Seeking Alpha

Michael Dever's  Instablog

Michael Dever
Send Message
Founder, CEO & Director of Research for Brandywine Asset Management and author of "Jackass Investing: Don't do it. Profit from it." I have been a professional investor/trader since 1979 and have experience in stocks, managed futures, commodities, mutual fund arbitrage, market... More
My company:
Brandywine Asset Management
My blog:
Mike Dever
My book:
Jackass Investing: Don't do it. Profit from it.
View Michael Dever's Instablogs on:
  • Benchmark-Itis

    The investment world lives by benchmarks. Every institutional investor benchmarks the performance of the individual components of their portfolio to various indexes. Individual investors do the same. That's why the financial news constantly refreshes the current performance of the Dow Industrials or the S&P 500. This is partly due to regulatory mandate. In 1998 the SEC began to require mutual funds to show their performance relative to a benchmark. They felt this would better enable investors to determine whether a fund was performing well because of investment decisions made by its manager or simply because of factors outside their control. But mostly, benchmarking is seen as a necessary exercise to determine the effectiveness of a fund's management team.

    As a result of this "benchmark-itis," we often get asked by investors, "against which benchmark should we compare your performance?" Suggestions include the S&P 500 (because everyone watches that), hedge fund indexes (because our return driver based approach is "non-traditional"), or maybe the CTA indexes (since we execute our strategies in the futures markets).

    But none of these are a proper benchmark for Brandywine's Symphony Program. That's because Brandywine doesn't employ trading strategies based on common, "public domain" return drivers. As a result, our returns won't necessarily have any relationship to any index return. For example, some of Brandywine Symphony's best-performing periods have occurred when stocks dropped significantly (such as during Q3 2011). And Brandywine shows no correlation of returns to any of the few dozen hedge fund indexes. With regards to CTA indexes, well, this year provides a great example of how uncorrelated Brandywine is. While most of the CTA indexes exhibited losses from January through July, Brandywine produced solid profits. And although Brandywine gained strongly along with the CTA indexes in August, our sharp loss in September was in stark contrast to gains for the CTA indexes. Whether we over- or under-perform relative to any of the standard benchmarks over any period of time is essentially random and irrelevant.

    Brandywine's Benchmark

    So what is the best index with which to compare Brandywine Symphony's performance? It's our own past performance.

    The reason is because Brandywine's Symphony Program follows a return driver based approach that incorporates dozens of independent trading strategies, each based on a sound logical, non-public domain return driver, to trade across more than 100 global financial and commodity markets. Our goal is to achieve the highest possible return for any given level of risk with a reasonable probability that our future performance will match our past performance. We do not employ a single style that can be reflected in any single index.

    Which leads to the question, "how is Brandywine's Symphony Program performing relative to its benchmark (its own past performance)?" Since September posted the worst monthly loss since Brandywine's Symphony Program began actual trading in July 2011, we'll focus on the downside behavior.

    Brandywine's walk-forward back-test for our Symphony Program runs from January 1999 up to the start of our actual trading in July 2011(1). Virtually all performance tracking services publish an investment program's maximum drawdown on a month-end basis (measuring the drop in performance across one or more months from the highest month-end peak to a subsequent month-end low). We'll look at our drawdowns on that basis as well as gross end-of-day performance (which will almost always be larger as it captures intra-month losses and does not receive any benefit from potential incentive fee give-backs).

    Brandywine Symphony's Drawdowns in Line With Benchmark

    In the first chart we display the 16 largest month-end peak-to-trough drawdowns (on a net basis) over the past 16 years (this includes tested performance (dark bars) from 1999 through June 2011 and actual performance (light bars) starting in July 2011). We would expect to incur a drawdown within the range of this chart on average once per year, and that is exactly what has happened. Since the start of actual trading in July 2011 we have had three drawdowns make it onto the chart. The most recent drawdown, which has been almost perfectly bracketed by the beginning and end of September (making the end-of-day performance match the month-end performance quite closely), is right in the middle of the range at -6.46% (this also indicates that it could extend an additional 3% and still remain within expectations).

    (click to enlarge)

    Now let's look at the 16 largest drawdowns as measured on a gross, end-of-day basis. We would expect a drawdown to fall within this range on average once per year. As you can see in the following chart, the current drawdown, at -7.14%, just made it onto the chart. Since the start of actual trading in July 2011, two drawdowns made the "bottom 16" and neither registered among the worst. So our performance in actual trading has been slightly less "risky" than our benchmark would project.

