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A few months ago, we started a series of articles highlighting the benefits of tactical asset allocation to achieve strong absolute returns with limited risk. The presentation of our conservative model portfolio, the subsequent details on its mechanics and the possible uses of this kind of strategy (here and here) have garnered a lot of interest from readers, but also some frustration about the lack of specifics.

So the focus of this article is to take a concrete and thorough example of a simple relative strength strategy with a description of the ETF universe and rules used, and how it has performed over the past 8 years. The set of rules is more simple than the ones we use in our other portfolios and the universe here is only composed of ETFs representing sub-asset classes (sectors) of one single asset class (U.S. equity).

Nevertheless, this is quite useful to better grasp the mechanics behind our strategies.

1. The ETF Universe: The 10 iShares Sector ETFs

  • IDU (U.S. Utilities)
  • IYC (U.S. Consumer Services)
  • IYE (U.S. Energy Sector)
  • IYF (U.S. Financials)
  • IYH (U.S. Healthcare Sector)
  • IYJ (U.S. Industrial Sector)
  • IYK (U.S. Consumer Goods)
  • IYM (U.S. Basic Materials Sector)
  • IYW (U.S. Technology)
  • IYZ (U.S. Telecommunications)

2. The Rules

  • At the end of each month, RANK the 10 ETFs based on their 6-month total returns.
  • At the close of the 1st trading day of each month, BUY the Top 2 ETFs, except if they closed the previous month below their 6-month moving average. In such case, buy TLT (long-term Treasury bonds) instead.
  • REPEAT every month.

In other words, the 6-month moving average filters out the results from the ranking. If none of the top 2 ETFs trades above its moving average, the portfolio is 100% invested in TLT. If only one of the top 2 ETFs trades above its moving average, the portfolio is invested 50% in that ETF and 50% in TLT. If both trade above their moving average, the portfolio is invested 50% in each.

Such a simple system works because of the three main reasons:

  • The momentum effect
  • The 6-month moving average, which acts as a protection against protracted bear markets
  • The negative correlation between U.S. Equities and Long-Term Bonds, especially strong in periods of poor performance of equities (flight to "safety")

3. The Performance

The results below underscore that this simple strategy is profitable, and has significantly outperformed the S&P 500 (NYSEARCA:SPY) since 2003 (the data is as of November 16, 2011). Also note that all years have been positive since then. As such, it can be a relevant candidate for consideration for an overall portfolio strategy. We view its drawdowns and volatility as a little bit too much on the high side but it may be a useful complement to stock portfolios or less correlated strategies.

Overall Performance:

Strategy CAGR Volatility Max drawdown Corr. SPY
Sector Switch +17.8% 19.2% -15.3% +0.33
Buy/Hold SPY + 5.5% 21.4% -52.9% +1.00

Yearly Performance:

Strategy 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Sector Switch +27.5% +7.5% +17.6% +22.3% +19.7% +10.2% +28.0% +1.9% +26.6%
Buy/Hold SPY +24.1% +10.2% +7.2% +13.6% +4.4% -34.3% +24.7% +14.3% -0.9%
Source: Boosting Portfolio Returns With Tactical Asset Allocation To Best-Performing Sectors