Head of Factor Investing
BMO Global Asset Management EMEA
Ben D. Jones
Managing Director, Intermediary Distribution
BMO Global Asset Management
Product Strategy Manager
BMO Global Asset Management
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Factor-based investing approaches may have some advantages for advisors, like diversifying client portfolios without adding a lot of cost, providing low correlation, and assisting with risk adjustments. But how should advisors think about factor-based investment approaches, and are they all created equal?
We’re joined by Erik Rubingh, Head of Factor Investments for BMO Global Asset Management, to discuss these approaches and why it is important to be critical of the approach you choose for your clients.
In this episode:
- Why advisors need to understand factor-based investment strategies and how they differ from other strategies
- How to avoid a model that is over fitted
- Evaluating managers and their strategies to find the right fits for your clients
- Discovering lesser known factors that can be return drivers
- Differentiating between approaches that are effectively labeled the same
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Erik Rubingh – It’s very important to be very critical of the approach you choose, because there is, I think, a lot of difference between approaches that effectively label the same thing.
Ben Jones – Welcome to Better conversations. Better outcomes. presented by BMO Global Asset Management. I’m Ben Jones.
Emily Larsen – And I’m Emily Larsen. In each episode, we’ll explore topics relevant to today’s trusted financial advisors, interviewing experts and investigating the world of wealth advising from every angle. We’ll also provide you with actionable ideas designed to improve outcomes for advisors and their clients.
Ben Jones – To access the resources we discuss in today’s show, or just to learn more about our guests, visit bmogam.com/betterconversations. Again, that’s bmogam.com/betterconversations. Thanks for joining us.
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Disclosure – The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of BMO Global Asset Management, its affiliates, or subsidiaries.
Emily Larsen – Factor-based investing approaches may have some advantages for advisors, like diversifying client portfolios without adding a lot of cost, providing low correlation, and assisting with risk adjustments. But how should advisors think about factor-based investment approaches, and are they all created equal?
Erik Rubingh – I think it’s very important to get a good understanding of the underlying investment philosophy and process, because even with things that are labeled the same, it’s not necessary that you get a similar quality product. In that sense, it’s not that different from a, say, traditional investment approach, where there is a lot of — I can say oh, this is a fundamental equity approach. Well, the difference in quality of that product can be widely diverse as well, in factor-based or style-based, that’s no different. So, it’s very important to pay careful attention to what you’re actually buying.
Ben Jones – Erik Rubingh knows a lot about factor-based investing.
Erik Rubingh – Yes, I am Erik Rubingh. I am head of factor investments at BMO Global Asset Management. My role is very much to manage investment products, equity products mainly at this point in time, according to a disciplined systemic process.
Ben Jones – Now, Erik, so when you go out to dinner with friends and family and they say what do you do, how do you describe that?
Erik Rubingh – The way I describe it, and that might still be vague to a lot of people, is we build mathematical models that help us make investment decisions.
Ben Jones – Fantastic. That’s actually fairly straightforward.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah.
Ben Jones – Tell me, where are we recording today?
Erik Rubingh – Yes, so we’re in Exchange House in London, in the city of London, and that’s where BMO GAM is based for EMEA.
Emily Larsen – After obtaining a Master’s in econometrics, Erik moved from the Netherlands to London to pursue a career in finance. Ben sat down with Erik to discuss factor-based investing, part of the larger family of quantitative investment strategies. Today, we’ll explore why advisors need to understand these investment strategies, how to avoid a model that is over fitted, and how to carry out your due diligence on factor-based solutions. We’ll also learn about some lesser known factors that can be return drivers.
Ben Jones – What exactly is an investment factor?
Erik Rubingh – In a very broad definition, I would say an investment factor is a quantifiable characteristic of a group of securities — or stocks, not securities, I mean you can apply it to fixed income as well, and that quantifiable characteristic is important in determining the risks and returns to that group of securities.
Ben Jones – And so, when someone talks about an investment factor or factor-based investing, I’m assuming, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming the main idea is they want exposure to different types of risk characteristics or returns to diversify their portfolio?
