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Active versus passive: The debate continues

In the pre-pandemic world, there was a lot of talk around passive investment but now that the markets have taken investors on a rollercoaster ride, are the active managers leaving or just biding their time?

GQG Partners chief investment officer Rajiv Jain believes active managers are becoming somewhat of an endangered species in the COVID-19 landscape.

"They seem to be disappearing pretty quickly, but there is no reason an active manager shouldn't be able to add value," Jain said.

"I think there is room for active managers, but we will see more discrimination in terms of who is truly active."

Jain said part of the reason for the apparent switch to a passive investment strategy is that active simply costs too much.

"You have these companies that are asset gathering machines, and that's why you've seen a lot of these large mergers of which I am yet to see a version that's actually worked well," Jain said.

"This is a cottage industry, they are supposed to be boutiques and it has changed into an asset gathering machine, and you lose that boutique culture very quickly when you become part of a conglomerate."

GQG chief executive Tim Carver said the market is beginning to understand the issue with large companies sticking tightly to the benchmark.

"One of the reasons that passive has had such a run is because the market has realised that so many asset managers are hugging benchmarks pretty tightly, and yet they're paying high fees," Carver said.

"I think a big part of the passive debate is actually not an investment debate. It's not about whether active or passive is the is the superior way to get access to the market."

Carver said an active approach charges more in fees than what is possible to make back in the market.

"When you put those two together, you have this mega trend that I think has been a one-way street for a long time, but the good news is, it's an ocean, and there are plenty of places we can go and perform really well and have a great, thriving business."

Of course, there is an inherent difference between investing in equities and another asset class like fixed income.

Mihkel Kase, Schroders portfolio manager fixed income & multi-asset, said active investment is important and allows flexibility, especially in these current times.

"It gives you an opportunity both from the top down and the bottom up to build a robust portfolio that can stand different to the market cycles," Kase said.

"It's important to have the right assets at the right time."

Kase said that despite an active approach having higher fees, this should be offset if a manger has undertaken proper fundamental credit research.

"Leading into COVID-19, those active managers who had undertaken fundamental credit research, I think, were in a good position," Kase said.

"They understood the companies and they were able to make active decisions in what risks to take."

The challenge, Kase said, is the future and the uncertainty around earnings profiles of companies.

"It's a fairly high tempo time where we're getting more volatility and more uncertainty around companies," he said.

"But I think that if you've got the strength in the underlying fundamental credit research it puts you in a really great position to take an educated view rather quickly in terms of which risks are worth taking and which are not."

Kase said there are many opportunities now presenting themselves post-pandemic for active managers to pounce on.

"I think there are many opportunities out there as we emerge," Kase said.

"We do think the ability as an active manager to identify and take advantage of those opportunities, going forward is really going to help investors up to this next sort of this next phase of the cycle."

Read our full COVID-19 news coverage and analysis here.

Read more: Passive investmentCOVID-19GQG PartnersMihkel KaseRajiv JainSchrodersTim CarverActive investment
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