Not dead yet: Active stock pickers just had a big month

Key Points
  • Nearly two-thirds of large-cap money managers beat their benchmarks in April and the average fund outperformed by 18 basis points, according to a note Tuesday from Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
  • Stock pickers focused on growth stocks such as technology giants, the report said.
  • However, small-cap money managers continued to underperform with just a 43 percent beat rate.
A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

In the latest sign that stock picking may be back, large-cap money managers just posted their best performance in more than two years.

Sixty-three percent of money managers who pick large-cap stocks beat their benchmarks in April, the best rate since February 2015, according to a note Tuesday from Bank of America Merrill Lynch strategists led by Savita Subramanian.

The high outperformance marked the 25th best month in BofAML's data-collection history going back to the early 1990s.

Stock pickers did well thanks to their focus on growth stocks in the technology industry, Subramanian said in the report.

Information technology rose 2.4 percent in April as the best performer in the S&P 500, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite has repeatedly set fresh record highs.

Active money managers, or stock pickers, have suffered in the last few years as investors flocked to passive investing strategies like exchange-traded funds.

Flows into U.S. equity ETFs from domestically based funds reached a cumulative $215.81 billion over the 12 months ended April 26, while actively managed funds saw a cumulative outflow of $170.7 billion over that time, according to EPFR Global.

Active management blues

At the beginning of this year, money managers hoped that higher inflation, the Trump administration's stimulative proposals, and higher interest rates would create divergences within the market and give stock pickers a chance to shine.

Total net assets of $2.38 trillion in actively managed funds still top that of ETFs by about $700 billion, the EPFR data showed.

April's performance is part of an encouraging trend for stock pickers: "[M]ore than half of active fund managers have beaten their benchmarks in nine out of the last 13 months," Subramanian said in the note.

And for the year so far, 52 percent of money managers have topped their benchmarks, a sharp contrast with the 22 percent rate this time last year, the report said.

However, small-cap money managers continued to underperform. Only 43 percent beat their benchmarks in April, the third straight month in which less than half of small-cap managers did so, the report said.

The small-cap Russell 2000 gained 1.05 percent in April, topping the 's 0.91 percent rise.

— CNBC's Gina Francolla contributed to this report.