Momentum Demystified

December 28, 2016

It has been stated by no less than Eugene Fama, the 2014 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics that “The premier anomaly is momentum.” [1]  This idea that past winners tend to be future winners, while past losers tend to be future losers, has been vetted and established through hundreds of academic white papers on the topic.

Yet, momentum (aka relative strength) continues to be a misunderstood approach to investing.  Why is momentum a strong investment factor that gives investors the potential to outperform over time?  How exactly can momentum be exploited?

I think Tom Dorsey explained the concept of momentum best in a recent interview:


If I gave you a list of the 100 best golfers worldwide and asked you to pick who you thought would be in the top 10 at the end of the next quarter, who would you pick? My guess is you would pick the current top ten to be in the top three months from now. Even if I asked you to pick the ones who would be in the top ten after one year, you would probably pick the current top ten.

At the end of the contest some would have fallen out and some would have moved up, but the majority would still be in the top ten. This is outperformance. It relates to Newton’s Law of motion, which suggests that objects that are in motion tend to stay in motion until an external force acts upon them. So, in my world this means that stocks that have good fundamentals, in a market that in general is supporting higher prices, and the chart pattern clearly shows that demand is in control of the stock, tend to continue to do well. Golfers who have good fundamentals, are in good shape, and at the top of their game, tend to continue to do well.

Buy the winners.

[1] Fama, E. and K. French, 2008, Dissecting Anomalies, The Journal of Finance, 63, pg. 1653-1678.

To the Data

For a simple illustration of the power of momentum, consider the following study completed by Nasdaq Dorsey Wright’s Senior Portfolio Manager, John Lewis, CMT, who has done extensive research and published numerous whitepapers on the topic of momentum investing.


Out of an investment universe of the largest 1,000 U.S. stocks by market capitalization, we backtested a strategy that selected the top 100 stocks based on trailing 12 month total return.  The portfolio was rebalanced on a monthly basis.  Each of the 100 stocks in the portfolio was equal-weighted each month.

As shown below, this simple momentum strategy outperformed the Russell 1000 Total Return Index by a meaningful margin during this test period covering 12/31/1989 – 9/30/2016.


Additional data points:

  • Annualized return of the momentum model was 13.45% compared to 9.49% for the Russell 1000 Total Return Index over this period of time.
  • The momentum model outperformed the Russell 1000 Total Return Index in 67 percent of rolling 3 year periods and 70 percent of rolling 5 year periods.

There are a variety of ways to construct and implement a momentum strategy and this is by no means meant to be held out the only or the best method.  Rather, the purpose of this study is to demonstrate that a very simple momentum model has significant performance potential over time.  The bottom line is that any investor who seeks to employ an active investment strategy that strives to generate performance above that of a passive index over time should give strong consideration to making momentum a key component of their portfolios.

Source: FactSet.  Hypothetical Back-test Period: 12/31/1989 – 09/30/2016.  Performance information for the Momentum Model is the result of a strategy back-test on an index that is not available for direct investment.  Back-tested performance is hypothetical and is provided for informational purposes to illustrate the effects of the strategy during a specific period.  The hypothetical returns have been developed and tested by DWA, but have not been verified by any third party and are unaudited.  Back-testing performance differs from actual performance because it is achieved through retroactive application of a model investment methodology designed with the benefit of hindsight.  Model performance data (both back-tested and live) 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.  Returns include dividends, but do not include fees or transaction costs.  Past performance is not indicative of future results.  Potential for profits is accompanied by possibility of loss.  The relative strength strategy is NOT a guarantee.  There may be times where all investments and strategies are unfavorable and depreciate in value. 

Accessing Momentum through Managed Accounts

Hopefully, at this point you are starting to wonder how you can put this powerful investment factor to work for your clients.  We have a suggestion: Take a look at our family of Systematic Relative Strength Portfolios, which are available on a large and growing number of separately managed account (SMA) and unified managed account (UMA) platforms.

First, a little history.  Since 1987, Dorsey Wright & Associates has been an advisor to financial professionals on Wall Street and investment managers worldwide, providing technical research and investment solutions.  In 2002, John Lewis joined the portfolio management team at Dorsey Wright and was instrumental in leading an extensive period of research that led to the introduction of our family of Systematic Relative Strength portfolios.  These portfolios have two major objectives:

  1. Systematize the investment management process to remove as much of the element of human emotion as possible.
  2. Focus the investment strategy around the most powerful return factor we could identify: momentum (aka relative strength).

This family of accounts now consists of seven different strategies:


Four of the seven strategies now have 10+ year track records.  There are 3 key reasons to consider making these strategies part of your client’s portfolios:

  1. We believe that momentum is the premier investment factor and has the potential to provide meaningful investment performance for your clients.
  2. Momentum can be relatively uncorrelated to other investment strategies, such as value.
  3. Dorsey Wright, a Nasdaq Company, is committed to providing financial advisors with the highest level of investment research, tools, and investment solutions in the industry to help you succeed in serving your clients.

Where Are These Strategies Available

These portfolios are available on over 20 different platforms, including on most major wirehouses, regionals, discount brokerages, and Turnkey Asset Management Programs (TAMPs).

To find out about availability at your firm and to receive the fact sheets on these strategies, please contact Andy Hyer at or by calling him at 626-535-0630.

Dorsey, Wright & Associates, a Nasdaq Company, is a registered investment advisory firm. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed shall constitute an offer to sell or a solicitation or an offer to buy any securities, commodities or exchange traded products.  This document does not purport to be complete description of the investment strategies to which reference is made.  The relative strength strategy is NOT a guarantee.  There may be times where all investments and strategies are unfavorable and depreciate in value.  Relative Strength is a measure of price momentum based on historical price activity.  Relative Strength is not predictive and there is no assurance that forecasts based on relative strength can be relied upon. Each investor should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, and expenses of the strategies discussed above prior to investing.  Advice from a financial professional is strongly advised. 

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