Investment Themes

Sign up to receive Indexology® Blog email updates

In This List

Through the Turbulence, a New Breed of ESG Indices Delivers

Low Volatility Strategies in Times of High Volatility

Putting Defensive Indices to the Test

U.S. Corporate Debt Market under Pressure

Multi-Asset Income Strategies in a Low Interest Rate Environment

Through the Turbulence, a New Breed of ESG Indices Delivers

Contributor Image
Reid Steadman

Managing Director, Global Head of ESG

S&P Dow Jones Indices

two

Have the new beta-like ESG indices delivered on their objectives, notwithstanding the market turmoil? The answer is yes, and then some. The S&P 500® ESG Index has provided low tracking error relative to the S&P 500 and similar risk, but also a better return.

For decades, growth in ESG investing was unremarkable, held back by investors’ fears that they were inviting underperformance relative to the market by integrating their values into their investments. However, in 2019, assets in ESG funds suddenly spiked. In ETFs alone, assets increased from USD 22.1 to USD 56.8 billion.[1] What brought this about? The launch of popular new indices, like the S&P 500 ESG Index, which were built to provide risk/return characteristics similar to those of their underlying benchmarks.

These beta-like indices gave investors’ comfort that they could integrate ESG into the core of their portfolios. Was this warm feeling deserved? As Exhibit 1 shows, the ESG versions of the S&P 500, S&P Europe 350®, S&P Global LargeMidCap, and S&P Developed LargeMidCap indices all performed better than their beta counterparts. The only major category in which the ESG version underperformed was emerging markets.

Because these indices are new, however, it is important to acknowledge that three- and five-year return figures include history that was built before these indices launched in early 2019, as noted in the methodology. For this reason, investors should pay special attention to the past year or so, when the indices were live. As Exhibit 2 highlights, the ESG indices have posted low returns, in line with the market, but the ESG versions have mostly outperformed beta, with the S&P 500 ESG Index beating the S&P 500 by 100 bps YTD. Again, only the S&P Emerging Market LargeMidCap ESG Index underperformed its beta peer.

What produced these results? Simply put, it was how the index methodology sorted the largest companies that drove performance.

To recap our standard ESG index methodology, it was designed to retain most companies in the benchmark index, weighting those that remain by market capitalization. Companies are excluded only if they: (a) have a low ESG score relative to their industry peers; (b) are involved in controversial weapons or tobacco production or sales; (c) are not closely adhering to the UN Global Compact; or (d) are involved in severe controversies.

Because the index is market capitalization weighted, the ESG index methodology has to properly sift the largest companies for the ESG benchmark to perform in line with its objective. In this respect, the 2019 rebalance seems to have largely been on the mark. Some companies that were significant drivers of the S&P 500’s performance in the past 12 months, such as Apple and Microsoft, passed through the screens and remained in the S&P 500 ESG Index. Other major companies with less-than-stellar performance, such as Boeing, were excluded.[2]

Will the S&P 500 ESG Index continue to track and even improve on the performance of the S&P 500 in the future? Common sense and our lawyers prevent us from speculating, but it appears that the ESG indices are passing major tests—their first year live, their first rebalance, and their first bout with market volatility—even better than expected.

[1] Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices.

[2] Boeing was excluded from the S&P 500 ESG Index because of its involvement in controversial weapons.

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

Low Volatility Strategies in Times of High Volatility

Contributor Image
Koel Ghosh

Head of South Asia

S&P Dow Jones Indices

two

The week ending March 20, 2020, marked one of the worst weeks for the Indian equities market, with the S&P BSE SENSEX witnessing record lows. The index recovered 5% to close at 29,915 (price return [PR]) on Friday, March 20, 2020, but it was still 17% down as compared with the week before, when it was at 34,103 (PR) on March 13, 2020. Historically, the last time the S&P BSE SENSEX witnessed such large fluctuations was on May 18, 2009, when the index gained 2,110 in a single day, increasing 17.34%.

The effect of the coronavirus has transformed global and local markets, as well as their behavior. We are witnessing a similar pattern in equities markets across the world, be it the S&P 500® in the U.S., the S&P BSE SENSEX in India, the S&P/ASX 200 in Australia, the S&P Japan 500 in Japan, or the S&P Europe 350®. Fig 1 shows the trends from February 29, 2020, to March 20, 2020.

