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Summary­

  • The bond risk premium is the return that investors earn by investing in longer duration bonds.
  • While the most common way that investors can access this return stream is through investing in bond portfolios, bonds often significantly de-risk portfolios and scale back returns.
  • Investors who desire more equity-like risk can tap into the bond risk premium by overlaying bond exposure on top of equities.
  • Through the use of a leveraged ETP strategy, we construct a long-only bond risk premium factor and investigate its characteristics in terms of rebalance frequency and timing luck.
  • By balancing the costs of trading with the risk of equity overexposure, investors can incorporate the bond risk premium as a complementary factor exposure to equities without sacrificing return potential from scaling back the overall risk level unnecessarily.

The discussion surrounding factor investing generally pertains to either equity portfolios or bond portfolios in isolation. We can calculate value, momentum, carry, and quality factors for each asset class and invest in the securities that exhibit the best characteristics of each factor or a combination of factors.

There are also ways to use these factors to shift allocations between stocks and bonds (e.g. trend and standardizing based on historical levels). However, we do not typically discuss bonds as their own standalone factor.

The bond risk premium – or term premium – can be thought of as the premium investors earn from holding longer duration bonds as opposed to cash. In a sense, it is a measure of carry. Its theoretical basis is generally seen to be related to macroeconomic factors such as inflation and growth expectations.1

While timing the term premium using factors within bond duration buckets is definitely a possibility, this commentary will focus on the term premium in the context of an equity investor who wants long-term exposure to the factor.

The Term Premium as a Factor

For the term premium, we can take the usual approach and construct a self-financing long/short portfolio of 100% intermediate (7-10 year) U.S. Treasuries that borrows the entire portfolio value at the risk-free rate.

This factor, shown in bold in the chart below, has exhibited a much tamer return profile than common equity factors.

Source: CSI Analytics, AQR, and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

Source: CSI Analytics, AQR, and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

But over the entire time period, its returns have been higher than those of both the Size and Value factors. Its maximum drawdown has been less than 40% of that of the next best factor (Quality), and it is worth acknowledging that its volatility – which is generally correlated to drawdown for highly liquid assets with non-linear payoffs – has also been substantially lower.

The term premium also has exhibited very low correlation with the other equity factors.

Source: CSI Analytics, AQR, and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

A Little Free Lunch

Whether we are treating bonds as factor or not, they are generally the primary way investors seek to diversify equity portfolios.

The problem is that they are also a great way to reduce returns during most market environments through their inherently lower risk.

Anytime that an asset with lower volatility is added to a portfolio, the risk will be reduced. Unless the asset class also has a particularly high Sharpe ratio, maintaining the same level of return is virtually impossible even if risk-adjusted returns are improved.

In a 2016 paper2, Salient broke down this reduction in risk into two components: de-risking and the “free lunch” affect.

The reduction in risk form the free lunch effect is desirable, but the risk reduction from de-risking may or may not be desirable, depending on the investor’s target risk profile.

The following chart shows the volatility breakdown of a range of portfolios of the S&P 500 (IVV) and 7-10 Year U.S. Treasuries (IEF).

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

Moving from an all equity portfolio to a 50/50 equity reduces the volatility from 14.2% to 7.4%. But only 150 bps of this reduction is from the free lunch effect that stems from the lower correlation between the two assets (-0.18). The remaining 530 bps of volatility reduction is simply due to lower risk.

In this case, annualized returns were dampened from 9.6% to 7.8%. While the Sharpe ratio climbed from 0.49 to 0.70, an investor seeking higher risk would not benefit without the use of leverage.

Despite the strong performance of the term premium factor, risk-seeking investors (e.g. those early in their careers) are generally reluctant to tap into this factor too much because of the de-risking effect.

How do investors who want to bear risk commensurate with equities tap into the bond risk premium without de-risking their portfolio?

One solution is using leveraged ETPs.

Long-Only Term Premium

By taking a 50/50 portfolio of the 2x Levered S&P 500 ETF (SSO) and the 2x Levered 7-10 Year U.S. Treasury ETF (UST), we can construct a portfolio that has 100% equity exposure and 100% of the term premium factor.3

But managing this portfolio takes some care.

Left alone to drift, the allocations can get very far away from their target 50/50, spanning the range from 85/15 to 25/75. Periodic rebalancing is a must.

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

Of course, now the question is, “How frequently should we rebalance the portfolio?”

This boils down to a balancing act between performance and costs (e.g. ticket charges, tax impacts, operational burden, etc.).

On one hand, we would like to remain as close to the 50/50 allocation as possible to maintain the desired exposure to each asset class. However, this could require a prohibitive amount of trading.

From a performance standpoint, we see improved results with longer holding periods (take note of the y-axes in the following charts; they were scaled to highlight the differences).

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

The returns do not show a definitive pattern based on rebalance frequency, but the volatility decreases with increasing time between rebalances. This seems like it would point to waiting longer between rebalances, which would be corroborated by a consideration of trading costs.

