2019 – The Year Smart Beta Died?

Back in May 2019, we penned an article for on the challenging landscape for factor-based (a.k.a. smart beta) investing (“Factor ETFs For Diversification or ‘Diworsification?’).  We received a couple chuckles for the title, but factor underperformance has become no laughing matter as investors flows into passive funds have now exceeded those into active funds[JO1]  for the first time.  As the referenced Bloomberg article notes, “financial advisers are helping to fuel the move [into passive],” as advisers scramble to ring-fence their advisory fees from fee compression happening across the investment food chain. 

And smart beta may also fall victim alongside traditional actively-managed funds as simple market cap weighting continues to trounce alternative weightings.  At the time of our May article, we observed that “time-tested investment principles such as risk-based investing [and] diversification could have been thrown out the window in favor of investing in just one style: U.S. equities, and technology growth stocks in particular.”  We noted that quant funds were already seeing an exodus of investment accounts. 

Despite the recent post-August recovery in value and small cap style of investing and calls for further recovery in value-driven styles by prominent quantitative investors such as Cliff Asness, 2019 could represent the year when smart beta investing died.

Too Dramatic, Or onto Something?

Now, obviously we’re being melodramatic as traditional factor-based investing will still have its institutional and retail adherents, but investors may increasingly tire of factor performance whipsaw, most notably this past September when ‘momentum’ experienced a significant draw-down (a magnitude not observed since the August 2007 quant meltdown). 

Consider Figure 1, below.  It displays the 2019 year-to-date performance of the Bloomberg US Pure Factors, which represent theoretical long-short baskets designed to capture the specified factors.  A net positive return implies the factor is outperforming and vice versa.  We circled two notable periods that saw significant factor reversal, resulting in two large drawdowns for momentum.  Momentum initially underperformed out-of-the gates in January which saw a classic January effect where ‘value’ and ‘small cap’ outperformed while ‘low volatility’, ‘dividend yield’, and ‘quality’ (profitability) underperformed. 

Figure 1 – It’s Been a Struggle for Smart Beta Performance So Far in 2019

This year’s January effect reversed itself in February that saw significant outperformance of the low volatility/high quality trade while value and small caps suffered.  During this period, momentum picked up the low volatility effect (more like a caffeinated effect) as the trailing 12- to 18-month period included low vol’s outperformance in 4Q2018 and 2Q2019.  Following the August ‘Volmageddon’ that saw a crescendo of low vol outperformance, September saw a violent reversal as if momentum traders tried to unwind their position all at once (and if you leveraged, you were trying to beat the others to the exit).

Granted, low volatility and growth factors are clinging onto YTD gains, but these factors have not historically produced positive returns (Figure 2).  Most quants may embed a low volatility factor or screen to their factor models, but we doubt few embed a pure growth factor (the closest they may come is either momentum or profitability/high quality).    

Figure 2 – Historical Backtesting Wouldn’t Have Necessarily Led One to Build a Quant Model Emphasizing ‘Growth’ and ‘Low Volatility’

Momentum’s outperformance through August may have made up for the underperformance of the other factors, but the September drawdown and subsequent underperformance of momentum is likely producing a bigger hole to dig out of.

All this factor churning is happening as the S&P 500 reaches new highs with 20%+ total returns so far this year, and the performance gap between factors versus market cap will only widen as the oscillation in factor performance is producing a return drag where underperformance needs to be made up with even greater outperformance (the sequence-of-return risk where volatility compounds both gains and losses). 

Granted one can characterize 2018/2019 as a unique period for factor behavior, dominated by Trump tweets, U.S./China trade conflict, and Brexit uncertainty.  But if factors continue to lag the broader markets, then many smart beta investors (especially the newer ones) will likely throw in the towel and fully embrace market-cap weighted indexing.  Perhaps 2019 will shake out the “weak hands” that Corey Hoffstein wrote of back in February 2016 that will restore the ‘premium’ in smart beta investing.


The above is the opinion of the author and should not be relied upon as investment advice or a forecast of the future. It is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or implement any investment strategy. It is for informational purposes only. The above statistics, data, anecdotes and opinions of others are assumed to be true and accurate however 3D Asset Management does not warrant the accuracy of any of these. There is also no assurance that any of the above are all inclusive or complete. 

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By: Benjamin Lavine