This post is available as a PDF download here.

# Summary

- In this case study, we explore building a simple, low cost, systematic municipal bond portfolio.
- The portfolio is built using the low volatility, momentum, value, and carry factors across a set of six municipal bond sectors. It favors sectors with lower volatility, better recent performance, cheaper valuations, and higher yields. As with other factor studies, a multi-factor approach is able to harvest major benefits from active strategy diversification since the factors have low correlations to one another.
- The factor tilts lead to over- and underweights to both credit and duration through time. Currently, the portfolio is significantly underweight duration and modestly overweight credit.
- A portfolio formed with the low volatility, value, and carry factors has sufficiently low turnover that these factors may have value in setting strategic allocations across municipal bond sectors.

Recently, we’ve been working on building a simple, ETF-based municipal bond strategy. Probably to the surprise of nobody who regularly reads our research, we are coming at the problem from a systematic, multi-factor perspective.

For this exercise, our universe consists of six municipal bond indices:

- Bloomberg Barclays AMT-Free Short Continuous Municipal Index
- Bloomberg Barclays AMT-Free Intermediate Continuous Municipal Index
- Bloomberg Barclays AMT-Free Long Continuous Municipal Index
- Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Pre-Refunded-Treasury-Escrowed Index
- Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Custom High Yield Composite Index
- Bloomberg Barclays Municipal High Yield Short Duration Index

These indices, all of which are tracked by VanEck Vectors ETFs, offer access to municipal bonds across a range of durations and credit qualities.

Before we get started, why are we writing another multi-factor piece after addressing factors in the context of a multi-asset universe just two weeks ago?

The simple answer is that we find the topic to be that pressing for today’s investors. In a world of depressed expected returns and elevated correlations, we believe that factor-based strategies have a role as both return generators and risk mitigators.

Our confidence in what we view as the premier factors (value, momentum, low volatility, carry, and trend) stems largely from their robustness in out-of-sample tests across asset classes, geographies, and timeframes. The results in this case study not only suggest that a factor-based approach is feasible in muni investing, but also in our opinion strengthens the case for factor investing in other contexts (e.g. equities, taxable fixed income, commodities, currencies, etc.).

# Constructing Long/Short Factor Portfolios

For the municipal bond portfolio, we consider four factors:

**Value:**Buy undervalued sectors, sell overvalued sectors**Momentum**: Buy strong recent performers, sell weak recent performers**Low Volatility**: Buy low risk sectors, sell high risk sectors**Carry**: Buy higher yielding sectors, sell lower yielding sectors

As a first step, we construct long/short single factor portfolios. The weight on index i at time t in long/short factor portfolio f is equal to:

In this formula, c is a scaling coefficient, S is index i’s time t score on factor f, and N is the number of indices in the universe at time t.

We measure each factor with the following metrics:

**Value:**Normalized deviation of real yield from the 5-year trailing average yield[1]**Momentum:**Trailing twelve month return**Low Volatility:**Historical standard deviation of monthly returns[2]**Carry**: Yield-to-worst

For the value, momentum, and carry factors, the scaling coefficient is set so that the portfolio is dollar neutral (i.e. we are long and short the same dollar amount of securities). For the low volatility factor, the scaling coefficient is set so that the volatilities of the long and short portfolios are approximately equal. This is necessary since a dollar neutral construction would be perpetually short “beta” to the overall municipal bond market.

All four factors are profitable over the period from June 1998 to April 2017. The value factor is the top performer both from an absolute return and risk-adjusted return perspective.

There is significant variation in performance over time. All four factors have years where they are the best performing factor and years where they are the worst performing factor. The average annual spread between the best performing factor and the worst performing factor is 11.3%.

The individual long/short factor portfolios are diversified to both each other (average pairwise correlation of -0.11) and to the broad municipal bond market.

# Moving From Single Factor to Multi-Factor Portfolios

The diversified nature of the long/short return streams makes a multi-factor approach hard to beat in terms of risk-adjusted returns. This is another example of the type of strategy diversification that we have long lobbied for.

As evidence of these benefits, we have built two versions of a portfolio combining the low volatility, value, carry, and momentum factors. The first version targets an equal dollar allocation to each factor. The second version uses a naïve risk parity approach to target an approximately equal risk contribution from each factor.