The issues with waiting longer between the rebalance are twofold:

  1. Waiting longer is essentially a momentum trade. The better performing asset class garners a larger allocation as time progresses. This can be a good thing – especially in hindsight with how well equities have done – but it allows the portfolio to become overexposed to factors that we are not necessarily intending to exploit.
  2. Longer rebalances are more exposed to timing luck. For example, a yearly rebalance may have done well from a performance perspective, but the short-term performance could vary by as much as 50,000 bps between the best performing rebalance month and the worst! The chart below shows the performance of each iteration relative to the median performance of the 12 different monthly rebalance strategies.

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to, manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

As the chart also shows, tranching can help mitigate timing luck. Tranching also gives the returns of the strategies over the range of rebalance frequencies a more discernible pattern, with longer rebalance period strategies exhibiting slightly higher returns due to their higher average equity allocations.

Under the assumption that we can tranche any strategy that we choose, we can now compare only the tranched strategies at different rebalance frequencies to address our concern with taking bets on momentum.

Pausing for a minute, we should be clear that we do not actually know what the true factor construction should be; it is a moving target. We are more concerned with robustness than simply trying to achieve outperformance. So we will compare the strategies to the median performance of the previously monthly offset annual rebalance strategies.

The following charts shows the aggregate risk of short-term performance deviations from this benchmark.

The first one shows the aggregate deviations, both positive and negative, and the second focuses on only the downside deviation (i.e. performance that is worse than the median).4

Both charts support a choice of rebalance frequency somewhere in the range of 3-6 months.

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

With the rebalance frequency set based on the construction of the factor, the last part is a consideration of costs.

Unfortunately, this is more situation-specific (e.g. what commissions does your platform charge for trades?).

From an asset manager point-of-view, where we can trade with costs proportional to the size of the trade, execute efficiently, and automate much of the operational burden, tranching is our preferred approach.

We also prefer this approach over simply rebalancing back to the static 50/50 allocation more frequently.

In our previous commentary on constructing value portfolios to mitigate timing luck, we described how tranching monthly is a different decision than rebalancing monthly and that tranching frequency and rebalance frequency are distinct decisions.

We see the same effect here where we plot the monthly tranched annually rebalanced strategy (blue line) and the strategy rebalanced back to 50/50 every month (orange line).

Source: CSI Analytics and Bloomberg. Calculations by Newfound Research. Data from 1/31/1992 to 6/28/2019. Results are hypothetical.  Results assume the reinvestment of all distributions. Results are gross of all fees, including, but not limited to manager fees, transaction costs, and taxes. Past performance is not an indicator of future results.  

Tranching wins out.

However, since the target for the term premium factor is a 50/50 static allocation, running a simple allocation filter to keep the portfolio weights within a certain tolerance can be a way to implement a more dynamic rebalancing model while reducing costs.

For example, rebalancing when the allocations for SSO and UST we outside a 5% band (i.e. the portfolio was beyond a 55/45 or 45/55) achieved better performance metrics than the monthly rebalanced version with an average of only 3 rebalances per year.

Conclusion

The bond term premium does not have to be reserved for risk-averse investors. Investors desiring portfolios tilted heavily toward equities can also tap into this diversifying return stream as a factor within their portfolio.

Utilizing leveraged ETPs is one way to maintaining exposure to equities while capturing a significant portion of the bond risk premium. However, it requires more oversight than investing in other factors such as value, momentum, and quality, which are typically packaged in easy-to-access ETFs.

If a fixed frequency rebalance approach is used, tranching is an effective way to reduce timing risk, especially when markets are volatile. Aside from tranching, we find that, historically, holding periods between 3 and 6 months yield results close in line with the median rolling short-term performance of the individual strategies. Implementing a methodology like this can reduce the risk of poor luck in choosing the rebalance frequency or starting the strategy at an unfortunate time.

If frequent rebalances – like those seen with tranching – are infeasible, a dynamic schedule based on a drift in allocations is also a possibility.

Leveraged ETPs are often seen as risk trading instruments that are not fit for retail investors who are more focused on buy-and-hold systems. However, given the right risk management, these investment vehicles can be a way for investors to access the bond term premium, getting a larger free lunch, and avoiding undesired de-risking along the way.

  1. Kopp, E. and Williams, P. (2018). IMF Working Paper. A Macroeconomic Approach to the Term Premium.
  2. Croce, R., Guinn, R., and Robinson, T. (2016) The Free Lunch Effect: The Value of Decoupling Diversification and Risk
  3. Index data for the S&P 500 and the 7-10 Year U.S. Treasury index were used prior to inception of the ETPs. The historical fees on the ETPs were assumed to be their present values, and the 3-month LIBOR rate was used for borrowing. The cost of the total return swap was calculated by calibrating the model to the live data for each security.
  4. We are using root-mean square errors here.

Nathan is a Portfolio Manager at Newfound Research, a quantitative asset manager offering a suite of separately managed accounts and mutual funds. At Newfound, Nathan is responsible for investment research, strategy development, and supporting the portfolio management team. Prior to joining Newfound, he was a chemical engineer at URS, a global engineering firm in the oil, natural gas, and biofuels industry where he was responsible for process simulation development, project economic analysis, and the creation of in-house software. Nathan holds a Master of Science in Computational Finance from Carnegie Mellon University and graduated summa cum laude from Case Western Reserve University with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Mathematics.