Get Indexology® Blog updates via email.

In This List

Cheap for a reason? Beware the value trap

Multiple Paths to Multiple Factor Indexing

SPIVA® Latin America Year-End 2016 Results

Better Carbon Disclosure Is the First Step Toward Meeting Japan’s Energy Transition Challenge

Measuring ESG Improvement: Impact Reporting Versus Impact Measurement

Cheap for a reason? Beware the value trap

Contributor Image
Nick Kalivas

Senior Equity Product Strategist


What is a value trap?
While value can be an appealing investment strategy, identifying value opportunities is not as easy as it might appear. One of the drawbacks of value investing is the so-called “value trap.” A value trap occurs when a stock appears cheap, but is trading at low multiples due to underlying problems with the stock’s issuer. In other words, the stock is cheap for a reason and could trade even lower in the future. Changing industry conditions, secular shifts in technology, and management miscalculations can lead to value traps. Further, some valuation measures may be backward-looking when the market is pricing the future.

Value traps are real. Let’s take a look at two examples:

With only a few exceptions, between January 2011 and February 2016, Target’s price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio ranged within two points of the P/E ratio of the S&P 500 Index. However, in the spring of 2016, Target’s P/E ratio started moving lower, with its ratio spread to the S&P 500 Index widening to 6.5 by October 2016. Judging by its discounted P/E ratio, Target stock appeared inexpensive — “a value” to the broader market. At the close of October 2016, Target shares were priced at $68.73. Despite this discounted P/E ratio, however, Target’s stock went on to fall an additional 20% to $55.19 by March 2017. By contrast, the S&P 500 Index rose 11.1% over this same period, leading to a yawning P/E discount of 10.77.

In retrospect, Target’s valuation compression appeared linked to competitive pressures, a long-term trend toward online shopping, and changing consumer preferences and buying habits. Whatever the reason, Target’s stock price decline in the face of a low P/E ratio illustrates how difficult and risky ascertaining real value can be.

Another interesting case of a value trap can be found in the energy sector. (Given the high volatility of energy P/E ratios, I use price-to-book ratios in this example.) On a price-to-book basis, the spread between the S&P 500 Index and the S&P 500 Energy Index went from 0.10 in April 2011 to -1.04 by the end of January 2015. Despite these low valuations, the price of the S&P 500 Energy Index retreated another 24% over the ensuing 12 months. So, even though the energy sector had become more attractively priced, energy prices continued to drop — again highlighting the difficulty in discerning value. By contrast, the S&P 500 Index declined only 3.1% across this same period.

The energy sector’s valuation compression was based on the surprising weakness in oil prices, which are a key determinate of energy company revenue and profitability. Front-month West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures were priced at over $100 per barrel in June 2014 and had plunged to less than $35 per barrel by March 2016. The increased use of fracking — a disruptive technology change — played a key role in the energy sector’s value trap. Even though fracking was not a new concept in 2014, its impact on production, coupled with an ongoing economic slowdown, contributed to valuation compression within the energy sector.

Overcoming value traps
One way to overcome value traps may be to combine the value and momentum factors. This is because the value factor can screen for stocks that are attractively priced, while the momentum factor looks for stocks that have recently demonstrated strong risk-adjusted returns, which may help reduce the probability of buying into a value trap. Rising value stocks may be a sign that value is being unleashed and a stock is moving toward its intrinsic value.

Of course, there is always the risk that momentum stocks fall out of favor as market conditions shift.  Companies can report bearish business developments that can reverse a positive price trend and catch investors leaning the wrong direction. Moreover, the momentum factor can struggle during periods where investors are reducing risk and asset returns are highly correlated.

The momentum factor may also provide an opportunity to manage risk. This is because value stocks showing poor momentum can be removed from a portfolio (depending on when it reconstitutes), reducing the chances of continuing to hold a value trap.