    (click to enlarge)

    One final way to view the current drawdown is to compare this past month's performance to other 22-day periods (the number of trading days there were in September) in our history. In that regard, this is the 5th deepest 22-day drawdown (measuring the worst 22-day period within all past drawdowns) over the past 16 years. This indicates that a drawdown of this size should occur over a 22-day period once every 3 years. Since we just wrapped up 3 ¼ years of trading, this drawdown is right in line with expectations.

    Drawdowns are just as much a part of the performance of Brandywine's Symphony Program (as well as any investment) as are positive returns. The fact that the drawdowns we have incurred in our actual trading so closely match our Benchmark expectations is confirmation that our investment model continues to work as expected. In summary, the performance of Brandywine's Symphony Program, as measured by the drawdowns we have incurred since the start of actual trading in July 2011, has been faithfully tracking our expectations pursuant to our benchmark, which is our past performance.

    (1) Because this report includes the results of the tested performance, in addition to the actual performance, of Brandywine's Symphony program, the following disclaimer is required:



    Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Oct 01 4:11 PM | Link | Comment!
  • The Constraint Of Asset Classes

    Since the 1960s, asset classes have dominated the investment landscape. Originally "invented" out of necessity, they evolved to serve as the foundation of conventional portfolio diversification. They got their start shortly after Harry Markowitz published his seminal paper "Portfolio Selection." This paper eventually led to the popular adoption of mean-variance modeling to create "optimally" diversified investment portfolios. But in order to determine an optimal stock portfolio, the Markowitz model required a person to calculate the covariance of every stock in a portfolio in relation to all others. Because computer technology was in its infancy and the "cost" (not just in computer resources but in actual dollars and cents as well) to do this was exorbitant, a simpler method needed to be devised. Enter Bill Sharpe, who developed a simplified system that instead compared each stock to the market as a whole. The "market as a whole" became an asset class. Initially, there were just a few asset classes, such as stocks, bonds and cash.

    Over the years, investment professionals have established increasingly varied asset classes (and sub-asset class "categories"). For example, many now consider real estate and commodities to be asset classes. And emerging market stocks and high-yield bonds may still be considered to be part of the stock and bond asset classes, but they are also understood to behave differently and are therefore considered to be sub-categories of their asset classes.

    All this would be just an interesting (to some) academic discussion if it weren't for the fact that trillions of dollars in investment decisions are based on allocating capital across asset classes. This makes asset classes an important and integral part of investing. And that is a problem, because the use of asset classes imposes an unnecessary constraint on a person's ability to create a truly diversified portfolio. But before we explain why, we'd like to introduce the concept of return drivers.

    From Asset Classes to Return Drivers

    One of the innovations supporting Brandywine's investment philosophy is our use of return drivers. As Mike Dever states in his book, "a return driver is the primary underlying condition that drives the price of a market" and "every return driver has a time period (and markets) over which it is relevant." Realizing that the best way to explain the return driver concept is by example, in the opening chapter of his book Mike displays the result of research that shows the relative influence of the two primary return drivers that power stock prices (which are people's sentiment towards stocks and the growth of corporate earnings). You can read a complimentary copy of the book's Introduction and first chapter here:

    Once those return drivers have been identified, they can be exploited to serve as the basis for trading strategies. Mike demonstrates this in the book's Action Section, where he shows how to develop a specific trading strategy that uses ETF money flows to exploit short-term sentiment in stock indexes and bond markets. This is an actual trading strategy being used by Brandywine today.

    The basic nature and elegance of return drivers becomes apparent when you realize that all an asset class is, is a specifically constrained trading strategy employed against a group of related markets. For example, corporate earnings growth is the dominant return driver of U.S. equity prices over periods of 30 years or more. So the U.S. equity "asset class" is simply the application of a trading strategy (holding naive long positions), applied to U.S. equities, designed to capture that return driver.

    But there are potentially dozens of sound, logical return drivers (as equally sound as earnings growth driving long term stock prices) that can be exploited to profit from trading in the U.S. equity markets. And there are potentially hundreds of additional return drivers that can be exploited to profit from trading in the hundreds of other freely-traded global financial and commodity markets. To ignore those and exploit just one creates a logical inconsistency. The stated desire of most institutional investors and their consultants (as well as most individual investors) is to create a diversified investment portfolio. But their dependence on asset classes immediately constrains their ability to do so.

    One way to attempt to fix this is to expand the universe of asset classes. In the past few years, firms such as Goldman Sachs have suggested that volatility be considered an asset class. We understand their desire to do this. Volatility trading in equities is based on a sound, logical return driver that produces returns that are uncorrelated to equities. It provides tremendous portfolio diversification. But pigeonholing volatility into the asset class construct is awkward and cosmetic. It's not a true fix.

