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Can a Computer Help Run a Fund?

Interview: Gideon Smith, manager of the Axa Global Factors Sustainable Equity fund, has designed a computer algorithm which can scan the internet to make investment decisions

Holly Black 23 September, 2019 | 1:47PM

Algos

The battle beween active and passive funds has intensified in recent years, but at a smattering of funds, active managers work closely with computer algorithms to combine the two.

Gideon Smith, manager of the Axa WF Global Factors Sustainable Equity fund, and his team have designed a computer algorithm which can pick out companies likely to deliver sustainable earnings growth and low volatility.

It scans company reports, the news and even social media to work out which stocks the fund should back and which it should avoid. “I used to do computer programming in the film industry but realised I could earn more using my skills in financial services,” jokes Smith.

Launched in 2013, the fund looks to grow investors’ money by investing in a diverse range of companies across the globe. So far, so typical. The difference here is that a computer program is making the decisions.

As well as looking at standard measurements such as profits and debt, the programmes can interpret other factors to determine whether or not a stock deserves a place in the 400-strong portfolio. One data point it analyses, for example, is how many women there are on a company’s board.

“We know that companies with greater diversity on the board do better over the long term, so we look at that when we’re considering how sustainably a firm can grow its profits,” says Smith. Similarly, the program will look at a business’s carbon footprint. “Because there’s always an associated cost with a high carbon footprint, whether its increased regulation or lost customers,” he explains.

Active vs Passive

In the ongoing – and likely never to be resolved – debate over whether active or passive funds are best for investors, the arguments are well-known: passive funds will deliver stock market performance at a low-cost where active managers bring the potential to beat the market – but often underperform it.

So where does Smith’s fund sit in that spectrum? Somewhere in the middle, is the answer, in a pocket known as Smart Beta or Factor Investing. This is where a benchmark is constructed with specific rules for a computer algorithm to follow. The computer is not just blindly following a stock market, but taking into account any number of pre-determined factors to construct a portfolio.

The fund certainly seems to be bringing together the positives of both types of investing: it has delivered annualised returns of 10.3% over three years and is up a hefty 19.2% year to date. Meanwhile, the annual charge is just 0.3%. 

While the manager may create the rules, his role in running the fund is arguably reduced. “The way I see it is that the computer can do the automated stuff and that frees me up to do other things, where I can add more value,” says Smith. “I’m not worried that I’m going to be out of a job any time soon. It’s the same as a plane – it’s mostly flown by autopilot, but passengers like the fact that the pilot is there and can step in if necessary.”

It seems that there is an endless amount of tinkering and monitoring to do in overseeing the algorithm. There’s an ESG screen that Smith can use, whereby the computer looks for evidence that a company is “talking the talk, not just walking the walk” in its environmental, social and governance policies.

There is also a distress screen, which looks not just at how a company has coped with previous bouts of volatility but at whether there could be volatility on the horizon. “There is so much information out there that it’s easy to get information paralysis,” says Smith.

Recently, Smith reduced the fund’s holding in Facebook after a red flag was raised by the algorithm on this very screen. The company ticks many of the boxes that the manager is looking for with its sustainable earnings and steady growth, but the computer predicted a spike in volatility after finding news stories suggesting concerns about ethics and privacy.

Information Overload

It’s the stuff of sci-fi films, that a computer can read the news and scan the internet to make investment decisions. One algorithm is even trained to read social media and understand emojis. “How does it understand sarcasm and nuance? The same way you do,” says Smith. “By learning over time and getting more experience.”

The manager finds himself regularly impressed by how effective the algorithm is. He remembers checking the portfolio after reading in the news about the Volkswagan emissions scandal, only to see the algorithm had already spotted volatility ahead and raised a red flag. “Our computer even had a red flag on Enron 15 years ago, before the scandal broke. It saw that the amount of tax the company was paying didn’t tally with its reported earnings and flagged that something must be wrong,” he adds.

Of course, Smith can’t entirely automate himself away. Fund management is a regulated industry and a computer can’t hold the fiduciary responsibility to the fund’s investors. Finding the balance between how much of the fund’s management is automated and how much is overseen by the team is a constant fine-tuning process. The computer used to rebalance the portfolio every three minutes, for example, but that was ruled to be inefficient and costly so it has been slowed down.

There are more than 400 holdings in the portfolio - 63% of which is in the US, including Visa, Coca-Cola and Pfizer - which is a lengthy list by anyone’s reckoning. While Smith points out that this is a small portion of the total global investable universe Having so many names in the fund could also limit the computer’s ability to damage performance by making a bad call.

Smith says: “Fund managers need an edge and my computer programme increases my chances of getting an investment right from, say, 50/50 to 60/40 – so that’s my edge, but the buck still stops with me.”

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.

About Author

Holly Black  is Senior Editor, Morningstar.co.uk

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