Active vs. Passive Investing: Interview with S&P Dow Jones Indices (S&P 500) & How to Choose the Right ETFs

Active vs Passive Investing and How to Choose the Right ETF - Joseph Nelesen and Erin Allen

In this episode, I interview S&P Dow Jones Indices, the creator of the S&P 500, Dow Jones, and many other popular indices used around the world by millions of investors. 

On today’s interview, we’re going to be covering the SPIVA scorecards which are semiannual reports published by S&P that compare the performance of active funds (i.e. active investing) vs taking the passive index investing approach.

In other words, when you hear the debate of whether you should be a passive index investor, or an active investor, the SPIVA scorecards actually look at how well the active managers have done compared to if you just invested in the index.

Our guests today are Joe Nelesen from S&P Dow Jones Indices, and Erin Allen from BMO ETFs. Joe is the Senior Director of Index Investment Strategy over at S&P, and Erin is the Vice President of Online Distribution over at BMO ETFs, which is the largest Canadian provider of ETFs.

I thought we could have both Joe and Erin on the show, as that way we can learn more about the insights and discoveries learned from the SPIVA reports when it comes to the active vs passive debate. And, since Erin and her team actually create these ETFs for Canadians, we discuss how to actually practically apply these SPIVA findings and insights, when constructing or optimizing our own investments portfolio, here in Canada. In other words, what to look for and things to watch out for when we are actually building, optimizing, and deciding which ETFs to use for our own portfolio. 

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Resources from the Episode:

S&P’s Dow Jones Indexology Blog

The Latest SPIVA Reports

SPIVA Persistence Scorecard for Canada

ETF Market Insights:

YouTube Channel for ETF Market Insights

BMO Core ETFs:

You can see all the ETFs and their details here. Below are some of the core ETFs discussed in the episode:

Canada: ZCN: BMO S&P/TSX Capped Composite Index

United States: ZSP: BMO S&P 500 Index

International Developed: ZEA: BMO MSCI EAFE Index

International Emerging Markets: ZEM: BMO MSCI Emerging Markets Index

Fixed Income: ZAG: BMO Aggregate Bond Index

Questions Covered:

  1. Joe, to make this friendly to anybody new to the world of investing, can you start by telling us a bit about S&P Dow Jones Indices, as well as the SPIVA reports and why they are important for us everyday investors?

  2. The SPIVA analysis has over 20 years of data at this point. Can you speak to what these decades of analysis have taught you and individual investors about passive and active management around the world?

  3. Erin, for those like myself who are totally on-board with what the SPIVA findings suggest and are looking to just have an easy-to-manage investment portfolio where they’re just looking to buy the total market index; what are the options available to them in Canada, and can you take us through the pros and cons of these different approaches?

  4. Joe, one of the reports that I’ve always found fascinating is the persistence scorecard that you publish. Can you speak to what it is, where can listeners find it, and what is the role of ‘persistence’ when measuring active outperformance?

  5. Erin, when it comes to the core ETFs and asset allocation ETFs that try to mimic the index, one of the critical metrics that individual investors need to be aware of is the tracking error, especially when trying to choose a comparable ETF from one provider to another.

    Can you take us through:
    1. What ‘tracking error’ is?
    2. Why is it important?
    3. How can we check it ourselves?
  6. Is some tracking error normal, and how do fees (MER) factor into the tracking error number that we see published?

  7. At what point would a tracking error be considered high? And does that number vary depending on which index we’re looking at? (ex. S&P TSX vs something like an MSCI emerging markets index)

  8. Joe, it seems like with the thousands of investment products out there, the definition of the word “passive” can really vary quite a bit, not just amongst individual investors but amongst companies offering these products as well.

    I’ve even heard arguments about the S&P 500 not actually being 100% passive as there is still a committee that chooses which stocks are included in the S&P 500 index. Can you speak to that a bit and also, how do you think individual investors should define “passive” vs “active”?

  9. Erin, when a DIY investor is purchasing total market index ETFs, do those literally include all publicly traded companies on any exchange that fit that region? (ex. S&P TSX for Canada), or is it more of a representative sample of that region?

  10. Also, I think it would be good for investors to know about what the difference and implications are of a capped index, vs an uncapped index. Can you explain these?

  11. Usually, we see the Canadian index (S&P/TSX) being capped when it comes to ETFs like with your ETF, ZCN. What about core index ETFs for other countries like the US, and beyond. Are those typically capped as well?

  12. Joe, in the past, you mentioned how indexes help us manage our own human behavioral biases and overcome market hurdles that can otherwise derail our investing success. Can you elaborate on this?

  13. Thank you to both of you for coming on. Erin, can you tell us where we can learn more on your end, and perhaps let everyone know about the ETF Market Insights sessions that you run every week where listeners of the show can submit their questions and have them answered live.

    Joe, thank you very much for coming on as well. Can you tell us more about where we can learn more from you and your team, and where we can find the SPIVA reports and any other resources that Canadian investors may find helpful.


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