    Brandywine's Use of Return Drivers

    Return driver based investing provides that true fix. Once you recognize that every asset class is powered by return drivers, and is therefore simply a subset of a single trading strategy, it actually becomes illogical to pursue an asset class approach instead of a diversified return driver based approach to investing. That is why return drivers are one of the key concepts underpinning Brandywine's investment philosophy and an integral contributor to our performance. In contrast, there is an inherent and sizable disadvantage to being asset class constrained.

    We pointed this out in our February 2013 report, where we stated that because of the dependence of the S&P 500 on two primary return drivers and Brandywine's broad diversification across return drivers that "over time, the S&P 500 TR index will be unable to compete on a risk-adjusted basis with the returns earned by Brandywine." This continues to be our belief today.


    The myth that portfolio diversification can be achieved by allocating money across asset classes is exposed in Chapter 17 of Mr. Dever's book. You can read a complimentary copy of that chapter here:

    Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Sep 26 4:12 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Gambling Vs. Investing And The Stock Fixation

    Gambling vs. Investing

    In a conference presentation given by Mike Dever to a group of retail investors last year, 10% of the audience walked out before he even got to his first slide.

    Mike started his talk by asking how many people in the audience were investors. Virtually everyone raised their hand. He then asked them if their portfolios made money when the market went up, and lost when the market went down. Again, virtually everyone in the audience raised their hand. His next statement was intended to get their attention. He told the audience that contrary to what they thought, they actually were NOT investors. They were gamblers. Following that, 10% of the audience, insulted, got up and left. His point was that if any single market dominates your performance, you're gambling.

    He followed this by explaining to the remaining people that he never told them which "market" he was referring to, yet they all assumed it was the stock market. This underscores the level of fixation people have on owning stocks. No other markets enter their thoughts, when in reality there are literally hundreds of other, equally valid markets across which they can profitably diversify their portfolios.

    The Stock Fixation

    In several prior reports(1), we discussed the fixation people have on stocks and how they intentionally hold over-weighted long equity positions. In fact, it is often touted that the model diversified portfolio is one that is comprised of 60% long stocks and 40% long bonds. But as Mike Dever states in "Myth #8: Trading is Gambling - Investing is Safer" of his best-seller, "A person who is 60% long stocks and 40% long bonds is taking unnecessary risk. They are gambling." That is because they are unnecessarily dependent on just three dominant return drivers - investor sentiment and earnings growth that power stock prices(2), and interest rate levels that power bond prices. If those falter, so does their portfolio. That doesn't even come close to defining "diversification."

    True portfolio diversification can only be achieved by diversifying across return drivers and markets. Because stock prices are powered by only two principal return drivers, a portfolio that is dominated by long stock positions will never be diversified. As a result, you will get performance that looks like this:

    (click to enlarge)

    Graph 1

    Don't get seduced by the fact that this graph ends on a high note and many stocks are now at all-time highs. People who concentrate their money in stocks have exposed themselves to unnecessary risk. The risk is unnecessary because it is easily diversified away. While academics and conventional financial wisdom tout the benefit of diversifying across additional "asset classes" such as bonds, gold and real estate, this displays a lack of understanding of the return drivers that drive the prices of each of those markets. Owning bonds at 3% is not the same as owning bonds at 10%. Return driver based investing adjusts for that fact.

    To illustrate this point, let's add a second return driver to the portfolio, in the form of a fundamentally-based strategy trading in commodity markets. When combined with the long-only S&P 500 strategy, not only is performance improved, but risk is also dramatically reduced.

    (click to enlarge)

    Graph 2

    The smoother blue line (the two-strategy portfolio) is clearly more desirable than the erratic red line (the S&P 500 Total Return index). The concept of portfolio diversification is really as simply as what we've just shown. But it doesn't stop there.

    The fact is there are potentially hundreds of return drivers that can be employed to truly diversify a portfolio. This diversified return driver based approach is at the heart of Brandywine's Symphony Program, which employs dozens of trading strategies - based on a diversity of return drivers - to trade across more than 100 global financial and commodity markets. The result is a portfolio that targets returns in excess of those that can be earned from stocks, but with substantially less risk. This is not just theoretical. You can see the actual results now.

    A Comparison: Brandywine vs. Stocks

    U.S. equities have had a great run over the recent past. Since the launch of Brandywine's Symphony Preferred in July 2011, the S&P 500 has gained 56%. But as shown in the first graph in this report, this return, because it was dependent on two dominant return drivers, subjected its participants to high levels of event risk.

