Combining Momentum & Low Volatility for Enhanced Alpha

Most market participants would agree that four of the most popular factor based investment methods used today are often considered to be momentum, value, growth, and low volatility.   At Dorsey Wright, we are often asked the best way to combine Dorsey Wright strategies (momentum/relative strength) with these other commonly used factor strategies.      Proponents of any smart beta strategy will often support all of these strategies, even admitting that there are pros and cons to each factor.  Momentum, for example, is the idea of investing in securities or asset classes using a previous time period that has performed well, most commonly a 12 month trailing return.  This type of strategy tends to do well during periods of sustained trends, but lags others such as value and low volatility during choppy markets.

During the 1st quarter of 2015, the majority of momentum/relative strength based strategies tended to fare better than the other factor based strategies mentioned above.  One of the largest contributing factors to this alpha generation during Q1 of 2015 was the dispersion which existed amongst US equities.   For example, the energy sector saw a sharp decline while sectors such as healthcare, biotech, and consumer discretionary fared much better.    Fast forward to the Q1 of 2016 and we have a different story on our hands.   Momentum strategies have struggled due to a lack of sustained sector leadership, while investment themes such as low volatility and value have performed much better.

Given the recent changes in sector leadership, we thought it would be interesting to go back and take a look how a few of these factor methods have compared to each other in terms of performance, volatility, etc.  The table below is a simple study complied over the last 18 years comparing PDP (Momentum), SPLV (low volatility), and SPY (benchmark).   Although momentum (PDP) outperforms both SPLV (low volatility) and SPY (benchmark), the added alpha generation came with a few drawbacks (mainly the potential for elevated volatility).   While periods such as these can be difficult, there are certainly ways to minimize the downside when they do come about in the market.   For example, using a systematic process can be a huge advantage, as it helps remove the human emotion which often times is magnified during periods of heightened market volatility.   Let’s take a look at the table below and see what type of results each of these portfolios (momentum, low volatility, and the equity index) generated over the allotted time period.


PDP inception date: March 1, 2007 – data prior to inception is based on a back-test of the underlying index.

SPLV inception date: May 5, 2011 – data prior to inception is based on a back-test of the underlying index.

When we take a closer look at the returns, we can see just how much the momentum and low volatility factors  differ in terms of performance at various cycles in the market (note 1999, 2003, and 2008 just to name a few).   The idea of implementing both momentum and low volatility into a portfolio would then sure seem logical to most money managers.   After all, any type of low volatility factor investing can typically be thought of as a reversion to the mean type of trade, which most would agree is the exact opposite goal of momentum investing (i.e.  looking for “fat tail” trades that deviate from the mean).    More simply stated, combining two different factor allocations in a portfolio which tend to do well during different market cycles would certainly seem to be an added benefit for any portfolio manager looking to reduce volatility and continue to generate alpha.


The graphic above does a good job of displaying the differences returns year in and year out.  In fact, the correlation of excess returns between momentum and low volatility ends up at roughly-.70.    We plan to further visit this topic in our next blog post in order to give readers an a better idea on the type of results seen when combining these two factors in both a static and flexible allocations.   For now, the important thing to keep in mind is that in today’s investment world market participants should take full advantage of the full suite of products out there in order to help achieve alpha for their clients.    Using momentum and low volatility is just one way this can be done.   More detailed performance and risk analysis to follow in our next post on this topic.

Performance data for SPLV prior to 05/05/2011 and PDP prior to 3/01/2007 is the result of backtested underlying index data.  Investors cannot invest directly in an index.  Indexes have no fees.  The returns of the ETFs above do not include dividends, or all transaction costs.  Back-tested performance is hypothetical (it does not reflect trading in actual accounts) and is provided for informational purposes to illustrate the effects of the strategy during a specific period.  Back-tested performance results have certain limitations. Back-testing performance differs from actual performance because it is achieved through retroactive application of an investment methodology designed with the benefit of hindsight. Back-tested performance does not represent the impact of material economic and market factors might have on an investment advisor’s decision making process if the advisor were actually managing client money. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Potential for profits is accompanied by possibility of loss.

Neither the information within this post, nor any opinion expressed shall constitute an offer to sell or a solicitation or an offer to buy any securities  This article does not purport to be complete description of the securities to which reference is made.

DWA provides the underlying index for the PDP, discussed above, and receives licensing fees from PowerShares.


4 Responses to Combining Momentum & Low Volatility for Enhanced Alpha

  1. Thanks for posting.

  2. lawrence mouskoph says:

    This comparison is totally bogus. By leaving out dividends for SPLV the return is understated by at least 4% per year. So since the PDP pays very little in dividends it annual return of 10.98% will rise very little when dividends are included, but the SPLV annual return will go from 5.34% to probably 9.34%.
    The choice is clear a 11% return with volatility of over 30, or a 9.34% return with a volatility of 11.6. The Sharpe ratio for SPLV will be way higher than PDP.

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