I held off writing about smart beta strategies as long as I could. The world, after all, is awash in such pieces. I couldn’t ignore it any longer, though, because virtually every piece I’ve read that’s critical of smart beta misses one fundamental point: The term “smart beta” may be new (and has certainly been effective from a marketing perspective) but the underlying strategies themselves are not.
I frequently get asked about the merits of corporate bonds, both investment-grade (IG) and high-yield (HY), relative to government and municipal bonds. I don’t believe the risk-return profile for long-term investors (particularly taxable individual investors) is improved by owning IG or HY corporate bonds compared with simply owning a diversified portfolio of stocks and high-quality government bonds.
In spending significant time talking to clients and wealth advisors about fixed income, one common misconception is that bond funds are more exposed to interest rate risk than laddered individual bond portfolios. The logic basically starts and ends with the observation that individual bonds can be held to maturity while bond funds don’t necessarily hold all bonds until they mature. Because all individual bonds can be held to maturity, as the logic goes, it doesn’t matter if their prices go up or down in the interim. This does indeed sound logical, but as it turns out, laddered individual bond portfolios and bond funds with similar-maturity bond holdings have almost identical exposure to interest rate risk. There simply isn’t much of a difference, yet the incorrect point of view is all too common within the industry and can lead investors to take excessive interest rate risk in individual bond portfolios without understanding the implications.
The initial academic work on the returns of private equity investments generally found underperformance relative to public market benchmarks like the S&P 500. More recent research, which apparently uses higher-quality data, is coming to the opposite conclusion. But is it really? Professor Ludovic Phalippou from the University of Oxford argues that while this recent research appears to be valid, the S&P 500 isn’t the right benchmark.
Folks have been lighting up my inbox with questions and comments about an Advisor Perspectives pieceby Michael Edesess (link included for the three of you who may not have seen the piece … you three may also not be aware that Miley Cyrus appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards … link not included). The article is critical of DFA’s recent work on profitability. I’ll focus most of my comments on the contents of Edesess’s section entitled “How the DFA argument is flawed.”
The debate about whether the size and value premiums have existed on paper was settled many years ago. The long-term historical data clearly shows robust size and value premiums. The average annual U.S. size and value premiums have been 3.6 and 4.8 percent, respectively, from 1927-2012. What has been more hotly debated, however, is whether these premiums could actually be captured in the real world net of transactions costs and fund expense ratios. In my opinion, even this debate is a bit silly at this point. If you examine the returns of intelligently built, low-cost mutual funds that have been designed specifically to capture these premiums, it’s clear they’ve been successful.
Last week, I outlined how to construct a portfolio of stocks and high-quality bonds to replicate the returns of high-yield corporate bonds. This week I’m tackling investment-grade corporate bonds.The same basic logic as last week holds: There’s not much unique about investment-grade corporate bonds that you can’t achieve with a diversified portfolio of stocks and high-quality bonds. The only difference is you don’t need as much in stocks to replicate the returns of investment-grade corporate bonds as you do with high-yield corporate bonds. This is because high-yield corporate bonds are more similar to stocks because they both have substantial exposure to default risk. Investment-grade corporate bonds have less default risk and therefore aren’t as similar to stocks.
With interest rates at low levels for a number of years now, many investors have moved some portion of their high-quality bond portfolios to higher-yielding investments like high-yield corporate bonds. I’ve long argued that there’s not much these strategies add relative to a traditional stock fund and high-quality bond strategy. Further, the traditional stock fund and high-quality bond allocation strategy tends to have lower costs and be more tax efficient. This is a bit of a qualitative argument though, and I wanted to illustrate the point quantitatively.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve focused on high-yield corporate bonds, but three other yield-oriented investments I frequently get asked about are high-dividend stocks, preferred stocks and oil-and-gas master limited partnerships (MLPs). In the past couple of years, I’ve found that most investors who ask about these strategies are contemplating using them in place of high-quality fixed income because “fixed income rates are low.”