Both approaches outperform all four individual factors on a risk-adjusted basis, delivering Sharpe Ratios of 1.19 and 1.23, respectively, compared to 0.96 for the top single factor (value).

To stress this point, diversification is so plentiful across the factors that even the simplest portfolio construction methodologies outperforms an investor who was able to identify the best performing factor with perfect foresight. For additional context, we constructed a “Look Ahead Mean-Variance Optimization (“MVO”) Portfolio” by calculating the Sharpe optimal weights using actual realized returns, volatilities, and correlations. The Look Ahead MVO Portfolio has a Sharpe Ratio of 1.43, not too far ahead of our two multi-factor portfolios. The approximate weights in the Look Ahead MVO Portfolio are 49% to Low Volatility, 25% to Value, 15% to Carry, and 10% to Momentum. While the higher Sharpe Ratio factors (Low Volatility and Value) do get larger allocations, Momentum and Carry are still well represented due to their diversification benefits.

From a risk perspective, both multi-factor portfolios have lower volatility than any of the individual factors and a maximum drawdown that is within 1% of the individual factor with the least amount of historical downside risk. It’s also worth pointing out that the risk parity construction leads to a return stream that is very close to normally distributed (skew of 0.1 and kurtosis of 3.0).

In the graph on the next page, we present another lens through which we can view the tremendous amount of diversification that can be harvested between factors. Here we plot how the allocation to a specific factor, using MVO, will change as we vary that factor’s Sharpe Ratio. We perform this analysis for each factor individually, holding all other parameters fixed at their historical levels.

As an example, to estimate the allocation to the Low Volatility factor at a Sharpe Ratio of 0.1, we:

- Assume the covariance matrix is equal to the historical covariance over the full sample period.
- Assume the excess returns for the other three factors (Carry, Momentum, and Value) are equal to their historical averages.
- Assume the annualized excess return for the Low Volatility factor is 0.16% so that the Sharpe Ratio is equal to our target of 0.1 (Low Volatility’s annualized volatility is 1.6%).
- Calculate the MVO optimal weights using these excess return and risk assumptions.

As expected, Sharpe Ratios and allocation sizes are positively correlated. Higher Sharpe Ratios lead to higher allocations.

That being said, three of the factors (Low Volatility, Carry, and Momentum) would receive allocations even if their Sharpe Ratios were slightly negative.

The allocations to carry and momentum are particularly insensitive to Sharpe Ratio level. Momentum would receive an allocation of 4% with a 0.00 Sharpe, 9% with a 0.25 Sharpe, 13% with a 0.50 Sharpe, 17% with a 0.75 Sharpe, and 20% with a 1.00 Sharpe. For the same Sharpe Ratios, the allocations to Carry would be 10%, 15%, 19%, 22%, and 24%, respectively.

Holding these factors provides a strong ballast within the multi-factor portfolio.

# Moving From Long/Short to Long Only

Most investors have neither the space in their portfolio for a long/short muni strategy nor sufficient access to enough affordable leverage to get the strategy to an attractive level of volatility (and hence return). A more realistic approach would be to layer our factor bets on top of a long only strategic allocation to muni bonds.

In a perfect world, we could slap one of our multi-factor long/short portfolios right on top of a strategic municipal bond portfolio. The results of this approach (labeled “Benchmark + Equal Weight Factor Long/Short” in the graphics below) are impressive (Sharpe Ratio of 1.17 vs. 0.93 for the strategic benchmark and return to maximum drawdown of 0.72 vs. 0.46 for the strategic benchmark). Unfortunately, this approach still requires just a bit of shorting. The size of the total short ranges from 0% to 19% with an average of 5%.

We can create a true long only portfolio (“Long Only Factor”) by removing all shorts and normalizing so that our weights sum to one. Doing so modestly reduces risk, return, and risk-adjusted return, but still leads to outperformance vs. the benchmark.

Below we plot both the historical and current allocations for the long only factor portfolio. Currently, the portfolio would have approximately 25% in each short-term investment grade, pre-refunded, and short-term high yield with the remaining 25% split roughly 80/20 between high yield and intermediate-term investment grade. There is currently no allocation to long-term investment grade.

