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  • Writer's pictureAlpesh Patel

Why Your Pension Isn't Matching the S&P 500's All-Time Highs

If you're perplexed by why your pension isn't soaring like the S&P 500, you're not alone. Despite the market reaching unprecedented heights, many active fund managers are struggling to keep pace. Here’s why your pension, likely managed by these professionals, isn't benefiting as much as you might expect.

Active Management Underperformance

Theoretically, active fund managers, who meticulously pick stocks aiming to outperform the market, should thrive in today’s environment where stock movements are less synchronised and the gap between winners and losers is wide. However, recent data suggests otherwise. In the first half of 2024, only 18.2% of actively managed mutual funds and ETFs that benchmark themselves against the S&P 500 managed to outperform it, a decline from 19.2% in the previous year.

The Concentration Challenge

One significant factor is the concentration of the S&P 500's gains in a handful of giant tech companies. As of mid-2024, the top three stocks in the S&P 500 (Microsoft, Apple, and Nvidia) accounted for nearly 21% of its total market value. The top ten stocks represented more than 36%.

This concentration poses a dilemma for active managers who typically diversify to mitigate risk. Concentrating too heavily in a few stocks would not only be risky but could also lead to regulatory issues regarding diversification.

Market Dynamics and Dispersion

Moreover, while measures like correlation and dispersion (which track how much individual stock returns differ from the average) suggest a favorable environment for stock picking, they can be misleading. 

The dispersion largely reflects the outperformance of a few major tech stocks against a broader field of under-performers. For example, Nvidia alone contributed nearly one-third of the S&P 500’s total return in the first half of 2024. 

This skew means that unless fund managers are heavily invested in these few top-performing stocks, they struggle to outperform the index​​.

Marketing vs. Performance

The asset management industry's heavy reliance on marketing narratives often overshadows the harsh reality of performance. The promise that paying a premium for active management will yield better returns isn't holding up in today's market.

The ongoing underperformance of active managers underscores a fundamental truth: the industry's dependency on marketing is greater than its ability to consistently outperform the market.

The Takeaway for Pension Holders

For those with pensions tied to actively managed funds, this scenario means returns may lag behind the headline-grabbing gains of the S&P 500.

This disparity highlights the importance of understanding how your funds are managed and the potential benefits of alternative investment strategies, such as low-cost index funds that aim to replicate the performance of the market rather than beat it.

In conclusion, while the S&P 500 reaches new heights, the concentration of its gains in a few large stocks and the general underperformance of active managers explain why your pension isn't seeing the same level of growth.

As investors, it’s crucial to stay informed and consider the structure and strategy of your investments to ensure they align with your financial goals.

Alpesh Patel OBE

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