The Economist weighs in on one of our favorite trends:
INVESTORS face a quandary. Cash offers a return of virtually zero in many developed countries; government-bond yields may have risen in recent weeks but they are still unattractive. Equities have suffered two big bear markets since 2000 and are wobbling again. It is hardly surprising that pension funds, insurers and endowments are searching for new sources of return.
Step forward “smart beta”, the latest bit of jargon from the fund-management industry. “Alpha” is the skill required to choose individual assets that will outperform the market; “beta” is the return achieved from exposure to the overall market, for example via an index fund. “Smart beta” is an approach that tries to enhance the return from tracking an asset class by deviating from the traditional “cap-weighted” approach, in which investors simply buy shares or bonds in proportion to their market value.
The sector is still small: there is just $142 billion in smart-beta funds, compared with more than $2 trillion stashed in hedge funds. But the concept is catching on. According to State Street Global Advisors, smart-beta funds received inflows of $15 billion in the first quarter of 2013, up by 45% on the same period a year earlier.
Such enthusiasm is another sign that the quants are taking over. Traditional fund managers were able to charge a fee for their alleged skill and judgment. The quants are showing that when such managers did outperform, the excess return was driven by factors that can be identified and commoditised. Fees for smart-beta funds tend to be higher than those charged by cap-weighted index funds but far lower than those charged by other managers.
There is a variety of smart-beta approaches. The simplest is to give each market constituent equal weight. If there are 100 stocks, then each would have a weighting of 1%. A second approach, dubbed “fundamental indexing”, is to weight each company by its financial characteristics—sales, dividends, assets or cashflow. A third is to weight the index in terms of the volatility of the stocks, with the least volatile being favoured. A fourth is to use the “momentum effect” to buy stocks that have recently risen in price. That’s just for starters.