Indices.



For more valuable insights from S&P Dow Jones Indices, you might like to read these other recent articles, or visit the Indexology blog:

What if the last 40 years had turned out differently?

Why active managers face a tough end to the year

The index effect: how serious is it?


© The Evidence-Based Investor MMXXI




Robin Powell

Robin is a journalist and campaigner for positive change in global investing. He runs Regis Media, a niche provider of content marketing for financial advice firms with an evidence-based investment philosophy. He also works as a consultant to other disruptive firms in the investing sector.


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