Smart beta is a rules-based portfolio construction process. Traditional index-linked strategies rely on price to decide which stocks to invest in and how much of each to hold. This results in the traditional market cap index, which is based on the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). But two of the main assumptions of CAPM are that the market is efficient and investors are rational. In reality, this is not the case and stock prices do not always accurately reflect a company’s economic footprint. Smart beta strategies seek to exploit these market inefficiencies by anchoring on factors other than price. In other words, smart beta strategies break the link between price and portfolio weight in an effort to deliver better-than-market returns.
Market-capitalization, or market-cap, weighting relies on price to select and weight stocks in a portfolio. A company’s market cap is the prevailing price of its stock multiplied by the number of its shares outstanding. This traditional approach offers investors some attractive benefits, but it also has some potential flaws. As a company’s stock price goes up or the company issues more shares, the portfolio will hold a larger exposure to the company. If a stock’s price rises relatively more than the fundamental value of the company, the result can be a portfolio that holds relatively more overvalued stocks than undervalued stocks. Investor behavior often creates an increase in price volatility thus driving the gap between price and fundamentals further apart and increasing concentration risk at the sector, country, and/or stock level.
In contrast, a fundamental weighting approach uses measures of company size—namely, sales, cash flow, dividends, and book value—to sever the link between price (market capitalization) and portfolio weight. It then methodically contra-trades when prices deviate from fundamentals, selling when stock prices have rallied and buying when they are out of favor. A rebalancing premium is generated from systematically buying low and selling high.
By its broadest definition, any portfolio construction process that doesn’t rely on price to select and weight stocks is a smart beta strategy. To keep the “smart” in smart beta, the approach should be systematic and rules based, proven to offer the potential of outperforming the market—in other words, both the approach AND the implementation matter.
The most commonly cited forms of smart beta are fundamental weighting, volatility weighting, dividend weighting, and equal weighting. Research Affiliates is widely credited with introducing the first fundamentally weighted index in 2005.
Smart beta strategies offer the potential for better-than-market returns along with the benefits of traditional index-linked strategies including broad market exposure, rules-based implementation, transparency, high capacity, and low cost. Smart beta strategies can complement or replace both active strategies and passive (market-cap) indices and are a strong addition to the long-only equity portion of a portfolio.
Although the term smart beta is somewhat new, the concept is not. In 2005, Rob Arnott and Jason Hsu, along with their co-author Philip Moore, published the article "Fundamental Indexation" in the Financial Analysts Journal. They introduced a new way of thinking about index investing, a rules-based approach to security selection and weighting that was unrelated to the popular market-cap approach that began in the mid-1970s. Also, in 2005, Research Affiliates introduced the Research Affiliates Fundamental Index, or RAFI™, and a series of investment vehicles tied to the index (exchange-traded funds) were launched. Clearly, Research Affiliates was offering investors smart beta strategies long before the term smart beta even existed.
The most important component of smart beta is breaking the link between the price of an asset and its weight in the portfolio.
Our research indicates that any structure which breaks the link between price and weight outperforms a cap-weighted index over the long run. Such strategies include fundamental weighting, equal weighting, minimum variance, and Shiller CAPE index. Breaking the link can be done simply and inexpensively and has been shown to have good historical efficacy in regions and markets all over the world.
Strategies that use market capitalization to select and/or weight securities, such as cap-weighted value indices, leave money on the table because of the return drag afflicting all cap-weighted strategies, and are not smart beta as defined by Research Affiliates.
At Research Affiliates, we believe the largest and most persistent active investment opportunity is long-term mean reversion. Our Fundamental Index approach systematically and methodically sells recent winners and buys recent losers. This regular periodic rebalancing flows naturally from our central belief in mean reversion—undervalued securities will ultimately rise to their normal valuation level.
The benefits of a passive strategy are all part of the Fundamental Index approach: transparency, low cost, high capacity, rules based, and systematic. Costs are kept low in both due diligence and monitoring, and portfolios are well diversified without stock, industry, or country concentrations.