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, so, typically you want — I would say you want to have exposure to various factors, and you want those factors to be as independent as possible, because of course, then you get the benefits of being diversified.
Ben Jones – Now, can you be over diversified? I’ve always wondered that question.
Erik Rubingh – Well, of course, if you just keep on adding stuff, especially if you have factors that are not uncorrelated but have negative correlation — of course, if you have negative correlation, you will get to the point, and you will keep adding factors with negative correlation to each other, that you’ll be over diversified, and you’ll end up with what’s effectively an indexed portfolio. So you’ll do a lot of effort, then you end up with effectively an indexed portfolio that’s of course not of much use.
Ben Jones – Fair enough. Now, can you describe some of the most popular or maybe common factors that you’d hear about?
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, well I would say the most common ones are value. There can be variation on how you define value, but it can be booked to price or priced to book, whatever way you want it. Earnings yield, dividend yield, those are examples. Another example of a factor or factor group is momentum, so how a security has performed in the past, where the hypothesis that stocks or securities have done well over a previous period, will continue to do well for some time period. Quality is another factor, so companies that have good quality, either in their business, on the financial statements, that those will generate positive returns. Those are a few well known.
Ben Jones – Yeah, very well known. The other one, too, that I’m aware of, maybe a little bit lesser known, but it seems like over the last couple of years, it’s been talked about a lot, or at least the lack of it, which is vol.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, so, well, as an investment sector, typically people look at low volatility. So if you look at some empirical evidence, it’s quite clear that stocks with low volatility tend to have better risk adjusted returns than stocks with high volatility. When you think about why that is, one of the reasons that often is given is that the typical investment manager has limits on leverage, so because there is a limit on leverage, those investors tend to like higher volatility or higher beta stocks better, because there is some option value in it, because they can go up a lot quicker as well. Lower volatility equities or securities don’t have those same options, so they say, and thereby they are actually representing better value. That’s the idea.
Ben Jones – So, let’s talk about maybe some of the most esoteric or lesser known factors. There’s some other factors, like for example, macroeconomic factors that people talk about these days.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, I think if you — when you distinguish the many factors you have, which you could essentially describe as risk factors. So, factors that do determine a lot of risk of the risk of the portfolio or securities, but not much return. And then on the other hand, you have factors that are more return drivers. They still have risk associated with them as well, but they have also bigger than zero expected return associated with them. If we look at those macro factors, yeah, they are typically important for the risk in a portfolio, probably a bit less for the returns generated. At least I don’t think there are many macro factors out there that have positive expected returns associated with them.
Ben Jones – So they’re mostly used to evaluate risk in a portfolio. Some of those that I’m familiar with — so just correct me if I’m wrong here — but I’m familiar with like credit and liquidity and inflation. Those do seem more kind of like risk issues.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, I mean, credit you could still argue there’s some return as well. But when I think of macro factors that do not really have positive return, inflation I think does not necessarily have a positive return associated with it. Sensitivity to commodity prices, that’s another one which I think is more of a macro risk factor than a real return.
Ben Jones – How many securities would a factor-based portfolio employ?
Erik Rubingh – So, if we look at the portfolios we run, on the lower side, depending a bit on the active risk level, we’re looking at between 100 and 250 – Out of universe, between 500 and 1,500. So, reasonably — I mean, not like a discretionary portfolio, but still you can — you don’t need that many stocks. For our market neutral approach, we have a bit more, more like 300 on the long side and 300 on the short side – Out of the universe of 1,650, which so a few more names in those to be a bit more diversified.
Ben Jones – Erik just mentioned a market neutral approach, which we’re going to discuss in a minute. But first, I asked Erik about a term that I hear all the time: style premium. Erik also talked about a technique he helped develop for BMO called True Styles. What exactly does style premium mean?
