Target Date Fund Follies

March 7, 2013

Target date and lifecycle funds have taken off since 2006, when they were deemed qualified default investment alternatives in the Pension Protection Act.  I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately, it planted the idea that a glidepath that moved toward bonds as the investor moved toward retirement was a good idea.  Assets in target date funds were nearly $400 billion at the end of 2011—and they have continued to grow rapidly.

In fact, bonds will prove to be a good idea if they perform well and a lousy idea if they perform poorly.  Since 10-year future returns correlate closely with the current coupon yield, prospects for bonds going forward aren’t particularly promising at the moment.  I’ve argued before that tactical asset allocation may provide an alternative method of accumulating capital, as opposed to a restrictive target-date glidepath.

A new research paper by Javier Estrada, The Glidepath Illusion: An International Perspective, makes a much broader claim.  He looks at typical glidepaths that move toward bonds over time, and then at a wide variety of alternatives, ranging from inverse glidepaths that move toward stocks over time to balanced funds.  His findings are stunning.

This lifecycle strategy implies that investors are aggressive with little capital and conservative with much more capital, which may not be optimal in terms of wealth accumulation. This article evaluates three alternative types of strategies, including contrarian strategies that follow a glidepath opposite to that of target-date funds; that is, they become more aggressive as retirement approaches. The results from a comprehensive sample that spans over 19 countries, two regions, and 110 years suggest that, relative to lifecycle strategies, the alternative strategies considered here provide investors with higher expected terminal wealth, higher upside potential, more limited downside potential, and higher uncertainty but limited to how much better, not how much worse, investors are expected to do with these strategies.

In other words, the only real question was how much better the alternative strategies performed.  (I added the bold.)

Every strategy option they considered performed better than the traditional glidepath!  True, if they were more focused on equities, they were more volatile.  But, for the cost of the volatility, you ended up with more money—sometimes appreciably more money.  This data sample was worldwide and extended over 110 years, so it wasn’t a fluke.  Staying equity-focused didn’t work occasionally in some markets—it worked consistently in every time frame in every region.  Certainly the future won’t be exactly like the past, so there is no way to know if these results will hold going forward.  However, bonds have had terrific performance over the last 30 years and the glidepath favoring them still didn’t beat alternative strategies over an investing lifetime.

Bonds, to me, make sense to reduce volatility.  Some clients simply must have a reduced-volatility portfolio to sleep at night, and I get that.  But Mr. Estrada’s study shows that the typical glidepath is outperformed even by a 60/40-type balanced fund.  (Balanced funds, by the way, are also designated QDIAs in the Pension Protection Act.)   Tactical asset allocation, where bonds are held temporarily for defensive purposes, might also allow clients to sleep at night while retaining a growth orientation.  The bottom line is that it makes sense to reduce volatility just enough to keep the client comfortable, but no more.

I’d urge you to read this paper carefully.  Maybe your conclusions will be different than mine.  But my take-away is this: Over the course of an investing lifetime, it is very important to stay focused on growth.

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Timeless Portfolio Lessons

February 1, 2013

The only thing new under the sun is the history you haven’t read yet.—-Mark Twain

Investors often have the conceit that they are living in a new era.  They often resort to new-fangled theories, without realizing that all of the old-fangled things are still around mainly because they’ve worked for a long time.  While circumstances often change, human nature doesn’t change much, or very quickly.  You can generally count on people to behave in similar ways every market cycle.  Most portfolio lessons are timeless.

As proof, I offer a compendium of quotations from an old New York Times article:

WHEN you check the performance of your fund portfolio after reading about the rally in stocks, you may feel as if there is  a great party going on and you weren’t invited. Perhaps a better way to look at it is that you were invited, but showed up at the wrong time or the wrong address.

It isn’t just you. Research, especially lately, shows that many investors don’t match market performance, often by a wide margin, because they are out of sync with downturns and rallies.

Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar, agrees. “It’s always hard to speak generally about what’s motivating investors,” she said, “but it’s emotions, basically,” resulting in “a pattern we see repeated over and over in market cycles.”

Those emotions are responsible not only for drawing investors in and out of the broad market at inopportune times, but also for poor allocations to its niches.

Where investors should be allocated, many professionals say, is in a broad range of assets. That will smooth overall returns and limit the likelihood of big  losses resulting from  an excessive concentration in a plunging market. It also limits the chances of panicking and selling at the bottom.

In investing, as in party-going, it’s often safer to  let someone else drive.

This is not ground-breaking stuff.  In fact, investors are probably bored to hear this sort of advice over and over—but it gets repeated because investors ignore the advice repeatedly!  This same article could be written today, or written 20 years from now.

You can increase your odds of becoming a successful investor by constructing a reasonable portfolio that is diversified by volatility, by asset class, and by complementary strategy.  Relative strength strategies, for example, complement value and low-volatility equity strategies very nicely because the excess returns tend to be uncorrelated.  Adding alternative asset classes like commodities or stodgy asset classes like bonds can often benefit a portfolio because they respond to different return drivers than stocks.

