Passive Funds vs Active Funds

5paisa Research Team Date: 17 Jul, 2023 03:20 PM IST


Want to start your Investment Journey?




In the realm of investments, one often encounters a crossroads: active or passive investing? Both approaches have their distinct features and cater to different investor preferences. Passive funds vs active funds differ in their investment strategies, with passive funds tracking market indexes while active funds aim to outperform the market through active stock selection

The performance consistency of passive funds vs active funds has been a topic of discussion among financial experts for years. This article delves into the nuances of active vs passive investing, highlighting their core principles and differentiating factors. By understanding passive investing vs active investing, you can make informed decisions on which investment path aligns with your financial goals, risk tolerance, and personal preferences.

What is an Actively Managed Portfolio?

An actively managed portfolio is a type of investment strategy where a fund manager is deeply involved in selecting and managing assets. Through meticulous research, analysis, and market forecasting, the fund manager actively makes decisions on which securities to buy, sell, or hold in the portfolio. This process aims to outperform the market benchmark, maximising returns and generating alpha for the investors.

Active management is commonly found in various investment vehicles, such as equity, debt, hybrid funds, and fund of funds. A key advantage of actively managed portfolios is the potential to achieve higher returns than the market index by leveraging the fund manager's experience, expertise, and insights. However, the drawback lies in the higher fees and expenses associated with active management, as well as the inherent risks from human decision-making.


What is a Passively Managed Portfolio?

Passively managed portfolios follow a different philosophy from active management. In this approach, the investment strategy is to mirror a specific market index's performance, rather than attempting to outperform it. Passive investments include vehicles such as index funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and some funds of funds.

In a passively managed portfolio, the fund manager's role is minimal, as the fund's composition and asset allocation are predetermined by the underlying index. For instance, an ETF tracking the S&P 500 will hold the same stocks in the same proportions as the index itself. The fund manager's primary responsibility is to ensure the portfolio remains aligned with the index.

Passively managed portfolios offer some benefits over actively managed ones, such as lower fees and expenses due to the minimal involvement of the fund manager. Additionally, these portfolios reduce the risks associated with human error in decision-making. However, passively managed funds typically generate returns that are in line with the benchmark, meaning they may not outperform the market or achieve significant alpha.

Active vs passive funds: Differences between the two

1.    Nature   

The nature of passive funds vs active funds significantly differs in their investment approach, with passive funds tracking a market index, while active funds involve active stock-picking to outperform the market. Active funds entail hands-on involvement from fund managers, who utilize research, analysis, and market insights to make buy, sell, or hold decisions for the securities in the portfolio. In contrast, passive funds involve minimal intervention from the fund manager. These funds mirror a specific market index's performance and invest in securities in the same proportions as the index. Consequently, passive funds focus on replicating the benchmark returns rather than trying to outperform them.

2.    Expense ratio   

Expense ratios reflect the costs associated with managing a fund, and they vary between active and passive funds. When comparing passive funds vs active funds, the expense ratio tends to be lower for passive funds, as they require less active management and fewer transaction costs. Active funds generally have higher expense ratios due to the extensive research, analysis, and management activities performed by the fund manager. On the other hand, passive funds have lower expense ratios because the fund manager's role is limited, and the investment strategy is relatively straightforward. Lower expense ratios can translate to higher net returns for the investor in the case of passive funds.

3.    Returns    

In terms of returns, passive funds vs active funds can yield different results. Active funds aim to outperform their benchmark index and deliver higher returns by leveraging the fund manager's expertise and decision-making. However, achieving this goal is not guaranteed, and active funds can sometimes underperform the market. In contrast, passive funds' returns closely track the benchmark index, providing investors with market-like returns. While they may not generate significant alpha, passive funds offer consistent returns that mirror the index performance.

4.    Risk 

The risk profile associated with passive funds vs active funds also varies. Active funds may expose investors to higher risks, as the fund manager's decisions are subject to human error, and the pursuit of higher returns often involves taking on additional risk. Passive funds, on the other hand, mitigate some risks by following a predetermined index. They eliminate stock-picking and portfolio manager selection risks through rule-based investing. However, passive funds still carry market risks, as they are subject to the same fluctuations as the underlying index.  

Balancing one's portfolio with a mix of active and passive investment options can provide a diversified approach to wealth creation and risk management.


Pros and Cons: Active vs Passive Investing

The debate on active vs passive mutual funds continues to gain attention as investors weigh the pros and cons of each approach in pursuit of maximising returns. Here is an overview of  passive funds vs active funds approach:

Active Investing:


1.    Potential for higher returns: Actively managed funds aim to outperform the benchmark index by leveraging the expertise and insights of the fund manager. This can lead to higher returns for investors, provided the fund manager's decisions prove successful.
2.    Flexibility and adaptability: Active fund managers can react to market changes and capitalise on investment opportunities, providing the potential to mitigate risks or capture gains that a passive strategy might miss.
3.    Expertise and research: Actively managed funds are backed by extensive research and analysis, often conducted by a team of professionals working with the fund manager. This can give investors access to valuable insights and informed decision-making.


