Posts Tagged ‘P/B’

In yesterday’s post we discussed some informal analysis I’ve undertaken on the returns to the quantitative investment strategy known as “High Minus Low” or HML. The first step was an analysis of HML’s components, high and low BM stocks. I described the HML strategy in some detail and analysed the long-term diminution in the returns to those components. I think that the returns to both high BM and low BM stocks have been attenuating significantly over time. The phenomenon persisted over whichever recent period I analysed (since 1926 to the present day, or over the last 25, 20, 15 or 10 years). This suggested that it’s got harder over time to earn excess returns as a value investor employing a high BM strategy.

In today’s post, I analyse the returns to HML at the strategy level and ask whether the returns to HML are really just returns to a levered high BM strategy. In a Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) presentation, Maybe it really is different this time, GSAM argued that the returns to HML have diminished since August 2007 because too many investors are employing the same  strategy, a phenomenon GSAM describe as “overcrowding.” In summary, I agree with GSAM’s view that the returns to HML have indeed stagnated since late 2007. I’m not sure that this is attributable to “overcrowding” as GSAM suggests or just a function of the underlying market performance of the components of HML (i.e. everything has been and continues to be expensive, leaving little room for good returns). Interestingly, even accounting for the period of low attenuated performance between August 2007 and the present, the HML strategy has performed reasonably well over the last 10 years, which has been a period of diminished (or non-existent) returns for equities. The returns to a 130/30 HML strategy over the last 10 years significantly outpaced a high BM strategy and the market in general. Surprisingly (to me at least), the low BM short didn’t add much to HML returns. This is especially surprising give that the period analysed was one where the low BM stocks bore the brunt of the collapse. That observation requires some further analysis, but it’s a prima facie argument that most of the returns to HML are due to the leverage inherent in the strategy.

Returns to HML

Most hedge fund strategies being proprietary and, hence, closely guarded secrets, I’m not sure what the typical HML strategy looks like. For the sake of this argument, I’ve constructed three HML portfolios. The first is 30% short the low BM decile and 130% long the high BM decile, which is a not uncommon hedge fund strategy. The second is 100% short the low BM decile and 100% long the high BM decile, which highlights the low BM short and removes the effects of leverage from the high BM long. The third is 130% long the High BM decile and has no short, to remove the effect of the short and highlight the effect of the leverage. How would those strategies have fared over the last 10 years, which, as we saw yesterday, was a period of attenuated returns for equities?

The 130/30 HML strategy

“Low BM” is the lowest BM decile, marked in red. This is Decile 1 from the Average monthly returns to decile BM portfolios chart in yesterday’s post. “High BM” is the highest BM decile, marked in blue. This is Decile 1o from yesterday’s chart. The green “HML” line is -30% of the return on the low BM decile and 130% the return on the high BM decile. “Delta,” in purple, is the difference between the return on the low and high BM components of the HML strategy. Here’s the chart:

Several observations can be made about the chart. First, as at September 2009, the “Low BM” strategy (in red) is down 3%, which approximates the return on the market as a whole over the last 10 years. The “High BM” strategy (in blue) is up about 95%, which is not a great return over 10 years, but well ahead of the market in general and the Low BM portfolio. The HML portfolio is up around 124%, well ahead of both the Low BM and High BM portfolios. As recently as 2003, the 130/30 HML portfolio was underwater and it nearly accomplished this feat again in 2009. It performed almost in line with the High BM portfolio while the market was tanking, which is when I would have expected the Low BM short to protect the return on the HML, affording only a little protection. It seems that the return on the 130% long component of the High BM portfolio caused the HML strategy to tank with the High BM portfolio, although it also caused it to recover much faster. While GSAM is correct that HML returns have been reduced since late 2007, the 10-year return on the 130/30 HML is attractive.

The 100/100 HML strategy

In this chart the green “HML” line is -100% of the return on the low BM decile and 100% the return on the high BM decile:

The 100/100 HML chart illustrates several points. First, as at September 2009, the HML portfolio is up 98%, in line with the High BM portfolio. Where the Low BM portfolio falls, the 100% low BM short in the HML protects it. For the last 10 years, it has generally protected the HML return. Of course it hurts the HML’s performance when the low BM short rises, which, as we saw yesterday, has generally been the case since 1926.

The Levered High BM strategy

This chart shows the High BM portfolio levered at the same rate as the 130/30 HML strategy (i.e.130%), but without the low BM short:

The Levered High BM portfolio tracks (visually) almost identically to the 130/30 HML strategy (Levered High BM closed up 123%, HML closed up 124%). This suggests to me that most of the additional gains in the 130/30 HML strategy over the High BM strategy are simply attributable to the leverage in the HML, and not out of any protection afforded by the low BM short.

Recent returns to HML depressed

A casual perusal of any chart above illustrates that HML has not progressed since August 2007. GSAM argues that this is a secular phenomenon due to overcrowding. I’m not convinced that it’s a secular phenomenon, but it’s certainly noteworthy. I’m also not entirely convinced that it’s due to overcrowding. It could just as easily be a function of the high price for equities in August 2007 and again now. GSAM argues that your view on the phenomenon as being either cyclical or secular is key to how you position yourself for the future. If you believe it’s cyclical, you’re a “Sticker,” and, if you believe it’s secular, you’re an “Adapter”. The distinction, according to Zero Hedge, is as follows:

The Stickers believe this is part of the normal volatility of such strategies

• Long-term perspective: results for HML (High Book-to-Price Minus Low Book-to-Price) and WML (Winners Minus Losers) not outside historical experience

• Investors who stick to their process will end up amply rewarded

The Adapters believe that quant crowding has fundamentally changed the nature of these factors

• Likely to be more volatile and offer lower returns going forward

• Need to adapt your process if you want to add value consistently in the future

I’m in the cyclical camp, but it may be other players withdrawing from the field that causes the cycle to turn.


Despite GSAM’s protestations to the contrary, and despite the diminution of equity returns at both the value and glamour ends of the market, HML remains an attractive strategy. Over a 10-year period of attenuated equity returns, a 130/30 HML strategy performed very well. It seems, however, that most of the returns to the 130/30 strategy are attributable to the leverage in the high BM portfolio, rather than any protection in the low BM short. As we saw yesterday, the low BM decile, while generating a lower return than the high BM decile over time, has mainly generated positive returns. This means that the low BM short will generally hurt the HML strategy’s performance.

My vast preference remains a leverage-free, long-only, ultra-high BM portfolio for a variety of reasons not connected with the chronic underperformance of the short, most notably that it’s the lowest risk portfolio available (despite what Fama and French say). In my opinion, the diminution in returns to the high BM strategy we observed yesterday is a cyclical phenomenon. 25 years is a long time for a cycle to turn, but I’m reasonably confident that the high BM strategy will again generate average monthly returns in line with the long-run average on yesterday’s chart, which means average monthly returns in the vicinity of 1.2% to 1.4%. I don’t foresee this occurring any time soon, and I think dwindling returns are the order of the day for the next 5 or 10 years. If I had to be anywhere in equities, however, I’d start in the cheapest decile of the market on a price-to-book basis and work my way through to those with the highest proportion of current assets. That’s a proven strategy that served Graham and Schloss very well, and, as far as I can see, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue to work.

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