A “revolution’, a “paradigm shift”, something that will “alter the business of investing” and “turn investing on its head”. These phrases have all been used to hail the rise of portable alpha. What is portable alpha and will it stand up to its billing? The idea hinges on the separation of the returns of assets invested in a benchmark, or beta, and those derived from the skill of an asset manager, known as alpha.
For example, if the stock market returns 10 per cent and a fund returns 15 per cent, 10 per cent of it is beta and 5 per cent is purely down to the fund manager’s skill, the alpha.
Pension fund portfolios have tended to task fund managers with outperforming a benchmark by establishing overweight or underweight positions relative to the benchmark. Such funds traditionally only invested in stocks within the benchmark and were therefore restricted. This also meant that the beta and alpha were bundled together. By isolating beta from alpha, funds can match their long-term liabilities by keeping the beta part of their portfolio but also seek higher returns from a wider range of assets and managers. This alpha can then be ported – or added back in – to the portfolio.
Types of portable alpha
Portable alpha products are available in various forms, either bundled, where the fund manager offers the beta and its own alpha products, or unbundled, where investors get the beta from somewhere else, or acquire it themselves. Pension funds with fewer resources would tend to choose the former, whereas funds sophisticated enough to obtain their own beta cheaply may choose the latter.
A key element in capturing portable alpha is the use of exchange-traded derivatives. First it is necessary to secure your beta by buying an equity index or bond future which, through the use of gearing, can be bought at a fraction of the cost of the underlying product. This can be as small as 0.35 per cent for short duration bond futures and 8 per cent or more for equity index futures, which makes the capture of beta cheap and efficient.
Benefits of executing portable alpha strategies with futures: they are unaffected by capacity constraints and have low market impact; the market is fully transparent; daily, independent mark-to-market valuation; a central clearing house reduces counterparty risk; margin offsets available between benchmark/beta futures position; and using futures for your alpha gives additional leverage.
After choosing where to find the required alpha, the investor must then “purify” it from any benchmark returns by selling appropriate amounts of futures on the benchmark in which he has initially invested. The process of purification is necessary because, while the investor wants the fund manager’s skill, he does not want exposure to the market that the manager is investing in.
For example, a European pension fund that needed to match its long-term liabilities could get that exposure cheaply by buying a European bond future, such as the Euro-Bond traded at Eurex. It could then choose from the entire universe of assets to get alpha, for example, from commodities, equities or hedge funds. For one bond futures contract worth €100m, the investor would pay the initial margin of €1.4m, which allows him to leverage his capital. That is, for €100m exposure he only has to pay €1.4m to replicate the returns of his benchmark. He then has 98.6 per cent of his cash left to fund his futures position and buy his alpha.
Byron Baldwin, business development for Eurex, says: “The benefit for the institutional investor is that they pay next to nothing for their beta to match their portfolio with futures. They only pay for the alpha – the fund manager’s skill.
“Portable alpha is becoming absolutely huge. Now there is a major equity and bond future in every major marketplace in the world, the institutional investor can get beta from a benchmark return cheaply and efficiently using futures. And usually they are very liquid.” The idea is particularly useful given the fact that pension fund solvency ratios are continuing to decline. This increases the pressure on funds to extract more from investment strategies to match liabilities.
There are a number of important considerations when conducting a portable alpha strategy. First, because it involves futures, one must have a structure in place to manage the cash in the deposit on your futures position. Many managers offering portable alpha products will manage the money on behalf of the pension fund. Second, it is important for the alpha generating asset to be uncorrelated with the benchmark. This may not be as easy as it sounds. A number of pension funds view hedge funds and funds of funds as their primary source of alpha return within their asset allocation. Another consideration is tracking error. Futures are used to obtain market exposure to replicate the benchmark. The closer the relationship in the futures contract to the investor’s benchmark, the lower the tracking error. Roll risk can occur because futures are usually delivered quarterly. To maintain the beta benchmarking exposure as each delivery approaches, you need to switch from one delivery month to the next which incurs costs. As the spread between two futures contracts moves, changes in the spread will affect the performance of the beta investment.
It is important to remember that there is a cost to extracting the beta from an alpha investment. Investments which can do this cheaply, or indeed have no beta element, are the most attractive portable alpha vehicles.
Institutional investors are faced with a world of low interest rates and low equity returns. By separating alpha and beta investment, and obtaining their benchmark investment cheaply with the use of futures, an institutional investor can concentrate on sourcing alpha returns. This also allows him to port the skills of any asset manager to its benchmark portfolio.
“For those who can accept and adapt to the new investing environment, the reward may be enhanced performance in a lower return environment.”
A carefully planned Strategic Asset Allocation / Risk Budget implemented in a Portable Alpha framework in conjonction with the capability to efficiently replicate hedge fund index performance with futures and option products will open venues for smaller institutional and individual investors to generate abnormal positive returns at predefined risk levels.