A few interesting observations relating to the long only portfolio and muni factor investing in general:

**The factor tilts lead to clear duration and credit bets over time**. Below we plot the duration and a composite credit score for the factor portfolio vs. the benchmark over time.Currently, the portfolio is near an all-time low in terms of duration and is slightly titled towards lower credit quality sectors relative to the benchmark. Historically, the factor portfolio was most often overweight both duration and credit, having this positioning in 53.7% of the months in the sample. The second and third most common tilts were underweight duration / underweight credit (22.0% of sample months) and underweight duration / overweight credit (21.6% of sample months). The portfolio was overweight duration / underweight credit in only 2.6% of sample months.

**Even for more passive investors, a factor-based perspective can be valuable in setting strategic allocations.**The long only portfolio discussed above has annualized turnover of 77%. If we remove the momentum factor, which is by far the biggest driver of turnover, and restrict ourselves to a quarterly rebalance, we can reduce turnover to just 18%. This does come at a cost, as the Sharpe Ratio drops from 1.12 to 1.04, but historical performance would still be strong relative to our benchmark. This suggests that carry, value, and low volatility may be valuable in setting strategic allocations across municipal bond ETFs with only periodic updates at a normal strategic rebalance frequency.- We ran regressions with our long/short factors on all funds in the Morningstar Municipal National Intermediate category with a track record that extended over our full sample period from June 1998 to April 2017. Below, we plot the betas of each fund to each of our four long/short factors. Blue bars indicate that the factor beta was significant at a 5% level. Gray bars indicate that the factor beta was not significant at a 5% level.
**We find little evidence of the active managers following a factor approach similar to what we outline in this post**. Part of this is certainly the result of the constrained nature of the category with respect to duration and credit quality. In addition, these results do not speak to whether any of the managers use a factor-based approach to pick individual bonds within their defined duration and credit quality mandates.The average beta to the low volatility factor, ignoring non-statistically significant values, is -0.23. This is most likely a function of category since the category consists of funds with both investment grade credit quality and durations ranging between 4.5 and 7.0 years. In contrast, our low volatility factor on average has short exposure to the intermediate and long-term investment grade sectors.

Only 14 of the 33 funds in the universe have statistically significant exposure to the value factor with an average beta of -0.03.

The average beta to the carry factor, ignoring non-statistically significant values, is -0.23. As described above with respect to low volatility, this is most likely function of category as our carry factor favors the long-term investment grade and high yield sectors.

Only 9 of the 33 funds in the universe have statistically significant exposure to the momentum factor with an average beta of 0.02.

# Conclusion

Multi-factor investing has generated significant press in the equity space due to the (poorly named) “smart beta” movement. The popular factors in the equity space have historically performed well both within other asset classes (rates, commodities, currencies, etc.) and across asset classes. The municipal bond market is no different. A simple, systematic multi-factor process has the potential to improve risk-adjusted performance relative to static benchmarks. The portfolio can be implemented with liquid, low cost ETFs.

Moving beyond active strategies, factors can also be valuable tools when setting strategic sector allocations within a municipal bond sleeve and when evaluating and blending municipal bond managers.

Perhaps more importantly, the out-of-sample evidence for the premier factors (momentum, value, low volatility, carry, and trend) across asset classes, geographies, and timeframes continues to mount. In our view, this evidence can be crucial in getting investors comfortable to introducing systematic active premia into their portfolios as both return generators and risk mitigators.

[1] Computed using yield-to-worst. Inflation estimates are based on 1-year and 10-year survey-based expected inflation. We average the value score over the last 2.5 years, allowing the portfolio to realize a greater degree of valuation mean reversion before closing out a position.

[2] We use a rolling 5-year (60-month) window to calculate standard deviation. We require at least 3 years of data for an index to be included in the low volatility portfolio. The standard deviation is multiplied by -1 so that higher values are better across all four factor scores.

## Factor Fimbulwinter

By Corey Hoffstein

On June 11, 2018

In Carry, Defensive, Momentum, Popular, Risk & Style Premia, Trend, Value, Weekly Commentary

This post is available as a PDF download here.## Summary

In Norse mythology, Fimbulvetr (commonly referred to in English as “Fimbulwinter”) is a great and seemingly never-ending winter. It continues for three seasons – long, horribly cold years that stretch on longer than normal – with no intervening summers. It is a time of bitterly cold, sunless days where hope is abandoned and discord reigns.

