With Trend Following – Beta Is Not Just Fine, It Is Preferable

One opportunity this stay-at-home quarantine has afforded us, sad as it may sound to some, is increased time to work through the pile of academic papers on quantitative finance. It is amazing how much great stuff is out there. When you come across one that happens to be right in your wheel house and makes the case in a MUCH smarter sounding way than we ever can, all to the better. Such as it was with this recent piece – When it pays to follow the crowd: Strategy conformity and CTA performance by Nicolas Bollen, Mark Hutchinson and John O’Brien from Vanderbilt University and University College Cork.

The authors find that contrary to other areas of fund management in hedge funds and mutual funds, where being different is a positive trait (research on active share in the equity space is informative – see here), when it comes to CTAs/Managed Futures being a purist is the right approach. The authors analyzed the data using two different methods. First they sort funds into style groupings and calculate a Strategy Distinctiveness Index – funds that have low correlations to the style. They then look at the performance of portfolios of funds based on the SDI score. Second, they empirically check by rebuilding a simple model for standard trend following and regress funds against that model. Closer to pure trend the better.

From the conclusion:

“Prior research has shown that strategy distinctiveness is a key determinant of cross sectional differences in hedge fund and mutual fund performance. It is intuitive that funds with more unique strategies should outperform, as the returns to more well-known strategies are competed away. However, futures markets are characterized by a high level of momentum, leading to the prevalence of trend following strategies. Consequently, trading against the crowd while pursuing an independent strategy may incur a high risk of failure.

We measure the distinctiveness of a CTA’s investment strategy following Sun et al. (2012). We estimate the correlation of a CTA’s return with that of its peers and classify funds with low correlation as high SDI funds. Our key result is that, in complete contrast to prior literature on SDI and hedge funds, SDI is negatively associated with future CTA performance. Funds that are more unique tend to underperform, after controlling for risks and styles, irrespective of holding period. Moreover, our evidence indicates SDI is an informative measure for predicting CTA performance only during times when momentum trading in futures markets yields positive returns. In summary, the best performing CTAs trade largely on momentum, and offer investors exposure to this strategy. Investors can realize a benefit over the full sample, but suffer losses when momentum strategies fail.”

A short interlude for some history on the authors of this blog. Mount Lucas has its roots at Commodities Corp, one of the birthplaces of the hedge fund industry some forty years ago. We spun out as we began to take on public pension plan clients, who subsequently required a benchmark for our performance. Remember, this was the 1980s, before there existed more indices than stocks and an index for absolutely everything. There were few benchmarks, and certainly no proper price based benchmarks for alternative investments. So we built one; the MLM Index. It is not exactly the same as the model used in the paper we are discussing, but its close enough to be representative. Long term trend following in a diversified set of representative markets. Although we have added some markets over the years, and altered the implementation a little, it has stood the test of time and is still running today. It is a great way to access the beta of CTAs and Managed Futures.

To our mind, if an investor’s goal is to obtain a representative, pure trend following return stream (and in our view it should be a component of all portfolios – see here) and being closer to the pack is a positive, then a low cost Index approach is a fine, if not preferable, solution.

Value and Rebalancing

The temptation is strong. The strategy you have used for years has underperformed. Why take the risk? Move back to the benchmark. Like a remake of a classic film, we have seen most of this before. In early 2009, pressure was on value stock managers to change their stripes. We recall a conversation from April 2009 with a foundation client invested in our Large Cap Value strategy. We had recently rolled to a new portfolio, and one of the selections was Wyndham Hotels. They were quite agitated – after the financial crisis it was unlikely that people would be going back to hotels for years. How could we? I took the quant’s way out of the question – “the model made me do it.” Wyndham was the best performing stock in the S&P 500 over the next 12 months.

The current reckoning certainly rhymes with the financial crisis. We must confess that even our conviction was challenged this time, and I promise you, ours runs deeper than most. Last week it was time to roll our value portfolio forward. Put the names back into the hat, take a fresh look, buy what is cheapest based on the models and caveats we employ. To add to the insult, it was also time to rebalance our multi-asset portfolios. What this meant was we had to buy a portfolio of decimated value names, in some cases buy more of them. Alaska Air? Kohl’s? Valero? MGM? Who is going to fly, go to a department store, get gas or gamble? Sure, these stocks have never really been cheaper, but come on. This is wake up in the middle of the night with these ticker symbols swirling in your head stuff. And you want us to buy more!

Take a deep breath. Think for a minute. What works? Buy when others are selling, sell when others are buying. Buy zero coupon bonds in the early 1980’s. Sell tech and buy value in 2000 (value was “broken” then, too). Sell crude at $150 (that’s when people stop buying gas). Value stocks look like that right now. They have discounted the end of air travel, retail, gasoline, and gambling. Never again will there be cash flow or dividends. We aren’t blind, we get that the near term is difficult for these names. But does that justify low single digit PEs? Or should it be mid-single digit PEs? Or can you look forward a few years and imagine a world different than today. For at least part of your portfolio, don’t you need to own the cheapest assets in the world? Rebalancing works best when you have volatile assets with low correlation and positive return – pump that volatility. What you shouldn’t do is sort by near term returns top to bottom and pile into the biggest winners. That’s not a portfolio.

Value stocks at this juncture are incredibly cheap. We aren’t the first people to say this, but it bears repeating nonetheless. The chart below shows the ratio of S&P Growth PE ratios to S&P Value PE ratios. There are bargains galore on offer, right now. Great businesses that are temporarily troubled and are being penalized to extreme degrees. Take advantage of it.

RatioSPGrowthValuePE

Data Source: Bloomberg, Mount Lucas LP