Category Archives: Financial

Fundamental Indexing

Consider the purpose of a market index.  We use an index to define the value of the market, overall.  When we use a market index as a benchmark for any specific holding or portfolio, we need to be able to rely on that index as a reasonable measurement for what “the market” is worth at any given moment, and over time.  If you are an efficient market hypothesis believer, market capitalization weighting is the only accurate way to measure the economic value of any specified market.

But what if you think that at least some of the time, prices for individual companies, sectors, and even the whole market can diverge from their true economic value?  This premise is the basis of factor investing, “smart beta,” and behavioral investing.  Several “fundamental” weighting schemes have been developed to try to measure economic value in ways other than equity price.

Dividend discount model is a simple and common method of determining the economic value of a stock.  Free cash flow models based on earnings are also widely recognized.  WisdomTree has offered both dividends and earnings weighted funds for over 10 years.  Jeff Weniger offers a thorough explanation of the advantages of earnings weighting at and Jeremy Schwartz published a white paper in 2016 detailing dividend weighting,  Pacer US Cash Cows 100 Index selects and weights the largest 100 companies by free cash flow.  The associated ETF, COWZ, just opened in December 2016.  They describe their approach here:  Please note that this is a new index as well, so it really doesn’t have a track record other than backtesting.

Oppenheimer weights by top line revenue, as explained by David Mazza, The tech bubble is used as an example here.  You can see how at the height of the bubble, a minority of the stocks with increasing prices came to dominate the cap weighted index, but not so much the revenue weighted index.

Oppenheimer Revenue Weighting – graph from page 16 of Oppenheimer presentation – used with permission.

Rob Arnott (arguably the originator of fundamental weighting) and Research Affiliates (RAFI) have developed 3 unique indexes, which weight companies with varying combinations and definitions of sales, cash flow, dividends, and book value.   The FTSE RAFI US 1000 Index consists of the 1000 largest companies as calculated by their economic value, using a formula including total cash dividends, free cash flow, total sales, and book equity value.  Invesco, who sponsors the ETF for this index (PRF), shows the converse of the Oppenheimer example:  during the last crisis, the financial sector became under valued, and thus under weighted in the cap weighted index.

Invesco chart – used with permission.

Critics of the fundamental approach to indexing call it value investing by another name.  This is true by definition.  However, the difference between a value index and a fundamental index is that the fundamental index is not using the equity price in any form to determine inclusion or weight in the index.  A value index will always include some form of the price in its inclusion and/or weighting calculations, usually in a ratio (P/E, P/S, etc.).  The amount of value tilt changes over time for a fundamental index, while it is defined for a value index.  Issuers of fundamental indexes consider this a feature, not a bug.  The goal of the fundamental index is to represent the market constituents weighted by their economic value or economic impact, not to determine which equities or sectors are “incorrectly” priced.

What about performance?

As of 6/30/17 3 yr 5 yr 10 yr
YTD 1 yr 3 yr 5 yr 10 yr sd beta sd beta sd beta
S&P 500 TR Index 9.34 17.9 9.61 14.63 7.18 10.35 9.56 15.21
FTSE RAFI US 1000 Index 4.69 16.92 7.89 14.82 7.68 10.25 0.96 9.73 0.99 16.02 1.04
WisdomTree LargeCap Dividend Index 6.7 14.23 9.08 13.19 6.72 9.87 0.93 9.12 0.92 14.63 0.93
OFI Revenue Weighted Large Cap TR 7.41 16.49 8.7 15.55 7.29 10.38 0.98 9.9 1.01 16.51 1.07
WisdomTree US Earnings 500 Index 9.39 22.29 9.46 14.65 7.35 10.81 1.03 9.91 1.02 15.03 0.98
Pacer US 100 Cash Cows Index 6.74 23.15 9.02 16.98 10.32 13.46 1.2 12.41 1.2 19.83 1.21
Russell RAFI US Large Company Index 4.8 14.2 7.75 14.3 7.91 10.25 0.96 9.73 0.99 16.02 1.04
*Data from ETF providers and Morningstar

Please note that the outlier in this group, Pacer, reflects backtesting data prior to 2017.  The three year betas less then one suggest that the fundamental indexes are not performing as well as the S&P 500 over this portion of a bull market, and they are not.  A full market cycle would be the best way to evaluate performance.  The 10 year betas less than one might be what is expected – a dampening effect from removing the impact of excess pricing at market highs, and oversold equities at market lows. Another way to look at it would be that the market tends to overshoot at both extremes – the real economy is not moving as much.  But of the 6 indexes, only 2 reflect this theory.

What explains this?  The fundamental indexes are rebalanced quarterly or annually, while a cap weighted index self-rebalances on a continuous basis, other than adjustments for changes in listings and float. Rebalancing also adds trading costs as well as possible tax liabilities.  RAFI methodologies use 5 year averages of data, so they will be slower to respond to changes in issuer value than the cap weighted index.  The Oppenheimer and WisdomTree indexes are also capped by issuer and sector.  Similar to smart beta, it’s just more complicated to implement these strategies than cap weighted.

