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The Best Offense

What Ails the Market?

Real Yield and a 14% Return … O Canada

Bemoaning Cheap Oil

The Disparity Of Risk Parity

The Best Offense

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Craig Lazzara

Managing Director and Global Head of Index Investment Strategy

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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Some American football coaches are fond of citing the maxim that the best offense is a good defense — because even if your offense is having an unproductive day, a good defense means that you’re always in the game.

A related principle applies to investing — in some environments, the best way to win is not to lose. The first half of October has been such an environment, as defensive indices, laggards in 2013 and for the first three quarters of 2014, have finally come into their own. The chart below shows how dramatic the reversal of fortune has been:

Index                                               First 3 Qs      October to 10/13         YTD

S&P 500                                             8.34%                  -4.88%                3.06%

S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats            6.52%                  -2.99%                3.33%

S&P 500 Low Volatility                        7.54%                  -1.46%                5.97%

S&P Dynamic VEQTOR                      4.05%                   0.03%               4.08%

We’ve chosen, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, only three defensive indices, which achieve their defensive character in different ways. The S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index comprises stocks which have increased their dividends for at least 25 consecutive years, and can be thought of as both a yield and quality play. The S&P 500 Low Volatility Index holds the 100 least volatile stocks in the S&P 500 and tries to exploit the so-called low volatility anomaly. Dynamic VEQTOR is a multi-asset index which owns both the S&P 500 and a long position in VIX index futures.

What these indices have in common is that they offer protection from declining markets and participation in rising markets. We hasten to say that it’s not complete protection and it’s not full participation — they can still lose money when the market goes down (as, indeed, the Aristocrats and Low Vol did in early October), and they will typically lag a rising market (as all three indices did in 2013). But for investors who like the idea of attenuating the downside, and are willing to pay for it by forgoing part of the upside, such defensive indices can provide a very attractive pattern of return.

All three indices lagged their parent S&P 500 through the first three quarters of 2014, all three mitigated the market’s decline during the first 13 days of October, and all three are, perhaps somewhat improbably, ahead of the market on a year-to-date basis. Of course, that tells us nothing at all about the course of future performance. What the first 13 days of October gave, the next 13 could take away.  But in the meantime, investors who opted for a defensive index strategy are getting what they paid for.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

What Ails the Market?

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David Blitzer

Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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Everyone wants an explanation. Cataloged below are popular explanations with each rated as plausible, contributing, possible, or unlikely.

Falling oil prices – bad news for energy stocks but good news for the rest of the economy, especially for consumers.  A few years back everyone was wishing for cheaper gasoline and now that it is almost here we blame it for falling stock market. Contributing

Slow growth in Europe and recession risks in Germany – Europe’s economy is barely growing and near term prospects suggest further weakness. Everyone likes what the European Central Bank says, but no one believes it can provide enough monetary stimulus to make a real difference.  A German recession would hurt the rest of Europe, dampen some of the US economy’s strength and deter some pending tax inversion M&A deals. Plausible

China — In China 7.5% real growth is slow, and it is likely to get slower still. China faces both short term and long term economic challenges and sorting them out won’t happen overnight.  Exports are likely to continue and there will be new cell phone models in 2015, but China may no longer be the buyer of last resort for all natural resources.  The direct impact on the US markets is less than the risk of a European recession, but China is certainly a contributing factor

The end of QE – When the Fed began quantitative easing everyone said it was a mistake. Then everyone said it raised asset prices, including stocks. Now that it is ending, everyone is worried what happens when it goes away.  The announcement and the associated anxiety do more damage than QE itself.  We survived the “Taper Tantrum” last year and will survive the final end of QE, which, by the way, is almost gone. Unlikely

The Fed – Setting aside QE, some investors always blame the Fed, either for what they did, or didn’t do. Over the weekend Stanley Fischer, the Fed Vice-Chairman suggested that economic weakness in Europe and emerging markets might lead the Fed to delay any interest rate increases.  For the moment, the Fed is not the problem. Unlikely

Geopolitics, Ebola, and ISIS – All these worry people and those worries combine with the market worries to encourage selling.  If ISIS were routed, Ebola was only found in bad thriller novels and no one wanted to sanction someone, would a 5% market pullback make the six o’clock news? Plausible

The S&P 500 is falling – Can we blame that market’s decline on the market? One factor cited by market analysts is that the S&P 500 has fallen far enough to test its 200 day moving average.  In research done following the 1987 stock market crash, Robert Shiller asked investors what factors they cited for the market crash; their response was the sharp declines the week before the crash.  Crowd psychology plays a part. The title of one of first analyses of markets and manias was Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.  Contributing

