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ETF Specialist

Discipline at the Core

A look at three funds that attempt to harness the underlying drivers of stock returns.

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Investing has always been part art and part science, but leaning more heavily on a scientific approach may help improve consistency. Through fundamental research, a manager may decide to purchase stocks with varying degrees of value, momentum, and market exposure--the elements that appear to drive stock returns. But without directly targeting these dimensions of return, a portfolio's risk and expected return relative to the market can change over time.

Investors can obtain more consistent exposure to these return drivers through rules-based funds that specifically target value, quality, low volatility, or momentum. Each of these strategies has worked in most markets studied over long horizons, based on many independent studies. There are three possible reasons each strategy has worked: It may collect a risk premium, capitalize on behavioral biases, or exploit institutional frictions.

Individually, these strategies are sensible, but they may work better together. For instance, according to a study by Robert Novy-Marx, a portfolio of cheap (value) and highly profitable (quality) U.S. stocks would have offered better returns than a portfolio of just cheap or just highly profitable stocks from 1963 through 2010. A profitability overlay may help investors avoid value traps, and a valuation discipline can reduce the likelihood of overpaying for quality. Combining factors may also offer good diversification benefits. For example, value tends to outperform when momentum lags, and vice versa. Using these two strategies together may reduce the risk of underperforming for extended periods of time.    

DFA US Core Equity (DFEOX), AQR Core Equity (QCELX), and iShares Enhanced U.S. Large-Cap ETF (IELG) all attempt to harness multiple factors to beat the market. These funds cannot be neatly described as active or passive, as they do not pick stocks or track an index. Instead, these funds seek to improve performance through their portfolio-construction methodology. But there are important differences among them.

IShares Enhanced U.S. Large-Cap ETF
IShares Enhanced U.S. Large-Cap (0.18% expense ratio) is structured as an exchange-traded fund and is therefore accessible to all investors. In contrast, individual investors must generally access the DFA and AQR funds through a financial advisor. The iShares fund targets stocks with high-quality, value, and smaller-cap characteristics. It anchors its sector weightings within 10 percentage points of the Russell 1000 Index and optimizes the portfolio to achieve 90% of the volatility of the market.

It may seem a bit odd that a large-cap fund would introduce a small-cap tilt. By itself, size is not a great factor (see this article for a more in-depth discussion on this topic). Tilting toward the smaller end of the large-cap spectrum should theoretically have an even smaller effect than overweighting small-cap stocks. However, the value premium has tended to increase as market capitalization decreases. Therefore, combining value with a small-cap tilt is a reasonable strategy.

This fund measures value based on earnings yield and book/price. Individually, these metrics may not tell the whole story. For instance, a company with greater debt should offer a higher earnings yield, all else equal. Similarly, differences in the application of accounting rules may distort book/price comparisons across stocks. However, combining these two metrics can help paint a more complete picture.

The fund measures quality with earnings stability, low debt, and low accruals (high operating cash flows relative to net income). Accruals may be a good proxy for earnings quality because the cash component of earnings tends to be more persistent than accruals. High accruals may be a sign of earnings management. Earnings stability is also a reasonable measure of quality. However, in contrast to the DFA and AQR core equity funds, the iShares fund does not directly consider profitability.

Profitability is arguably one of the most important measures of quality because it shows how productively a firm manages its assets. Additionally, highly profitable firms tend to enjoy competitive advantages that can help keep competitors at bay. Profitability can even help explain returns as an independent factor. However, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order. While it is clear that quality and profitability are good things, it is less obvious why they should be associated with higher expected returns. There is a risk that the strategy could become less effective as more investors exploit it. But it may still help reduce volatility.     

DFA US Core Equity
DFA US Core Equity (0.19% expense ratio) offers broader exposure to the U.S. stock market. In fact, its portfolio represents more than 94% of the assets in  Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI). However, it adjusts its constituents' weightings to tilt the portfolio toward stocks with small market capitalization, high book/price (value), and high profitability. For example, a small-cap value stock with high profitability might receive twice its market-cap weight. Similarly, the fund underweights large-cap growth stocks with weak profitability. However, it does not exclude these stocks.

This broad approach only introduces modest style tilts. As illustrated in the style map below, it has the smallest value tilt of the three funds. However, it has the advantage of low turnover, which should help promote tax efficiency. Because it weights its holdings using market-cap multipliers, changes in market prices largely mirror the desired changes in the portfolio weightings. This mitigates the need to actively rebalance the portfolio.            

Source: Morningstar Direct.

Even the way the fund measures value (book/price) helps keep turnover low. Book value tends to be more stable than alternative value metrics, such as earnings and cash flow. But it is not always comparable across firms. While book value is not a perfect measure of value, it is the metric that academic researchers most often use to study the value effect.

DFA measures profitability as operating income before depreciation and amortization minus interest expense, over book value. This is a reasonable approach because it includes most relevant expenses but strips out income that is not relevant to the core business. It also removes depreciation and amortization, which are often difficult to compare across firms. Accounting earnings are more susceptible to smoothing and may be less representative of a firm's effective profitability.


AQR Core Equity    
Similar to the DFA fund, AQR Core Equity (0.54% expense ratio) targets stocks with attractive value and profitability characteristics, but it also incorporates momentum. Because there has been more research on value and momentum, the fund gives greater weight to these characteristics than profitability. Based on these attributes, the fund assigns composite scores to each large-cap U.S. stock and targets the fourth with the highest scores. It weights its holdings according to both the strength of their style characteristics and market capitalization. In order to smooth out changes, the fund averages the weights in the target portfolios over the most recent few months.

Momentum historically has been a much stronger effect than size and likely will continue to offer better performance, at least on paper. However, it requires high turnover, which can create high transaction costs and reduce tax efficiency. In order to mitigate these costs, the fund may deviate from its target portfolio if the estimated cost of trading a security outweighs the benefits of owning or selling it.

Momentum isn't the fund's only distinguishing feature. It also measures value more holistically than its peers. In addition to book/price and earnings yields, the fund also incorporates sales- and cash flow/enterprise value ratios, which strip out differences that are due to leverage. Together, these metrics may tell a more complete story. In contrast to DFA, the fund measures profitability using gross profits (sales minus cost of goods sold) scaled by assets and sales, and free cash flow. Gross profitability may not be the best way to measure profitability because it excludes economically relevant selling, general, and administrative expenses. However, it is consistent with how Novy-Marx measured the profitability effect in his seminal paper.

Which Fund Is Best?
That depends on the investor. Despite its higher expense ratio, AQR Core Equity will likely offer the highest pretax returns because it makes the boldest style bets and harnesses momentum. However, this unconstrained fund can introduce large sector bets and make the portfolio more volatile than the market. For instance, financial-services stocks currently represent more than a quarter of the portfolio. It will also likely be less tax-efficient than the other two funds, which have much lower turnover.

DFA US Core Equity may be more appealing to investors who want less tracking error relative to a broad market-cap-weighted benchmark. Of the three funds, it exhibited the highest correlation with the Russell 1000 Index over the past year, as illustrated in the table below, owing to its broad market coverage and relatively small sector tilts.

Risk-averse investors might find iShares Enhanced U.S. Large-Cap most appealing because it explicitly attempts to limit its volatility relative to the market. It has the greatest exposure to defensive-sector stocks and the least exposure to cyclical sector stocks among the three funds and likely would perform the best during market downturns. While this fund constrains its sector weightings, it also has the narrowest portfolio. Consequently, its performance may deviate the most from the market's, as its correlation with the Russell 1000 Index during the past year demonstrates.


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Alex Bryan does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.