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AQR on Making Low Vol Better

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 AQR has been offering ‘low vol’ funds institutionally for a couple of years, but last July started offering them to retail customers too.  As they are titled ‘Defensive Equity’ funds, they escaped my radar but really these are ‘low vol’ funds (eg, U.S. Defensive Equity Fund AUEIX, the AQR International Defensive Equity Fund (ANDIX), and the AQR Emerging Defensive Equity Fund (AZEIX)).

I spoke with Adrea Frazzini (right), a portfolio manager at AQR, and one of the lead authors on a major bit of research in this area, Betting Against Beta.  He noted their approach is basically to minimize volatility while trying to retain industry and factor neutrality, where the factors are such things as value, size and momentum. Considering that many think low vol is redundant in the context of a value exposure, this approach would appeal to those who already have a value exposue.

The idea here is that this approach generates less  tracking error that would come from, say, the SPLV, the popular low vol ETF that just swipes the bottom 100 stocks from the SP500. Basically, SPLV incidentally takes on various amounts of factor risk at any one time as some industries or extreme-factor loading stocks become less volatile.  By minimizing factor exposures tracking error will be less correlated with factors, which I can empathize with because if you underperform by 5% one year it feels better if its from something you can’t control (the serenity prayer).

There’s great danger and opportunity on this path. That is, SPLV is incredibly simple but it gets you a long way towards capturing the low vol effect: much lower vol, perhaps a slight return bump. In contrast, PowerShares failed LVOL ETF tried to take it to the next level by getting really complicated, although I can see how, with a bunch of PhDs in a room it all made perfect sense. SPLV nicely keeps US low vol funds focused.

Like the other strategies in the low volatility space AQR expects betas of around 0.7, and volatility of about 1/3 lower than their regional equity benchmarks. Such a claim is realistic because that has been the result of other funds that have plied this strategy in real time over the past 7 years. As long as the Security Market Line (Beta on x-axis, average return on y-axis) is empirically flat this approach seems a no-brainer to any MBA because you can get the same return for 70% of the volatility; a low beta/vol focus has a higher Sharpe. [I'd say things about AQR's performance, but our far-sighted regulators make that parlous in their efforts to protect widows and orphans].

Frazzini mentioned that in non-developed countries, the volatility reduction is even greater within those regions, and clearly for any investor taking advantage of international diversification seems a straightforward way to reduce volatility and covariance with one’s income much more than staying local.


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