 

Do we know why the market is down? No. Maybe there isn’t an explanation.  The US economy is doing okay – unemployment is down, inflation is low, there are hints that wages may be rising and the economy is growing.  This is the fourth time this year the S&P 500 dropped about 100 points. The market has successfully forecasted about seven of the last two recessions.  Remember that the market will fluctuate and is virtually unpredictable.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

Real Yield and a 14% Return … O Canada

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Kevin Horan

Director, Fixed Income Indices

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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The S&P Canada Sovereign Inflation-Linked Bond Index has returned 1.8% month-to-date and an outstanding 14.87% year-to-date.  Investors of inflation-linked bonds are interested in the real yield which measures a bond’s yield adjusted for inflation.  Canadian inflation (2.1%) has recovered in recent months from the low end of the Bank of Canada’s 1% to 3% target range.

Inflation-linked bonds are not just a hold-to-maturity strategy. Inflation expectations vary with economic conditions and so by varying the weightings of nominal and inflation-linked bonds in a portfolio, investors can take views on movements in those expectations.

Currently in Europe, the ECB has been fighting deflationary pressure and looking to revive growth.  U.S. style asset purchases supported by ECB President Mario Draghi are the latest action to stimulating the feeble economy.  Though, strong demand for a new Spanish inflation-linked bond to settle Oct. 14th suggests the belief that the ECB policies will stave off deflation and increase consumer prices.  A modest recovery in inflation might be expected by some as the weak euro versus the dollar could lead to increased price pressures.   Year-to-date the S&P Eurozone Sovereign Inflation-Linked Bond Index has returned 7.06%.

O Canada
O Canada

 

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

Bemoaning Cheap Oil

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David Blitzer

Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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Investors – both stock investors and commodities traders – are having a bad week as oil prices fall lower and lower and the stock market follows close behind.  (see chart 1) In all markets there are buyers and sellers and in the energy market most people (and most equity investors) are buyers.  Cheap energy, especially cheap natural gas, is a boon to the US economy.  Why is oil plunging? Where are the benefits?

Short term factors are behind the current oil price slide: signs of a deeper economic slowdown in Europe and the possibility of a German recession. Added to this are rumors that Saudi Arabia may have lowered prices to maintain its market share plus black market oil sales from some fields in Iraq controlled by ISIS and similar groups.

Larger longer run developments matter more: increased oil and shale oil production in the US and the US natural gas boom.  US oil production has surged, oil imports are collapsing, and cheap natural gas is replacing both coal and oil in electric power generation. Cheap US coal is finding growing export markets in Europe, further lowering global energy prices.  Results cited by the IMF in their just-published World Economic Outlook include rising US manufacturing exports, a smaller US trade deficit and increasing US competitiveness versus Europe and Asia.  While oil price are sending stocks down today, the stage is being set for lower expenses and rising company profits in the near future.

One measure of the impact of increased gas production can be seen in the second chart which shows the prices of oil and natural gas.  Gas is priced per million BTU (a measure of energy) and oil is priced per barrel. A barrel of crude oil contains about six million BTU, so the price of oil should be six times the price of gas. The chart shows oil and gas prices with axes scaled 6:1.  If oil and gas were both traded freely the two lines on the chart would coincide.  However, exporting gas is very expensive, so rapidly growing US gas supplies tend to stay home, keeping gas prices low. On top of that, gas is generally cleaner and requires equipment to use.

To be fair, not all of the stock market gloom should be blamed on energy.  Weak demand in Europe, politics in the Middle East and a bull market that is overdue for some corrective angst are all part of the picture.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.

The Disparity Of Risk Parity

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Jodie Gunzberg

Managing Director, Head of U.S. Equities

S&P Dow Jones Indices

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The simple concept of risk parity is that within a portfolio, each investment contributes equally to the overall portfolio risk.  For example, a portfolio with a capital allocation of 50% equities and 50% t-bills, has a risk profile where over 99% of risk comes from the equities.  In a risk parity portfolio, if 50% risk (contribution to variance) were allocated each to equities and t-bills, the capital allocation looks more like 5% in equities and 95% in t-bills.

As Blackrock published in a paper earlier this year, interest in risk based investing has grown steadily in the post-crisis years, as investors seek to overcome the limitations of traditional approaches to asset allocation. Some are now setting their strategic asset allocation by applying a risk factor framework across their entire portfolio and others are exploring risk parity strategies in specific asset classes.