1.    Higher costs: Active funds typically have higher expense ratios due to the fund manager's extensive involvement, which can eat into the investor's returns.
2.    Risk of underperformance: Actively managed funds can sometimes underperform their benchmark index, either due to poor decision-making by the fund manager or unfavourable market conditions.
3.    Human error: Decision-making in active funds is subject to human error, which can introduce additional risks and potential losses.

Passive Investing:


1.    Lower costs: Passive funds generally have lower expense ratios, as the fund manager's role is limited, and the investment strategy is straightforward. This can result in higher net returns for the investor.
2.    Consistent returns: Passive funds aim to mirror the performance of a market index, providing consistent returns that track the index closely.
3.    Lower risk: By following a predetermined index, passive funds mitigate some risks associated with stock-picking and portfolio manager selection.


1.    Limited potential for outperformance: Passive funds are designed to track an index, not outperform it. As a result, they may not generate significant alpha or deliver higher returns compared to active funds in certain market conditions.
2.    Susceptibility to market fluctuations: Passive funds are exposed to market risks, as their performance is tied to the underlying index. This means that during market downturns, passive funds will also suffer declines in value.
3.    Lack of flexibility: Passive funds do not adapt to changing market conditions or capitalise on investment opportunities, which can limit their potential to mitigate risks or capture gains. 

Passive funds vs active funds can cater to different investor preferences, with some valuing the hands-off approach of passive investing and others preferring a more hands-on strategy.

Active vs passive funds: What to choose?

When comparing passive funds vs active funds, one should consider their risk tolerance, investment goals, and the time they can dedicate to managing their investments. Both approaches have their merits, and a well-balanced investment strategy could include a mix of active and passive funds for optimal diversification.

Investors seeking higher returns and willing to take on additional risk may lean towards active funds. They can benefit from the expertise of a fund manager who actively seeks investment opportunities and adjusts the portfolio based on market conditions. Conversely, those seeking a lower-cost, lower-risk investment strategy that closely tracks the market may prefer passive funds.


Ultimately, the decision between passive funds vs active funds depends on an investor's unique financial situation, goals, and investment philosophy. Active investing offers the potential for higher returns and flexibility, while passive investing provides a cost-effective, lower-risk strategy with consistent market returns.

The optimal investment strategy will depend on your individual financial goals, risk appetite, and investment horizon. A combination of both active and passive funds can help create a well-diversified portfolio, capable of navigating various market conditions and meeting your long-term financial objectives.

Before making any investment decisions, it is essential to conduct thorough research and, if necessary, consult with a financial advisor to ensure your choices align with your financial goals and risk tolerance. By carefully considering your options and creating a tailored investment plan, you can work towards achieving financial success and a secure future.

More About Mutual Funds

Open Free Demat Account

Be a part of 5paisa community - The first listed discount broker of India.


Frequently Asked Questions

You can invest in passive mutual funds through various channels, such as directly visiting the Asset Management Company's (AMC) website, using online investment platforms, or consulting a financial advisor or distributor. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) can be bought and sold like any other stock on the exchange during market hours at real-time prices. 

Active funds can be worth it for investors seeking higher returns and willing to take on additional risks. Actively managed funds leverage the expertise of the fund manager, who makes informed investment decisions based on extensive research and market analysis. However, active funds usually come with higher fees, which may impact overall returns. The level of transparency in passive funds vs active funds can vary, with passive funds generally offering more transparency due to their adherence to market indexes.

The number of actively managed funds that beat the market varies from year to year and depends on market conditions and the fund manager's performance. On average, a significant percentage of actively managed funds tend to underperform their benchmark index over the long term. However, some active funds consistently outperform the market, which is why thorough research and due diligence are essential before investing.

Most ETFs are passive investments, as they track a specific index, sector, or asset class. They are designed to mirror the performance of the underlying benchmark, offering investors a cost-effective and transparent way to access market returns. However, there are some actively managed ETFs in the market, but they are less common.

When comparing passive funds vs active funds, one should consider their risk tolerance, investment goals, and the time they can dedicate to managing their investments. Active investing can potentially yield higher returns, but it comes with higher costs and risks. Passive investing offers a cost-effective, lower-risk approach with consistent market returns. Diversification is a key aspect to evaluate when comparing passive funds vs active funds, as each approach can lead to different levels of exposure to various sectors and assets.