The Active vs. Passive Debate













On Tuesday, June 13, approximately 400 people gathered at the Standard Club to attend CFA Society Chicago’s forum on trends, insights and case studies about active vs. passive investment strategies. An additional 200 joined the event via webcast. All of the participants agreed that the terms active and passive represent a spectrum. Nat Kellog, CFA, director of research at Marquette Associates, moderated the first debate.


Joel Dickson, Ph.D., global head of investment research and development with Vanguard, began the conversation by stating Vanguard’s objective to generate market performance at the lowest cost. He noted that if one group has a persistent information advantage than another must be disadvantaged because the aggregate investment results represent a zero sum game. The discussion then focused on whether or not empirical data suggests that the winners can be identified in advance.

Brett Hammond, research leader at the Capital Group stated the firm’s strategy of increasing the number of analyst visits with company management to make superior qualitative decisions about business strategy and execution. Hammond estimated that 1,600 domestic mutual funds employ a factor based approach to quantitatively structuring portfolios. He notes that these strategies represent a form of active management. He also believes that they create opportunities for investment management firms with a long term perspective and superior fundamental analysis.

Aye Soe, CFA, managing director, Global Research & Design at S&P Dow Jones Indices, noted that Paul Samuelson’s 1974 article Challenge to Judgement, promoted the idea of a portfolio that tracks the S&P 500.

Since then, indexes and index funds have evolved to tilt toward factors in an attempt to enhance returns. This evolution moves the objective from market returns to alpha, which is the goal of active management. Soe suggested that the nature of the bond market and bench mark indexes provide more opportunity for deviations (i.e. exclude Treasury bonds) from the market to enhance returns.

The conversation addressed the impact of the rise of index funds on the price discovery role of the securities markets. The Bernstein article- Why Passive Investing is Worse than Marxism may overstate the impact. Although index funds now own approximately 25% of US equity capitalization, they only represent about 5% of trading.


Bob Litterman then interviewed Eugene F. Fama, 2013 Nobel laureate in economic sciences and Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, to learn about the evolution of his thoughts over the past 50 years. Dr. Fama drew a distinction between active and passive approaches to factor tilts in portfolios. An attempt to time factor premiums or add an additional level of analysis produces an active approach.

Fama acknowledged the impact of micro-cap stocks noted in a May 2017 paper titled Replicating Anomalies. This paper concludes that the excess returns identified for most factor based strategies disappears when you adjust for the outsized impact of extremely small companies. Fama emphasized the need to adjust for this impact, a sound basis in financial economics and persistency in the results across markets and time. He noted the robustness of the value factor and the more limited effect of the size factor on portfolio returns. Momentum represents a factor that is evident in the data, but hard to exploit because of the extreme overweight required in illiquid, micro-cap stocks. Fama noted that momentum represents “the biggest embarrassment to the efficient market hypothesis” because it does not fit well into financial theory.

One trend identified over the past 50 years is the growth in the study of financial economics. In the 1960s, MIT and the University of Chicago dominated this area of study. Now, every major university devotes resources to data analysis for market anomalies.

Firms like Dimensional Fund Advisors and Vanguard devote substantial resources to fulfill their corporate governance responsibilities as shareholders. The firms also employ sophisticated trading strategies to obtain best execution. Fama noted that active managers who add value deserve to earn a return on their human capital. As a result, the excess return generally flows to the manager, not the investor in the fund.

The conversation concluded with comments about the future direction of the investment advisory industry. The movement from investment managers to financial advisors to wealth management may move the compensation model from a percentage of assets under management to an hourly or fee for service basis. The growth of “robo advisors” may create another tool for wealth managers to serve clients, versus a replacement for the advisor. The role of the advisor may shift toward a focus on the distribution of possible outcomes and the incorporation of uncertainty in financial plans.


Lisa Haag, CFA, director of investment strategy with The Boeing Company, presented the case for active management of defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plan assets. The Boeing Company’s defined benefit plan has 25% of its assets invested in publicly traded equities with only 5% employing passive strategies. The remainder of the plan’s assets is invested in long duration bonds and alternative investments.

Jason Laurie, CFA, of Altair works with near 300 high net worth family groups. Passive strategies represent 10% to 15% of assets. Laurie noted the firm’s size provides them with the opportunity to negotiate low fees for clients. He emphasized the importance of patience with active managers by noting that over 90% of top managers periodically experience one to three years of sub-par performance.

Marc Levinson, chair of the Illinois State Board of Investments, outlined the transition from active management toward passive management of the State’s pension assets since September 2015. The $4 billion of defined contribution assets moved from 75% active to all passive. The $17 billion defined benefit assets moved to 70% passive. The state moved from near 100 managers to less than 20. Levinson lead the Board from the political nature of “who are you going to replace my guy with” to a market approach that did not require hiring a manager with a sponsor.

