What Did Skew Do for You?

Sharpe or Skew?

Managed Futures offers this promise- uncorrelated returns with the potential for crisis protection. How an allocator chooses to allocate to this asset class is important. Do they judge managers by best risk-adjusted performance? Or do they judge managers by how they improve the risk-adjusted performance of the total portfolio? Do they view the asset as an absolute return element, prioritizing Sharpe Ratio, or as a portfolio element prioritizing diversification? Assuming the latter, prioritizing the addition of positive skew is critical to crisis diversification, offsetting the historically negative skew of the equity market and creating a better total portfolio.

Typical Managed Futures managers employ a risk controlled approach called vol targeting (we have written previously on this topic here and here). In essence, vol targeting involves increasing exposure when volatility is low and reducing it when volatility is high. Historically this has improved manager Sharpe ratio at the expense of skew. Our MLM Index EV and MLM Global Index EV are constructed a bit differently. While following similar trend following algorithms, positions are sized on exposure, not vol. The net effect is our indices are long changes in volatility, providing higher skew when needed most; in highly volatile markets. This makes intuitive sense; trend following tends to crash up while equity markets tend to crash down. The last thing you want to do is put the brakes on your diversifier while it is crashing up.

You Shouldn’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight!

Stocks and credits are negatively skewed and historically have had large drawdowns. Neither asset class is volatility adjusted. If you are optimizing for the whole, and are rebalancing, you ideally need diversifying assets that have a negative or low correlation and positive skew.

Source: Mount Lucas and Evestment

Below we compare the MLM Index EV and MLM Global Index EV to the SG Trend Index (index of manager returns) and the CS Liquid Managed Futures Index (vol-adjusted price based index) and show skew and correlation statistics. Note the crisis returns are materially higher, our indices have the highest skew and kurtosis – which pairs most advantageously with stocks and credit that are negatively skewed with high kurtosis.

Source: Mount Lucas and Evestment

Correlations below as well.

Source: Mount Lucas and Evestment

Practical Examples

Cast your mind back to late 2008 into 2009 when things were really going wrong. Stocks were plummeting, credit markets were freezing. At the same time, the USD was going up, crude oil was dropping precipitously, and the US Treasury market was rallying. See the impact at the position level of a representative model that vol adjusts vs our trend following approach, using the Nasdaq as the example.

Source: Mount Lucas

Volatility adjusting positions reduces the diversification benefit at the worst time. The Nasdaq began to fall, the trend following component of the models moved short. The volatility adjustment process reduces the short as realized volatility picks up on the down move around the Lehman collapse. In this representative example, the short is reduced by some 60%.

In the next chart we compare the volatility adjusted model to the unadjusted model, you can see the unadjusted volatility approach has higher returns when you need them most. When using this approach, it is critically important that that portfolio elements are rebalanced. Even though returns in this example end up in about the same spot, at the portfolio level the sequence matters. The extra gains are monetized, the Managed Futures allocation is sold down, and more stock is bought at lower levels.

Source: Mount Lucas

Volatility adjusting can also be detrimental, given that equity prices and vol are negatively correlated. In early 2018, volatility collapsed until it didn’t. As volatility adjusting models increased position sizes in response to falling realized volatility, they are making the case that risk is falling, which is dangerous in our view. When the market fell and fell quickly, they took larger losses as they were at max positions. In a portfolio context this reduces the portfolio diversification benefit to the investor, particularly when this is applied to equity index markets.

A Better Portfolio

When modeling a portfolio with stocks and credits, the different approach is clear. In the example below, we start with a portfolio that holds 50% each stocks and credit. Then we add some vol-adjusted managed futures and some leverage to create a portfolio with 40% stocks, 40% credit, and 60% in CS Liquid Managed Futures. For the last two portfolios, we swap in the MLM Global Index EV and the MLM Index EV at the same 60% allocation for managed futures.

Source: Mount Lucas and Evestment
Source: Mount Lucas and Evestment

Note the skew changes at the portfolio level – typical portfolios are negatively skewed, and adding an uncorrelated positively skewed strategy takes the overall portfolio to zero skew. Drawdowns are much reduced, portfolio Sharpe ratio increases, overall portfolio volatility goes down.

Conclusion

The Covid crisis (Jan 2020 to Mar 2020) provides a complete example in a compact period. Typical trend managers were very long equity December through February, as volatility was still quite low. When markets broke, volatility increased and the exposure of the trend shorts was proportionately reduced. The same was true in other markets like energy. The MLM Index approach, using constant exposure and thus increased skew, provided better returns over this difficult period. If its diversification you want, ignore the siren song of Sharpe, and go for the skew.

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.

Managed Futures and the Virus: Update

We posted a blog on March 2nd discussing the initial reaction of managed futures to the market break as a result of COVID-19, including diversification and position sizing issues around volatility targeting at equity market highs. Today, we wanted to give an update on managed futures performance as the crisis has dragged out. We often tell our clients; building diversification into a portfolio and preparing for crisis events takes a multi-pronged approach. If you want instant protection to an equity market sell-off, long duration bonds provide the best bang for your buck. As a crisis extends bond protection is less reliable; this where managed futures (aka systematic trend following) steps in, accepting directional crash flows.

