The basic premise for building a diversified portfolio is that uncorrelated or (better yet) negatively correlated assets and strategies will add up to produce higher risk-adjusted returns. This is one of the most powerful concepts in investing.
Basic portfolio construction relies on combining asset classes (stocks, bonds and real assets) with low correlation to perform well in different economic environments.
I go further than that, because, I believe, that adding strategies from different investment approaches can be even more powerful. The diversification between uncorrelated profitable strategies – each of which may experience years of significant under- or outperformance – smoothes the portfolio´s equity curve and produces higher risk-adjusted returns than each strategy individually.
Strategies that provide negative correlation can be beneficial to the portfolio even if they yield net neutral or slightly negative returns – especially if they provide outsized returns in bad times like market crashes.
Unfortunately correlations are not stable and dependable, they change over time and sometimes jump from one state to another – for example through the risk-on / risk-off behavior displayed by investors in recent years.
Correlations for most assets and strategies often tend to move towards 1 (everything is getting more and more correlated) in a crisis – just when diversification is most needed. We need to pay close attention to this possibility.
Bonds are the classic diversifier to an equity portfolio working as a safe haven in a crisis. Unfortunately this negative correlation is not dependable – in inflationary times like the 1970s both stocks and bonds showed large losses. In such times real assets like real estate, gold and other commodities deliver diversification. Certain strategies, for example trend-following, also work well as independent diversifiers.
Apart from correlation, the return distribution of different strategies is the second important factor. Skew describes the return distribution in comparison to a normal distribution. For most assets and strategies skew is negative with more outlier events (fat tails) at the left side of the distribution – meaning that you will experience more extreme losses than normally distributed probabilities would lead you to expect.*
Once you have put together a portfolio of different return streams, it can then be leveraged up or down to suit your individual risk tolerance. Risk and return are two sides of the same coin and leverage scales them up or down in tandem.
As the common practice of simply allocating all your money across a portfolio of assets is unlikely to fit your specific risk / return goals, I like to think independently about the amount of risk that is optimal for my purpose.
I use the term leverage in a general way to describe the portfolio´s exposure to risk. For example using 0,5 times leverage means that only half your capital is invested or two times leverage implies the use of margin to invest twice the available capital, requiring twice the stomach for tolerating the ensuing volatility. Through volatility adjusted exposure, a very volatile, high return asset or strategy can be scaled down to perform a useful function in a portfolio or an asset with meagre returns, but small volatility can be levered up.
I don´t judge the use of leverage, I think of it as a tool. It is important to be aware that leverage scales risk just as much as return and at some point, when leverage is too high, it becomes suicidal.
To reach a higher return and avoid leverage, very often volatile assets like equities are overweighted in a traditional portfolio. But it makes more sense to create a well balanced portfolio (risk parity or equal weighted) with a higher risk-adjusted return and then lever it up to the desired level of risk and return, if this doesn’t involve high costs. A moderately leveraged, highly diversified portfolio is considerably less risky than an unleveraged, non-diversified one.
Warren Buffet historically employed leverage of about 1,6 times on average to boost his return.
And equities in general are internally leveraged through company debt – which is why they are more volatile than many other assets.
Global Asset Allocation
As the central pillar of my portfolio, I put together a globally diversified asset allocation, which exposes it to the basic risk premia of all asset classes.
This can be done at low cost with ETF – most simply with a single Global Asset Allocation ETF or by using a digital advisor. Combining several individual ETF, it can be easily customized, sourcing ideas from any of a plethora of asset allocation models. For example the Endowment Model, Permanent Portfolio, All Weather Portfolio or others, which are detailed in Meb Faber´s book “Global Asset Allocation” – low cost is more important than the exact asset mix. The most common ways are to equally weight or volatility weight the individual parts.
I use several individual index ETF to be able to easily implement a tactical allocation scheme in the next step – I want to scale the exposure of different parts of the allocation model up or down according to changing fundamentals and market conditions. It also makes it easy to include alternative assets, e.g. timber or other commodities, specific countries or global sectors.
Next I add exposure to different return factors to the mix to enhance performance. Factors explain the composition of equity returns and rely on the finding that stocks and other assets selected by certain criteria lead to a long-term outperformance over market returns (examples are: value, momentum, carry, low beta, liquidity, quality, etc.).
