Exploring Multi-Factor Models

| About: iShares MSCI (EEM)

This is Part 8 in a series about smart beta ETFs. See below for links to other posts in the series. So far we've looked at ETFs that target specific factors. In this installment, we look at funds that offer exposure to more than one.

Over the last few weeks I've looked at the five factors most commonly associated with smart beta ETFs: value, size, momentum, low volatility and quality. The specific funds I've mentioned so far are designed to zero in on one of those factors. But what if you wanted to target more than one? Should you just use several funds, or are there ETFs that use "multi-factor" strategies?

Let's first consider the reason for building a portfolio with exposure to more than one factor: better diversification. As we've seen, each factor is virtually guaranteed to see periods of underperformance, even if they deliver higher returns over the long haul. This can lead to tracking error regret, which is the frustration investors feel when they lag the broad market. Unless you believe strongly in your smart beta strategy, you'll be tempted to abandon it at the wrong time.

But although all of the factors will test your patience, it's unlikely they'll all be in the doghouse at the same time. In fact, according to MSCI, during the 40 years ending in 2014 momentum was negatively correlated with value and size, which means it tended to do better precisely when these other factors lagged. Quality and size also tended to move in opposite directions over this period. So by targeting more than one factor, you may be able to reduce the amount by which your strategy deviates from the broad market from year to year, while still capturing most of the long-term benefits.

Can you have it all?

Multi-factor strategies are not new in concept: Dimensional Fund Advisors, for example, has been using them for decades. Their funds originally gave extra weight to both value and small-cap stocks, following the Fama-French Three Factor Model described in the 1990s. Since then, DFA has expanded its model to include profitability, which is closely related to what we've called the quality factor. Unfortunately for DIY investors, however, Dimensional does not offer ETFs, and their mutual funds are not available through online brokerages.

In Canada, the largest suite of multi-factor ETFs was launched by iShares about a year ago. These include the iShares Edge MSCI Multifactor Canada (XFC) as well as similar ETFs covering the US and international stocks, with the latter two also available in currency-hedged versions.

These funds track the MSCI Diversified Multi-Factor Indexes, which screen for value, size, momentum and quality. Stocks are assigned a score for each factor, and then a smaller number (ranging from 80 in the Canadian fund to more than 200 in the international version) are selected and weighted in the index. There are constraints to ensure the overall volatility and exposure to individual sectors don't stray too far from the broad market. The indexes are rebalanced twice a year and limit their turnover to 40% annually, which is likely to reduce transaction costs and realized capital gains.

While these iShares ETFs are the only ones in Canada specifically designed to get exposure to several factors, other funds use strategies that sneak in through the back door. Take the PowerShares FTSE RAFI Canadian Small-Mid Fundamental (PZC), which targets both the value and size factors even if it doesn't specifically market itself in that way. Another example is First Asset's family of ETFs based on MSCI's Risk-Weighted Indexes: these primarily target stocks with low volatility but also have a bias toward smaller stocks.

Other multi-factor ETFs

In the US, not surprisingly, the menu of multifactor ETFs is much larger. Ignoring the ones that focus on specific sectors, these include the following:

  • In the US, the iShares family of MSCI Multifactor ETFs includes not only funds that focus on US and international stocks, but also a version tracking emerging markets (NYSEARCA:EEM). There are even versions for US small caps (NYSEARCA:SMLF) and international small caps (NYSEARCA:INTF), which add a fifth factor (size) to the model.
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  • State Street (NYSE:STT) has its own suite of SPDR MSCI StrategicFactorsSM ETFs. Although these track MSCI indexes, the strategy is quite different from the one used by the iShares funds: they're a composite of three individual indexes focused on value, quality and low volatility. There are versions for the various regions and individual countries.
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  • The Goldman Sachs ActiveBeta U.S. Large Cap Equity (NYSEARCA:GSLC) tracks an index targeting value, momentum, quality and low volatility. Other ETFs in the family focus on Europe, Japan, international developed markets and emerging markets.
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  • At least one ETF has been specifically designed to capitalize on the idea that some factors outperform when others lag: the PowerShares DWA Momentum & Low Volatility Rotation Portfolio (NASDAQ:DWLV) is built from several low-vol and momentum ETFs, with the allocation to each one adjusted every month according to rules laid out in its index.