In conclusion, two of the three entities continue a commitment to selecting managers who can beat the market after fees. In contrast, two of the first three panelists and Fama presented a case that the financial markets efficient from a beat the market after fees perspective. The debate goes on.


Hosted by Barchart, the third annual FinTech Exchange held on April 27th at Venue SIX10 highlighted the latest in technology innovation for financial markets and trading firms. The 2017 event focused on methods in which data is delivered, stored, analyzed and visualized; as well as the new types of data in the alternative space. It featured 10-minute Lightning Round presentations, topic specific round table discussions, plus an all-day exhibit hall for networking that featured a Live DJ and Pro Ping Pong action.

Barchart’s CEO Mark Haraburda, delivered the opening remarks and highlighted the fact that Chicago was ranked among the top five FinTech hubs in the world by Deloitte. In Deloitte’s published report, Connecting Global Fintech: Interim Hub Review 2017, Chicago acts as the epicenter for all FinTech activity in the Midwest, representing well over 20,000 financial institutions.

The keynote speaker was Vaidy Krishnan from Tableau, a software company that helps people see and understand their data. He spoke about choosing an analytics platform that not only offers data visualization, but also can provide visual analytics that help you dive into the “why” of your data. Data visualization tools such as static dashboards are the start of the analytical process and not the end; while visual analytics software go a step further and provide interactive exploration of the data to its most granular detail.

The Lightning Rounds began with Maria Belianina from OneTick speaking about the power of integrating with a single point platform for tick data management and analysis. In addition to being a data warehouse, OneTick is directly integrated with R and MATLAB for quantitative analysis.

Julie Menacho from the CME Group spoke about the exchange’s market technology and data services. CME Datamine offers historical data via the cloud through a partnership with Amazon Web Services and software provider TickSmith. She then went on to discuss the CME’s initiative around Alternative Data, which she described as non-traditional data sources which can be leveraged as part of the investment process. One example was satellite imagery of where world oil tanks were being stored to give an idea of the current supply of oil. These new sources of untapped data can be a predictive indicator of market performance.

Sean Naismith from Enova Decisions talked about harnessing the power of predictive analytics. He spoke about their decision management system Colossus, which is integrated with multiple data providers to help produce optimal decisions in real-time. These predictive analytics are used to help detect fraud, minimize credit risk, and optimize operations in real-time.

Catherine Clay from the CBOE discussed how the CBOE is keeping its innovative mojo, through the two P’s, Process and Partners. She described the CBOE’s weekly development release cycle to push out code related enhancements. She also went over the CBOE’s technology partnerships that allow the exchange to expand their market data and product offerings.

In honor of National Bring your Child to Work Day, Jim Austin of Vertex Analytics decided to put his kids to work! They put on a fun re-enactment of a chaotic open outcry where all you heard was the fill order. Jim used this to highlight the amount of undocumented activity that can occur during trading. He then brought us into today’s world of big market data and electronic trading. Vertex provides a solution to capture, manage, and analyze this financial market data, currently collecting over 4.5 billion market messages per day. Firms can also use Vertex’s platform to supervise their own trading patterns and behavior, which can be used to mitigate compliance violations.

The final two presentations focused on how FinTech is disrupting retail trading. Tim McDermott of Nadex, highlighted the key issues that hold individuals back from trading. These key issues included margin requirements, fear of professional traders, time constraints, and an unclear path on how to begin. Nadex offers small binary option contracts with a floor of $0 and a ceiling of $100, limiting a trader’s overall risk. It’s also easy to open an account and begin trading if you pass all the checks, usually within 15 minutes. Michael Patak from Topstep Trader also believes there’s a lot of opportunity in retail. He believes that by combining education with games, you can attract new traders to the marketplace. TopStep Trader provides a path where you can fine tune your approach using real-time simulated accounts.

I attended one of the roundtable sessions led by Jason Henrichs and Lisa Curran, CFA, from FinTEx, a Chicago based nonprofit, and learned how they’re growing the FinTech ecosystem in the Midwest. Lisa went on to speak about how FinTEx is focused on promoting collaboration among their member firms and modeled their events to resemble those hosted by CFA Society Chicago. Jason discussed their partnership with FinTech Sandbox, a nonprofit group that provides startups free access to financial data and infrastructure. This partnership should provide a boost to Chicago’s already surging FinTech sector.

This was my first time attending the FinTech Exchange but it will not be my last. I wasn’t aware of the vast amount of innovation occurring right here on our doorsteps in Chicago, and I’m excited to see how these new sources of data impact the Financial Services sector.

