Extreme Example of Correlation For Some Perspective

Dec 23, 2011 in Correlation

Quick, what is the correlation between a stock-bond balanced portfolio and a portfolio that holds the S&P 500 but is leveraged to 2x its daily moves?

This is an extreme example of correlation which shows how it can often be meaningless in investment analysis. Below is the historical correlation of the plain vanilla Vanguard 60-40 Stock-Bond index mutual fund vs the +2x Leveraged S&P 500 ETF (SSO).

The correlation is 0.99 meaning they both have big moves relative to their own historical movement on the same days.But what does this tell you about ‘risk’? Not much. What does it indicate about return? Not much. The volatility characteristics of these two products are completely different despite correlation of ~1.00. Below is the total return comparison

Another example: Pharmaceuticals vs Financials. The 120-day correlation here is 0.88, which is high --- though there is a 29 percentage point difference in YTD returns (2,900 basis pts).

So when you hear people talk about how high correlations means you can’t differentiate yourself ---- this is not because of correlation. Everyone has times when they are out of sync with the market but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible to add material value vs an index. To say so is disingenuous.

While we have a correlation chart on ETFreplay.com, we use it only as peripheral information. In an appreciating market, you WANT high correlation to the appreciating asset. But let's be clear, it is possible to differentiate your portfolio no matter what happens with correlation.

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Understanding ETF Volatility Part 2

Dec 22, 2011 in Drawdown | Volatility

We are updating our 'Volatility vs Subsequent Drawdown' Chart for 2011.   We did a similar post a year ago and you can review that blog post here: Understanding ETF Volatility Part 1.


The way to read these charts is to simply note the relationship.   By definition, high standard deviation investments offer wider opportunities for both out and underperformance.  The S&P 500 dropped -18.6% off its high during 2011 (using closing total return values).   This was -3.2% worse than the mid-year loss in 2010, when the S&P dropped -15.6%.   

Gold had a more normal drawdown in 2011 at -17.5% vs 2010's -7.8%, due mostly to its more aggressive slope up during the summer.   Gold never got particularly volatile in 2010 but in 2011 it traded more typical of a commodity market -- where there is often a momentum-oriented blow-off move.   Still, if you were watching volatility dynamically, you would take note of it becoming riskier during the July-August advance.   

The NASDAQ-100 actually dropped slightly less from high to low in 2011 vs 2010.  Large-cap tech -- particulary AAPL have been relatively calm in 2011 -- which was also the case in 2010.   Can it go 3 years with just a mid-teens drawdown?  We don't know but there are certainly other more attractive segments as we close 2011.

It may sound odd but the losses in both 1) small cap US stocks (IWM) and 2) US Energy stocks (XLE) were about the same from high to low as the European ETF (VGK), which dropped -30%.   However, both of the US ETFs have seen strong rebounds in Q4 and are a few percentage points from flat on the year.

Silver (SLV) is pretty consistently the most volatile (unlevered) ETF around and it didn't disappoint with a -41% high to low move in 2011 (and the year isn't quite over).

Treasury bonds ground out fantatstic years.   We've blogged many times about how intermediate and low-duration bonds are the ultimate safe-haven.   You can't count on consistent correlations in times of crisis -- but you can count on low-duration bonds,  the fixed-maturity dates of the underlying securities ensure it.  This is not true of long-term bonds -- which look susceptible to significant drawdowns in 2012.  As much hype as the US downgrade received, it proved yet another meaningless move by the ratings agencies in the United States, which for some antiquated reasons seem to remain relevant to some.

Note that many ETF providers launched 'minimum volatility' ETFs in 2011.  Since starting ETFreplay.com in early 2010 we have always used volatility as 1 of 3 key inputs in our multi-factor screener model -- so we are not surprised to see this development from the ETF providers.   Volatility has and always will be important --- but it's certainly not the only thing that matters.  Myopically focusing on volatility is taking this all too far as building ETFs off a singular concept like this is very limiting.  

