Equity factors are characteristics that have historically generated excess returns relative to the universe of stocks. However, in recent years factor returns have been underwhelming, causing investors to wonder if factors have become too popular, too crowded, or just plain obsolete. Then came the second quarter of 2022, when all six major factors outperformed the S&P 500, a feat only accomplished in four quarters over the last 27 years!
Factor investing has gained wide popularity in recent years, enabled by a proliferation of smart-beta ETFs coming to market, which opened new opportunities for tactical investors. In 2018, we launched our Factor Tilt ETF strategy, and here we discuss how we’re now enhancing it by adding Seasonal Cyclicality to our analytical toolbox for evaluating factor conditions.
Investment styles and factors are generally interpreted as having an inherent preference for either bullish or bearish market environments. The theoretical tilt of each style is based on its design and its sensitivity to economic, profit, and valuation cycles. However, theory and practice do not always agree, and we must look to actual performance to confirm our impressions.
As we review factor and style returns for 2020, it occurs to us that the “whole” is much less interesting than the sum of its parts. Many factors are considered to be either bullish or bearish in temperament, and last year’s round-trip offers an opportunity to test the reliability of those characterizations.
Driven by massive government stimulus, an imminent vaccine rollout, and the expectation of record earnings in 2021, investors seem to be on the verge of embracing a move away from Large Cap Growth stocks in earnest. The leading candidates offered as broad-based alternatives to Large Growth (LG) include Value, Small Caps, and Emerging Markets.
Factor analysis is a point of emphasis in Leuthold’s tactical research activities, and this note summarizes our Factor Tilt outlook going into the fourth quarter. Factors are return drivers such as Value, Momentum, and Quality, and research has found that factor results vary over time—but that does not mean they are random.
Equity market themes have been boringly consistent of late; growth beating value, large beating small, and domestic beating international. In the factor world, Momentum and Low Volatility have been investor favorites for most of 2019 while Value resided in last place – the same old, same old. Then, something remarkable occurred on September 9th.
The Momentum style—in which investors buy what has been going up recently—represents an optimistic, hopeful, “I’ll take some of that” mentality. The Low Volatility factor entails a pessimistic, fearful outlook in which investors want (or need) to stay invested in stocks but desire downside protection in case the market performs badly.
Smart beta ETFs have become an immensely popular investment tool, attracting billions of dollars in AUM by providing investors with targeted exposure to factors such as Value, Momentum and Quality. Characteristics such as these have been shown to generate alpha over time, and investors understandably wish to have focused positions in these return-generating styles.
Factors provide investors with the ability to shift their portfolio’s characteristics to fit a particular economic and market outlook. Value might look appealing under one set of conditions while Quality might be more desirable in another. We developed a research platform that analyzes various drivers of factor returns, summarized in Exhibit 1.
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.
Portfolio managers who tilt toward Value or Growth stocks have long known that each style carries with it an inherent bias toward some sectors and away from others. Our recent piece, Value Style’s 100-Year Flood, highlighted the significant role that sector weights (overweight Financials and Energy, underweight Technology) played in Value’s decade-long stretch of underperformance.
With an abundance of year-end updates in this edition of Perception for the Professional, we plan to release the content for this “Of Special Interest” section separately in mid-January.
Last month we assessed the effectiveness of using valuation factors as a basis for country allocation. Using 20 years of data, our results showed that they work quite well specifically for Emerging Market (EM) country-rotation, however, the same valuation-based strategy does not appear to be value-added for Developed Market (DM) allocation/rotation.
With the exception of Low Volatility and Profitability, all other factor categories produced positive factor performance in July. The month was eventful, however, as Momentum produced a +4% spread through July 12th, only to give up more than half of that advantage as interest rates rolled back over.
Quantitative investing has become an integral component of professional investment management, and smart beta funds have become popular vehicles for advisors as they assemble actively-managed client portfolios.