Building Investor Trust Through GIPS

On May 9th, CFA Society Chicago members gathered to hear a panel of experts address the merits of adopting the Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) in the Vault Room at 33 N. LaSalle. The eminent panel comprised a service provider, a regulator, and an asset manager user and included:

  • Daniel Brinks, compliance examiner with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with a focus on investment advisors,
  • Richard Kemmling, CPA, CIPM, CGMA, President of Ashland Partners & Company LLC, a specialty CPA firm that was a pioneer in the GIPS verification business, and serves over 700 client firms in that area.
  • Matthew Lyberg, CFA, CIPM, Senior Vice President and Director of Performance Attribution with Acadian Asset Management.

DSC_3715Anju Grover, CIPM, senior GIPS analyst with the Investment Performance Standards Policy Group of the CFA Institute (CFAI) served as moderator. In her opening remarks she pointed out that 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of GIPS which she described as one of the CFA Institute’s most successful products. Despite the fact that adopting GIPS is completely voluntary, they are widely recognized as a best practice for reporting investment performance by asset managers, asset owners, and consultants all around the world.

The first question Ms. Grove put to the panel was why GIPS would be important to retail investors. Brinks responded that retail investors are just as demanding of a performance standard as are institutional investors, and GIPS fills the bill. Lyberg noted that the line separating retail and institutional investors is blurring. The decline in the popularity of pension plans in favor of defined contribution plans is a primary example. Retail investors are the end users of DC plans and are responsible for investment choices, but the plans are designed, managed, and overseen by investment professionals. So they serve both retail and institutional masters. GIPS also adds a layer of due diligence to a plan, a theme the panelists repeated throughout the event. Kemmling pointed out that GIPS compliance is a common requirement for listing products on the investment platforms that advisors (he specifically mentioned Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch) use for their retail clients.

As to challenges firms encounter in adopting GIPS, the panelists listed:

  • Lack of adequate data, or records; difficulty in handling unique accounts,
  • Changes in operating systems that occur during implementation,
  • Incomplete buy-in from all parts of a firm (marketing, accounting, compliance, etc.), and
  • Full support from senior management. The latter point is particularly critical to assure firms commit adequate resources to attain compliance.

Why should firms bear the cost of GIPS compliance? Kemmling answered that they provide a “best practices” process for client reporting and that the verification process provides insight into industry practices. Brinks stated that while GIPS compliance is not required by law or regulation, he considers it in the category of “nice to see” when he examines an asset manager. The verification process is a second pair of eyes –outside eyes–on results reporting. He added that he observes fewer serious problems in general when he examines firms that follow GIPS. The CFA Institute has been training SEC examiners on GIPS so they can understand what the standards mean to adopting firms and apply that knowledge during examinations.

In response to questions from the audience regarding difficulties in complying with GIPS, the panel noted challenges in applying them to more complicated strategies such as currency overlays and alternatives. They suggested that this be a focus of the next revision to the standards which is already underway and targeted for 2020. This revision should also make the standards easier to apply to fund vehicles and for internal reporting to management. The current standards are most easily applied to reporting composite returns to clients, which was their original intent.

Regarding the breadth of acceptance of GIPS, Grover said the CFAI is still gathering data but counts 1,600 firms around the world that claim compliance for at least a portion of their assets. This includes 85 of the 100 largest asset managers who account for 60% of total industry assets under management. Lyberg noted that investment consultants are expanding the adoption of GIPS by using compliance as a screen for including firms in management searches.

When asked how a firm should begin to adopt GIPS, Lyberg suggested starting out modestly by writing high level policies and procedures and making them more detailed over time with experience. He recommended attending the CFAI’s annual GIPS conference to build knowledge and to make contact with other firms that have already adopted the standards. Challenges a firm may encounter include clients who demand using a different performance benchmark than what the firms uses for a strategy, tension between various stakeholders at a firm (e.g., between marketing and compliance), and resistance from legal counsel which often advises against bold statements of compliance that might seem to be guarantees.

As to the benefits to the public from using GIPS, Brinks stated that increased comparability leads to better informed investment decisions and more efficient markets. He noted the decline in fraud tied to inflated claims about performance since the introduction of GIPS thirty years ago. Kemmling noted that measuring the positive impact of GIPS is difficult but they were created for the benefit of investors and are an indication of asset managers’ commitment of resources in support of investors. Grover stated that adopting GIPS for greater transparency and comparability was simply “the right thing to do”.

For final takeaways the panelists offered the following:

  • Lyberg said GIPS levels the playing field among managers, adding that compliant managers couldn’t compete with fraudulent firms such as Bernie Madoff’s.
  • Kemmling, acknowledged that while compliance is not easy, it isn’t expensive and is certainly achievable. Most of the 700 firms his company verifies have less than $1 billion in AUM, indicating the success of small firms at complying with GIPS.
  • Brinks recommended that adopting firms think very carefully about how to apply the standards, looking to the future when writing their policies and procedures to avoid any potential conflicts between them and their capabilities.

