Do Low Volatility Funds Deliver Positive Returns?

Much of the investor attention surrounding absolute return funds focuses on those with low volatility characteristics, but Argonaut's Barry Norris says they may not be worth paying for

Argonaut Capital 22 September, 2015 | 12:58AM
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This article is part of Morningstar's "Perspectives", written by third-party contributors. Here, Barry Norris, founder and CIO, Argonaut Capital, and manager of the Argonaut Absolute Return Fund, explains why low volatility absolute return funds many not be worth the money.

The argument for investing in absolute return should be relatively simple: a consistent delivery of attractive returns, combined with a risk profile offering diversification from traditional long only funds.

However, much of the investor attention surrounding absolute return strategies overly focuses on those funds displaying low volatility characteristics, which we argue by itself has no portfolio diversification benefits. We are concerned the emphasis on low volatility in isolation often leads too many funds to only deliver mediocre ‘cash plus’ returns – without the actual safety of cash.

With approximately half of the sector displaying a standard deviation of less than 4%, are these ‘cash plus’ returns worth the extra bother?

Cash is the ultimate low volatility investment. Unlike low volatility funds, cash never delivers a negative absolute return – unless in the unlikely event of the bank becoming insolvent. Therefore, the risk/return analysis of cash as an asset class is always consistently strong, simply due to the absence of risk.

But by far the biggest limitation of ‘cash plus’ low volatility funds is the absence of clear diversification benefits. An investor may believe they are achieving diversification by selecting a range of low volatility funds, only to find all of the strategies selected are highly correlated to the stock market and/or each other. The investor could likely replicate the same return profile by splitting assets and the market index, which would probably be cheaper to replicate after fees.

Are Low Volatility Funds Worth Paying For?

While cash does not charge an annual management fee, or performance fee, this is not the case with the universe of low volatility funds. In fact, it is questionable whether it is appropriate for many low volatility funds to even apply the commonplace annual management charge (AMC).

For example, if a fund has a standard deviation of 2%, is it really appropriate for it to apply 75bp AMC? Even in a year where the fund manager has demonstrated skill in converting risk into return, with the delivery of an admirable Sharpe ratio of 1, the AMC would likely consume nearly 40% of the targeted return.

Our analysis of the IA Targeted Return sector reveals approximately one quarter of funds have an AMC of at least half of the standard deviation. Even in a good year, this suggests fees will eat away at least half of the implied return.

Focus on Low Correlation and Delivering Returns

The most attractive risk characteristic of an absolute return fund in our view is not low volatility, but achieving low correlation to risk assets and delivering returns in all market environments. After all, the least difficult skill in investing is providing a positive return at the same time as the market and everyone else.

It is clearly more difficult to deliver positive returns at different times to the market and peers, while still displaying an attractive return profile overall – given the tendency of stock markets to deliver positive returns over market cycles. This requires investment in a non-correlated asset – which for us is a short book of equities – and demonstrating skill in generating alpha on both the short and long side of the book. It also requires a net exposure to never get too aggressive.

Our analysis of the IA Targeted Absolute Return sector found only three funds had a negative correlation to the European stock market. However, the overall return record of these funds is poor. By contrast, over half of the funds in the sector had a correlation of more than 0.5 with the European stock market – which suggests limited diversification benefits. The sweet spot is in the combination of an attractive return profile and a low correlation to the European stock market.

The IA Targeted Absolute Return sector is filled with a variety of different fund types: such as multi asset strategies, or long/short bond or equity vehicles. While this clearly results in different risk and return profiles, the framework for analysing the attractiveness of these strategies is the same. Investors must take a closer look at this heterogeneous to identify those funds that can truly offer diversification, as well as still provide value for money.


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The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Argonaut Capital  is a London based asset manager which specialises in European equity products

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