Dirty Portfolios – Managed Futures As A Portfolio Element

Most investors know and understand the traditional 60:40 portfolio of stocks and bonds. There are many other model portfolios, with clever names and metaphors, out there blending different weights and different assets. Almost all benefitted from the low rate, low inflation market environment. So far, 2022 has been difficult across the board for these models as stocks, US Treasuries, and credit have all fallen, and even short-dated bonds have not helped.

To keep things interesting, we illustrate the role of Managed Futures in the portfolio below while having a bit of portfolio naming fun. We start with several of the more popular asset allocation models and garnish them with some Managed Futures. The same way adding an olive to a martini makes a dirty martini, can we enhance a classic by adding a Managed Futures “twist” and creating a “dirty” version? Apologies in advance as we then torture the ‘dirty’ reference with Clint Eastwood quotes.


The primary role of Managed Futures strategies is to diversify the portfolio, and allocators should always strive to evaluate those strategies under that context. When accessed through a pure trend following approach, Managed Futures offers an uncorrelated, positively skewed portfolio element with a positive expected rate of return that can complement the broader portfolios of equities, credit, and real estate.

The risk premium earned by investors participating in Managed Futures inherently has a different driver than equity markets. Think simply about how Goldman Sachs is structured. The investment bank side raises money for everything from companies to municipalities through equity and credit underwriting. The other side manages trading desks to facilitate the risk transfer of exogenous operational price risks that impact the running of a business. Both are risk premiums that companies face; markets exist to transfer them to investors. These two risk premiums are complementary, but they need to be accessed differently. One funds economic activity by investing in equity and credit securities from the long side, directing capital to those who seek to expand and transfers their capital risk. The other takes on exogenous input and output cost risks in commodity prices, currency movements, and changes in interest rates, facilitating hedging that allows businesses more price certainty in operations while focusing on their core expertise. Crucially, this risk premium needs to be accessed from both sides of the market: trend following long and short. The combination of the two risk premiums is very attractive, as one side thrives on stability and rising growth, while the other thrives in times of economic uncertainty and macro volatility that typically hurts equity and credit investors.

Put simply, where the investor premium in equity and credit markets looks for cash flows, the investor premium in the futures markets looks for “crash” flows.

Portfolio Allocation – The Inflation Problem

Traditional portfolio construction generally assumes holding long positions in different asset classes and relying upon low asset correlations to build better portfolios. Over the last few decades, an environment of declining bond yields and low inflation meant that, generally speaking, bond prices would rise any time stock markets fell meaningfully. As markets began to price that, in the event of any serious economic slowdown or episode of poor market functioning, the Federal Reserve would come to the rescue and cut rates. Somewhere during the pandemic this reached a nadir on two fronts. First, bond yields in developed markets reached such low levels that price appreciation on bonds became difficult to envisage. Take a typical 10yr bond with a duration of 8 for example. Starting at 400bps yields and dropping to 200bps would make 16% (simplified for ease). With yields bouncing around 50bps, it is hard for long dated yields to move meaningfully lower. Second, the stock bond correlation of the past 40 years generally relies upon inflation being reasonably low and steady. When inflation is notably higher, the economic link between stocks and bonds starts to break down as the Fed is less willing to reduce rates. Welcome to 2022 – both stocks and bonds have fallen. Those that use leverage to increase the risk profile of stock and bond portfolios have been particularly hurt. Sometimes bonds can diversify stocks, sometimes bond price falls can be the driver of what is hurting stocks.

For the portfolio allocator, the benefit of adding Managed Futures is that it can be either long or short different assets, giving it the ability to adapt positioning across different market regimes, including getting short bonds early this year. How long does the current regime last? No one knows, but as a portfolio element (2022 through the time of writing at the end of Q3), Managed Futures has diversified stock and credit portfolios pretty well, similar to the experience of previous crises in 2000 and 2008 (albeit those were deflationary, not inflationary).

Portfolio Allocation – The Dirty Answer

Yet, decades of complacency have left portfolios underexposed to investments that have historically done well in times of price uncertainty and volatility, and ill-equipped to handle the current market environment. For the allocator looking for exposure to these factors, several questions come to mind when considering Managed Futures. How should they be used? What allocation should they get? Great questions. The tough part- the answer is, as always, client driven. Where you stand, depends on where you sit. Different risk profiles, different asset mixes, different goals lead to different answers on what is right. Returns? Drawdowns? Volatility reduction? All fine ways to frame the approach.

To answer some of these questions, and to prioritize how typical investors allocate capital, we show the addition of Managed Futures to some typical portfolio allocations, creating a “Dirty” portfolio. As many of the portfolios have different asset mixes for which data isn’t always readily available, some go back further than others. Data runs through the end of Q3 2022. For the Managed Futures exposure we use the MLM Index EV (15V). We believe it to adequately represent the beta in the space while having some features that make it particularly useful as a diversifying portfolio element. In short, the MLM Index EV (15V) doesn’t contain equity markets, it does not adjust position sizes for volatility, and it passively represents the beta to pure trend following.

The analysis below uses common interpretations of each portfolio approach and represents them with total return building blocks, shown on a monthly rebalance schedule. Do not underestimate the importance of rebalancing in an asset allocation with uncorrelated, volatile components- closest thing you get to a free lunch in finance.

Summary Data

Much as we like the details and minutiae – some folk want to cut to the chase. What happens when you add Managed Futures to popular portfolios and make a dirty version? The table below shows the top-level stats over the time horizon, as well as 2022 and the Managed Futures allocation an optimizer wants. Portfolio allocations are sourced from http://www.lazyportfolioetf.com/ and re-created with representative asset class indices.

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