Investing for the Long-term: Productivity of Capital Markets Expectations, and Portfolio Management

DSC_3571CFA Society Chicago presented a two-part symposium on Investing for the Long-term on March 7th at the Standard Club. Approximately 150 members and guests attended to hear Robert Gordon, Professor of Economics at Northwestern University and Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Emerita Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago present their perspectives on productivity trends. Francisco Torralba, CFA, Senior Economist, Morningstar, Robert Browne, CFA, Northern Trust Bank, and Rick Rieder, CIO Global Fixed Income, BlackRock, then presented their outlooks for the capital markets.

Gordon highlighted the sharp slowdown in US GDP growth from 3.12% from the 1974 to 2004 to 1.56% from 2004 to 2015. He said that this slowdown resulted from a reduction in productivity growth and the labor force participation rate. He noted the Kalman Trend Annualized Growth in Total Economic Productivity, which rose to 2.5% in the 1990s because of the technology revolution, but has recently fallen to near 0.5%. The labor force participation rate has been affected by an aging population, fewer 18 to 25-year-old people in the work force, and passing the peak rate of growth for women in the labor force.

DSC_3590Gordon noted that growth and productivity are probably under estimated, but have always been under stated. He sees no indications that the distortions are worse today. He expects that both lower productivity growth and labor force growth will produce slower economic growth over the next decade.

McCloskey acknowledged that the current level of productivity growth has fallen. She observed that “falling sky” DSC_3579forecasts always follow events like the 2008 financial crisis and noted the perils of trying to predict future enhancements in productivity. She also stated that global economic growth will be positively impacted by developments in countries like China and India.

DSC_3587McCloskey highlighted her work on the role a change in attitude toward capitalism in the 1700s that augmented the 1st Industrial Revolution. She noted the evolution in literature from Shakespeare to Jane Austin in the portrayal of capitalist and the return on capital that they earn. Changes in attitude toward capitalism could drive growth in emerging economies.

An area of agreement between Gordon and McCloskey is the role of minimum wage laws and other restrictions on the labor market that prevent economic growth in areas like the west side of Chicago. They also support efforts to stop the “war on drugs” and support a negative income tax for low income people.

Outlook for Investors

DSC_3591Rick Rieder, CIO Global Fixed Income, BlackRock, noted the aging population and its demand for income and the role of technology pressing down inflation. He believes that the US economy is exiting an investment & goods recession. He also believes that September 2016 marked a turning point away from expansionary global monetary policy. He sees better economic growth leading to higher interest rates, and the potential for higher stock prices because of sales growth.

Francisco Torralba, CFA, Senior Economist, Morningstar, supports McCloskey view that trends in productivity cannot be predicted. He also foresees a pickup in economic growth and cited a Financial Analyst Journal article that links the payout growth rate to the GDP growth rate. A higher level of economic growth could be a positive development for equity investors through higher dividends.

Robert Browne, CFA, Northern Trust Bank, suggested that forecasters begin with “what’s easier to forecast.” He believes that identifying what is cheap is easier that what is expensive. In contrast, much of the forecast has been centered on the expensive, low yield bond market. He also noted that anticipating a range over the short-term is easier. Here, he believes that the election of President Trump may pull forward economic growth, which would be a positive for equity investors.

The consensus outlook seemed to be that long-term real returns for equities would be in the 4% to 5% range. These analysts generally favor US equities, US high yield bonds, natural resources, and emerging markets debt.

Preserving Alpha through Successful Execution

Alpha is the ability to generate superior risk-adjusted returns compared to the return of an appropriate index. The purpose of most equity trades for managed portfolios is to hopefully create alpha for that portfolio. The hidden costs of not obtaining the best execution can destroy that alpha.

How does the trader know his trade is being treated fairly with respect to other trades being placed at the same time? Is the trade being shown to the right people? The SEC website lists 20 exchanges approved for securities trading. What drives the decision by a trader to use one exchange over another?

CFA Society Chicago’s Education Advisory Group hosted a panel discussion on insights on market structure in the equity market and how this structure affects equity trading today. The moderator was Michael Thompson, CFA. The panelists were Haim Bodek, Nanette Buziak and Larry Harris, CFA. Their backgrounds are as follows:

Michael Thompson, CFA – Mr. Thompson is a Partner and Head of Domestic Equity and Derivatives Trading for William Blair Investment Management. Mr. Thompson began his career in the late 1980s as a securities trader associate with Principal Financial.

dsc_3238Haim Bodek – Mr. Bodek is a Managing Principal of Decimus Capital Markets, LLC a tactical co nsulting and strategic advisory firm focused on high frequency trading (“HFT”) and U.S. equities market structure. Mr. Bodek is the author of two books on market structure and is known as a whistleblower that brought attention to the questionable practices of HFT.

