Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Risk is a Ten Letter Word

Investors over the recent past not only know about volatility, they likely have the scars to prove it!

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are well known for their low cost, tax efficiency and diversified exposure to markets, asset classes, sectors, commodities and industries. Less well known is that ETFs provide neat packets of stable risk that can not only be used to construct tailored portfolios but also to control risk easily and more effectively than ever before.

Case for more volatility

Capital market volatility threatens the adequacy of RRSPs, the solvency of defined benefit pension plans, the patience of clients and the sanity of advisors. Systemic risk from deregulation, interconnected global financial and banking structures exacerbated by an explosion in derivatives use, high frequency trading, and advances in information technology suggests that “returns are likely to remain highly heteroskedastic, showing periods of consistently high and low volatility,” says Ioulia Tretiakova, Manager of Quantitative Strategies, PŮR Investing Inc.. Nothing in currently proposed banking reform legislation suggests otherwise. The problem is that capital markets dislike uncertainty most of all.

Even if you believe that the credit crisis was a “once-in-a-lifetime” aberration, advisors have a duty to clients to protect them from it.

Managing volatility

Diversification theory suggests selecting assets that don’t move in the same direction at the same time (uncorrelated). This is smart because if one asset class is zigging (i.e. Canadian equities) while another is zagging (i.e. gold) the volatility of the combined portfolio will be dampened. But very much like a balance sheet, these relationships are more like a snapshot than the dynamic of an income or cash flow statement that show changes between periods. Two important things to remember:

• correlation between asset classes can and does change over time;
• market volatility can over-ride correlations.

I mention these caveats because they are too often ignored or forgotten by investment professionals and retail investors alike. The table below shows the correlations between several asset classes represented by ETFs. Because they are already individually diversified, ETFs provide reliable risk that can be assembled into effective portfolios. Low and negative correlations are the best combinations for diversification.

Diversification failed to protect portfolios during the market meltdown. There is little protection against crises of confidence and lack of liquidity.

This chart illustrates the development of the U.S. credit crisis as represented by the interest rate spread between U.S. Treasury bonds and corporate bonds. As confidence deteriorates, lenders demand higher yields to hold any debt instrument other than Treasuries, so the spread opens up. The shaded area shows the volatility of the S&P 500 – 126 day moving average. Volatility remained stable until mid-2007 before spiking in 2008-2009.

Market volatility is a big challenge for investors and their advisors. Let’s assume a 60% stock 40% bond portfolio is considered appropriate for an investor in 2005. As the stock market rose in 2006 and 2007, the portfolio sells stocks and buys bonds to rebalance to the 60:40 fixed asset mix. This seems reasonable because we’re supposed to “sell high” and “buy low”, right? But is the “risk” of the portfolio the same in 2008-2009 as it was in 2005? Clearly it is not.

A better solution would be to maintain the “risk” represented by the 60:40 asset mix consistently through periods of market volatility. The risk of a portfolio should represent the risk tolerance of the investor that doesn’t change in good or bad markets. If “12” represents the risk of a 60:40 mix in 2005, the “risk” of the portfolio would have spiked to over 30 in 2008-2009! To keep this portfolio at 12, equities would be 20% and bonds 80% in mid 2008. An alternative less disruptive to the mix would have been to buy the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short Term Futures ETN (VXX). Either approach would have saved serious money for investors.


The idea of managing to a consistent risk is a sophisticated institutional approach on two levels. Firstly, the idea of budgeting risk is a concept used only by the largest pension funds and institutional pools of capital. No mutual fund in Canada uses this strategy as far as I know. Secondly, managing volatility is a cutting edge idea. The availability of volatility ETFs like VXX and VXZ (the mid-term version of VXX) makes these tactics available to individual investors. Hedging long positions with short or inverse ETFs is also a tactical option, but that is a subject for another time.


ETFs offer the potential to bend and shape risk in ways previously available only to institutional portfolio managers with hundreds of millions under management. This capability comes with the responsibility for advisors to “up” their game, but the payoff will benefit their clients and their practices.

