Who doesn’t love a county fair? The crazy collection of sights, sounds and smells. Sickeningly sweet fried treats, sizzling meat and candied popcorn fill the air.

No, it’s not the kind of place you go regularly or even every year, but drifting down the midway once in a while is a neat trip down memory lane for many of us.

As you go, you pass those ridiculous games of chance. Only $1 to throw dull, heavy darts at tiny balloons on a tack board. Just a buck for a chance to toss rings at rows of empty soda bottles.

What’s the prize? A worthless stuffed animal of dubious quality. But you play anyway, because that’s the fun of a fair. Step right up and take your chances, the carnival barkers command, and you play along for the laughs.

I was reminded of the semi-wholesome atmosphere of county-fair hucksterism by a recent piece in The New York Times on actively managed mutual funds. By their reckoning, the number of mutual funds that can claim the ability to beat the market has fallen to virtually zero.

That number is based on a long-running S&P Dow Jones Indices study which tries to figure out which, if any, of a universe of active mutual funds can claim “persistence,” that is, the ability to be in the top 25% and then stay in that upper quartile over consecutive years.

Of 2,862 funds studied, the answer was just … two. And things aren’t looking so good for those two “winning” funds this year. Both are small cap funds.

The really important idea here is that, yes, it is possible to beat the market for relatively long period of time. Two funds actually did it, until this year at least. But it’s virtually impossible for investors to know which funds will succeed. In fact, the overwhelming majority of funds will fail.

As for the 2,860 funds that cannot claim persistence? Well, their managers certainly charged plenty in fees. But the fact remains that those active managers would have done the same or possibly better flipping coins to pick their stocks. Skill has nothing to do with it.

You know in your gut when you step up to a midway game of chance that it’s rigged. You know the dart will push the balloon aside, not pop it. You know the rings will bounce around on the bottles and you’ll end up missing the prize.

Your money

But you play anyway because it’s just a dollar and your friends or your kids are watching and laughing. It’s fun and you might win, so why not?

You won’t miss $1. You will, however, miss the fees you pay for active management. Once you add up what you pay a stock broker in advisory fees and then the cost of the underlying funds, it can be in the neighborhood of 2% of your money each and every year.

Win or lose, up market or down, you pay, year in and year out. That’s real damage to your retirement, piling up. If active management as an industry could statistically demonstrate a market-beating return, that would be great.

The problem is that the stock pickers can’t do it, and the midway is emptying out fast.

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