The ETFs based on fundamental indexes generally charge around .25% – .50%, while the cap weighted index ETF can be bought for .03%.  The 10 year returns net of fees are very similar to the cap weighted index.  Other cost considerations are size and trading cost of the ETFs, as well as tax implications. Obviously dividend weighted funds will have higher taxable income than cap weighted.

In summary, the theory of the fundamental index is quite compelling, but the current indexes somewhat less so. It seems likely that this reflects the difficulty in implementation rather than flaw in theory.

Disclosure:  I do not currently hold or plan to add any fundamental weight products for myself or clients.  Do have positions in cap weighted funds and ETFs.



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Fiduciary Rule blowback from customers

Rick Kahler recently reported that a J.D. Power survey showed that current clients of brokers are likely to leave when switched to fee-only accounts.  He envisioned a conversation like this:

Broker: “Because of the new DOL regulations I can no longer sell you a high fee and commission variable annuity to be owned by your IRA. To comply with the ruling, my company has eliminated the 7% upfront commission on this annuity; we will now charge you a 1% annual fee. They also reduced the annual management expenses from 3% to 1%. Plus, now any advice I give you or product I recommend must be in your best interests.”

Customer: “So you are eliminating the upfront 7% commission and replacing that with a 1% annual fee, which means 7% more of my money immediately goes to work for me in the investment, right?”

Broker: “That’s right.”


Customer:  “And instead of the upfront commission you are charging a new 1% annual fee, but reducing the annual management costs of the investments from 3% to 1%. So I’ll still make an additional 1% every year I own this, in addition to saving 7% up front, right?”

Broker: “That’s right.”

Customer: “And further, you’re now going to look out for my best interests rather than the best interests of your company.”

Broker: “Yep.”

Customer: “This is ridiculous. I’m outta here!”

Broker: “Where are you going?”

Customer: “To find a firm that will continue to sell me high commission, high fee products for my IRA and that will work against my best interests!”

Broker: “You probably won’t find any. Every financial company selling investment products to IRAs has to comply.”

Customer: “I’ll find someone, somewhere. Goodbye!”

I envision a conversation more like this:

Broker: “Because of the new DOL regulations I can no longer sell you a high fee and commission variable annuity to be owned by your IRA. To comply with the ruling, my company has eliminated the 7% upfront commission on this annuity; we will now charge you a 1% annual fee. They also reduced the annual management expenses from 3% to 1%. Plus, now any advice I give you or product I recommend must be in your best interests.”

Customer:  “So you’re telling me that for all these years, you have been taking a 7% cut right off the top, and charging me 3 times the expenses for no reason other than to take more of my  money and put it in your pocket??”

Broker: “ummmm…….”

Customer: “And further, you’ve never been out for my best interests, but rather the best interests of your company?”

Broker: “ummmm…….”

Customer: “This is ridiculous. I’m outta here!”

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More about ETF liquidity and the underlying assets’ liquidity

Sorry for the ridiculous title.  Not clickbait.

Noah, from Noahpinion, posted at Bloomberg, which was reposted at

It’s Smart to Worry About the Risks ETFs Pose

Remember how mortgage-backed securities turned out?
Now *that’s* a clickbait title.
The article is actually a lot more interesting than the title implies.

My own biggest worry about ETFs revolves around liquidity.

There is no single unified definition of liquidity. In general it means the ease with which you can trade an asset, but that depends on conditions in the market — mortgage-backed securities were plenty liquid before the crisis struck, but became incredibly illiquid once people started doubting the quality of their ingredients.

ETFs look very liquid, because as the name implies, you can trade them on exchanges. Take a thousand hard-to-trade bonds and pile them into an ETF, and you suddenly have one bond fund that the lowliest retail investor can buy and sell at will.

But what happens in a crisis? Suppose some bonds turn out to be a lot lower-quality than most investors believed. Without ETFs, those bonds would plunge in price, but other bonds would be fine. But now imagine that both the bad bonds and the good bonds are all bundled into ETFs. Now, when the bad bonds are discovered to be bad, investors who ignored the composition of their funds will suddenly wake up to the fact that they might contain toxic assets. Liquidity in the ETF market might suddenly dry up, as everyone tries to figure out which ETFs have lots of junk and which ones don’t.

With assets like stocks, this isn’t so much of a danger — when stocks go bust, everyone can see which ones are bad. But when the ingredients in an ETF are complex, highly heterogeneous assets, as is the case with many bonds and derivatives, one ETF might be fine while another is worthless, and yet investors may ignore the differences until it’s too late.

Another possibility, pointed out to me by a friend in asset management, is that some of the individual securities in an ETF might start to have their own liquidity problems. If banks or other big broker-dealers suddenly become unwilling to facilitate the trading of certain kinds of bonds, ETFs that include large amounts of those particular bonds might suddenly plunge in price. Investors now buying up ETF shares might not realize that danger, thus leading to general overpricing.

So the more bespoke and exotic markets ETFs expand into, the greater the worry that they could be involved in a 2008-style liquidity crunch. That could pose risks for key financial institutions that hold ETFs, and it could also spell danger for individual investors’ retirement savings.

