A recent article in The Wall Street Journal’s Investing in Funds & ETFs report discusses merger arbitrage mutual funds. According to the article, such funds

…may offer an attractive way to diversify away from the risks of stocks or bonds …[but] can’t replace bonds, because their returns aren’t certain and come mostly through any price appreciation, not yield. But held in tandem with bonds, they can offer a way to hedge against interest-rate risk and might cushion part of a portfolio against stock-market volatility

Let’s take a closer look at these statements with the help of a recently introduced Alpholio™ App for Android, and specifically its Portfolio, Correlation, Total Return and Efficient Frontier services. For the purposes of this analysis, the base portfolio consists of 60% SPDR® S&P 500® ETF (SPY) and 40% of the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG), i.e. a traditional balanced mix of stocks and bonds. Here is the baseline chart with statistics generated from total monthly returns of both ETFs and quarterly rebalancing of the portfolio:

Portfolio 60% SPY + 40% AGG

The reason why the beta of this portfolio is not exactly 0.6 (i.e. equal to the 60% weight of the SPY) is threefold. Alpholio™ uses a broader definition of “the market” than just the S&P 500® index. Also, the correlation between the market and AGG is not zero. Finally, the portfolio is rebalanced quarterly, not monthly, which can lead to a temporary divergence of SPY/AGG weights from the original 60/40% level.

For reference, in the same time frame a portfolio consisting of just the SPY would have an annualized return of 8.52% with a standard deviation of 14.25%, Sharpe ratio of 0.55 and maximum drawdown of 50.8%. Adding AGG to such an equity-only portfolio decreases its return but reduces its volatility even more, thus improving the Sharpe ratio. The maximum drawdown is also significantly diminished.

The article quotes two merger arbitrage funds with substantial assets: The Merger Fund® (MERFX) and The Arbitrage Fund (ARBFX). To effectively diversify the balanced portfolio, should either fund replace a portion of stocks, a portion of bonds, or a combination of both? What should be the extent of such a replacement?

To answer the first question, let’s take a look at the correlation between SPY, AGG and either fund using the Correlation service of the Alpholio™ app. Here is a chart of the rolling 12-month correlation coefficient for monthly returns of SPY and MERFX:

Correlation SPY - MERFX

The starting date of the chart stems from the earliest availability of AGG whose first full monthly return was in October 2003. The average correlation of 0.56 indicates that MERFX was a marginal diversifier for SPY (generally, a correlation of 0.6 or less is desirable). Here is a similar chart for AGG and MERFX:

Correlation AGG - MERFX

The average correlation of just below zero indicates that MERFX was a much better diversifier for AGG than SPY. Similarly, the average correlation between SPY and ARBFX was about 0.42 and virtually zero between AGG and ARBFX. Therefore, to effectively diversify the base portfolio, it should generally be better to allocate more of SPY rather than AGG to MERFX or ARBFX. However, this would also suppress portfolio returns — as the following total return chart shows, MERFX and ARBFX had steadier but smaller cumulative returns than SPY:

Total Return of SPY, MERFX and ARBFX

To answer the second question: a portfolio with the highest Sharpe ratio (i.e. the tangency portfolio) would be mostly composed of AGG and MERFX. Here is an efficient frontier chart in which the current portfolio, depicted by a standalone marker inside the frontier, had 80% in AGG and 20% in MERFX but no SPY and was very close to the tangency portfolio:

Efficient Frontier 0% SPY + 80% AGG + 20% MERFX

Adding MERFX at the expense of SPY decreased the portfolio volatility and increased its Sharpe ratio, but resulted in lower returns. To illustrate this further, here is a chart and statistics for a portfolio that consisted of 45% SPY, 40% AGG and 15% MERFX, rebalanced quarterly:

Portfolio 45% SPY + 40% AGG + 15% MERFX

Ultimately, it is up to the investor to trade off portfolio returns for risk — some may choose to optimize for the highest return per unit of risk, while others may strive for higher returns at the expense of a sub-optimal Sharpe ratio. The Alpholio™ app for Android provides a set of tools that facilitate the exploration of historical data and construction of desired portfolios, with the usual caveat that the past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

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