Erik Rubingh – I think it’s an interchangeable term with factor or risk premium. Now if you look at style premium or risk premium, I think some of that has an embedded reference, and when you say risk premium, it’s very much that you believe that the returns you get through these quantifiable characteristics are the results of taking economic risks, so that’s very much an efficient market explanation to why these things exist, they add value. Some people will argue that value stocks have higher expected returns, because there’s a risk associated with them. What’s a risk? A risk is that these companies making up a value portfolio have a higher probability of going bankrupt. And then because there is the higher economic risk, the reasoning is they should yield you better returns, just as equities should yield you better returns than bonds, also because you carry more risk. If you use the term style premium, there is a bit more — that link with risk is a bit less there, less strong. You could say okay, if you talk about style premium, you believe more in the behavioral explanation as to why do these things work, and the behavioral explanation, of course, is that by taking systematic exposure to these quantifiable characteristics, you profit from behavioral biases in other investors, and things like representative buy is – representative buy, of course, is when people mistake a good company for a good stock. That’s not necessarily the case, of course, because if everything is already priced in, then that great company may still be a poor investment.
Ben Jones – So, that’s a great explanation. I have always wondered this, because I hear now with these exposures to different factors you can buy in replication through smart beta, I hear a lot of people say well, now we can time things. Like the transition from growth to value or value to growth, which tend to move oppositely, what are your thoughts? Can you time factor-based investing?
Erik Rubingh – The fact the instruments are there to try it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do so. So our take on style timing or factor timing is that, first of all, it’s very difficult to do, and I think there’s a great similarity there with trying to time the market. I mean yeah, you may get it right, but it’s a very narrow decision universe, and I think typically, empirical evidence points in the direction that you can’t do that well on a consistent basis, and I think the same holds for style timing, or risk premium timing, factor timing. That’s the first argument. The second argument, which we like to use, is that we have this technique that we call True Styles.
Ben Jones – This is what your team is known for.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah. Exactly. In simple terms behind this is that we make our styles for factors independent from each other using certain techniques. By making them more independent from each other, you get rid of a lot of the time variation you get typically in styles. Of course, if you don’t have time variation in your styles, you don’t need to time the styles. So we’d much rather have a stable allocation to each of those styles of factors that we are targeting.
Ben Jones – So in a portfolio that you would construct, you would systematically pick the exposures that you’d like to have in a portfolio over time and through these techniques, you’d get to the True Style, which kind of eliminates the need to time the different exposures —
Erik Rubingh – Exactly.
Ben Jones – — and it ultimately acts like a diversifier and a balanced allocation to these styles.
Erik Rubingh – Exactly, yeah.
Ben Jones – Okay.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, that’s the idea. We think that’s a more robust way than to try and time these things, because with timing — first of all, of course, timing this, you have to get the point of time right.
Ben Jones – that’s to get the buy and the sell decision right?
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, that’s absolutely true. But the other important element there is that of course with dynamic allocation, you also incur more transaction cost. So even if you get it right, unless it’s a really big swing, you may still not profit from it on an after transaction and implementation cost basis.
Ben Jones – That makes a lot of sense.
Erik Rubingh – So that’s an additional problem if you face if you’re actually going to try and time these styles.
Ben Jones – A True Style is a style that is defined such that the impact of other styles, or factors, on it is reduced as much as possible. The tangible benefits of this technique are more stable returns from the individual “True Styles” and higher diversification benefits due to lower correlations because of those “True Styles”. Okay, so to provide an oversimplified analogy as to how True Style works, let’s say that you have a group of people in the room and you’re trying to determine who is overweight, but all you know about them is one statistic: their total weight. While you might be able to line them up in order of their weight, you don’t know who is truly overweight. However, there’s other factor that contain valuable information to help determine if the person is overweight. For example, their height or body fat percentage. By looking through the lens of these other factors, you’re better able to determine if a person is truly overweight, or what their “True Style” is.
Emily Larsen – So, how should you think about implementing factor-based approaches in your clients’ portfolios? How do you avoid overfitting? And what about using factors in the context of a fee budget?
Ben Jones – How should an advisor think about using a factor-based approach inside of a portfolio? In other words, is it part of a multi-asset or a well-diversified portfolio, and how do they allocate to it? How should they think about this?
