A recent cover story in Barron’s features liquid alternative funds from AQR. According to the article

The liquid-alt pitch is that individuals can access the same types of investments as university endowments and other big institutions, to diversify equity-heavy portfolios, typically with a 10% to 20% allocation to liquid alts… The advantage of the [AQR Managed Futures] strategy […] is that it is uncorrelated with other asset classes, and “has the most consistently strong performance in equity bear markets.” That is when diversification matters most, as was the case in the third quarter of last year and the early part of this year.

Ideally, returns of a liquid-alt fund should not only be uncorrelated with those of both stocks and bonds but also significantly positive over a long evaluation period. Let’s take a look at the performance of three AQR funds with a sufficiently long history.

The following chart shows rolling return correlation of the AQR Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AQMIX) with the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) and the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND):

Correlation of Rolling 36 Monthly Returns for VTI and BND with AQMIX

Please note that AQMIX had the first full month of returns in February 2010. Consequently, the first rolling 36-month return became available at the end of January 2013. As could be expected, the fund had lower correlation to stocks than to fixed income, although both coefficients were quite low (generally, correlation below 0.6 provides diversification benefits).

Here is a similar chart with related statistics for the AQR Multi-Strategy Alternative Fund (ASAIX):

Correlation of Rolling 36 Monthly Returns for VTI and BND with ASAIX

Compared to AQMIX, this strategy had a higher correlation to bonds.

Here is a similar chart with statistics for the AQR Diversified Arbitrage Fund (ADAIX):

Correlation of Rolling 36 Monthly Returns for VTI and BND with ADAIX

In contrast to AQMIX and ASAIX, this strategy had a higher correlation to equities than bonds; however, both coefficients were still pretty low.

The problem with any of these strategies is the lack of accessibility for most individual investors:

AQR’s approach can be hard to understand. Because of this—and to deter hot money—the firm sells its liquid-alt funds almost entirely through financial advisors. Retail buyers can access the funds directly through fund supermarkets like Fidelity, but direct investments involve a minimum of $1 million. Investments through advisors and 401(k) plans have no minimum.

Is there a way to substitute these liquid-alt funds with readily available ETFs? Let’s explore this possibility using Alpholio™’s patent-based analysis service for mutual funds. One variant of this methodology constructs a reference portfolio of ETFs with fixed both membership and weights. Here is the resulting cumulative RealAlpha™ chart for the AQR Managed Futures Strategy Fund (to learn more about this and other performance measures, please visit our FAQ):

Cumulative RealAlpha™ and Statistics for AQR Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AQMIX)

As the statistics section below the chart shows, since its inception the fund had a smaller return and a much higher volatility (measured by standard deviation) than those of the reference portfolio. The following chart illustrates the constant composition of the reference ETF portfolio in this analysis:

Reference Weights for AQR Managed Futures Strategy Fund (AQMIX)

The major positions in the reference portfolio were the PowerShares DB US Dollar Index Bullish Fund (UUP; fixed weight of 38.1%), iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT; 22.9%), iShares MSCI Netherlands ETF (EWN; 9.3%), Guggenheim CurrencyShares® Swiss Franc Trust (FXF; 6.0%), Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR® Fund (XLP; 5.5%), and Utilities Select Sector SPDR® Fund (XLU; 4.7%). The Other component in the chart collectively represents addition five ETFs with smaller fixed weights.

The return correlation of the reference ETF portfolio over the entire evaluation period was 0.16 with VTI and 0.58 with BND. Given that these figures for AQMIX were approximately -0.07 and 0.21, respectively, the reference portfolio was not as good a diversifier for stocks and bonds as the fund was. However, the reference portfolio only had long positions in non-leveraged ETFs. It also returned about 8% more than the fund on a cumulative basis and with a 59% lower volatility. Similar analyses can be conducted for ASAIX and ADAIX. In the end, it is up to the investor to weigh the pros and cons of using reference ETF portfolios as substitutes for these funds in the context of the overall portfolio.

We hope that our Investment Toolkit™ will provide useful services for investors who want to construct well-diversified portfolios. If you would like to use it, please register on our website.


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