Nanette Buziak – Ms. Buziak is Head of Equity Trading at Voya Investment Management. Ms. Buziak manages a team of equity traders and is responsible for all facets of equity trading and related operations at Voya.

Larry Harris, Ph.D., CFA – Dr. Harris holds the Fred V. Keenan Chair in Finance at the USC Marshall School of Business.  Dr. Harris addresses regulatory and practitioner issues in trading and investment management in his research and consulting.

Mr. Thompson began the panel discussion by briefly speaking about his background and introducing each panelist. Mr. Thompson provided a brief history of the changes in equity trading since the late 1980s. When Mr. Thompson began his career, there were only two exchanges and orders were brought to brokers who announced the bid or offer on the floor of the exchange. There were only two recognized equity markets, the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange. By his estimate there are now 13 well known exchanges and 40 dark pools that can trade, with all trades done electronically. Each panelist made a brief presentation which is summarized below:

Dr. Larry Harris

  • The need for speed critical, you need to be the first in line for execution or the first to cancel if you don’t want to get hit.
  • A buyer grants a “put” option to the market and the market will move away from a buyer over time.
  • Brokers can hide orders or search for hidden orders. Dark pools will not show orders.
  • Limit trades often come with price discretion. Someone with a limit order of 23 might accept a price of 21; however this fact is not shared with everyone.
  • “Maker-taker” fee structures have become more common. The broker will typically extract a fee from the taker and rebate part of that fee in the form a liquidity rebate to the maker.

Haim Bodek

  • There are basically two worlds in equity trading, HFT and non-HFT. Firms that specialize in HFT exploit the structure of the market to take advantage.
  • HFT is not really a quant strategy.
  • The two biggest HFT firms paid substantial fines to the SEC in 2012 due to the work of Mr. Bodek in exposing the unfair advantage of firms using HFT when competing with traders not using HFT.
  • HFT comprises around 40% of equity volume and is still legal to use as long as those firms use proper disclosure.

Nanette Buziak.

  • Her team is composed of traders, analysts and portfolio managers who are all cognizant of trading costs. The team strives to limit the implicit costs of trading.
  • The average print size of an equity trade is around 217 shares; her typical trades at Voya are in the millions of shares.
  • Need to assess what venue is appropriate for what trade. Does the name trade in dark pools?
  • HFT is not an issue as long as she feels her positions are not compromised. Some venues can be more toxic than others.
  • Liquidity appears to be coming out of the market at this time since the dwindling amount of IPO’s are not able to replace firms lost to M&A.

There was a brief Q&A session following the panel’s presentations that touched on the following topics:

  • There was some frustration expressed on how slowly the SEC responds to complaints. Since the SEC must follow due process, it is up to institutions to do their own due diligences on these venues and brokers.
  • Firms that do large equity buybacks in many cases use minority brokers.
  • In assessing what algorithm to use when trading it’s important not to use those that are repeatable and can be used against you.
  • Voya’s portfolio managers know what names are not liquid and they will not build a large position in a thinly traded stock.

In response to where they see the market in 5 years, most participants felt there would be little change in that time. With the new administration, Dodd-Frank might be in jeopardy

Investing in Innovation



From L to R: John Pletz; Bruno Bertocci CFA; Tricia Rothschild, CFA; Matt Litfin, CFA; Daniel Nielsen

If you compare the list of Fortune 1000 companies from ten years ago to today, over 70% of its members have been replaced due to disruptive market forces and mergers and acquisitions. In the next ten years another large batch of less-innovative firms will likely be erased from the index as groundbreaking technology continue to affect long-running corporations, causing a frenzy of movement for companies to stay relevant against an incredibly competitive global landscape. Innovation isn’t just a buzzword for corporations these days, but a means toward survival.

Dr. James Conley teaches a course at Northwestern on intellectual property and made for a perfect moderator to lead a discussion on investing in innovation. To begin, he used the same video he plays for his students as an introduction to the panel discussion. The five minute video introduced concepts around the value and management of intangibles by corporations. There has been a marked shift in the asset composition of corporate assets from tangible (factories, buildings, equipment) to intangible (patents, ideas, processes, code). Now over 80% of companies’ market value stems from intangible resources. The video explained how patents protect IP owners and the difference between utility patents (20 year life) and design patents (14 year life). It also laid out the rules for what can be patented and why the patent system matters. Copyright protection was also discussed, and this can give authors and creators 100+ years of protection. Trade secrets, such as the recipe for Coca Cola, receive the highest level of protection and can last indefinitely. The benefits of intellectual property regimes include providing incentives to inventors to create and advance collective knowledge. They also help consumers avoid confusion from competing products. Intellectual property has been receiving a lot of attention lately from many sources, not just in the startup and corporate world. Conley said that Christine Lagarde of the IMF mentioned the phrase six times during a recent address to Kellogg students.