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, so I think there are — first of all, if we look at in our world there are two different ways to take exposure to style. First of all, you can do it in a long-only context, and you can buy exposures to equities, that’s the first decision. And then on top of it, you tilt that portfolio towards certain styles. There I would say style-based long-only portfolio, that’s a great improvement over a either purely passive, so beta one product, or I think also compare to a discretionary portfolio managed by a traditional manager, because you impose more discipline and better risk controls in your process.
Ben Jones – So, in a long-only implementation of a style or a factor-based strategy, it would be in the equity component of a balanced portfolio.
Erik Rubingh – Exactly, exactly. Probably more interesting way to implement a style portfolio is to go down market neutral routes. So you can still maintain your exposures to equities through a cheap product, say ETF – ETF, your bond allocation, and then in addition to that, you take exposure to the styles through market neutral approach. That will give you an allocation to an almost hedge fund like strategy, but without the high costs associated with hedge funds. But you do get returns that are, at least if it’s a good strategy that are independent from bonds and equities.
Ben Jones – So this is great. So if you chose to go down a market neutral implementation route, it would be in kind of what they call the alternative buckets, or the diversifiers within the portfolios.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah.
Ben Jones – So, with respect to the term market neutral, what does that mean for our listeners? What should they think about when they hear market neutral?
Erik Rubingh – Well, if you hear market neutral, it tells you exactly what’s meant with it, and that’s that you get a product that does not depend on the direction of the market in terms of the returns it generates. So, effectively, you get a product with positive expected return and zero correlation with equity markets.
Ben Jones – So, with respect to these kind of factor-based approaches, are they a complement to a well-diversified portfolio? Is it factor-based approached or traditional approached? Talk to me a little bit about how an advisor should think about is it just part of a well-diversified portfolio, or is it a separate type of theory or concept?
Erik Rubingh – I think in the end, what’s important are the returns it generates, and the overall risk portfolio you get by adding some elements, and I think there is a good place for an allocation to a factor-based, market neutral strategy, almost irrespective of how the rest of the portfolio is built up. So you can combine with something that is — where the equity component is highly active, discretionary managed, or the bond portfolio has high yield in it and all kinds of absolute return bond products, because the beauty of a proper market neutral factor-based product is that you do get those low correlations with all the other stuff that’s typically in a portfolio. So it really is very much about, on a general level, getting additional diversification in the portfolio, and then of course, the expected return — the positive expected return is of course not just gross of fees, it’s very important that it’s positive return net of fees. So, that cost base, that headline TER or whatever you call it in the US —
Ben Jones – Same thing, TER, yeah.
Erik Rubingh – That’s a very important number. So it’s very important to keep an eye on that.
Emily Larsen – Let me pop in here. The acronym is TER, that’s Total Expense Ratio.
Erik Rubingh – The advantage of a style-based product is it’s a very scalable approach, so we don’t need to employ hundreds of analysts to get a solid investment performance, and some of all that cost saving can be passed on to the client. So the fee, at least on our factor-based market neutral product, is much more like a traditional equity product than traditional hedge fund product, but the returns you get are much more in the hedge fund category.
Ben Jones – And I think this is a really great point that you make, because I think there’s a lot of advisors out there that use a fee budgeting approach to how they allocate their portfolios, and they might have looked historically at some of the alternative products out there or hedge funds and said that’s just too expensive for my fee budget, but in a strategy like you’re talking about, like a style premier or a market neutral, or these factor-based strategies, they can implement something that’s maybe more cost effective for what they’re trying to accomplish.
Erik Rubingh – Oh, yeah, definitely, yeah.
Ben Jones – Tell me a little bit about how, as a factor-based investor, you avoid the problem over overfitting, and the reason that I bring this up is that many of the factor-based strategies I see are back tested.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah.
