If uncertainty is the bane of investors everywhere, then the fear of large losses in a bear market is the boogeyman hiding in the closet. The threat of an agonizing downturn often leads investors to carry lower equity weights in their balanced portfolios than might be advisable, and even drives them to hold excess cash to avoid the risk of sizable declines.
ETF families have responded to this anxiety with a fund design that takes some downside risk off the table and may enable investors to tiptoe into equities even when they suspect a selloff might be around the corner. Known as “buffer”, “defined outcome”, or “target outcome” funds, these ETFs utilize an options collar overlay to trim the upside and downside tails of the underlying asset’s return distribution, thereby giving nervous investors a more comfortable way to pick up some equity exposure during riskier times.
Many investors appreciate the benefit of covered-call strategies, but we wonder how many truly understand the opportunity costs of buy-write funds over time—or under differing conditions. On the surface, these approaches are simple, but they have complicated payoff patterns relative to stock and bond funds.
A distinguishing feature of fixed income securities is that the expected return on a bond over its remaining lifetime is known with considerable certainty at the time of purchase. This characteristic can be a blessing or a curse, the negative aspect coming into play during an asset price bubble. Equity investors can justify almost any price as they dream of boundless riches arising from the bubble’s driving theme, limited only by their imagination. However, a bond’s yield to maturity is known at the time of purchase and this is the return investors in aggregate will earn. Even during the euphoria of an asset bubble, the expected outcome - the return of par value at maturity - is also the best-case outcome, and that is where our story begins.
The ETF concept began as a vehicle to provide low-cost access to a broad market index, and the terms “passive”, “cheap”, “index”, and “ETF” were often used synonymously. However, ETFs soon evolved into specialty funds that allowed investors to take focused active tilts in sectors, styles, and countries; a landmark shift away from the notion of passively investing in the total market. These specialty funds are easy to trade and tax efficient, but they do not fall under the labels of cheap, passive, or broad market.
Exchange Traded Funds came to life in early 1993 with the launch of SPY, a passive fund tracking the S&P 500. Subsequent ETFs followed in the S&P MidCap 400 (MDY), the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DIA), and the NASDAQ 100 (QQQ). Still, six years after SPY’s debut there were only four domestic equity ETFs outstanding at the end of 1999.
High yield bonds returned a robust 15.4% in the year ending June 30, extending a winning streak that produced a 56.4% cumulative return since the end of 2015. After a quick, severe drawdown at the height of the COVID-19 scare, junk bonds have experienced nearly ideal market conditions, heralding a return to trends that have been in place for several years. The post-pandemic move toward this record low has been a boon to high yield bond investors, but it has also created a significant risk of reversal. We believe most things in the financial markets are defined by cycles, with Treasury yields and credit spreads no exception. Tight readings for both rate series demand that we consider the possibility that a cyclical reversal could weigh on junk bond prices going forward.
While not yet set in stone, it is the consensus view that infrastructure spending will be raised to a higher level for the next few years compared to past baseline expenditures. Although the exact numbers are still unknown, we examined the President Biden-endorsed bipartisan plan to provide a picture of the relative scale of the anticipated spending in the context of historical trends. In addition, we identified a group of industries that may be beneficiaries of the proposal.
High yield corporate bonds returned over +15% for the twelve months ended June 30th, building on a strong five-year run that was interrupted by a short, but painful, drop at the onset of COVID-19. Chart 1 indicates that high yield bonds compound at a remarkably steady rate, with infrequent but severe drawdowns during times of financial stress.
In April 2018, armed with a large number of ETFs and long-enough historical data, we applied our back-testing methodology for individual stocks to the universe of ETFs to determine if the same (or some) of those components could useful for assessing ETF performance prospects. One of the factors we reviewed was fund flow (adjusted by AUM), which revealed that those ETFs experiencing the largest asset inflows proceeded to significantly underperform.
Pfizer’s November 9th announcement of an effective COVID-19 vaccine triggered the most extensive one-day rotation in style factors we have ever seen. Investors flipped from Large Growth—the market’s dominating style over the past few years—and found new friends in Value and Small Cap. This rotation continued through November, to the point that Value and Small Cap each had their best single-month return in 30 years.
Momentum is a smart beta factor that gives investors excellent upside participation in rising markets. Most other smart beta factors are defensive plays, so Momentum is the place to be in strong upward moves. Momentum filled that role admirably in recent years, rising 56% from 2016 to the September top, compared to an average of +26% for the other major factors.