Terry Howerton focuses on tech investing and has built a technology community in Chicago called TechNexus. He said that he believes that innovation will drive industry performance and most innovation will come from an entrepreneurial community, not from incumbent corporations. His firm became an accidental incubator for startups as he found himself acting as a conduit between major corporations looking to be linked up with startups in order to drive innovation.

Conley said that the shift in corporate assets from things like factories and machines to intellectual property and ideas is as significant as the Industrial Revolution. In his investment process he identified 300 companies with the most valuable patent portfolios. This was based upon his own research that indicated companies with stronger intellectual property outperformed companies with weaker intellectual property. The question he often hears is “How can a single factor model (in this case, IP) outperform the market (often to the tune of 200-300 bps a year)?” He says it is due to most investors’ lack of knowledge on which companies actually own good intellectual property assets, and as a result, those firms go undervalued.

dsc_3136On the financial reporting side, Janine Guillot of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) said her group’s goal is to provide reliable valuation measures to intangible assets, which is often hard to do. She discussed how financial reporting needs to evolve as the percent of a company’s overall market value coming from intangible assets continues to increase. This goal will be accomplished by creating a common accounting language across IP and intangibles that is industry-based. The board has created a set of material, non-financial factors that are grouped into five themes:

  • Human Capital
  • Social Capital
  • Environmental Capital
  • Business Innovation
  • Leadership and Governance

The panel noted that corporate ventures are difficult. Not too many Alphabets (parent of Google), with its strong investing capabilities, exist in the corporate world. Time horizons often pose a challenge, as corporate earnings are measured by the quarter while success in the VC world can take many years. The primary goal of a corporate venture also needs to be due to strategic reasons, not to drive short-term returns.

Howerton told a story about an insurance firm that was bragging about undertaking an IT project that would be the biggest of all time, taking over 36 million man hours. Successfully completing the project, with its immense cost, would be seen by many as incredibly risky. Yet that same corporation would view sending four people off to an idea lab to try to come up with innovative solutions as “too risky”. Companies need to recalibrate to the new realities of risk and failure as the pace of the economic landscape moves increasingly rapidly and longstanding businesses find themselves irrelevant in the new economy.

Best Practices in Risk Management














What is risk?

Many metrics and measures fall into the overall category of investment risk, including operational risk, market risk and credit risk. Investment risk is generally defined as “loss arising from changes in interest rates, credit spreads, equity prices, foreign exchange or commodity prices.”  Liquidity risk, at the forefront of many investors’ minds these days, could also be added to this list as a standalone item or included as part of price risk.

While a definition of market and credit risk may be fairly understood, the concept of “operational risk” is sometimes more nebulous. Operational risk could be described as “losses due to anything else, aside from market and credit risk”. But there are other ways to lose money that shouldn’t necessarily be categorized as true risks, such as not having the right strategy or the right timing on an investment, which could be considered outside the scope of what a risk management function can do.

Michelle McCarthy, Managing Director at Nuveen Investments, stated that each type of risk has its own type of P&L distribution. Credit, with its main reward being coupon payment and repayment of principle, has much lower upside and a bigger left tail, or possibility of large losses, than market risk, which follows a more normal distribution. Operational risk also displays a larger loss potential. Combining the three main types of risk into a single cohesive measurement becomes difficult given their differences in distribution.

There are also two primary styles of risk, binary risks and risks of degree. Binary risks are purely unwanted and offer no upside potential, and include things like fraud, theft and legal violations. Companies can use controls and processes to manage these risks to as close to nil as possible. Risks of degree offer upside potential, and are the result of an investment decision. These types of risks are market or credit-related, and need to be managed and monitored. As a risk manager, McCarthy looks out for hidden risks that may not show up in a risk report, risks that are disproportionate to the amount of the potential gain, and risks that have a potentially unexpected return distribution.

What types of risk metrics are important to a hedge fund manager? Jennifer Stack said that at Grosvenor they often look at many different measures instead of relying upon a single number, and utilize Value-at-Risk (VaR), contribution to VaR, stress testing and factor models the company has built. While VaR is helpful for a total portfolio view risk that can integrate exposures across asset classes, different asset classes often require different risk measures.  For instance, looking at the Value-at-Risk (particularly historic Value-at-Risk) of real estate is often misleading as returns look smooth and volatility appears artificially low as a result. Regarding how best to protect a portfolio, Jennifer said that as a hedge fund investor, “sometimes the best hedge is to sell.”


