Ed Moisson is a journalist at Ignites Europe, an FT service covering the asset management industry, and the author of The Economics of Fund Management.

Former UK education secretary Michael Gove once claimed that every UK school could be above average, to widespread derision. But what seemed somewhat surprising for schools turns out to be possible for fund managers.

Comparing the performance of more than 2,700 funds sold in the UK against their peers reveals that 45 per cent of funds have delivered first quartile returns — as long as they are allowed to pick which time period to use, whether one year, three years, five years or a decade.

The picture is even better for fund managers when looking for funds with above median returns:

On the flipside, the same data reveals that 41 per cent of funds have ranked in the lowest quartile at one time or another.

But even this finding essentially supports the same conclusion: active fund managers can justify their past performance as long as they can choose the time period. This opens up possibilities for managers to cherry-pick figures to make them look as good as possible, or at least to argue that periods of underperformance are temporary aberrations.

It also reflects that funds’ performance moves around a lot relative to peers. So analysing active manager returns is a bit like nailing jelly to the wall.

This number-crunching isn’t a sleight of hand that has no practical purpose: asset managers do use multiple time periods to demonstrate they are doing a good job for their customers.

A good example of this relates to the requirement for UK authorised fund managers to carry out annual assessments of the value they deliver to clients. These value assessments show that the findings above are, if anything, lowballing just how well asset managers claim they are doing.

Trawling through the most recent of these value assessments, 89 per cent of funds claim to be delivering good performance. (The proportion claiming to be delivering good value for money overall, when taking into account other non-performance factors, is even higher).

Ironically the rules requiring these value assessments were introduced after a study by the UK financial regulator concluded that too many active fund managers were underperforming and could not justify their fees.

Using multiple time periods to find stretches of good performance by active managers can also affect where money flows.

If professional fund selectors working at banks or wealth managers look beyond headline figures, or temporary periods of underperformance, they can still find actively managed funds to recommend to their clients — giving seemingly good reasons to resist the siren call of index-based products.

This is particularly evident in the UK and Europe, where money continues to flow into actively managed funds, far more than in the US:

It just goes to show the adage that if you torture the data long enough it will eventually tell you want you want it to. Maybe the asset management industry just wants everyone to look at performance data the way that Michael Gove looks at averages.

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