Investors are paying hefty fees for mutual funds that bill themselves as actively managed but in large part are mimicking a benchmark stock index.
Since the height of the U.S. financial crisis, more funds are playing it safe, hugging their benchmarks and sometimes earning the unwanted reputation as "closet indexers."
About one-third of U.S. mutual fund assets, amounting to several trillion dollars, are with closet indexers, according to research published last year by Antti Petajisto, a former Yale University professor who now works for BlackRock Inc.
In general, Petajisto defines a closet indexer as a fund with less than 60 percent of its investments differing from its benchmark.
"The performance of closet indexers has been predictably poor: They largely just match their benchmark index returns before fees, so after fees, they lag behind their benchmarks by approximately the amount of their fees," Petajisto said in his study published last year in the Financial Analysts Journal.
For example, the $5.3 billion ClearBridge Appreciation Fund largely follows the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index and charges a minimum fee of 0.61 percent, compared with 0.10 percent or lower for an unmanaged index fund.
One of ClearBridge Appreciation's largest investors is Colorado's Scholars Choice College Savings Program run by Legg Mason, U.S. regulatory filings show. With $3.2 billion in assets, it is one of the largest U.S. college savings plans sold by financial advisers.
The fund's return looks better over a longer period, said Angela Baier, a spokeswoman for the Colorado plan. ClearBridge Appreciation's 10-year return through the end of January was 7.01 percent, compared with the benchmark's 6.83 percent, Morningstar said.