latamen
Low Volatility portfolios cushion macroeconomic risks

Low Volatility portfolios cushion macroeconomic risks

03-10-2022 | Research

Beyond general downside protection, Low Volatility portfolios are effective in softening the impact of various sources of systematic risk. This allows them to offer consistent and robust risk reduction over the long run. That said, these strategies can be temporarily caught off guard by rapidly unfolding novel events.

  • David Blitz
    David
    Blitz
    Chief Researcher

Speed read

  • Low Volatility portfolios typically reduce downside risk
  • They also reduce exposure to various drivers of systematic risk
  • Event risk is the exception that proves the rule

The past decade – a ‘free money’ era – can be earmarked as an exceptional period for markets with an ultra-low or negative interest rate setting encouraging exuberant behavior. But this has now given way to normalization: interest rates are on the rise, volatility has once more become a recurring market feature, risk is relevant again, fundamentals are top of mind for investors, and exuberance is dissipating.

Against this backdrop, guarding against downside risk becomes an increasingly important consideration in the context of an overall portfolio. In a recent article,1 Robeco researchers showcased how a low volatility approach typically preserves capital in down markets and participates meaningfully in up markets over a 155-year sample period.

In a new research paper,2 we took a different perspective when assessing the defensive characteristics of low volatility portfolios, by evaluating how they are affected by a wide range of macroeconomic risk factors. While these portfolios have lower overall volatility and beta than the market, their concentration in certain segments could lead them to be similarly or even more exposed to some specific sources of systematic risk.

Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates
Stay informed on our latest insights with monthly mail updates
Subscribe

Low Volatility portfolios dampen exposure to risk factors

To investigate this, we compared the S&P 500 Index against two generic low volatility strategies – the MSCI USA Minimum Low Volatility Index and the S&P 500 Low Volatility Index – by assessing their exposure to various risk factors. Our sample spanned the period from January 1991 to December 2021.

In our findings, we saw that the low volatility strategies were less affected by bond yield changes, indicating that they were less sensitive to moves in interest rates. Rising equity and bond implied volatilities also tended to coincide with far larger negative returns for the market than for the low volatility strategies. Similarly, the latter were also less exposed to liquidity risk than the former.

Looking at commodities, we found that the low volatility indices were only half as sensitive to oil price changes versus the market, which we attribute to their lower exposure to fossil fuel stocks. Meanwhile, the betas towards gold price movements were all insignificant, implying that these are not a relevant systematic risk factor.

In line with the previous findings, we observed that low volatility portfolios were consistently less exposed than the market to shifts in consumer sentiment, investor sentiment, the economic policy uncertainty index or the ISM purchasing managers’ index. Again, we saw the same trend when analyzing changes in traditional macroeconomic indicators such as CPI, GDP, industrial production and unemployment.

Lastly, we established that the market was more sensitive to changes in carbon emissions one quarter ahead compared to the low volatility strategies. This serves as another indication that the latter are less exposed to climate risk than the former.

The exception that proves the rule

Low volatility portfolios are not entirely foolproof and can be caught off guard. A concrete example of this oddity is illustrated by their uncharacteristic performance during the Covid-induced sell-off. In this exceptional period, these strategies failed to provide downside protection as they experienced similar losses as the market. Moreover, they lagged the market in the subsequent recovery.

We argue that this event was very different from the wide variety of macroeconomic risks with which low volatility portfolios typically cope well, as Covid completely surprised investors. Online stocks that used to be rather speculative suddenly became defensive holdings when the world went into lockdown, while traditionally safe offline stocks such as commercial real estate suddenly became high risk.

Historical stock prices do not properly reflect certain risk factors if investors previously dismissed them as irrelevant or were simply unaware of them. So when a novel risk factor quickly becomes the dominant market theme, data-driven methods understandably need time to adjust to the environment, leading to atypical outcomes like in the Covid scenario.

But generally speaking, stock price movements are structurally affected by bond markets, commodity markets, macroeconomic indicators and sentiment. As a result, low volatility portfolios are able to continuously adapt to this information, enabling them to offer typically consistent and robust risk reduction over the long run.

Conclusion

Based on our findings, low volatility portfolios do not merely reduce risk in general, but also consistently lower the exposure to the various drivers of systematic risk. That said, the lack of downside protection provided by low volatility strategies during the Covid pandemic episode shows that data-driven investment approaches can be temporarily challenged by rapidly unfolding novel events.

1 See: Baltussen, G., Van Vliet, B. P., and Van Vliet, P., May 2022, “Conservative investing stands the test of time”, Robeco article.
2 Blitz, D., September 2022, “Macro risk of low volatility portfolios“, SSRN working paper.

Logo

Important information

The Robeco Capital Growth Funds have not been registered under the United States Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended, nor or the United States Securities Act of 1933, as amended. None of the shares may be offered or sold, directly or indirectly in the United States or to any U.S. Person (within the meaning of Regulation S promulgated under the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the “Securities Act”)). Furthermore, Robeco Institutional Asset Management B.V. (Robeco) does not provide investment advisory services, or hold itself out as providing investment advisory services, in the United States or to any U.S. Person (within the meaning of Regulation S promulgated under the Securities Act).

This website is intended for use only by non-U.S. Persons outside of the United States (within the meaning of Regulation S promulgated under the Securities Act who are professional investors, or professional fiduciaries representing such non-U.S. Person investors. By clicking “I Agree” on our website disclaimer and accessing the information on this website, including any subdomain thereof, you are certifying and agreeing to the following: (i) you have read, understood and agree to this disclaimer, (ii) you have informed yourself of any applicable legal restrictions and represent that by accessing the information contained on this website, you are not in violation of, and will not be causing Robeco or any of its affiliated entities or issuers to violate, any applicable laws and, as a result, you are legally authorized to access such information on behalf of yourself and any underlying investment advisory client, (iii) you understand and acknowledge that certain information presented herein relates to securities that have not been registered under the Securities Act, and may be offered or sold only outside the United States and only to, or for the account or benefit of, non-U.S. Persons (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act), (iv) you are, or are a discretionary investment adviser representing, a non-U.S. Person (within the meaning of Regulation S under the Securities Act) located outside of the United States and (v) you are, or are a discretionary investment adviser representing, a professional non-retail investor. Access to this website has been limited so that it shall not constitute directed selling efforts (as defined in Regulation S under the Securities Act) in the United States and so that it shall not be deemed to constitute Robeco holding itself out generally to the public in the U.S. as an investment adviser. Nothing contained herein constitutes an offer to sell securities or solicitation of an offer to purchase any securities in any jurisdiction. We reserve the right to deny access to any visitor, including, but not limited to, those visitors with IP addresses residing in the United States.

This website has been carefully prepared by Robeco. The information contained in this publication is based upon sources of information believed to be reliable. Robeco is not answerable for the accuracy or completeness of the facts, opinions, expectations and results referred to therein. Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of this website, we do not accept any responsibility for damage of any kind resulting from incorrect or incomplete information. This website is subject to change without notice. The value of the investments may fluctuate. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. If the currency in which the past performance is displayed differs from the currency of the country in which you reside, then you should be aware that due to exchange rate fluctuations the performance shown may increase or decrease if converted into your local currency. For investment professional use only. Not for use by the general public.

I Disagree