Even fans of index funds often believe they do worse than funds with active managers during bear markets. The idea is that a savvy manager can shift money out of a crashing asset class in time to improve overall performance. As it turns out, "most events that result in major changes in market direction are unanticipated," says Christopher B. Philips, CFA, a senior analyst in Vanguard's Investment Strategy Group.

The facts, according to Vanguard: In four out of seven bear markets since January 1973, the Dow Jones U.S. Total Stock Market Index beat the average actively managed fund. The two bears in which many funds did better than the index were both in the 1980s.

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