Passive Investing Definition and Pros & Cons, vs. Active Investing (2024)

Passive investing is aninvestment strategyto maximize returns by minimizing buying and selling. Index investing is one common passive investing strategy whereby investors purchase a representative benchmark, such as the S&P 500 index, and hold it over a long time. Passive investing can be contrasted with active investing.

Key Takeaways

  • Passive investing broadly refers to a buy-and-hold portfolio strategy for long-term investment horizons with minimal trading in the market.
  • Index investing is perhaps the most common form of passive investing, whereby investors seek to replicate and hold a broad market index or indices.
  • Passive investment is less expensive, less complex, and often produces superior after-tax results over medium to long time horizons when compared to actively managed portfolios.

Understanding Passive Investing

Passive investing methods seek to avoid the fees and limited performance that may occur with frequent trading. The goal of passive investing is to build wealth gradually. Also known as a buy-and-hold strategy, passive investing means purchasing a security to own it long-term.Unlike activetraders, passive investors do not seek to profit from short-term price fluctuations or market timing. The market posts positive returns over time is the underlying assumption of passive investment strategy.

Passive managers generally believe it is difficult to out-think the market, so they try to match market or sector performance. Passive investing attempts to replicate market performance by constructing well-diversified portfolios of single stocks, which if done individually, would require extensive research. The introduction of index funds in the 1970s made achieving returns in line with the market much easier. In the 1990s, exchange-traded funds, orETFs, that track major indices, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), simplified the process even further by allowing investors to trade index funds as though they were stocks.

Passive Investing Benefits and Drawbacks

Maintaining a well-diversified portfolio is important to successful investing, and passive investing via indexing is enables investors to achieve diversification. Index funds spread risk broadly in holding a representative sample of the securities in their target benchmarks. Index funds track a target benchmark or index rather than seeking winners. Thus, they avoid constantly buying and selling securities. As a result, they have lower fees and operating expenses than actively managed funds.

An index fund offers simplicity as an easy way to invest in a chosen market because it seeks to track an index. There is no need to select and monitor individual managers, or chose among investment themes.

However, passive investing is subject to total market risk. Index funds track the entire market, so when the overall stock market or bond prices fall, so do index funds. Another risk is the lack of flexibility. Index fund managers usually are prohibited from using defensive measures such as reducing a position in shares, even if the manager thinks share prices will decline. Passively managed index funds face performance constraints as they are designed to provide returns that closely track their benchmark index, rather than seek outperformance. They rarely beat the return on the index, and usually return slightly less due to operating costs.

Some of the key benefits of passive investing are:

  • Ultra-low fees:There's nobody picking stocks, so oversight is much less expensive.Passive funds follow the index they use as their benchmark.
  • Transparency:It's always clear which assets are in an index fund.
  • Tax efficiency:Their buy-and-hold strategy doesn't typically result in a massivecapital gains taxfor the year.
  • Simplicity: Owning an index, or group of indices, is far easier to implement and comprehend than a dynamic strategy that requires constant research and adjustment.

Proponents of active investing would say that passive strategies have these weaknesses:

  • Too many limitations:Passive funds are limited to a specific index or predetermined set of investments with little to no variance. Thus, investors are locked into those holdings, no matter what happens in the market.
  • Smaller potential returns:By definition, passive funds will pretty much never beat the market, even during times of turmoil, as their core holdings are locked in to track the market. Sometimes, a passive fund may beat the market by a little, but it will never post the big returns active managers crave unless the market itself booms.Active managers, on the other hand, can bring bigger rewards (see below), although those rewards come with greater risk as well.


Fees for funds vary. Actively managed funds typically have higher operating costs than passively managed funds, but it is always important to check fees before choosing an investment fund.

Active Investing: Benefits and Limitations

To contrast the pros and cons of passive investing, active investing also have its benefits and limitations to consider:

  • Flexibility:Active investors aren't required to follow a specific index. They can buy those "diamond in the rough" stocks they believe they've found.
  • Hedging:Active managers can also hedge their bets using various techniques such asshort salesorput options, and they're able to exit specific stocks or sectors when the risks become too big. Passive investors are stuck with the stocks that the index they track holds, regardless of how they are doing.
  • Tax management:Even though this strategy could trigger a capital gains tax, advisors can tailor tax management strategies to individual investors, such as by selling investments that are losing money to offset the taxes on the big winners.

But active strategies have these shortcomings:

  • Very expensive:Fees are higher because all that active buying and selling triggers transaction costs, not to mention that you're paying the salaries of the analyst team researching equity picks. All those fees over decades of investing can kill returns. In 2020, the average fee for actively managed mutual funds was 0.71% while fees for passively managed funds were an average of 0.06%.
  • Active risk:Active managers are free to buy any investment they think would bring high returns, which is great when the analysts are right but detrimental when they're wrong.
  • Poor track record: The data show that very few actively managed portfolios beat their passive benchmarks, especially after taxes and fees are accounted for. Indeed, over medium to long time frames, only a small handful of actively managed mutual funds surpass their benchmark index.

How can you start passive investing?

Purchasing an index fund is a common passive investment strategy. Index funds are designed to mirror the activity of a market index, such as the Russell 2000 Index. Index funds are designed to maximize returns in the long run by purchasing and selling less often than actively managed funds.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are another common choice for passive investors. ETFs can be passively or actively managed. Index-based ETFs, like index funds, track the activity of a securities index.

What are the costs associated with passive investment?

Passive investing is often less expensive than active investing because fund managers are not picking stocks or bonds. Passive funds allow a particular index to guide which securities are traded, which means there is not the added expense of research analysts.

Even passively managed funds will charge fees. Whenever deciding what kind of fund to invest in, investigate the associated costs.

What kind of returns can you expect from passive investing versus active investing?

