Research Review | 30 June 2017 | Searching For Alpha

US Sector Rotation with Five-Factor Fama-French Alphas
G. Sarwar (University of Greenwich), et al.
June 16, 2017
In this paper we investigate the risk-adjusted performance of US sector portfolios and sector rotation strategy using the alphas from the Fama-French five factor model. We find that five-factor model fits better the returns of US sector portfolios than the three factor model, but that significant alphas are still present in all the sectors at some point in time. In the full sample period, 50% of sectors generate significant five-factor alpha. We test if such alpha signifies a true sector out/underperformance by applying simple long-only and long-short sector rotation strategies. Our long-only sector rotation strategy that buys a sector with a positive five-factor alpha generates four times higher Sharpe ratio than the S&P500 buy-and-hold. If the strategy is adjusted to switch to the risk-free asset in recessions, the Sharpe ratio achieved is ten-fold that of the buy-and-hold. The long-short strategy fares less well.

Can Hedge Funds Time the Market?
Michael W. Brandt (Duke University)
June 18, 2017
We answer the somewhat narrower question of whether hedge funds adjust their conditional market exposure in response to real-time changes in macroeconomic conditions, and whether doing so improves their performance. We find that hedge funds differ substantially in their responsiveness to macroeconomic data. The most pro-cyclical market timers outperform their less active and counter-cyclical peers by over four percent annualized with a risk adjusted alpha of 5.5 percent.

Implied Volatility Sentiment: A Tale of Two Tails
Luiz F. F. Felix (VU University Amsterdam), et al.
January 15, 2017
Low probability events are overweighted in the pricing of out-of-the-money index puts and single stock calls. This behavioral bias is strongly time-varying, and is linked to equity market sentiment and higher moments of the risk-neutral density. We find that our implied volatility (IV) sentiment measure, jointly derived from index and single stock options, explains investors’ overweight of tail events well. When employed within a trading strategy, our IV-sentiment measure delivers economically significant results, which are more consistent than the ones produced by the market sentiment factor. Out-of-sample tests on reversal prediction show that our IV-sentiment measure adds value over and above traditional factors in the equity risk premium literature.

Mutual Fund Skill in Timing Market Volatility and Liquidity
Jason Foran and Niall O’Sullivan (University College Cork)
May 31, 2017
We investigate both market volatility timing and market liquidity timing for the first time among UK mutual funds. We find strong evidence that a small percentage of funds time market volatility successfully, i.e., when conditional market volatility is higher than normal, systematic risk levels are lower. The evidence around market liquidity timing ability is similar although it is slightly less prevalent compared to volatility timing. Here, funds lower the fund market beta in anticipation of reduced market liquidity. We also find a positive relation between liquidity timing ability and fund abnormal performance where skilled liquidity timers outperform unskilled timers by around 3% p.a. – though this finding is driven by poor liquidity timing funds going on to yield negative alpha. However, despite the evidence of volatility and liquidity timing ability among funds, we fail to find in support of persistence in this timing. We find little evidence supporting market return timing ability.

The Best Strategies for the Worst Crises
Michael Cook (Man AHL), et al.
June 15, 2017
Hedging equity portfolios against the risk of large drawdowns is notoriously difficult and expensive. Holding, and continuously rolling, at-the-money put options on the S&P 500 is a very costly, if reliable, strategy to protect against market sell-offs. Holding ‘safe-haven’ US Treasury bonds, while providing a positive and predictable long-term yield, is generally an unreliable crisis-hedge strategy, since the post-2000 negative bond-equity correlation is a historical rarity. Long gold and long credit protection portfolios appear to sit between puts and bonds in terms of both cost and reliability.
In contrast to these passive investments, we investigate two dynamic strategies that appear to have generated positive performance in both the long-run but also particularly during historical crises: futures time-series momentum and quality stock factors. Futures momentum has parallels with long option straddle strategies, allowing it to benefit during extended equity sell-offs. The quality stock strategy takes long positions in highest-quality and short positions in lowest-quality company stocks, benefitting from a ‘flight-to-quality’ effect during crises. These two dynamic strategies historically have uncorrelated return profiles, making them complementary crisis risk hedges. We examine both strategies and discuss how different variations may have performed in crises, as well as normal times, over the years 1985 to 2016.

Which Index Options Should You Sell?
Roni Israelov and Harsha Tummala (AQR Capital Mgt)
June 28, 2017
This paper explores historical return and risk properties of equity-hedged options across the S&P 500 option surface. We evaluate returns by estimating alpha to the S&P 500 index, and we quantify risk using three metrics: return volatility, losses under stress tests, and conditional value at risk. We show that analyzing option risk-adjusted alphas using different risk metrics leads to significantly different conclusions. We find that the most compensated options to sell on the S&P 500 surface per unit of stress-test loss are front-month options with strikes near-the-money and moderately below the index level. We apply these results to evaluate return expectations for short volatility strategies, potential added return from option selection, and implications for variance swaps.

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