Passive Investing vs. Active Investing: What's Right? (2024)

Passive Investing vs. Active Investing: What's Right? (1)

We are in the midst of a passive investing revolution. It has helped regular investors save billions of dollars in costly fund management fees. It has made building a diversified portfolio as simple as a few clicks of the mouse. Best of all, it has allowed investors to receive fair market returns by doing almost nothing.

Passive and active investing, explained

The easiest way to understand passive investing is to know what active investing means. An active investing strategy operates on the idea that by picking the right stocks or timing the market, investors can outsmart the market and earn outsized returns.

Few investors are that confident of their stock picking skills. So they turn to active fund managers to do it for them. While skilled fund managers may be able to choose the right stocks and beat the market in any given year, replicating that feat year after year is hard. And while there is no way fund managers can consistently know which stocks will do well, they charge a premium for their supposed stock picking prowess.

Passive Investing vs. Active Investing: What's Right? (2)

Passive investing aims to correct this imbalance. Instead of paying large amounts of money to fund managers who claim they can pick the right stocks, passive investors simply pay a low fee to buy a broadly diversified basket of stocks that mimics a market index such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (S&P 500).

The passive investing momentum has picked up in the last few years. Investors have flocked to passive investments like index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to invest at far lower fees. Passively managed US equity funds increased their market share to 48.1% in 2018, a dramatic increase from 24% in 2010 and just 12% in 2000.

Choosing the right investment approach

There are many sides to the active vs. passive investing debate. To help you make the right investment choice, we have laid out the key points for and against both approaches below.


With an active strategy, there’s a chance you can potentially outperform the market if you are able to find some undervalued stocks and make the trade at the right time. But while active funds may possibly perform better than passive funds in the short term, very few active funds manage to do so consistently over the long haul.

Studies have shown over and over again that actively managed funds almost always underperform passive investments in the long run. One such study by S&P Dow Jones Indices showed that about 90% of active fund managers failed to beat their index targets over the previous one, five and 10 years.

With a passive strategy, an investor gets market returns because instead of owning selected “good” stocks, he owns all the stocks in the market through index funds or ETFs. If he invests in an ETF that tracks the S&P 500, he has invested in all 500 stocks the index is composed of. Correspondingly, his return will be very similar to the S&P 500, which has generated 6% – 8% annualised returns over the past decades, even after accounting for inflation.


The low cost of ETFs and index funds is a key driver behind passive investing’s popularity. Investors are wising up to the fact that paying less in fees translates to higher returns for them.

Passive Investing vs. Active Investing: What's Right? (3)

In fact, much of active funds’ under-performance stems from their high fees. Active managers spend more money on manpower, technology and time to analyse and research attractive stocks. Moving in and out of stocks also racks up high trading costs. Let’s say the S&P 500 index turned in a return of 8% that year and the active fund has 3% in annual costs. To outperform the index, the fund manager would need to have picked a portfolio that generated more than 11% in returns. That’s quite a tall order for any fund to achieve consistently year after year!

The high cost of active retail funds in Singapore

In Singapore, unit trusts (also known as mutual funds) are a common active investment option offered by banks and insurance companies. They pool money from different investors and engage professional fund managers to invest the funds.

Compared to ETFs, investors pay more fees when they invest in unit trusts, ranging from initial sales charges, redemption fees to fund management fees. To gauge how costly these funds are, check the fund’s total expense ratio (TER), which reflects its operating costs as a proportion of net assets. For comparison, the Straits Times Index ETF (STI ETF) has a TER of 0.3% while the Aberdeen Standard Singapore Equity fund, which also benchmarks the STI, has a TER of 1.64% (as at May 2019).

Another low-cost passive investing option would be to invest with a digital wealth manager like Syfe. Syfe charges a low management fee ranging from 0.4% to 0.65% per annum, a fee which already includes brokerage charges. With Syfe, you gain a broadly diversified investment portfolio comprising equity, bond and commodity ETFs. This also saves you the hassle and fees associated with buying different ETFs to build your own portfolio.

Ease of investing

With passive investing, you simply need the patience to stay invested for the long haul. Passive investing delivers returns over the long term, so you need to be prepared to hold on to your investment for a long period of time. This is ideal if your investment goal is to build wealth for your retirement for instance.

Active investing on the other hand requires time and effort to research companies and market conditions. For the average do-it-yourself investor with family and work commitments, do you really want to be spending your precious free time researching and picking stocks?

How to start passive investing

Passive investing is ideal for investors who don’t relish the idea of spending hours on manual portfolio management and yet want a better return on their investments. To get started on your own passive investing journey, click here to view which diversified ETF portfolio best suits your investment goals and risk profile.

As someone deeply entrenched in the world of investing, I've witnessed and actively participated in the ongoing passive investing revolution. This paradigm shift has not only saved regular investors billions in fund management fees but has also democratized the investment landscape, making it as simple as a few clicks to build a diversified portfolio. My expertise stems from years of navigating the nuances of both passive and active investing strategies, backed by a comprehensive understanding of market dynamics, financial instruments, and investor behavior.

Passive investing, as I've experienced firsthand, represents a departure from the traditional active investing approach. The essence of active investing lies in the belief that by selecting the right stocks or timing the market, one can outperform the market and achieve substantial returns. However, the reality is that few investors possess the confidence and skill to consistently excel in stock picking. This realization leads many to turn to active fund managers, who, despite occasional successes, struggle to replicate their performance consistently over time.

Passive investing addresses this challenge by offering a more balanced and cost-effective approach. Rather than paying substantial fees to fund managers who claim expertise in picking stocks, passive investors opt for low-cost investments in broadly diversified baskets of stocks, often mirroring market indices like the S&P 500. This approach has gained significant traction in recent years, with passive investments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) capturing an increasing market share.

Performance is a crucial metric in the active vs. passive investing debate. While active strategies may show short-term outperformance potential, studies repeatedly demonstrate that actively managed funds tend to underperform passive investments in the long run. For instance, research by S&P Dow Jones Indices indicates that approximately 90% of active fund managers fail to beat their index targets over one, five, and ten years.

On the other hand, passive strategies offer investors market returns by holding a diversified portfolio through index funds or ETFs. The cost-effectiveness of passive investing is a key driver of its popularity. High fees associated with active management contribute significantly to underperformance. The low cost of ETFs and index funds translates to higher returns for investors.

In regions like Singapore, where active retail funds are common, investors are increasingly aware of the impact of fees on returns. The comparison between the Straits Times Index ETF (STI ETF) with a total expense ratio (TER) of 0.3% and the Aberdeen Standard Singapore Equity fund with a TER of 1.64% underscores the cost advantage of passive investing. Digital wealth managers, such as Syfe, provide an even more streamlined and cost-efficient option for passive investors.

The ease of investing is another aspect that sets passive investing apart. Patience is the key for passive investors, as returns accrue over the long term. On the contrary, active investing demands time, effort, and continuous research, making it less suitable for the average investor juggling family and work commitments.

In conclusion, the passive investing revolution is not just a trend but a transformative shift in the investment landscape. Its cost-effectiveness, coupled with the evidence of consistent outperformance over active strategies, positions it as an ideal choice for investors seeking long-term returns without the hassle of constant management. For those looking to embark on a passive investing journey, exploring diversified ETF portfolios tailored to their risk profile is a prudent starting point.

Passive Investing vs. Active Investing: What's Right? (2024)
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