Actively investment aims to drive up returns by pursuing frequent trading, but these returns are diminished by the fees associated with professional management and frequent buying and selling. Research shows that few actively managed funds give investors returns above benchmark over long periods of time.

Passive investing targets strong returns in the long term by minimizing the amount of buying and selling, but it is unlikely to beat the market and result in outsized returns in the short term. Active investment can bring those bigger returns, but it also comes with greater risks than passive investment.

The Bottom Line

Passive investing has pros and cons when contrasted with active investing. This strategy can be come with fewer fees and increased tax efficiency, but it can be limited and result in smaller short-term returns compared to active investing. Passive investment can be an attractive option for hands-off investors who want to see returns with less risk over a longer period of time.

Passive Investing Definition and Pros & Cons, vs. Active Investing (2024)


Passive Investing Definition and Pros & Cons, vs. Active Investing? ›

Passive investing targets strong returns in the long term by minimizing the amount of buying and selling, but it is unlikely to beat the market and result in outsized returns in the short term. Active investment can bring those bigger returns, but it also comes with greater risks than passive investment.

What are the pros and cons of active and passive investing? ›

The Pros and Cons of Active and Passive Investments
  • Pros of Passive Investments. •Likely to perform close to index. •Generally lower fees. ...
  • Cons of Passive Investments. •Unlikely to outperform index. ...
  • Pros of Active Investments. •Opportunity to outperform index. ...
  • Cons of Active Investments. •Potential to underperform index.

What is the difference between passive and active investing? ›

Key Takeaways. Active investing requires a hands-on approach, typically by a portfolio manager or other active participant. Passive investing involves less buying and selling, often resulting in investors buying indexed or other mutual funds.

What are the arguments against passive investing? ›

Critics of passive investing say funds that simply track an index will always underperform the market when costs are taken into account. In contrast, active managers can potentially deliver market-beating returns by carefully choosing the stocks they hold.

How to tell if a fund is active or passive? ›

In general terms, active management refers to mutual funds that are actively managed by a portfolio manager. Passive management typically refers to funds that simply mirror the composition and performance of a specific index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500® Index.

What are the cons of active investing? ›

Though active investing may have potential advantages over passive investing, it also comes with potential limitations to consider:
  • Requires high engagement. ...
  • Demands higher risk tolerance. ...
  • Tends not to beat benchmarks over time.

What are the 5 advantages of passive investing? ›

Advantages of Passive Investing
  • Steady Earning. Investing in Passive Funds means you're in it for a long race. ...
  • Fewer Efforts. As one of the most known benefits of passive investing, low maintenance is something that active investing surely lacks. ...
  • Affordable. ...
  • Lower Risk. ...
  • Saving on Capital Gain Tax.
Sep 29, 2022

What is active vs passive investing for dummies? ›

Active investments are funds run by investment managers who try to outperform an index over time, such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000. Passive investments are funds intended to match, not beat, the performance of an index.

What is the goal of passive investing? ›

Passive investing is a long-term investment strategy that focuses on buying and holding investments for the long term. Its goal is to build wealth gradually over time by buying and holding a diverse portfolio of investments and relying on the market to provide positive returns over time.

What is the main difference between active and passive portfolio management? ›

Active management requires frequent buying and selling in an effort to outperform a specific benchmark or index. Passive management replicates a specific benchmark or index in order to match its performance. Active management portfolios strive for superior returns but take greater risks and entail larger fees.

What is the best way to passive investing? ›

17 passive income ideas for 2024
  1. Dividend stocks.
  2. Dividend index funds or ETFs.
  3. Bonds and bond funds.
  4. Real estate investment trusts (REITS)
  5. Money market funds.
  6. High-yield savings accounts.
  7. CDs.
  8. Buy a rental property.
Apr 16, 2024

Which is an example of passive investing? ›

Passive investors buy a basket of stocks, and buy more or less regularly, regardless of how the market is faring. This approach requires a long-term mindset that disregards the market's daily fluctuations. Similarly, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds can take an active or passive approach.

What is the simplest passive investing strategy? ›

Dividend stocks are one of the simplest ways for investors to create passive income. As public companies generate profits, a portion of those earnings are siphoned off and funneled back to investors in the form of dividends. Investors can decide to pocket the cash or reinvest the money in additional shares.

How do passive funds make money? ›

Passive investing is an investment strategy to maximize returns by minimizing buying and selling. Index investing is one common passive investing strategy whereby investors purchase a representative benchmark, such as the S&P 500 index, and hold it over a long time.

Which is better active funds or passive funds? ›

Risk: Active funds have a higher risk than passive funds, as they are subject to the fund manager's skill, judgment, and errors. Passive funds have a lower risk than active funds, as they eliminate the human factor and closely mirror the index, resulting in lower volatility and tracking error.

Are mutual funds considered passive? ›

Both ETFs and index mutual funds are pooled investment vehicles that are passively managed. The key difference between them (discussed below) is that ETFs can be bought and sold on the stock exchange (just like individual stocks)—and index mutual funds cannot.

What are the advantages of active and passive? ›

Advantages and Disadvantages

In a sense this is correct – the Active voice puts the subject in the focal part of the sentence and celebrates the subject – the actor – whereas the Passive focuses on the object of the sentence – the thing being acted on.

What are the pros and cons of investing? ›

Bottom Line. Investing in stocks offers the potential for substantial returns, income through dividends and portfolio diversification. However, it also comes with risks, including market volatility, tax bills as well as the need for time and expertise.

What is the disadvantage of passive income? ›

1) upfront Investment: Setting up passive income frequently needs an upfront time or financial investment, such as buying stocks or real estate. 2) Unpredictability: Because it may change depending on variables like market circ*mstances, interest rates, or property prices, passive income can be unpredictable.

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