Risk parity strategies fill the gap between active and index management to offer a chance at improving return and reducing risk in a classicly balanced portfolio. Though strategies vary in implementation, they share a basic goal: building a portfolio based on diversifying sources of return, in pursuit of strong, consistent returns and avoidance of drawdowns in recessions and periods of economic stress. This is illustrated in the chart below where the shaded bars are recessionary periods and the circles are large equity drawdowns. Notice the smoother returns of risk parity when compared with the S&P 500.

This exhibit shows how risk parity has performed in rolling five-year periods versus equities and cash plus 5% since 1930.  Pre-1970: The risk parity strategy is a 25%/75% allocation of the S&P 500 (and predecessor indexes) and the Ibbotson Intermediate-Term Treasury Index with notional exposure of 1.8X  capital invested. Post 1970: The risk parity strategy is a 22%/62%/16% allocation of the S&P 500, the Ibbotson Intermediate-Term Treasury Index and the GSCI Commodity Index with  notional exposure of 1.85X capital invested. Both pre- and post-1970 target a risk level of 10% and equal risk allocation among all three components, assuming zero correlations at  volatilities of 15%/5%/20%. Thirty percent of capital is invested in T-bills to meet margin calls. Notional exposure is greater than capital invested. We assume a 50-bps spread over T-bills  for derivatives financing. Index performance is for illustrative purposes only. You cannot invest directly in an index. Performance returns for strategies do not reflect any management fees,  transaction costs or non-financial expenses. Past performance is not indicative of future returns.
This exhibit shows how risk parity has performed in rolling five-year periods versus equities and cash plus 5% since 1930.
Pre-1970: The risk parity strategy is a 25%/75% allocation of the S&P 500 (and predecessor indexes) and the Ibbotson Intermediate-Term Treasury Index with notional exposure of 1.8X capital invested. Post 1970: The risk parity strategy is a 22%/62%/16% allocation of the S&P 500, the Ibbotson Intermediate-Term Treasury Index and the S&P GSCI with notional exposure of 1.85X capital invested. Both pre- and post-1970 target a risk level of 10% and equal risk allocation among all three components, assuming zero correlations at volatilities of 15%/5%/20%. Thirty percent of capital is invested in T-bills to meet margin calls. Notional exposure is greater than capital invested. A 50-bps spread over T-bills for derivatives financing is assumed. Index performance is for illustrative purposes only. You cannot invest directly in an index. Performance returns for strategies do not reflect any management fees, transaction costs or non-financial expenses. Past performance is not indicative of future returns.

Again, risk parity is being applied at both portfolio and strategy levels, which works for commodities and managed futures.

Below is a 10-year cumulative return chart that shows the power of risk parity in commodities and managed futures. The apples to apples annualized return comparison for isolating the risk parity impact in commodities can be seen by the S&P GSCI total return of -3.47% as compared with the total return of 2.28% from the S&P GSCI Risk Weight. For managed futures that include financial futures in addition to commodity futures, the appropriate comparison to evaluate the power of risk parity is the total return of 1.21% from the S&P DFI (that has a capital allocation of 50% commodities/50% financials with an S&P GSCI Light Energy weight inside the commodities and a GDP weight inside the financials) versus the total return of  3.07% from the S&P SFI (strategic futures index that is risk parity weighted).

Further, the value of adding financials to commodities can be evaluated by comparing the S&P GSCI Light Energy total returns of -1.05% versus the S&P DFI total returns of 1.21%. In a risk parity framework, futures added to the S&P SFI from the S&P GSCI Risk Weight earn an additional 79 basis points annually.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices

For only 79 basis points annually, is it worth adding the financials in a risk parity weighted index? If cutting your risk by more than half is attractive, then yes. Adding financials in a risk parity index more than tripled the Sharpe Ratio in 10 years, bringing it from 0.19 to 0.60. Further within the managed futures framework, changing the weight to risk parity from 50/50 capital allocations to commodities/financials increased the Sharpe Ratio from 0.18 to 0.60. Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.  All information presented prior to the index launch date is back-tested. Back-tested performance is not actual performance, but is hypothetical. The back-test calculations are based on the same methodology that was in effect when the index was officially launched. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.  Please see the Performance Disclosure at http://www.spindices.com/regulatory-affairs-disclaimers/ for more information regarding the inherent limitations associated with back-tested performance.

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. All information presented prior to the index launch date is back-tested. Back-tested performance is not actual performance, but is hypothetical. The back-test calculations are based on the same methodology that was in effect when the index was officially launched. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Please see the Performance Disclosure at http://www.spindices.com/regulatory-affairs-disclaimers/ for more information regarding the inherent limitations associated with back-tested performance.

The posts on this blog are opinions, not advice. Please read our Disclaimers.