ETFs and the Egg Management Fee

I met a broker from Rochester at breakfast on the second day of an ETF conference in Albany New York. I was a speaker on the first day and a moderator on the second and was curious about the audience’s knowledge level and how the message was getting through. “Do you use ETFs in your practice?” I asked. He admitted that he had purchased some SPDRs (Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts, SPY) for his largest client. “I went to a meeting with her auditor and all he said was ‘I see that your broker bought an ETF for your portfolio, he must be doing a good job for you!’. I am here to find out what I bought and why they are so good!”
There is a halo effect over ETF use that transcends their undeniably beneficial use in portfolios. But we, in the industry, should not rest on our laurels. There is a directness that has accompanied the electronic revolution and social media that can bite, so making ETFs just another offering on the investment product buffet could be dangerous.
Take for example the Ally Bank ads that portray conventional bankers as insensitive to clients. Clients are portrayed as kids in the commercials. Fine print, exclusionary offers, undisclosed information, run-arounds, and the now ubiquitous “egg management fee” are offered as proof of big bank practices that “even kids know” aren’t fair. It could be argued that banks deserve this treatment. But mutual funds could be tarred with the same brush and with them, the entire investment profession. In Canada, the major banks, through branches and wholly-owned brokerage firms, account for two thirds of all mutual fund sales. And yes, mutual fund fees seem inexplicably large in relationship to what they deliver particularly when compared with ETF fees. But mutual funds still provide retail investors with professional management and diversification while sharing expenses. That their structure is out-dated is not entirely their fault: lack of transparency in an era of full disclosure, once-a-day pricing in a 24-hour-a-day global market, bundled fees when everything is being unbundled (except cell phone packages, strangely enough). The traditional mutual fund format struggles to keep up.
The same fate may await practitioners if they treat ETFs like just a bunch of mutual funds and stuff them into client portfolios like “last year’s hot performer”. ETFs should be used to provide the kinds of solutions, continuous client value and vehicles for managing risk for which they are so well suited with costs justified and construction communicated simply and effectively.

Managing an expanding ETF universe
There are lots of ETFs and more each week. While there are many ways to sort them, keeping things simple has great appeal because it is easier to explain to clients. Ioulia Tretiakova, Director of Quantitative Strategies at PŮR Investing, classifies the ETF universe into two basic categories: those that are passive and those with embedded strategies.
“Passive ETFs follow a simple index or an unleveraged commodity. They are characterized by low fees. Those with embedded strategies are everything else. ETFs with embedded strategies often have higher fees. Leveraged and inverse ETFs and those that follow a manipulated index like revenue or fundamentally weighted, are examples. Actively managed ETFs are the most obvious examples of an embedded strategy.”
Explaining to clients that a low cost core of passive ETFs is an effective way to capture beta, or exposure to market returns will help. You could build a core of actively managed mutual funds or ETFs with embedded strategies that try to outperform your benchmark, but it is difficult to identify successful ones in advance, extremely difficult to pick them consistently year after year, and you risk the inefficiency from fund overlap (see AER Sept 2010 “How Many?). You do, however, know their cost in advance. Go with what you know, it’s logical and clients understand it.
With your passive core established, consider the manageable characteristics of ETFs (or other assets) that make the most impact on portfolios, cost and diversification are the most important followed by liquidity, tax efficiency and tracking error. This column has examined each of these in the past.
What about returns? They can’t be predicted in advance, but by capturing the market return inexpensively with a core of passive products, you can select other “satellite” assets around the core that position the portfolio to perform. Diversified exposure to areas you feel will do well like small capitalization stocks, emerging markets, or commodities, can be added as individual securities, passive ETFs, mutual funds or ETFs with embedded strategies. If the satellite investments chronically underperform the core, you will know and so will your clients. But what to do about it will be clear. In coming issues we will examine the considerations for satellite assets more closely.
Keeping portfolio construction and classification of ETFs simple will help clients understand what you are doing, help dispel the mystery of the “egg management fee” and will distinguish ETFs as a signature part of the portfolio menu.
Mark Yamada is the President and CEO of PŮR Investing Inc. www.purinvesting.com