Drivers of Unexpected Portfolio Return Outcomes – that should be controlled for.

Six reasons could largely explain manager underperformance or the delivery of investment return outcomes different from what is expected.

Conversely, controlling for these “risks” might be the reason why a Manager is consistently adding value.

How a manager controls for the following risks should be considered as part of the due diligence process and in the construction of a multi-manager portfolio:

  1. Levels of uncompensated vs compensated risk
  2. Incidence of underlying portfolio holdings cancelling each other out
  3. Hidden portfolio risks resulting in unintended outcomes
  4. Conventional style-box investing, which leads to index-like performance with higher fees
  5. Over-diversification
  6. Possible attempts to “time” manager changes may prove costly.

The above six risks where identified by Northern Trust following the analysis of $200 billion of assets on more than 200 equity portfolios from 64 institutional investors around the world.  The results surprised many of the institutions involved. 

Northern Trust expressed the above risks as “six common drivers of unexpected Portfolio Results.”

These risks largely explained manager underperformance in single manager portfolios and also multi-manager portfolios.

The analysis highlights, in my opinion, that implementation and portfolio construction are fundamental to capturing value and in delivering excess returns. Although the investment theory and development of investment strategy are important, implementation and portfolio construction are fundamental.  This is an important area to focus on in undertaking manager/strategy due diligence.

To the point, implementation is vital in capturing the desired investment outcomes of any proposed investment strategy.  This is where a lot of value is added, primarily by not detracted value in implementing the desired strategy!

As Northern Trust emphasis, finding a manager that consistently delivers on their investment objectives is certainly important, but it should not be the only area of focus.  Knowing how a manager, or strategy, interacts with the rest of your portfolio can have much more impact over time.

Institutions had nearly 2x more uncompensated vs compensated risk

Northern Trust found that portfolios which became “overcrowded” with uncompensated risks tended to underperform.

Risk needs to be taken to outperform.  Nevertheless, some risks are compensated for over the longer term and others are not.  Norther Trust outlines that some styles are not compensated for over the longer term, e.g. low quality.  They also include currency, and some countries and sectors have also not historically compensated for the risk taken.

From my own experience, managers who control for some of these risks, tend to outperform, primarily because intended risks, such as company specific risks or compensated styles, end up driving investment outcomes.

Norther Trust found a high level of uncompensated risk across all institutional investment segments, including Super Funds, Endowments, Insurance, Corporate Pensions, and Family Offices.

They conclude: “The result of uncompensated risks comprising nearly 50% of total portfolio active risk was generally benchmark-like returns or underperformance.  While sometimes these risks were taken intentionally, we found that many institutions were surprised when they saw the actual numbers.”

Underlying portfolio holdings cancelled each other out – and hurt performance

This risk particularly impacts multi-manager portfolios.

The cancellation effect occurs when managers within a portfolio take opposing positions that offsets each other e.g. one manager goes overweight a stock another manager is underweight, a manager might have a growth bias which offsets a manager with a value bias.

As Northern Trust note, on a standalone basis many managers individually offer high active risk, once combined with other managers a lot of this active risk is cancelled out.

This needs to be considered in the construction of a multi-manager portfolio. 

Northern Trust conclude: “Our analysis uncovered a shocking amount of this cancellation effect.  Nearly 50% of manager active risk was lost.  Capturing just 50% of targeted active risk, while paying 100% of the manager fees, effectively translates into paying 2x more for each realized basis point of active risk than originally thought.”

Hidden Portfolio risks cause unintended outcomes

Northern Trust found that style tilts contributed 29% of active risk on average.  However, other bets where often introduced into a portfolio unintentionally and led to “unpredictable portfolio outcomes.”

Although some styles are a consistent source of excess returns over time, it was unintended style risks that negatively impacted portfolio performance.

Often, these unintended style risks are included when trying to capture a known rewarded risk e.g. value comes with common unintended style risk exposures of low quality and low momentum.

This means meaningful style exposure is lost.

They conclude: “Our research uncovered that 55% of the portfolios had material style conflicts – caused by the cancellation effect – that introduced exposures different from the managers stated objective.  This introduction of conflicting and unintended style exposures left many portfolios with no material exposure to their intended style tilts.”

Conventional style investing led to index like performance with higher fees

This is probably self-evident to many, particularly given the above research conclusions.

Northern Trust found that those portfolios based on conventional style analysis, and those of a core-satellite approach, tended to suffer more from the cancellation effect.

The “style box” approach portfolio was more likely to have managers who took opposing views or two managers where hired to generate an exposure one manager alone could achieve.

As a result, “conventional style investing, whether intentional or not, created a mix of managers that closely mimicked the benchmark and left little chance to outperform.”

Over-diversification diluted performance

The Northern Trust research highlights than “hiring too many managers or building equity portfolios with thousand of securities took a significant toll on performance.”

Obviously, adding managers and combination of strategies can reduce overall portfolio risk, Northern Trust research showed that often the risks reduced where different to what was intended.

Norther Trust conclude: “While there are many approaches to generating excess returns, our research suggests that a greater focus on eliminating uncompensated risks is a critical first step toward potentially increasing a portfolio’s ability to outperform.”

Possible attempts to “time” manager changes may prove costly

Do not chase manager performance.  The Northern Trust research highlighted that historically poor active management performance had resulted in lower allocations to active managers in the following year.  When performance was better, a higher allocation to active managers resulted.

As they conclude: “Finding a manager that consistently delivers on their investment objectives is certainly important, but it should not be the only area of focus.  As evidenced through the preceding discoveries of this report, knowing how a manager will interact with the rest of your portfolio can ultimately be much more impactful over time.”

Access to the Northern Trust Risk Report can be found here.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s