The Doldrums

In the great series of historical novels about the British Navy in the Napoleonic era by Patrick O’Brian, and the associated movie Master and Commander, there is a poignant scene where the ship is stuck in the Pacific doldrums, sails limp at the mast for days. The crew looks for a scapegoat, a Jonas, to blame for their misery, and they find one in a hapless midshipman. For the good of the ship he grabs a cannonball and jumps over the side. A prayer is said, the wind returns, and off they go. Complacency is the buzzword of the day, but the winds will return as they always do, and the catalyst will be as much a surprise to the market as to the midshipman who found himself carrying a cannonball.

I am habitually early for meetings. The other day I had some time to sit outside the offices of a major investment bank at the start of the business day. It’s an evergreen notion for me … a scene repeated at all the banks and funds all around the world, hundreds of well educated, motivated, energetic young people all chasing the same pool of alpha. And I wonder, is there enough to feed all these hungry strivers? Risk premium is durable, varied and growing, alpha is zero sum and rare. At Mount Lucas, our approach is to own that risk premium in many flavors through our quantitative trading. Just this month we added a new flavor, a momentum based multi asset credit basket. It fits nicely with the other risks in our capital markets allocation. We continue to search for alpha in the realm of long term behavioral biases. I have to admit it’s tough going, particularly in the doldrums, but the opportunities are there, and we await a stiff breeze to see them realized.

 

Mount Lucas employs a number of different strategies each with their own investment objectives and risk profiles.  Any reference to a strategy or strategies mentioned above may or may not be indicative of all of Mount Lucas’ products.”

Where has all the alpha gone?

Where has all the alpha gone (to paraphrase a 60’s protest song)? Roughly, alpha is the ability to consistently outperform a well-defined benchmark. Alpha is notoriously hard to measure as most managers do not have records long enough to establish “consistently.” That matter aside, there are at least three forces compressing our notion of alpha – better benchmarks, better information and better liquidity. The traditional long only investing world has been wrestling with this issue for years, but the notion is now moving to the alternative space.

In the 60’s and 70’s, academic research on mutual fund results indicated that a better benchmark definition (compare a manager to a small cap index if she owns small cap stocks) diminished the perceived value added in fund results. Over the last 20 years or so, there has been an unknown quantity of permutations of alternative beta, hedge fund replication, liquid alts, and other repackaged versions of the same theme – to figure out if there is beta in the macho alpha alternative space. Continue reading