A comparison below reflect the trend for a month and Fig 2 reflects how they have performed over longer periods in comparison to the recent short-term trend.

Fig 1 – Global Indices Movement this month

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. Data from February 29, 2020, to March 20, 2020. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Chart and table are provided for illustrative purposes.

Fig 2 – Comparison of Global Indices

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Chart and table are provided for illustrative purposes.

Market volatility has always been a challenge, and while traders and investors could benefit from it in some markets, in other markets, appropriate strategies are available for managing this in investment portfolios. Low volatility, though an anomaly, is a strategy that works ideally in highly volatile situations.[1] We see this phenomenon across countries, and India is no different.

The S&P BSE Low Volatility Index posted a month-to-date total return of -13.96% versus the S&P BSE SENSEX’s total return of -21.72% as of March 19, 2020 (see Fig 3). If we compare the trend over longer periods, the low volatility strategy shows a similar result (see Exhibit 3). The aim of this strategy is to participate on the upside while protecting on the downside. The S&P BSE Low Volatility Index is designed to track the performance of the 30 companies in the S&P BSE LargeMidCap with the lowest volatilities, as measured by standard deviation.

Fig 3 – Movement of the Indian Indices this month

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Chart and table are provided for illustrative purposes.

Fig 4 – Performance of the S&P BSE Low Volatility Index

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Chart and table are provided for illustrative purposes.

[1] https://spindices.com/indexology/factors/is-the-low-volatility-anomaly-universal

 

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

Putting Defensive Indices to the Test

Contributor Image
Rupert Watts

Senior Director, Strategy Indices

S&P Dow Jones Indices

two

In January 2019, we highlighted several indices designed to reduce the impact of large equity market drawdowns. Here we analyze the same suite of indices divided across three broad categories: defensive equity, multi-asset, and volatility. This analysis simply reviews performance since the S&P 500®’s high on Feb. 19, 2020, through the close on Friday, March 20, 2020.[1]

The current bear market has progressed with extraordinary rapidity—there have been only 22 trading days since the S&P 500 reached its all-time high. As such, any conclusion we draw must be considered strictly preliminary. Moreover, it’s important to begin any evaluation with a reasonable set of expectations. Defensive equity indices are, after all, still equities; we hope that they will mitigate losses in the underlying benchmarks, but they’ll still go down, perhaps substantially. Loss mitigation should increase in multi-asset indices, which are able to shift capital away from a declining equity market. Finally, indices that can take a long position in volatility might, at least in the current circumstances, be the best risk mitigators of all.

Defensive Equity

This category includes three well-known index series: the S&P Low Volatility Indices, S&P Quality Indices, and S&P Dividend Aristocrats® Indices. These indices have attracted significant inflows, particularly in recent years, as investors have balanced their need to maintain a position in equities with concerns about an aging bull market. As of the close on Friday, March 20, 2020, two of the three were beating their benchmark, the S&P 500, despite having just come through an extraordinarily difficult week. Coming into last week, the S&P 500 Low Volatility Index had recorded meaningful outperformance but then had a particularly tough week due to overweight positions in Real Estate and Utilities, two of the hardest hit sectors.

Multi-Asset

Multi-asset indices combine imperfectly-correlated asset classes (such as stocks and bonds) with the goal of creating broadly diversified portfolios. These indices employ disciplined asset allocation rules and dynamically adjust their leverage or allocation with the aim of achieving a more stable risk profile.

As expected, many of these indices have de-leveraged or increased allocations to safe-haven assets as volatility has increased in recent weeks. Thus far, several have posted double-digit drawdowns, which is not surprising when almost all asset classes are down. However, losses have been muted and many of our indices have posted meaningful outperformance compared to equities.

Volatility

Volatility can be thought of as an asset class in its own right, which market participants can use to access uncorrelated returns, provide downside protection, and improve risk-adjusted performance. Indices in this category either invest directly in volatility or use it as an allocation signal.