Ben Jones – And it’s easy to find spurious correlations and things that we believe exist, but then don’t pan out in the future. Tell me a little bit about some of those techniques.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, I think that’s a very important point, because a very common approach to quant investing in general, and factor-based is no exception to that, you start with a long, long list of variables, and then a lot of back testing on combinations of those variables, and that’s what you select, the combination of variables that give you the best back test results. So it’s commonly used. I also think it’s a very dangerous approach, and of course, as you said, the big danger there is data mining. So you over fit data and you come up with something that looks fantastic in a back test, you start investing on it, and oh, it’s not so great after all. So for us, that was a, in developing our product, a very important consideration. So instead of going down this traditional data driven route, we almost took the opposite approach and we stuck with — well, we take two main categories of styles of factors in our product. The first one was a model that we’ve been using in our long only equity product for many years, so that goes back 15 years. So something with a proven track record, and also a straightforward approach with variables underlying it with economic intuition, so robust in its own right, and then we added some factors to that base building block, where we took very simple factor definitions and then got more information out of those very simple factor definitions by using that True Styles methodology that we talked about a bit earlier in this session. By emphasizing the robustness in the variables of the factors we choose, I think we avoid those pitfalls of overfitting completely.
Ben Jones – So, tell me a little bit about, from an advisor’s perspective, I have to imagine they’re listening to this and they say, wow, Erik’s a really smart guy. All these econometrics guys I talk to are really bright. How do they evaluate a manager to determine through due diligence if that manager and their strategy is good or bad, and tell me a little about some of the questions they should consider asking.
Erik Rubingh – One of the first and foremost questions is the one that we just talked about, so overfitting of data. So if you ever have a manager that boosts about how many variables they’ve tested and how many variables they’re using, I think that’s a big red flag, because that means that even if the performance has been decent or good, still, it’s a tricky one because overfitting of data, that’s really where I think the big danger lies in the quant process or factor-based process. So that’s one element. I think another red flag is where the manager does not want to give insight on how they do things. Now, of course, somethings you’d rather not tell. I mean, everybody has that. But I think on a reasonable, conceptual level, it should be clear to the advisor to a large degree what it is the manager is doing. And that holds both for the variable selection, portfolio construction, and motivation as to why the manager wants to do — or actually uses that process.
Ben Jones – This avoids some of the kind of black box fears that people have about there’s just some weird computer program running I don’t understand.
Erik Rubingh – I think on a very base level, it’s important that as an investor or advisor, you’re comfortable with the approach and you understand the approach. It doesn’t mean that you need to know every finer detail, but on a conceptual level, there should be comfort and understanding.
Ben Jones – Understanding the philosophy and the methodology that’s used in a robust way.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, exactly.
Ben Jones – And I think that really leads into that question we talked about, which is then how do they employ that in a portfolio?
Erik Rubingh – I think some of that is doing some simple quantitative analysis, so what kind of exposures does the portfolio have now? If you add some of this, what kind of exposures do you end up with? Add to factors like value, growth, etc. That’s one element. Overall risk level, because if you have a proper market neutral approach and you add some allocation to a, say, traditional balanced portfolio, your risk should come down, even if the approach you’re selecting is a bit higher risk.
Ben Jones – And when that comes down, is that mostly protection on the downside, when markets go bad? Or do you give up some on the upside? Tell me a little bit about how the market neutral impacts portfolios in a balanced concept?
Erik Rubingh – I mean, it’s not per se like a put buying. You don’t get a return profile buying puts, but then of course, that will give up quite a lot on the upside as well. Now, we looked at this strategy as we run it, it actually has traditionally given good returns in markets that are in turmoil. But I think the main consideration should be get that low correlation. It does not mean that it will always do well when markets go down, but it should still give that diversification benefit without giving up upside, because I think that’s also an important one. You don’t want to be — I mean because then you could just as well buy — do this put buying strategy, which of course, will protect your downside, but also get you a lot of the upside. So it’s just the diversification element that’s most important, I think. You can do analysis as an advisor as well. You can ask the manager well, how has the strategy worked in the past in turmoil and how would you expect the strategy to perform going forward when things get a bit rougher? And why do you think that will be the case. Those are, I think, important questions.
Ben Jones – Careful due diligence still plays an important role when evaluating factor-based strategies. As an advisor, your clients are counting on you to dig deeper on their behalf. How will the manager avoid overfitting? What is the process or methodology that they’re employing and can they explain it? How do they expect the strategy to behave in different market cycles and why? So what does it feel like when you get this right for your clients?
