Do Momentum Strategies Still Work?

by: David Merkel, CFA

When the PR guy sent me the title of the book - Beating the Market, 3 Months at a Time - I thought, “Oh, no. Another investing formula book. I probably won’t like it.” Well, I liked it, but with some reservations.

The authors are a father and son — Gerard Appel and Marvin Appel, Ph. D. They manage over $300 million of assets together. The father has written a bunch of books on technical analysis, and the son has written a book on ETFs.

Well, it is an investing formula book… it has a simple method for raising returns and reducing risks that has worked in the past. The ideas are simple enough that an investor could apply them in one hour or so every three months. I won’t give you the whole formula, because it wouldn’t be fair to the authors. The ideas, if spun down to their core, would fill up one long blog post of mine. But you would lose a lot of the explanations and graphs which are helpful to less experienced readers. The book is well-written, and I found it a breezy read at ~200 pages.

I will summarize the approach, though. They use a positive momentum strategy on three asset classes — domestic equities, international equities, and high-yield bonds, and a buy-and-hold strategy on investment grade bonds. They apply these strategies to open- and closed-end mutual funds and ETFs. They then give you a weighting for the four asset classes to create a balanced portfolio that is close to what I would consider a reasonable allocation for a middle aged person.

Their backtests show that their balanced portfolio earned more than the S&P 500 from 1979-2007, with less risk, measured by maximum drawdown. Okay, so the formula works in reverse. What do we have to commend/discredit the formula from what I know tend to happen when formulas get applied to real markets?


  • Momentum effects do tend to persist across equity styles.
  • Momentum effects do tend to persist across international regional equity returns.
  • Momentum effects do tend to persist on high yield returns in the short run.
  • The investment grade buy-and-hold bond strategy is a reasonable one, if a bit quirky.
  • Keeps investment expenses low.
  • Gives you some more advanced strategies as well as simple ones.
  • The last two chapters are there to motivate you to save, because they suggest the US Government won’t have the money they promised to pay you when you are old. (At least not in terms of current purchasing power…)


  • The time period of the backtest was unique, 3/31/1979-3/31/2007. There are unique factors to that era: The beginning of that period had high interest rates, and low equity valuations. Interest rates fell over the period, and equity valuations rose. International investing was particularly profitable over the same period… no telling whether that will persist into the future.
  • I could not tie back the numbers from their domestic equity and international equity strategies in the asset allocation portfolio to their individual component strategies.
  • I suspect that might be because though the indexes existed over their test period, tradeable index funds may not have existed, so in the individual strategy components they might be done over shorter time horizons, and then used indexes for the backtest. This is just a hypothesis of mine, and it doesn’t destroy their overall thesis — just the degree that it outperforms in the past.
  • They occasionally recommend fund managers, most of whom I think are good, but funds change over time, so I would be careful about being married to a fund just because it did well in the past.
  • If style factors or international regional return factors get choppy, this would underperform. I don’t think that is likely, investors chase past performance, so momentum works in the short run.
  • Though you only act four times a year, that’s enough to generate a lot of taxable events if you are not doing this in a tax-sheltered account.
  • It looks like they reorganized the book at the end, because the one footnote for Chapter 9 references Chapter 10, when it really means chapter 8.

The Verdict

I think their strategy works, given what I know about momentum strategies. I don’t think it will work as relatively well in the future as in the past for 3 reasons:

  • There is more momentum money in the market now than in the past… momentum strategies should still work but not to the same degree.
  • International investing is more common than in the past… the payoff from it should be less. There aren’t that many more areas of the world to go capitalist remaining, and who knows? We could hit a new era of socialism abroad, or even in the US.
  • Interest rates are low today, and equity valuations are not low.

Who might this book be good for? Someone who only invests in mutual funds, and wants to try to get a little more juice out of them. The rules on managing the portfolio are simple enough that they could be done in an hour or two once every three months. Just do it in a tax-sheltered account, and be aware that if too many people adopt momentum strategies (not likely), this could underperform.

If you decide to buy this book and buy it through the links above, I get a small commission. (If you buy anything through Amazon after entering their site by clicking on one of the links above, I get a small commission. That’s my version of the tip jar, and it doesn't raise your cost at all.)

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