We view risk-adjusted (volatility-adjusted) relative strength as the cornerstone philosophy of ETFeplay.com and this led to a fixed-income bias throughout most of 2011.  However, a tactical investment process continually looks to adapt to the environment --- and we would look for continue rotations in 2012 --- and every other year for that matter.   There is plenty of room to add value in any year and it's up to you to figure out which group that is and how to manage it.  In 2011, fixed-income ETF showed excellent total returns.  You can't always be right of course --- but you can pursue a process on thoughtful consideration of which markets to be involved with --- and then layering some trend-following techniques on top of that ---  all the while continually striving to protect yourself for the times you are wrong.   If you simply stay consistently loaded in a group of highly volatile securities -- it is just a matter of time before you have a large drawdown. 

As can be seen in our tracked Portfolio Allocations, we view equities to be attractive as we end 2011 -- particularly small and midcap US stocks.  We see signs of P/E multiple expansion with rates low and liquidity being added to the problem areas of the global economy.  However, even assuming we enter an intermediate uptrend (which may or may not occur), this does not mean that more rotations within the markets won't occur.  It is never easy in the moment and we will carefully continue to watch and adapt to new potential themes/trends --- while always watching our backs to avoid too much portfolio volatility (and its associated drawdown).


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Fidelity Capitulates

Dec 06, 2011

Recently, Fidelity announced that is has filed to offer a list of new ETFs.   There were some comments made about how Fidelity ETFs will be within a ‘master-feeder’ structure between the existing mutual funds and the new products.    Quite honestly, who cares?   We as investors don’t unless it’s something that is actually innovative from an investment perspective.   The only thing interesting about this news is the implied competitive duel that is going on in the industry --- as it is this competition that is helping us to pay no commissions and be charged expense ratios that are extremely low. 

The big rivalry in the mass-market U.S. brokerage industry is between the two clear top-tier firms:  Schwab and Fidelity.   TD Ameritrade is making great strides and arguably has one of the best combinations of a software platform and low-cost ETF options but TD Ameritrade is not really in the same class in terms of brand name and size as the first two.   Other large firms like Vanguard, American Funds and Franklin-Templeton are all in a slightly different sphere, in our opinion as their primary businesses are more clearly in-house managed mutual funds.  Fidelity grew to be more than just a mutual fund firm many years ago.   Internally at Schwab, Fidelity is enemy #1– not Vanguard or Ameritrade.

Schwab’s ETF offerings are still pretty weak -- nothing but U.S. growth and value ETFs and some no-frills broad international funds.    Yawn.   There isn’t much money in ETFs for anyone but the investor – which to us makes this all an even MORE interesting game to watch unfold.   Fees that come out of mutual fund and brokerage firms go directly into investors pockets.   The costs of investing are important.  Vanguard has been rolling over the mutual fund industry for years by intentionally passing the savings on to the investor and it’s all a very, very good thing. 

Vanguard was actually quite late to the game when it launched ETFs many years ago so the fact that Fidelity waited until December 2011 to capitulate on ETFs implies just how much kicking and screaming must have gone on inside Fidelity on this secular trend toward ETFs.   The trend is powerful and accelerating.  In both advisor managed portfolios and next in 401(k) plans, ETFs are clearly becoming the core building blocks of modern portfolios, a role traditionally split between individual stocks and mutual funds.

iShares – now a part of Blackrock was the firm that drove the industry forward.   If we had to pick a #2 it would be State Street (SPDR) --- but even they were slow to expand their offerings beyond the basics.   Small firms with just a few good offerings --  like Van Eck (whose brand name is Market Vectors) and WisdomTree have now reached more than $10 billion in assets.   But because fees are low, $10 billion in ETF assets is not that much revenue for a firm the size of Fidelity.  Nevertheless, the world is changing and Fidelity needs to do something about it or Schwab is going to end up owning the 401(k) ETF market by itself -- a massive market currently dominated by mutual fund companies but one that will eventually move to ETFs.

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