A few people are already worrying about this possibility, which is good. The more we worry about financial innovations in advance, the less chance we’ll need a crisis to teach us the limits of those innovations.

This is sort of the flip side of my earlier post regarding bond mutual funds vs. ETFs.  My assumption is that traders will quickly price in the illiquidity of the underlying assets.  His assumption is that they will not, or may not.  I think if you are investing in funds of illiquid assets, though, you are still better off in an ETF than a mutual fund if you are a buy and hold investor.  This article gives you even more reason to hold a mutual fund if you plan to sell into a downturn.

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ESG vs. Returns

Great post from Asness regarding ESG.  The bottom line is, if you are trying to encourage good behavior, you should expect that your goals do not come free of charge – there should be a cost to total returns.

Pursuing virtue should hurt expected returns. Some have discussed this fact. But, it’s still not widely understood or broadly accepted. This seems to arise from investment managers selling virtue as a free lunch, and from investors who very much want to believe in that story. In particular, and my focus here, accepting a lower expected return is not just an unfortunate ancillary consequence to ESG investing, it’s precisely the point (though its necessity may indeed be unfortunate). As an ESG investor this lower expected return is exactly what you want to happen and really the only way you can effect the change you seek

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Fed Balance Sheet unwind

Michael Arone at SPDR Blog has added a bunch of global data to the info I posted previously regarding the Fed’s balance sheet.  He includes some information about current and future levels of required reinvestments (maturity dates) but really doesn’t touch on how equity markets might be impacted.

There are a bunch of cool charts (and one really, really dumb one, click on the link and you figure out which one).

Here’s a couple:




Importantly, he noted that the Chinese sale of treasuries was related to their desire to control the level of the yuan, not some general panic over US Treasuries, as that action is often portrayed.

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Fixed Income Investment Options

For fixed income exposure, there are currently 3 ways to own:  Hold the individual bonds, hold a bond fund, or hold a bond ETF.  Each has its advantages and drawbacks.

Depending on the type of bonds to be purchased, it may be difficult to achieve adequate diversification in individual bond holdings without a substantial investment (corporate and muni bond managers typically require at least $250,000).  Both mutual funds and ETFs provide maximum diversification with minimum investment.  ETFs have a slight edge here, as many funds do have investment minimums, and you only need to buy one share of an ETF.

Liquidity is another concern.  Again, individual bonds will have the least appeal for best execution.  ETFs have similar concerns, because the liquidity of an ETF is based on the liquidity of the underlying assets.  Bond funds can always be redeemed at NAV on a daily basis, so if you are interested in bonds that can be quickly bought and sold at NAV, regardless of bond market conditions, bond funds are the best choice.

Expenses and costs also vary greatly.  Individual bond portfolios, again, depending on the types of bonds, may be assembled at minimum cost, or may be managed for ongoing fees.  ETFs and funds have management fees, which vary from just a few basis points for index funds and ETFs to much higher fees for active funds.  It’s important to consider trading costs, including spreads and commissions, for ETFs (related to liquidity).

These basics are simple enough to determine, but they are not enough to make an informed decision.  For that, you need to consider why you own bonds, and when and how you plan to divest.  Is your investment process tactical, with buying and selling of positions?  Or is it more strategic, buy and hold?  Are you holding bonds to maturity in a bond ladder?

Consider the scenario of rising interest rates, forcing bond prices down, or, equivalently, a bond selloff in the type of bonds you own:

  • If you own the individual bonds and plan to hold to maturity, there is no practical impact on your portfolio. The bond values may drop, but the cash flows for your existing bond portfolio do not change.
  • If you own a mutual fund, you can redeem your shares daily at NAV. This option forces the fund company to either raise cash during downturns (a drag on performance), maintain credit for redemptions (an added cost), or sell assets, likely below NAV.  If you are selling tactically, you get the best price immediately.  If you are a buy-and-hold investor, you will bear the added costs of these sales and your investment may be harmed in the long run.
  • If you own an ETF, you can sell intra-day at market prices. The share creation/redemption process will force market prices for the ETF toward actual pricing of the bonds that includes costs of liquidity, so the ETF is likely to sell below NAV.  Investors who hold their shares are not impacted by these price movements.  Any fire sale pricing will be borne by the authorized participant who is redeeming the shares, and the individuals who are selling to the AP.

Bottom line:  If you are a buy and hold investor, an ETF or individual bonds may serve you best.  If you make tactical trades, the mutual fund daily NAV redemption feature is your friend.

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Montier vs. Inker

Here’s the link to James Montier’s post (in pdf form), which essentially rebuts a “this time is different” argument that Ben Inker made in GMO’s 2016 3rd quarter letter.

Both articles contain good points, and I agree with parts of each, although not really the conclusions of either.

IMHO, QE and the resulting balance sheet of the Fed is a major “this time is different” factor that neither of these articles addresses.  It impacts the bond market in continuing purchases to maintain the balance sheet as assets mature, and it has impacted the markets for all other assets as dollars are pushed out into the investment world and stay there.  Neither of these impacts are small or transitory in nature.  And it isn’t just our Fed, but many central banks around the globe. I wonder what these guys think about that.

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