Can large pension funds beat the market? Asset allocation, market timing, security selection, and the limits of liquidity

We analyze the three components of active management (asset allocation, market timing and security selection) in the net performance of U.S. pension funds and relate these to fund size and the liquidity of the investments. On average, the funds in our sample have an annual net alpha of 89 basis points that is evenly distributed across the asset allocation, market timing, and security selection components. Stock momentum fully explains the positive alpha in security selection, whereas “time series momentum” drives market timing. While larger pension funds have lower investment costs, this does not lead to better net performance. Rather, all three components of active management exhibit substantial diseconomies of scale directly related to illiquidity. Our results suggest that especially the larger pension funds would have done better if they invested more in passive mandates without frequent rebalancing across asset classes.

Netspar, Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement, is a thinktank and knowledge network. Netspar is dedicated to promoting a wider understanding of the economic and social implications of pensions, aging and retirement in the Netherlands and Europe.

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