My favorite are the value and momentum factors because they are especially pronounced and robust and have a low correlation to each other. On their own they increase Sharpe ratios to 0,5-0,6 from 0,35 for a market cap weighted equity index and in combination that gets boosted through diversification to about 0,8 – which is already a very high level of risk-adjusted return.**
We are entering the league (in terms of risk-adjusted returns) where the all-time best investors are playing – for example Warren Buffett´s historic Sharpe ratio is “only” 0,76 while his returns have been a bit higher (above 20% annually) than our example due to the leverage and use of float he employs.
But some of the most lucrative alternative risk premia are hard or overly risky to harvest in a purely passive manner and recent studies suggest, that risk-adjusted returns can be improved by a systematic, active approach.
I now add strategies to my portfolio that replicate hedge fund approaches.
An alternative beta portfolio of strategies with dynamic trading rules, weighting and rebalancing of strategies, cost effective implementation and risk management. Alternative beta, in my definition, is alpha (returns that are independent of market returns) that has been systematized over time.
To me the best complimentary strategy, to counterweight the negatively skewed return characteristics of a Global Asset Allocation, are Trend-following Managed Futures.**** As one of the few profitable strategies with positively skewed return characteristics, they provide dependable, alternative crisis protection, great diversification and a long history (from the 1970s) of high annual returns above 10% with low volatility and a Sharpe ratio of 0,6-0,9. The inherent leverage in futures is a cost effective way to boost your portfolio´s exposure, if that is desired.
An easier way is the access via fund vehicles provided by major CTAs (very high fees) or newer ETF with very short track records (do they deliver what is promised?).
I rank them by return potential, ease of implementation and their return distribution and correlation compared to the rest of the portfolio. An additional bonus is a strategy that can provide low or no cost leverage to the portfolio. Some approaches are only relevant in certain market conditions, others need very stringent risk control.
Selling volatility***** ranks as my most lucrative alternative strategy. It provides a reliable income stream, but also has a lot of pitfalls and high crash risk as well as the problem of becoming a rather crowded strategy in 2017.
Volatility selling returns are very negatively skewed: long periods of extraordinarily consistent returns (that are in practice easily scalable to very high levels) are interspersed by large losses (that will wipe you out just as easily, if your leverage is too high). A good indication of that is the very high Sharpe ratio (for a risk premium) for volatility selling before the financial crisis – from 1990-2007 – of 1,3. That´s three times as high as the pure equity risk premium. An explanation for this might be, that selling financial catastrophe insurance demands especially high risk premia, because extraordinarily large losses come at the worst time.
In practice a short volatility strategy needs great attention to detail and good risk control to keep the inevitable losses in check. I try to accomplish this by finding ways to run the strategy in favorable conditions and to scale it down or stop it as soon as conditions deteriorate. It can provide high, smooth returns and portfolio leverage at no cost (selling options uses no money in your account, only collateral needs to be posted for margin).
- Selling out of the money put options on indices (insurance) and selling far out of the money call options on individual securities (lottery tickets). These carry the highest premia as investor demand for these options is highest and they systematically overpay for them. Studies show that it also works well to combine index short puts and short calls into systematic strangles, that make a portfolio more market neutral. This type of strategy captures the volatility risk premium while avoiding to make a directional market bet.
- Trading volatility directly through VIX futures. Volatility futures provide a constant roll yield that can be harvested on the short side. The danger lies in the vicious spikes these securities periodically have to the upside.
Equal weight across: Global Asset Allocation – Trend Following – Short Volatility
In the next chapter I will look at tactically adapting this basic allocation to different market environments.
The portfolio looks a bit lopsided, with too much tail risk exposure and could be balanced by a hedging strategy to feather some of the risk of being short volatility. An idea could be an asymmetric bet, buying long term far out of the money put options on struggling stocks and indices. This may be a strategy with negative long-term return expectations, but a strong benefit to portfolio diversification at low cost, with big upside when markets turn south.
*on concepts like skew and kurtosis read “Skewing Your Diversification“ by Mark S. Shore which gives insights on the advantages of combining short option and trend following managed futures with a traditional portfolio.