Quite a few of recent industry articles focus on factor investing.

Rick Ferri has a two-part article on the topic, with the first part covering the history of multi-factor models, and the second part delving into more practical considerations. According to the author, factor investing has the following benefits:

  • Outsized performance (returns) compared to a single-factor (market) portfolio, e.g. as historically observed for small-cap stocks
  • Combination of uncorrelated factors leads to a higher risk-adjusted performance of the portfolio
  • Intellectual enrichment and academic stimulation that stems from studying of multi-factor models.

The author also points out the disadvantages of factor investing:

  • Cost of factor vehicles [although the actual expense ratio of VTI is 0.05% and not the cited 0.15%]
  • Historical lack of risk premium persistence of factors such as size.

The author comes to the same conclusions about factor-based products from DFA as Alpholio™ already did in one of the previous posts. However, in his zeal to defend pure market-based factor investing, the author confuses terms:

Finally, tracking error is the name give [sic] to a strategy that falls short of a market benchmark. It could mean the downfall for many multifactor investors.

A tracking error of a factor investment vehicle is in reference to the theoretical index of this vehicle and not to the market benchmark. For example, a momentum factor does not purport to track the S&P 500® index.

The author goes on to combat the term “smart beta” in his post on InvestmentNews. Despite a more pragmatic approach from Arnott, the author quotes noted academics (Sharpe, Fama, and French) to instill the message of beta purity, :

I believe the original definitions are best left unchanged. Beta is non-diversifiable market risk, other return dimensions are defined as additional risk factors, and putting these risks together in a portfolio is multifactor investing.

In the end, does it really matter if factor coefficients in a multiple regression are labeled beta1, beta2, …, or beta, gamma, delta, …? Sure, “smart beta” may sound like a marketing gimmick from fund providers to peddle their latest products, but it is a simple way of conveying the difference of these factors from plain market-cap based ones.

Finally, an article in Morningstar focuses on the scientific background of multifactor investing. It also presents two points of view on factors: from the perspectives of efficient and not perfectly rational market. The author leans toward the second interpretation, which is supposedly supported by the following “evidence:”

It’s also hard to reconcile them all [factors] as representing risk because if you lump them all together, you get an eerily smooth return stream.

The reason for this smoothing is that excess returns of factors are generally un- or low-correlated, and thus tend to cancel “bumps” in portfolio returns. This does not mean that each factor does not represent risk.

The author then proceeds to cover the problem of redefinition of alpha, which results from the introduction of multiple factors, and concludes that from his perspective such an adjustment is inappropriate because it “redefines outperformance:”

From my perspective, the mountains of studies purporting to show that active equity managers can’t beat the market are really showing that much of their excess returns can be replicated by a handful of factor strategies.

Regardless of semantics and opinions, if a manager’s excess returns can be replicated by cheaper and readily accessible instruments (such as factor ETFs), then there is no need to pay the excess management fee.

From Alpholio™’s perspective, all of the above discussions are academic. Whether or not factors have persistent risk premia, market is efficient or not perfectly rational, what truly matters is whether or not active management adds value over a reference portfolio after all fees have been taken into account. Factor ETFs provide yet another set of potential explanatory variables that squeeze the alpha to its essence, the RealAlpha™.

Pin It