    In contrast, Brandywine's Symphony Preferred gained almost 100% over the same period. And because its returns were produced from the interaction of dozens of disparate return drivers applied across more than 100 global financial and commodity markets, Symphony Preferred's event risk is much lower. In other words, poor performance for stocks does not mean Brandywine's performance will suffer as well. In fact, some of Brandywine's best performance has come during some of the worst-performing periods for stocks, as is illustrated in the following chart. This shows how Brandywine produced substantial profits at exactly the worst period for stocks over the past five years.

    (click to enlarge)

    Graph 3

    And Brandywine hasn't just provided "tail risk" protection. Brandywine outperformed stocks over the entire period as well.

    (click to enlarge)

    Graph 4

    If it really is that simple, then why do so many people; individuals, professional investors, financial gurus, public pension plans - the list includes virtually every 'investor' - gamble their money in risky, stock-centric portfolios? The answers are numerous, and one of the best compilations of well-researched reasons can be found in Daniel Kahneman's excellent book, Thinking Fast and Slow. But the very fact that people behave in irrational ways (we measure rationality as desiring to earn the most money with the least risk) is what allows so many under-exploited return drivers to exist and to be developed into profitable, and diversifying, trading strategies. That said, there are a few answers that stand out:

    1. All their friends are doing it. This is a cute way of saying that people define investment risk less by actual investment results and more by how different their results are compared to the "market." In other words, reputational risk, or career risk, dominates true portfolio risk.

    2. They, themselves, are unable to uncover return drivers, other than those currently in the public domain (which are referred to as "beta," or for those less well-known, "alternative beta").

    3. They fear missing out on the returns they can get from holding stocks. It's been banged into their heads that stocks outperform in the long-run and the best way to earn high returns is by putting money into stocks.

    We can't help with reason #1. If someone is truly more concerned with "fitting in" than making money, their affliction is outside of our domain expertise. But we can help with reasons #2 & #3. Over our 30+ years of investment research and trading, Brandywine has developed dozens of trading strategies based on numerous return drivers. These return drivers are generally obscure and not in the public domain. For example, where there might be thousands of academic papers and articles written about the long-term "risk premia" earned from buying-and-holding stocks, there is very little written about the return driver underlying the commodity markets strategy that produced the smoothed results in Graph 2. This is despite the fact that the commodity strategy is potentially even more soundly based. (We allude to the triviality of the "risk premia" construct is this past report ).

    When Radical is Rational

    So what is a reasonable allocation to be made to long equity positions in a portfolio? For those who have bought into the conventional portfolio diversification advice, the correct answer - although quite logical - can appear radical and shocking. Let's assume you are able to diversify your portfolio across 50 return drivers and 100+ markets. Everything else being equal, the allocation to a buy-and-hold strategy in stocks would approximate 1/50 of your portfolio allocation, or 2%.

    The fact that this allocation appears radical to most people is due to "reference" bias, not logic. If 60% is the reference point for an allocation to buying-and-holding stocks, any dramatic deviation from that level is "radical." In addition, because people are battered with stories of how equities produce a positive return over time, they are blinded to both the existence of - and equal profit opportunities offered by - other return drivers. As a result, they are never presented (except in limited distribution reports such as this one) with research showing the true source of the returns driving markets. Without this understanding, they are constrained to gambling on a distinctly inferior, stock market dominated "Poor-folio."

    Your Move…

    There is clearly a better way. When the next stock market decline occurs, wouldn't you prefer to be invested in a program that has the ability to not only weather the storm, but, as demonstrated by the actual performance of Brandywine's Symphony Preferred in Q3 2011, profit from it as well? We're guessing that would be interesting. And if you could have that potential protection without giving up the ability to perform well during equity bull markets, would that increase your interest? Brandywine's Symphony Preferred did just that. This report gave you a glimpse as to how and why.

    If you're intrigued and would like to learn more, please contact Rob Proctor, one of Brandywine's principals, to have him take you through our online presentation. We look forward to helping you earn greater returns with less risk.


    (1) Past monthly reports that discussed the conventional bias towards holding long stock positions:

    (2) The two dominant return drivers powering stock prices are revealed in the opening chapter of Mr. Dever's book, which you can read here:

    Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Aug 07 3:54 PM | Link | Comment!
Full index of posts »
Latest Followers


More »
Posts by Themes
Instablogs are Seeking Alpha's free blogging platform customized for finance, with instant set up and exposure to millions of readers interested in the financial markets. Publish your own instablog in minutes.