Multi-asset investing: How might factor exposures help?

Editorial Note: This post originally appeared on our companion blog, Fiduciary Matters, on January 11, 2017.

The low-interest rate environment of recent years has created a challenging return outlook for institutional investors. In response, one area that many investors have turned to in their pursuit of incremental returns is factor exposure management (widely referred to as smart beta).

Factor exposures in a multi-asset context

The management of factor exposures1 is especially interesting in multi-asset portfolios, because there are so many moving parts and so many interdependencies.

My colleague, Senior Portfolio Manager, Multi–Asset Solutions Rob Balkema emphasizes that the starting point is a coherent set of beliefs to underpin the exposures: “Russell Investments has strategic beliefs that we think should be included in multi–asset portfolios. We have beliefs about how equity factors tend to behave, beliefs about how fixed income factors tend to behave, beliefs about how currency factors tend to behave, and so on. In a multi–asset context, it’s critical, too, to have beliefs about how those behaviors interact. Together, those beliefs are the starting point.”

The list of factors on which an investor may have an opinion is long. For example, in equities, there are grounds for strategic exposure to factors such as value, momentum and quality.2 In fixed income, potential factor exposures include credit, illiquidity and term.3 Currency has carry, value and trend. Looking wider afield, multi–asset investors may have beliefs about commodities, about real assets, about implied volatility, ESG factors and an almost endless list of other exposures.

According to Rob, “Because of the interaction between these factors across the asset classes, putting them into multi–asset portfolios needs to be a top-down exercise, just like asset allocation or manager selection. For instance, value overweights in equity are highly correlated to credit overweights in fixed income, so we need a cross asset class construction in order to manage exposures appropriately.”

More to come

Factor exposure management/smart beta has been a field of enormous growth in recent years. To a small extent that is perhaps due to the work that’s gone into understanding how various factors may offer incremental return potential. But what’s really driven the growth is that instruments and trading strategies making the implementation of factor beliefs easier and more cost–effective have become widely available. I believe continued growth is likely.

One of the earliest widespread applications of factor exposure management was the neutralizing of systematic exposures to the volatility factor in equity portfolios4: risk management rather than return enhancement. Today, it has become an important part of the search within multi–asset portfolios for ways to supplement the traditional sources of return such as asset allocation and active management.

1 Factor exposures is an investment strategy in which securities are chosen based on attributes that are associated with higher returns. When choosing exposures, investments choices are based on a high level of granularity; specifically, more granular than asset class. Common factors reviewed include style, size, and risk.
2 “Value, momentum, quality: a discussion of three equity return drivers” by James Barber and Evgenia Gvozdeva, Russell Investments Communiqué (4th quarter, 2014)
3 “Credit, illiquidity, term: a discussion of three fixed income return drivers” by Gerard Fitzpatrick and Leola Ross, Russell Investments Communiqué (1st quarter, 2015)
4 “Defensive equity: is the market mispricing risk?” by Bob Collie and John Osborn. Russell Investments Viewpoint (2011).