This winter-to-end-all-winters is eventually punctuated by Ragnarok, a series of events leading up to a great battle that results in the ultimate death of the major gods, destruction of the cosmos, and subsequent rebirth of the world.

Investment mythology is littered with Ragnarok-styled blow-ups and we often assume the failure of a strategy will manifest as sudden catastrophe. In most cases, however, failure may more likely resemble Fimbulwinter: a seemingly never-ending winter in performance with returns blown to-and-fro by the harsh winds of randomness.

Value investors can attest to this. In particular, the disciples of price-to-book have suffered greatly as of late, with “expensive” stocks having outperformed “cheap” stocks for over a decade. The academic interpretation of the factor sits nearly 25%

belowits prior high-water mark seen in December 2006.Expectedly, a large number of articles have been written about the death of the value factor. Some question the factor itself, while others simply argue that price-to-book is a broken implementation.

But are these simply retrospective narratives, driven by a desire to have an explanation for a result that has defied our expectations? Consider: if price-to-book had exhibited positive returns over the last decade, would we be hearing from nearly as large a number of investors explaining why it is no longer a relevant metric?

To be clear, we believe that many of the arguments proposed for

whyprice-to-book is no longer a relevant metric are quite sound. The team at O’Shaughnessy Asset Management, for example, wrote a particularly compelling piece that explores how changes to accounting rules have led book value to become a less relevant metric in recent decades.^{1}Nevertheless, we think it is worth taking a step back, considering an alternate course of history, and asking ourselves how it would impact our current thinking. Often, we look back on history as if it were the obvious course. “If only we had better prior information,” we say to ourselves, “we would have predicted the path!”

^{2}Rather, we find it more useful to look at the past as just one realized path of many that’s that could have happened, none of which were preordained. Randomness happens.With this line of thinking, the poor performance of price-to-book can just as easily be explained by a poor roll of the dice as it can be by a fundamental break in applicability. In fact, we see several potential truths based upon performance over the last decade:

The problem at hand is two-fold: (1) the statistical evidence supporting most factors is considerable and (2) the decade-to-decade variance in factor performance is substantial. Taken together, you run into a situation where a mere decade of underperformance likely cannot undue the previously established significance. Just as frustrating is the opposite scenario. Consider that these two statements are not mutually exclusive: (1) price-to-book is broken, and (2) price-to-book generates positive excess return over the next decade.

In investing, factor return variance is large enough that the proof is not in the eating of the short-term return pudding.

The small-cap premium is an excellent example of the difficulty in discerning, in real time, the integrity of an established factor. The anomaly has failed to establish a meaningful new high since it was originally published in 1981. Only in the last decade – nearly 30 years later – have the tides of the industry finally seemed to turn against it as an established anomaly and potential source of excess return.

Thirty years.The remaining broadly accepted factors – e.g. value, momentum, carry, defensive, and trend – have all been demonstrated to generate excess risk-adjusted returns across a variety of economic regimes, geographies, and asset classes, creating a great depth of evidence supporting their existence. What evidence, then, would make us abandon faith from the Church of Factors?

To explore this question, we ran a simple experiment for each factor. Our goal was to estimate how long it would take to determine that a factor was no longer statistically significant.

Our assumption is that the salient features of each factor’s return pattern will remain the same (i.e. autocorrelation, conditional heteroskedasticity, skewness, kurtosis, et cetera), but the forward average annualized return will be zero since the factor no longer “works.”

Towards this end, we ran the following experiment:

For each factor, we ran this test 10,000 times, creating a distribution that tells us how many years into the future we would have to wait until we were certain, from a statistical perspective, that the factor is no longer significant.

Sixty-seven years.Based upon this experience, sixty-seven years is median number of years we will have to wait until we officially declare price-to-book (“HML,” as it is known in the literature) to be dead.

^{3}At the risk of being morbid, we’re far more likely to die before the industry finally sticks a fork in price-to-book.We perform this experiment for a number of other factors – including size (“SMB” – “small-minus-big”), quality (“QMJ” – “quality-minus-junk”), low-volatility (“BAB” – “betting-against-beta”), and momentum (“UMD” – “up-minus-down”) – and see much the same result. It will take

decadesbefore sufficient evidence mounts to dethrone these factors.HMLSMB^{4}QMJBABUMDNow, it is worth pointing out that these figures for a factor like momentum (“UMD”) might be a bit skewed due to the design of the test. If we examine the long-run returns, we see a fairly docile return profile punctuated by sudden and significant drawdowns (often called “momentum crashes”).