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

Multiple Paths to Multiple Factor Indexing

Contributor Image
Fei Mei Chan

Former Director, Core Product Management

S&P Dow Jones Indices

Single factor “smart beta” indicized strategies that were once exclusive to the realm of active management.   Multifactor indexing is beginning to garner much interest as the newest chapter of index innovation.

It’s a natural conjecture that if single factors are successful, combining more than one factor should prove even more beneficial.   While any combination of two successful factors theoretically offers a diversification benefit, some combinations amount to more than the sum of their parts.  The benefit of a combination depends on the risk/return profile of the individual factors and the correlation between them.  Even if the risk/return profiles of factor indices are similar, some factor pairings can result in greater diversification benefits by lowering tracking error and raising information ratios.   For example, in the illustration of S&P 500 Low Volatility Index and the S&P 500 Momentum Index combination below, any allocation between the two factor indices offers a better risk/return payoff than either index combined with the S&P 500.  But while Low Volatility offers a much better risk/return payoff on an absolute basis, a 50/50 blend of the two factor indices yielded a much higher information ratio.

There is more than one way to skin the multi-factor index cat.  Rather than simply bolting together single factor indices, screening for stocks that exhibit characteristics of more than one factor is a highly viable alternative approach. This stock level approach will almost certainly provide higher and more balanced factor exposures than simple combinations of the same single factor indices.  But combinations of single factor indices have the advantage of simplicity; they offer great flexibility in customizing exposures.  One investor might like a 50/50 split between Low Volatility and Momentum; another might prefer to tilt more decisively to one or the other.  Combining single factor indices is an efficient way to make that happen.

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

SPIVA® Latin America Year-End 2016 Results

Contributor Image
Phillip Brzenk

Managing Director, Global Head of Multi-Asset Indices

S&P Dow Jones Indices

Equity markets in Latin America saw gains across the board in 2016, with Brazil being one of the leaders, as the S&P Brazil BMI (BRL) returned 37.90%.  The Chilean market saw the largest yearly return since 2010, with a return of 13.53% for the S&P Chile BMI (CLP), while the S&P Mexico BMI (MXN) returned 6.99%.

As shown in Exhibit 1, the majority of active fund managers in Latin American markets were unable to outperform their respective benchmarks for all categories measured—one-, three-, and five-year periods.

Exhibit 2 shows the rolling five-year underperformance numbers reported in the SPIVA Latin America Scorecard since it was introduced in 2015.  For all categories, the majority of managers underperformed their benchmark for a five-year time horizon, regardless of the report end date.  “Consistent underperformance” is a suitable characterization.

For more details of the SPIVA Latin America Year-End 2016 Scorecard, please click here.

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

Better Carbon Disclosure Is the First Step Toward Meeting Japan’s Energy Transition Challenge

Contributor Image
Neil McIndoe

Head of Environmental Finance


Japan’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from 2013 levels.1 To achieve this, the Japanese government has set carbon targets for all sectors backed up by a national carbon tax and Tokyo emissions trading scheme. In the first period up to 2015, the average cost of a tonne of carbon was USD 95.2

The challenge is significantly higher for Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which lead to the shutdown of many nuclear power plants. Japan is the fourth-highest country globally in terms of generation of coal fired power.3

Exhibit 1 shows greenhouse gas emissions per million U.S. dollars invested in various S&PDJI indices. Given Japan’s level of 331 tonnes, only the Latin American and emerging market indices are more carbon intensive. The fact that Japan is already a relatively efficient economy means reductions in emissions will require greater effort. Japanese companies should be conscious of the likely implications of polices required to achieve the reductions to meet Japan’s NDC.

Room for improvement on disclosure

A key element in any country’s program to manage GHG emissions is reliable data from emitters. Exhibit 2 takes the same set of indices and looks at the disclosure levels of listed companies for carbon emissions. Trucost data provides complete coverage for every index shown—but the extent to which Trucost has to use the model estimates (in grey) or do further calculation (in yellow) shows that the level of disclosure in Japan is lower than for Europe and the U.S.