Organizational Structure

Mike Edleson of University of Chicago kicked off the panel with some background on his institution’s endowment. He described their organization as “very enterprise risk focused” and said that they employ a total of 28 investment professionals, with 3 devoted to risk management.

Noreen Jones of NYSTRS said that her pension sees its primary goal as funding liquidity. Every month, NYSTRS delivers benefit payments to 150,000 retirees, and these payments total $600 million a month. The pension’s risk management group is only two years old and was created in response to a regulatory analysis of a gap on calculating and reporting risk at the total plan level. In response, NYSTRS built their risk group from scratch and currently employs four risk professionals tasked with measuring and monitoring the risk of a $100 billion asset pool. Initially, the risk group found it difficult to get a buy-in on a formal risk management approach across portfolio management groups. While the public market groups were used to routine risk measurement and monitoring, the attitude of the private market teams was often “My portfolio didn’t lose money, so where’s the risk?”

Grosvenor Capital has $45 billion in AUM and approximately 400 employees, mainly in Chicago. Its primary business is a hedge fund-of-funds, where it invests money on behalf of institutional and individual clients into various external hedge fund portfolios. Jennifer Stack, the firm’s head of risk, said that their primary goal is to “achieve not only great returns, but to achieve great returns on a risk-adjusted basis.” Grosvenor operates under a system of checks and balances between its risk function and investing functions to achieve that goal.

The panel discussed how risk ought to fit in with the broader investment function. According to David Kuenzi of Aurora Investment Management, risk management can’t be merely a policing function focused on divesting “too risky” securities; it needs to be a collaborative exercise with the portfolio management team.

Sometimes being a risk manager can be a very lonely place. During the Dotcom boom of the late 1990s, McCarthy had to have difficult conversations with star portfolio managers making piles of money on internet stocks about their sector concentration risk. To Jennifer Stack, risk “is not so much about policing, but having a second set of eyes.” And often the best portfolio managers will welcome a conversation about risk, added McCarthy.


Risk Budgeting

“We’re a little different than other endowments,” Mike Edleson said of his employer, the University of Chicago endowment fund.  Instead of a traditional investment policy statement that would dictate targets for asset class allocations, University of Chicago follows a risk budgeting approach. “There are 12 or 13 things that we’ve found to be our primary risk and return drivers,” Edleson said.

As University of Chicago researched risk budgeting and a potential shift away from a policy statement to guide investment allocation decisions, they determined that equity market performance was the most important factor for overall risk and return. This led them to the formalization of their risk budget, which is comprised of four pillars:

  • An overall portfolio beta of between .75 and .80
  • A liquidity constraint that caps private investments at 35%
  • The ability to maintain a beta of between .75 and .80 even during a financial crisis (betas typically rise during large market drawdowns)
  • An absence of leverage (which takes into account the use of implied leverage often embedded in derivatives)

University of Chicago is not the only investor looking at employing a risk budgeting framework. Jones said NYSTRS is also working on one, and the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii is also building an allocation strategy around risk factor groups instead of asset classes. Edleson said that staying right on their risk budget forces a discussion around trade-offs into each allocation discussion, putting risk at the forefront of every decision made.


Liquidity Risk

Buying illiquid assets may look good on the way in, as each subsequent purchase by a portfolio manager tends to raise the price, but could pose a problem on the way down if there is a dearth of buying interest.

For Jones at NYSTRS, coming up with the $600 million due to beneficiaries each month is a huge challenge that is at the forefront of the fund’s investment officers’ minds. In addition to the benefit payments they must pay, they also must deal with flows from rebalancing activities and undrawn commitments that need to be paid. They do a cash flow projection to help guide their allocations and measure their liquidity in months of payroll. Given their high liquidity needs, NYSTRS has a large chunk of its portfolio in Treasury securities, one of the world’s most liquid markets.

In a hedge fund context, measuring and managing liquidity can be a bit different. Jennifer Stack of Grosvenor looks at liquidity in two ways: the degree of mismatch between a manager’s long term investment and short-term financing, and the underlying asset liquidity.

While investors usually want as much liquidity as possible, there is a potential for too much liquidity. University of Chicago actually rejected two hedge fund managers’ proposals as they found the redemption terms to be overly generous given the liquidity of the underlying securities. The endowment didn’t want to find itself last to redeem if there was a stampede out the door, which could result in the endowment holding the most illiquid portions of the manager’s positions.