As always, the bottom line is not to get carried away with your emotions.  Although this is certainly easier said than done, a diversified portfolio and a competent advisor can help a lot.

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Complementary Strategies: One Key to Diversification

October 18, 2012

We use relative strength (known as “momentum” to academics) in our investment process.  We’ve written extensively how complementary strategies like low volatility and value can be used alongside relative strength in a portfolio.  S&P is now on board the train, as they show in this research paper how alternative beta strategies are often negatively correlated.  In fact, here’s the correlation matrix from the paper:

Source: Standard & Poors  (click to enlarge image)

You can see that relative strength/momentum is negatively correlated with both value and low volatility.  This is why we prefer diversification through complementary strategies.

They conclude:

…combining alternative beta strategies that are driven by distinct sets of risk factors may help to reduce the active risk and improve the information ratio.

Diversification is important for portfolios, but it’s not easily achieved.  For example, if you decide to segment the market by style box rather than by return factors, you will find that the style boxes are all fairly correlated.  Although it’s a mathematical truism that anything that isn’t 100% correlated will help diversification, diversification is far more efficient when correlations are low or negative.

We think using factor returns to identify complementary strategies is one of the more effective keys to diversification.

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Relative Strength vs. Value – Performance Over Time

May 31, 2012

Thanks to the large amount of stock data available nowadays, we are able to compare the success of different strategies over very long time periods. The table below shows the performance of two investment strategies, relative strength (RS) and value, in relation to the performance of the market as a whole (CRSP) as well as to one another. It is organized in rolling return periods, showing the annualized average return for periods ranging from 1-10 years, using data all the way back to 1927.

The relative strength and value data came from the Ken French data library. The relative strength index is constructed monthly; it includes the top one-third of the universe in terms of relative strength.  (Ken French uses the standard academic definition of price momentum, which is 12-month trailing return minus the front-month return.)  The value index is constructed annually at the end of June.  This time, the top one-third of stocks are chosen based on book value divided by market cap.  In both cases, the universes were composed of stocks with market capitalizations above the market median.

Lastly, the CRSP database includes the total universe of stocks in the database as well as the risk-free rate, which is essentially the 3-month Treasury bill yield. The CRSP data serves as a benchmark representing the generic market return. It is also worthwhile to know that the S&P 500 and DJIA typically do worse than the CRSP total-market data, which makes CRSP a harder benchmark to beat.

 

Source:Dorsey Wright Money Management

The data supports our belief that relative strength is an extremely effective strategy. In rolling 10-year periods since 1927, relative strength outperforms the CRSP universe 100% of the time.  Even in 1-year periods it outperforms 78.6% of the time. As can be seen here, relative strength typically does better in longer periods. While it is obviously possible do poorly in an individual year, by continuing to implement a winning strategy time and time again, the more frequent and/or larger successful years outweigh the bad ones.

Even more importantly, relative strength typically outperforms value investment. Relative strength defeats value in over 57% of periods of all sizes, doing the best in 10-year periods with 69.3% of trials outperforming. While relative strength and value investment strategies have historically both generally beat the market, relative strength has been more consistent in doing so.

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Hedge Fund Alternatives

May 29, 2012

From Barron’s, an interesting insight into the alternative space:

Investor interest in hedge-fund strategies has never been higher—but it’s the mutual-fund industry that seems to be benefiting.

Financial advisors and institutions are increasingly turning to alternative strategies to manage portfolio risk, though the flood of money into that area tapered off a bit last year, according to an about-to-be-released survey of financial advisors and institutional managers conducted by Morningstar and Barron’s. Many of them are finding the best vehicle for those strategies to be mutual funds.

Very intriguing, no?  There are quite a few ways now, through ETFs or mutual funds, to get exposure to alternatives.  We’ve discussed the Arrow DWA Tactical Fund (DWTFX) as a hedge fund alternative in the past as well.  Tactical asset allocation is one way to go, but there are also multi-strategy hedge fund trackers, macro fund trackers, and absolute-return fund trackers, to say nothing of managed futures.

Each of these options has a different set of trade-offs in terms of potential return and volatility.  For example, the chart below shows the Arrow DWA Tactical Fund, the IQ Hedge Macro Tracker, the IQ Hedge Multi-Strategy Tracker, and the Goldman Sachs Absolute Return Fund for the maximum period of time that all of the funds have overlapped.

(click on image to enlarge)

You can see that each of these funds moves differently.  For example, the Arrow DWA Tactical Fund, which is definitely directional, has a very different profile than the Goldman Sachs Absolute Return Fund, which presumably is not (as) directional.

Very few of these options were even available to retail investors ten years ago.  Now they are numerous, giving individuals the opportunity to diversify like never before.  With proper due diligence, it’s quite possible you will find an alternative strategy that can improve your overall portfolio.

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