As you will see in Exhibit 3, the Cboe S&P 500 Buffer Protect Index Balanced Series posted meaningful outperformance. This is due to the fact that each monthly index within this series “buffer protects” against the first 10% of losses in the S&P 500 over a set period of time. The S&P 500 Dynamic VEQTOR Index, which rebalanced in and out of cash and increased its allocation to short-term VIX® futures as the VIX spiked, recorded positive returns, up 7.9%.

[1] For more details on these individual indices, please see: Seeking Volatility Protection Using Indices.

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

U.S. Corporate Debt Market under Pressure

Contributor Image
Hong Xie

Senior Director, Global Research & Design

S&P Dow Jones Indices

two

Since mid-February, the market has turned sharply down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The S&P 500® has fallen about 32% from its peak this year. Equity volatility shot up, as VIX® went from historical lows to the 70-80 range, which was last seen in November 2008. The 10-year U.S. Treasury Bond yield reached 0.32% intraday before it bounced back above 1%, as the market expected more debt issuance with drastic fiscal measures to combat the economic slowdown. How has U.S. corporate debt weathered this market storm so far?

Exhibit 1 shows the average credit spread of the U.S. corporate bond market in the context of post-2008 global financial crisis (GFC). The recent move has put spreads at the widest since the GFC, and still much tighter than the peak level during the 2008 GFC when the investment grade spread reached over 500 bps and high yield over 2000 bps.

How did corporate bonds with different credit quality perform during this market stress? Exhibit 2 charts the spread difference between spreads of investment grade versus ‘BBB’ and ‘BB’ versus ‘B’. The widening of spreads between rating buckets has been consistent with the direction of spread widening, and the fact that the spread between ‘BB’ and ‘B’ has reached a new post-GFC high is very concerning. In fact, the weighted average price of leveraged loans dropped to 77.06 on March 19, 2020, a new low since the rally after 2009 (see Exhibit 3). Market participants may now wonder about the funding and default risk ahead.

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

Multi-Asset Income Strategies in a Low Interest Rate Environment

Contributor Image
Sunjiv Mainie

Managing Director, Global Research & Design

S&P Dow Jones Indices

two

One of the most significant characteristics of the post-financial crisis world has been the global persistence of low, or even negative, interest rates. The entire U.S. Treasury curve yielded below 1% for the first time in history on March 9, 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the long end reverted recently on fiscal stimulus reports. Investors seeking exposure to income-generating strategies may first consider extending into high-yield corporates or leveraged loans, but viable alternatives exist in other asset classes.

The traditional equity standbys of high-dividend-paying stocks and preferreds are the easiest expansion. U.S. companies have taken advantage of low interest rates to borrow extensively and return cash to shareholders through dividends and buybacks. The economic expansion of the past decade has provided a tailwind to the long-term and steady dividend payers of the S&P 500® Dividend Aristocrats® and the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats, without sacrificing price appreciation.

Structured finance products (ABS, CLO, CDO, etc.) can offer further income diversification and higher yields. The variety of products, underlying assets, and tranches allows for specific credit exposures or risk targets. Real assets (real estate, agriculture, commodities, and infrastructure) can provide income and act as a type of hedge to other financial instruments, as the underlying returns are often driven by practical usage rather than daily market movements. REITs and MLPs generally offer the easiest exposure to a wide array of real estate properties and locales. Mortgage-backed securities potentially offer more customized exposures, although with increased refinancing and convexity risk.

When it comes to infrastructure, many indices or funds target the cyclical construction and service-oriented firms associated with infrastructure, rather than truly offering exposure to the underlying cash flows from ownership of the assets. Shaun Wurzbach (S&P DJI) and Simeon Hyman (Proshares) discussed this last month in their Index TV video Uncovering Yield with Infrastructure, addressing the ownership and yield issue in the context of the Dow Jones Brookfield Global Infrastructure Composite Index.

Income-generating volatility strategies are another possibility. Option buy-write strategies to collect premiums can offer an extra source of income, and timing the expirations to other cash flows (asset- or liability-driven) can even reduce volatility. As an overlay, this strategy also works well in conjunction with pre-existing assets (whether intended to be income generating or not), with multiple alternatives for the option leg:

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