From the chart below (updated from previous blog), we see after a slow start managed futures has performed well, and more importantly, positive! Managed futures is a tough allocation to hold in good times, when volatility is low, when equity markets make new highs year after year. This is why you own it.

ManFutAndTheVirus2

Data Source: Bloomberg LP, Mount Lucas

This chart compares a sampling of largely blue-chip managed futures mutual funds (Fund 1 is a multi-alternative fund that uses managed futures, but clearly has an equity bias) with the MLM Index EV (15V) (which does not vol adjust).

Managed Futures and the Virus

Managed futures is supposed to be a “profitable hedge” – long term positive returns with zero or negative correlation to the equity market. The recent coronavirus crisis highlights one of our core beliefs, namely that the construction of most managed futures portfolios diminishes that critical characteristic in two important ways. First, they include equity futures in the portfolio mix, and second, positions are adjusted for volatility. The combination of these two things is particularly deadly. There is nothing wrong with trend following equity futures. But anyone who watches the markets knows that equity vol is lowest at the TOP! That means that managers will have their largest equity positions at the TOP! Furthermore, when the market breaks, the eventual short position they take will be much, much smaller than the long they had at the top. In non-equity markets, the same can be true. In the recent virus break, crude was previously making new highs, then broke very sharply. Vol adjusted short positions will be tiny. Chart below compares a sampling of large blue-chip futures mutual funds with the MLM Index EV (15V) (which does not vol adjust).

Data source: Bloomberg LP, Mount Lucas

It’s a question of conflicting goals. If you want to maximize Sharpe ratio as a standalone investment, then vol adjust. If the rest of your portfolio is full of stocks and credits already, and you want a “profitable hedge” to maximize total portfolio Sharpe ratio, don’t. (See this blog post for more technical detail).

Trend Follower Agonistes

A recent Bloomberg News article (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-01/one-of-wall-street-s-most-popular-trading-strategies-is-now-failing) mourned the passing of a venerable quantitative trading strategy – Trend Following.  The central claim of the article is that the strategy is antiquated relative to the speed and variability of modern markets.  We have been doing this for 40 years – it’s not the first time we have heard this. There is no denying that trend following has struggled, but we think the article has the reason exactly backwards.

The investment world’s conception of trend following has changed over the years.  Practitioners of the craft were, in the 70’s and 80’s, viewed as highly skilled magicians, teasing returns out of the tangled chains of futures markets, worthy of fees supporting retirement owning Major League Baseball teams or living in mansions in Mayfair.  Starting in the late 1980s, investors began to think about trend following in risk premia terms, reproducible factor returns – more science less magic.  Like other risk premia, trend results are highly variable (see our view on risk premia here – https://blog.mtlucas.com/2019/02/28/looking-beneath-the-hood-of-factor-investing), with recent trend returns on the downside of that variability curve.  We thought we would take a closer look at what is driving those lower returns, and why and when they may change.
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With Friends Like These…

There is a saying in our business,”the trend is your friend.” Given the recent downturn in trend following returns, I am reminded of another saying, “with friends like these, who needs enemies.” I was in a meeting recently with a consultant who asked a question we have heard many times over the years. How do you keep clients invested in managed futures in times like these? We know the history, the diversification benefits, the crisis protection, the long volatility profile…but, each time there is an extended period of challenging performance clients look to throw in the towel – because their equity investments are ripping up and managed futures is down. A good question, and the answer, I think, lies in the statement – it is a matter of faith.

Investors in the equity market have faith. They trust, and have been conditioned, that the market goes up over time, corrections are temporary. Participating in the capital formation of companies provides a risk premium to the investor and is an investment in the economic growth of a country.

Managed futures on the other hand is viewed as a trading strategy, it goes long and short, it is typically quantitative based. The perception is…I can’t have faith in a model, it can break. But this perception is misplaced, trend following measures a real economic risk premium in the market, just like equities (see older posts diving deeper on this topic, Portfolio Symmetry, Commodities are not Stocks, Benchmarking Alternative Beta). Investors in this market are rewarded by taking the price risk companies seek to shed. Faith should be in the durability of this premium, just like there is in the equity risk premium. Faith is gained by understanding this risk premium, when it works (periods of volatility and instability), and when it doesn’t (periods of low volatility and stability). Similar to equities, faith should be garnered from the underlying economics of the markets.

Trend Following in a Low Rate Environment

Can trend following make money in a low rate environment, and is it all bonds?

We often get asked whether trend following strategies can make money in a low interest rate environment, or in a similar vein, if trend following is just a levered long bond position that’s now run its course. In short, we think that higher rates can help some aspects of trend following strategies, but certainly should not be a driver of a long term allocation decision. The portfolio benefit of an allocation to trend following to an investor or plan with more traditional equity and credit market exposures is not solely – or even largely – driven by the fixed income exposure. Using a simple trend following model in commercial markets (commodity, fixed income and currency – we explain here why we think that’s the right approach) below we break down the sources of returns in times of crisis, and suggest an economic rationale as to why it isn’t just about bonds.

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