When investors understand the investment philosophy, construction process, and return drivers around a strategy, they are more likely to understand why it may underperform over part of a market cycle. The transparent, rules-based nature of smart beta is simple to understand. In contrast, an active strategy may be more complex and less transparent so that investors are less likely to understand why it may underperform over part of a market cycle. This often leads to poor decision making by investors who buy active strategies after a period of outperformance and sell them when they start to underperform.
Mean reversion is unreliably reliable and, as such, demands a patient investor. Prices revert to “normal” valuations at varying paces and over fluctuating time frames. When markets do return stocks to more normal valuations, the valuation may be the stock’s historical mean or a completely different level. Investors who commit to a smart beta strategy should do so with a 10-year horizon, and memorialize their rationale for future decision makers.
Rising valuations, above their historical normal levels, can artificially inflate past performance and reduce the future return prospects of a smart beta strategy. Higher valuations create an added risk of mean reversion down to historical valuation norms, threatening an abrupt reversal of past performance. An investor must look “under the hood” to understand how a strategy produces its alpha. Value-added can be structural—a plausible source of future alpha. Or it can be situational—a consequence of rising enthusiasm for, and valuation of, the selected strategy. Netting out the effect of changing valuations on past returns results in a more reliable estimate of a strategy’s true alpha-producing ability.
The Fundamental Index approach rebalances by selling winners and buying losers, a quintessentially contrarian exercise, also the wise council of the father of security analysis, Benjamin Graham. Investors considering this strategy need to be honest with themselves about their ability to persevere during periods of underperformance while they await the market’s recognition that their portfolio’s undervalued securities are indeed undervalued, and the market’s subsequent shift to value them consistent with their true underlying fundamentals. For most investors, a contrarian strategy is a diversifying strategy, selected as one strategy among several in their portfolio.
Obviously not every investor is a smart beta investor. For those who prefer to own the broad market, to pay next to nothing for market exposure, and do not want and/or do not have the resources to play a performance-seeking game, a cap-weighted index strategy is a sensible choice. The market is not always efficient, however, and a cap-weighted index can assume disproportionately heavy concentrations in companies likely to be overvalued and light allocations in companies undervalued relative to their fundamentals.
Today smart beta is often being viewed through the lens of risk and return drivers—or factors. These are investment characteristics that help explain the behavior of a security. Driven by risk preferences and or behavioral anomalies, factors have been shown to generate excess returns over long time horizons. Some factors are robust, whereas others appear to be the result of data mining.
Academic literature provides useful guidance on how to determine whether a factor truly contains a return premium.
The factor premium does not materially change because of minor variations in the factor definition or construction.
The factor is robust over time.
The factor works across geographies.
The persistent factor premium can be credibly explained, supported by
The equity factors that appear to be most robust over time and across countries are:
Market Value Momentum Low Volatility
The metric and number of metrics used to define each of these factors can vary significantly across strategies.
The investment industry continues to evolve the concept of smart beta beyond the equity asset class. Commodities and fixed income are two of the more popular asset classes now attracting smart beta strategies.
Unlike in the equity space, weighting in traditional commodity indices is only loosely linked to price. These do, however, suffer from naïve construction rules that lead to poorly diversified portfolios and negative roll returns, and ultimately results in a return drag.
To improve on the performance of existing indices, smart beta commodity strategies tap into systematic sources of return, namely roll yield—both across different commodities and along the term structure of contracts—and momentum. These are the primary drivers of excess returns in commodity investing.
Traditional corporate bond indices weight their constituents based on the amount of debt outstanding. This means that the most indebted issuers have the largest index weights, potentially overexposing investors to firms with poor credit quality and high corporate leverage (based on debt to assets) without necessarily improving returns.
Sovereign bond indices are weighted by the market value of outstanding debt, where countries with the most debt receive the largest weights. The quality of these debts and the country’s ability to service and ultimately repay them, is often not proportional to the size of the debt burden.
Applying the principles of smart beta to fixed income means emphasizing debt-service capacity and severing the link between outstanding debt and portfolio weight. This approach avoids overexposure to companies or countries with high debt burdens and credit risk.