Erik Rubingh – I think they will be quite excited, but they will have effectively created added value for their customers, their clients.
Ben Jones – It really feels good when you improve that client experience.
Erik Rubingh – I think so, yeah.
Ben Jones – What is it that you’re concerned with or that keeps you up at night with respect to your work?
Erik Rubingh – I’ll first tell you what does not keep me up at night, and I think that’s a relevant one as well, and that’s the question of crowding. So quite a few people say, oh these factor-based strategies are so popular now, and surely that will have an impact on future returns. I think there’s three elements to an answer to that question. The first one is that yeah, there’s a lot of attention for factors, but if we look at where the money has flown, it has been mainly into low vol strategies.
Ben Jones – Yep.
Erik Rubingh – Something like MSCI US Minimum Volatility, or MSCI World Minimum Volatility. Other the factors I don’t think soften that much from increased popularity. So I think in that respect, yeah, minimum vol approach is maybe a bit vulnerable, but your typical other factor-based approach is not that crowded. I think value, for example, is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, and there was a little bit of a revival at the end of 2016, but it has been back in the doghouse for value since so I don’t think that one is particularly crowded.
Ben Jones – It’s got to be close to unprecedented. I mean value has underperformed growth for almost a decade.
Erik Rubingh – Yeah, yeah, nine years. Nine years of — actually, in the period we looked at, from 1988 onwards, this is the longest and deepest draw down of value versus growth that we could find even worse than the ’99 and that says something.
Ben Jones – Wow.
Erik Rubingh – Anyway, that’s one element. The other element with respect to well, what should you be afraid of or what is a concern? So not so much the crowding, I don’t think that’s a big issue. And also, longer term, these are not new things, right? I mean value as a return driver has been known for decades effectively.
Ben Jones – Yep.
Erik Rubingh – So we don’t think that’s a big issue. What does keep me up at night, which is right?
Ben Jones – Yeah.
Erik Rubingh – What is a concern, in the active strategy stock specific risks play an important role even if you are effective based, you still need positions in the individual securities to get the exposures to the exposures to the effect that you want. Individual securities are like scary things. A lot of things can go wrong on that side. So I do sometimes worry about individual stocks and the impact they will have on the returns, however, still have to rely on the diversification, and we take some measures in portfolio construction as well to reduce those effects. So that’s sometimes a worry, but not overly so. But it can impact the returns to some extent.
Emily Larsen – As with any strategy, there are opportunities and risks, advantages and challenges. We hope this episode has provided you the founded for assessing factor-based approaches for your clients. Thanks to Erik Rubingh for making the time to discuss this topic and host us in his London office. We’ll let him leave you with some parting thoughts.
Ben Jones – If you were going to summarize our entire conversation today in two sentences or less, what would you say?
Erik Rubingh – That’s very short. I think it’s a great area. It should give better fee adjusted — risk adjusted returns, because it is a scalable approach and that creates a lot of opportunity to get a more cost effective, good solution in ultimate clients’ portfolios. The second — don’t know whether that was part —
Ben Jones – Yeah.
Erik Rubingh – — but the second, I would say, it’s very important to be critical of the approach you choose, because there is, I think, a lot of difference between approaches that effectively label the same thing.
Ben Jones – Thanks for listening to Better conversations. Better outcomes. This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management. To learn more about what BMO can do for you, visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.
Emily Larsen – We value listener feedback and would love to hear what you have thought about today’s episode. Or, if you’re willing to share your own experiences or insights related to today’s topic, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, the greatest compliment of all is if you tell your friends and coworkers to subscribe to the show. You can subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google Play, the Stitcher app, or your favorite podcast platform. Until next time, I’m Emily Larsen.
Ben Jones – And I’m Ben Jones. From all of us at BMO Global Asset Management, hoping you have a productive and wonderful week.
Emily Larsen – This show and resources are supported by a talented team of dedicated professionals at BMO, including Pat Bordak, Gayle Gipson, Matt Perry, and Derek Devereaux. This show is edited and produced by Jonah Geil-Neufeld and Annie Fassler of Puddle Creative.
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