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.
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.
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).
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 – http://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.
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.
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.