Companies in Japan with poor disclosure might need to reconsider their approach. Market participants are increasingly demanding better carbon data disclosure and greater transparency on how they are responding to the energy transition challenge. The recent Japanese Stewardship Code says market participants should “monitor investee companies so that they can appropriately fulfil their stewardship responsibilities with an orientation towards the sustainable growth of the companies.”4

As a member of the G20 Financial Stability Board (FSB), Japan understands that “addressing new and emerging vulnerabilities in the financial system, including those associated with conduct, correspondent banking and climate change” is a priority.5 The FSB’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures is developing recommendations that look set to bring carbon disclosure into the mainstream.6

Financial architecture is emerging to reward carbon efficient companies. The S&P/TOPIX 150 Carbon Efficient Select Index, powered by data from Trucost, is designed to measure the performance of companies in its underlying index, the S&P/TOPIX 150, while excluding companies with the largest relative carbon footprint. While the index is optimized to closely track the performance of its underlying index, its carbon footprint is less than one-half that of its benchmark.

Japanese companies that respond constructively by disclosing robust carbon data and developing an effective climate change strategy can demonstrate to market participants, policy makers and customers that they are getting ready for business in a carbon-constrained world.



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

Measuring ESG Improvement: Impact Reporting Versus Impact Measurement

Contributor Image
Kelly Tang

Former Director

Global Research & Design

As the importance of ESG investing grows, especially in the U.S., the ability to quantify and measure the impact of an ESG-incorporated portfolio will become more relevant.  In evaluating performance, traditional investors focus on standard metrics such as return, risk, tracking error, and other familiar modern portfolio theory statistics; however, ESG investors require all of these metrics plus more.  They seek ways to quantify the impact of their ESG investing; therefore, it’s beneficial to know the basics of how providers are reporting impact.

There is a difference between impact reporting and impact measurement.  Impact reporting refers to a holdings-based calculation using company-level ESG data and scores provided by the major ESG ratings providers.  Some providers calculate ESG ratings based on a numerical score from 0 to 100, while others employ a letter-based ranking scale from AAA to CCC.  Those using the numerical method calculate the overall portfolio score using the below formula and report the weighted average portfolio and benchmark ESG scores.  The improvement in the portfolio’s ESG score compared with the benchmark’s constitutes the percentage improvement, or the “ESG save.”

The letter-based ratings approach reports ESG improvement in a binary fashion, whereby stocks are bucketed into two categories: “AAA to A” or “BBB to CCC.”  Accordingly, the percentage of stocks in the top bucket (e.g., 60% of the portfolio) is then compared to that of the benchmark index (e.g., 38% of the benchmark), which is then stated as a percent improvement in the ESG score (22%, for our example).  However, one should note that whether they use the numerical or letter-based rating system, providers do not generally disclose the distribution ranges or statistics of their scores, which would be useful and serve as a helpful reference.

The methods described above are considered impact reporting, which is meaningfully different from impact measurement.  Impact reporting gauges the sustainability practices of a company and represents an operational perspective, while impact measurement is an outward assessment aiming to quantify the impact of a company beyond the realm of the environment to include its broader impact on society.

Initiatives such as Principles for Positive Impact Finance, launched earlier this year in Paris, are working to incorporate impact measurement in alignment with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”).  The endeavor itself is honorable but presents a host of considerable challenges.  Global companies have a multitude of businesses and can find themselves making numerous products—some that are deemed positive and others deemed negative.  An attempt to arrive at an overall score that quantifies such an impact can be problematic; perhaps, at least in the early stages, the emphasis should be on working out whether an investment has a broadly positive or negative impact, rather than trying to calculate a number.

Impact reporting is a step in the right direction, and as investors become more familiar with gauging impact, the momentum to assess, evaluate, and measure impact will only continue to grow.

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