Getting Positive Results With Market-Neutral Funds

When the stock market declines, financial advisors will usually caution investors to focus on a long-term strategy and ignore the ups and downs. But that is easier said than done, and investors who lose sleep over the market's roller-coaster ride may want to consider adding another component to their portfolio: market-neutral funds.

Market-neutral funds are designed to provide returns that are unrelated to those of the overall stock market. The addition of these funds to an investor's portfolio has the potential to boost returns and reduce risk, but the funds are much more complex than traditional mutual funds, and the expenses can be high. In this article we will discuss why they may or may not be a good fit for your portfolio.

Key Takeaways

  • Market-neutral funds are designed to provide significant returns that are uncorrelated with a broad stock market index such as the S&P 500 Index.
  • A market-neutral fund will typically deliver returns by combining long and short positions in various securities.
  • Because of higher portfolio turnover, fees and expenses for market-neutral funds are often higher than index funds and actively managed equity funds.
  • Because market-neutral funds create their own proprietary investment strategies, it can be very difficult to identify the market factors that will impact their performance.

Diversification Potential

Market-neutral funds are designed to provide significant alpha but little or no beta. Beta is the correlation of an investment with a broad stock index such as the S&P 500 Index, and alpha is the additional return beyond the market return.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean that a market-neutral fund will beat the market or that an investor would be better off having a market-neutral fund in their portfolio. Consider the following situation:

An investor has a portfolio with a beta of 1.0 and an alpha of 0—equivalent to a broad stock or index fund. This investor decides to move half of their funds into a market-neutral fund with a beta of 0 and a predicted alpha of 5.0. Their portfolio now has an alpha of 2.5 and a beta of 0.5, calculated by averaging the two investments.

If the index delivers high returns, the investor may regret the reallocation and wish that they had more beta in the portfolio to help capture that performance. But if the index performs poorly, then the investor may receive a significant boost from owning the market-neutral fund.

In this example the alpha is constant, but in practice, the alpha (and perhaps even the beta) of the market-neutral fund would fluctuate, due to risk in the underlying investment strategy. This variation may help or hurt the portfolio in any period, and should be considered another source of risk.

How They Work

There are many ways to generate investment returns, and every fund has some unique elements, but typically a market-neutral fund will deliver returns by combining long and short positions in various securities. The simplest and most conventional example would be a long-short stock fund, but bonds, currencies, commodities, and derivatives could be used as well.

In a long-short stock fund, an investment manager ranks a population of stocks by a combination of factors that could include both quantitative and technical factors such as value, momentum, liquidity, sentiment, and also analyst opinions. Then two portfolios are constructed: a long portfolio with the stocks that are expected to outperform the market and a short portfolio with the stocks that are expected to underperform.

The market-neutral fund would then maintain a near-identical amount of long exposure and short exposure in order to build a portfolio with near-zero market exposure. This will require some ongoing adjustments, as the values of the long and short positions will change over time due to price fluctuations.

As an example, if a fund has $1 million of both long exposure and short exposure, and if the value of the stocks in the long portfolio climbs 10% and the value of the stocks in the short portfolio falls 10%, then the fund will then have $1.1 million of long exposure and $900,000 of short exposure. With more long exposure than short exposure, the fund would now no longer be market-neutral.

To address the imbalance, the portfolio manager could either increase the short position or reduce the long position. The portfolio manager could also choose to match the long exposure and the short exposure with the amount of equity in the portfolio, so as the amount of assets under management increases or decreases, the sizes of the corresponding long and short portfolios do the same.

Transactions and Expenses

Typically, market-neutral funds will have higher management fees than either index funds or actively managed equity funds. This is likely the result of both fund complexity and supply and demand—managing a market-neutral fund is seen as more complex than managing a passively or actively managed stock fund, and the corresponding alpha is more desirable.

An argument can be made that market-neutral funds are not designed to compete with these conventional funds at all, and are best compared to hedge funds. From that perspective, the management fees charged by a market-neutral fund would be relatively low in comparison.

All funds have transaction expenses that effectively reduce investor returns. However, the transaction costs associated with a market-neutral fund may be significantly higher than those of other funds due to rebalancing strategies and higher portfolio turnover. Many market-neutral funds have very dynamic trading strategies in which stocks are held only for months or even weeks, and portfolio turnover can be 1,000% or more.

Short positions may also incur additional expenses arising from the costs of borrowing securities or other costs of capital. For example, in order to hold the $1 million short position described above, the portfolio manager will have to maintain some type of collateral, and holding this collateral may require that the long stock position be held on margin and incur interest costs. Short stock positions would also require that the portfolio pay any dividends associated with those stocks.

These expenses can be found in the fund prospectus, but they are not always obvious. While management fees are almost always clearly stated in percentage terms, there may be fee adjustments that make it difficult to determine whether the expense level will rise or fall in the future. Other fees, such as transaction costs, may have to be determined from analyzing the fund income and expenses.

Market-neutral funds are often compared to 130/30 funds. In these funds, the portfolio manager holds a long position equal to 130% of assets and a short position equal to 30%. These funds would be expected to have a market beta, but potentially more alpha than a typical 100% long-only fund, as they provide more opportunities for a manager to exercise stock selection abilities.

Do They Deliver?

The fundamental premise underlying market-neutral funds (that it is possible to predict which stocks in a market will either outperform or underperform the market as a whole) may be difficult to digest for the die-hard index investors who believe that active selection can never beat the aggregate performance of the market. But for more than four decades, researchers have been mining the market's data to better predict performance.

Market capitalization and book-to-market ratio (also known as size and value/growth) are two well-known factors that can help identify whether a stock is likely to outperform or underperform the broader market. These factors are attributed to Eugene Fama and Ken French and are sometimes known as the Fama-French factors. A third factor, identified by Narasimhan Jegadeesh and Sheridan Titman and now widely accepted, is momentum, the tendency of stock prices to continue moving in the same direction.

As these and other factors are identified, funds can be constructed specifically to capture the market premium by holding long positions in stocks with the specific factor and short positions in other stocks that lack it. Still, each factor will have its own average return and volatility, either of which could vary at any time due to market conditions, and as a consequence, overall fund returns may be zero or negative for any period.

Because each market-neutral fund creates its own proprietary investment strategy, it can be very difficult to identify exactly which factors the fund is exposed to. This makes performance analysis, risk management and portfolio construction challenging. In the trading and hedge fund space, proprietary strategies like this are sometimes referred to as "black boxes" due to the lack of transparency.

It can also be difficult to predict how a market-neutral fund will behave in a market crash. If a fund has shown a low correlation to the index in a bull market, that doesn't necessarily mean that it won't fall during a bear market. There are times that investors will sell anything and everything in order to raise cash, regardless of fundamentals.

The Bottom Line

While market-neutral funds have the potential to provide diversified returns and improve portfolio performance, individual fund performance is largely the result of the fund's design and construction and the portfolio manager's skill. This means that it is critical for investors to carefully read prospectuses and analyze past performance in a variety of conditions in order to determine whether the fund's management, in fact, delivers on its promise.

Article Sources
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  1. The Journal of Finance. "The Value Premium and the CAPM," Pages 2163-2185. Registration required.

  2. Annual Review of Financial Economics, "Momentum," Pages 493-509.

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