Since a large proportion of the cumulative losses are contained in these short but pronounced drawdown periods, demeaning the time-series ultimately means that the majority of 12-month periods actually exhibit

positivereturns. In other words, by selecting random 12-month samples, we actually expect a high frequency of those samples to have a positive return.For example, using this process, 49.1%, 47.6%, 46.7%, 48.8% of rolling 12-month periods are positive for HML, SMB, QMJ, and BAB factors respectively. For UMD, that number is 54.7%. Furthermore, if you drop the worst 5% of rolling 12-month periods for UMD, the average positive period is 1.4x larger than the average negative period. Taken together, not only are you more likely to select a positive 12-month period, but those positive periods are, on average, 1.4x larger than the negative periods you will pick, except for the rare (<5%) cases.

The process of the test was selected to incorporate the salient features of each factor. However, in the case of momentum, it may lead to somewhat outlandish results.

ConclusionWhile an evidence-based investor should be swayed by the weight of the data, the simple fact is that most factors are so well established that the majority of current practitioners will likely go our entire careers without experiencing evidence substantial enough to dismiss any of the anomalies.

Therefore, in many ways, there is a certain faith required to use them going forward. Yes, these are ideas and concepts derived from the data. Yes, we have done our best to test their robustness out-of-sample across time, geographies, and asset classes. Yet we must also admit that there is a non-zero probability, however small it is, that these are false positives: a fact we may not have sufficient evidence to address until several decades hence.

And so a bit of humility is warranted. Factors will not suddenly stand up and declare themselves broken. And those that are broken will still appear to work from time-to-time.

Indeed, the death of a factor will be more Fimulwinter than Ragnarok: not so violent to be the end of days, but enough to cause pain and frustration among investors.

## Addendum

We have received a large number of inbound notes about this commentary, which fall upon two primary lines of questions. We want to address these points.

How were the tests impacted by the Bayesian inference process?The results of the tests within this commentary are rather astounding. We did seek to address some of the potential flaws of the methodology we employed, but by-in-large we feel the overarching conclusion remains on a solid foundation.

While we only presented the results of the Bayesian inference approach in this commentary, as a check we actually tested two other approaches:

The two tests were in effort to isolate the effects of the different components of our test.

What we found was that while the reported figures changed, the overall magnitude did not. In other words, the median death-date of HML may not have been 67 years, but the order of magnitude remained much the same: decades.

Stepping back, these results were somewhat a foregone conclusion. We would not expect an effect that has been determined to be statistically significant over a hundred year period to unravel in a few years. Furthermore, we would expect a number of scenarios that continue to bolster the statistical strength just due to randomness alone.

Why are we defending price-to-book?The point of this commentary was

notto defend price-to-book as a measure. Rather, it was to bring up a larger point.As a community, quantitative investors often leverage statistical significance as a defense for the way we invest.

We think that is a good thing. We

shouldlook at the weight of the evidence. We should be data driven. We should try to find ideas that have proven to be robust over decades of time and when applied in different markets or with different asset classes. We should want to find strategies that are robust to small changes in parameterization.Many quants would argue (including us among them), however, that there also needs to be a

why.Whydoes this factor work? Without thewhy, we run the risk of glorified data mining. With thewhy, we can choose for ourselves whether we believe the effect will continue going forward.Of course, there is nothing that prevents the

whyfrom being pure narrative fallacy. Perhaps we have simply weaved a story into a pattern of facts.With price-to-book, one might argue we have done the exact opposite. The effect, technically, remains statistically significant and yet plenty of ink has been spilled as to why it shouldn’t work in the future.

The question we must answer, then, is, “when does

statistically significantapply and when does it not?” How can we use it as a justification in one place and completely ignore it in others?Furthermore, if we are going to rely on hundreds of years of data to establish significance, how can we determine when something is “broken” if the statistical evidence does not support it?

Price-to-book may very well be broken. But that is not the point of this commentary. The point is simply that the same tools we use to establish and defend factors may prevent us from tearing them down.