Jeffrey Vinik Thinks He Can Beat the Stock-Picking Bots

Stock pickers are striking back. 

Jeffrey Vinik, who rose to fame as manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund in the 1990s, told CNBC last week that he was getting back into the stock-picking game. He will resurrect Vinik Asset Management, a hedge fund he closed in 2013.

Only this time, Vinik won’t just be competing with the market and other managers. He will also have to outmaneuver the computers that are increasingly displacing stock pickers.

It’s a brave move. Stock pickers have struggled to perform in recent years and investors are abandoning them. Actively managed stock mutual funds have experienced net outflows for five consecutive years, a total of $918 billion from 2014 to 2018, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence. Hedge funds managed to hang on to their assets for most of that period, but after a disappointing 2018, investors are pulling money from them, too.

While others bemoan a profession in decline, Vinik sees a resurgence. “I think this is an incredible opportunity for old-fashioned stock picking,” Vinik told CNBC. “We’ve had decades, maybe 10 or 20 years, of active managers underperforming passive managers.”

It’s fashionable to blame a bad environment for stock picking for active managers’ woes, but it’s not entirely true. Sure, value investing has lagged the broad market over the last decade, but other styles of active management, such as growth, quality, momentum and low volatility, have beaten the market. In other words, active managers have underperformed, not active management.

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Professor Has Some Questions About Your Index Funds

Lu Zhang, a finance professor at Ohio State University, has something to say about your hot new index funds, and it may not be flattering. 

Not long ago, the typical investment portfolio was a grab bag of stocks, bonds and actively managed mutual funds. Today, it is more likely an assortment of index funds. And not just any index funds. Indexes are no longer content to simply track the market. A growing number of them are attempting to replicate traditional styles of active management, also known as “factors.” I counted roughly 900 mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in the U.S. that track factor indexes, and that number is likely to grow.  

The pivot to indexing may be new, but it was cultivated by decades of research in economics and finance, which gives it the imprimatur of science, or at least robust inquiry. But a new generation of academics, Zhang prominently among them, are re-examining the research and finding much of it questionable. Their work could derail the indexing revolution and, as might be expected, index providers and fund companies aren’t likely to be happy about it.   

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These Tools for Picking Stocks Sometimes Even Work

Like stocks that have low price-to-earnings ratios? How about ones that have outpaced the market? Or shares of small companies? Those are known as factors: quantifiable characteristics that some money managers use to identify stocks associated with above-market returns. But factor investing is tricky. Sometimes it pays; other times it doesn’t. Bloomberg Opinion columnists Nir Kaissar and Noah Smith recently met online to debate whether factor investing is worth the effort. They previously discussed corporate debt.

Nir Kaissar: It’s widely acknowledged that some factors have historically outpaced the broad market.   

For example, companies that are cheap relative to earnings, cash flow or book value have beaten the market during the past six decades. The same is true of small companies and highly profitable ones.

In a 2017 paper titled “Replicating Anomalies,” economists Kewei Hou, Chen Xue and Lu Zhang identified 67 factors that have produced statistically significant outperformance from 1967 to 2014. In other words, the success of those factors most likely isn’t attributable to chance.   

Seeing an opportunity, fund companies have rolled out a dizzying variety of factor funds in recent years. Investors have poured $762 billion into exchange-traded funds that track factor indexes, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. That’s up from $98 billion at the end of 2007.  

But the question is whether factor investing will continue to pay. Many investors are skeptical. Returns for value investing, arguably the best-known factor, have lagged the market for more than a decade. Meanwhile, broad market indexes such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which have no meaningful factor exposure, have been among the best performers.

The answer may depend on why factor investing has been profitable in the first place: Is it compensation for taking additional risk or an opportunity to exploit other investors’ mistakes? It’s a hotly debated question, and it relates not only to factor investing, but to how the markets work more generally.  

Noah Smith: I think there are two main questions about factor investing, and you’ve already touched on both.

The first question is what these factors are. Why did things like value, size and momentum show outsized returns for so many decades? Efficient-markets theory says that these outsized returns represent compensation for taking risk — for example, that small stocks sometimes crash even when the market as a whole is not crashing.

As asset manager Cliff Asness has pointed out, that interpretation sort of makes sense for factors like size and value that represent long-term characteristics of companies. But for momentum, it doesn’t really make sense — companies that have high momentum one year often have low momentum the next. It looks like the momentum premium is simply free money, the product of some enduring market inefficiency. This question is important because investors deserve to know whether factor investing is actually increasing their risk, or whether they’re beating the market.

The second question is how long factors persist. You’ve already noted that the value premium has been shrinking over time. But a lot of factors decay even faster. A 2015 paper by economists R. David McLean and Jeffrey Pontiff found that when academics publish a paper about a factor, it tends to shrink or disappear shortly afterward. But a factor tends to hold up between the time they’re discovered and the time the paper is published, implying that the disappearance isn’t a result of publication bias. Instead, this suggests that the market is full of small inefficiencies, which academics and investors are constantly discovering and correcting, and which temporarily manifest themselves as factors.

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Dance of Investing Styles Doesn’t Signal a Downturn

The U.S. stock market notched yet another record on Wednesday, and many investors are anxiously looking for signs of a slowdown.

Perhaps not coincidentally, researchers at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. say they’ve spotted one. According to Bloomberg News, Bernstein has found that correlations among investment styles — or factors — such as value and momentum “have shot to all-time highs.”

That means they are moving in the same direction, and that is apparently a bad omen. As Joseph Mezrich, managing director at Nomura Securities International Inc., told Bloomberg, “In the past factor correlation has tended to rise in periods of macro stress.”

The concern is likely to interest more than just wary investors. Factor investing is increasingly popular. Investors have poured $352 billion into value, momentum, quality and other factor exchange-traded funds since 2013, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, nearly double the $191 billion in factor ETFs at the end of 2012.

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Investors Can Miss the Forest for the Smart Beta Trees

A battle is raging among finance theoreticians, and investors should stay out of it.

There’s a growing recognition that a handful of active investing styles — also known as factor investing or smart beta — can be expected to beat the market over time. Among them are value (buying cheap stocks), quality (buying profitable and stable companies), momentum (following the trend) and size (buying small companies).

The evidence is compelling. The cheapest 10 percent of U.S. stocks — sorted on price-to-book ratio and then weighted by market capitalization —  returned 11.9 percent annually from July 1926 through March, including dividends, according to numbers compiled by Dartmouth professor Kenneth French. That’s 1.8 percentage points a year better than the S&P 500 Index during those nine decades and 3.1 percentage points a year better than the most expensive 10 percent of stocks.

Value also won over shorter periods. The cheapest 10 percent of stocks beat the S&P 500 roughly 72 percent of the time over rolling 10-year periods, and they beat the most expensive 10 percent of stocks 73 percent of the time.

The results are similar for stocks sorted on profitability, momentum and size.

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