Managing Risk in a Crisis

Another risk management puzzle arises because “Humans are stupid, and we love to buy high and sell low,” said Edleson, “Especially those in the investment community”. As with any shrewd investor, the University of Chicago endowment wishes to be countercyclical with their private market allocations, but this is “horrendously hard to do in practice”. So University of Chicago always does the same thing, and keeps their beta consistent across normal and distressed market conditions.

“How does one account for betas changing in a crisis event?” McCarthy posed to the panel. At Aurora, David Kuenzi likes to run his portfolios through a stress test focused on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008, which he said was “a gift, in a sense” to risk managers as it provided a recent event to use to see how portfolios might perform in a crisis condition. While many securities of today’s portfolios weren’t around in 1987, one of the most common stress test scenarios risk managers like to use, many of the securities in today’s portfolios were around in 2008.

Another facet of risk that University of Chicago focuses on is the potential for regime change, particularly how correlations between securities tends to change over time. As risk-on, risk-off has been the flavor du jour for the macroeconomic environment for nearly a decade, this isn’t always the case. Edleson said that over time, stock and bond correlation is positive about 50% of the time and negative 50% of the time, making it difficult to discern any general relationship outside the context of each particular regime. In addition to stress testing prices, it’s worthwhile to stress test the correlations between market variables and model the effect of potential regime changes on the portfolio.

As risk evolves from measures like duration to Value-at-Risk to modeling macroeconomic shocks, there are a dizzying amount of metrics investors can look at and use to manage their portfolios. As risk practitioners, “We don’t know the future, but we can know our exposures,” said McCarthy. We can determine how our portfolios might break down in an extreme event, and we can instill a culture of risk awareness in our organization in order to avoid huge losses, with hope of buying during a crisis as opposed to selling.



Mike Edleson, CFA – Chief Risk Officer, The University of Chicago Endowment Fund
Noreen Jones, CPA, CFA, CAIA, FRM – Director of Risk Management, New York State Teachers’ Retirement System
David Kuenzi, CFA – Partner and Managing Director, Aurora Investment Management
Jennifer N. Stack, Ph.D. – Head of Risk Management, Managing Director, Grosvenor Capital Management

Moderator: Michelle McCarthy – Managing Director, Nuveen Investments

Putting Investors First

DSC_2831Each May, CFA Institute and local societies join together to create awareness around placing investors interest first. This event reminds us of why we work in this industry – to best serve our clients.  Moderator Darin Goodwiler guided panelists Jonathan Boersma, CFA, David Hershey, CFA, and Brian Thompson through a discussion on the current regulatory and ethical environment investment professionals are navigating. The panelists provided insights from CFA Institute, the SEC and consulting and investment management disciplines.

Most of the discussion covered the Department of Labor (DOL) rule and its impacts. Given the goal of DOL is to provide objective advise to investors, 93% of 1400 surveyed want the law and 51% think the law is already set up to meet this objective. Broker dealers will be impacted the greatest and it is likely that security sales will be a differentiated title from what we have known as advisors. As the DOL regulation progresses, we can expect to hear a unified message from the SEC and FINRA via social media and other communication channels.  All who give advice to clients are be held to the same standards and it was noted that CFA charterholders, candidates and members have long been held to a very high standard of loyalty, prudence and care. Due to this, no change is expected for this group.

One thing DOL won’t help with is people behaving badly. Culture and management play a role. Ethics training and regulation can help but regulation backward looking is implemented because we learn from our mistakes and play “catch-up” from innovation. Thompson commented that ethical decision making plays into awareness like yoga does into moods and breathing. Panelists felt that best practices are using GIPS and having a strong and visible Chief Compliance Officer.

This event was part of CFA Institute’s annual ethics initiative. For those wanting to practice ethics by role play in an interactive environment, please see to access on-line programs offered by the CFA Institute.


Smart Beta: Smoke and Mirrors or the Next Generation of Investing?

DSC_2604Smart Beta – is it a bad fad or here to stay?

On February 23, two panels set out to discuss that question at the University Club.

Moderator Ben Johnson, CFA, Director of Morningstar’s global ETF research kicked off the discussion with a brief introduction into Smart Beta.

Ben said that the strategies of smart beta don’t necessarily feel smart over the full cycle. Right now there are 539 Exchange Traded Products (ETPs) doing smart beta, with $424 billion in assets and ETPs represent just one wrapper of the strategy. 21% of all ETPs are in the US, and 20% of all total new asset flows are going into smart beta products. The size of smart beta means that it’s too big of a market to ignore. Similarly, in the increasingly crowded ETP space, over a quarter of new launches involves smart beta funds. “This has been an organic growth story,” Ben said. Ben introduced the first panel and asked them to level set the conversation by defining what smart beta means to them.

DSC_2601Craig Lazzara of S&P Dow Jones said he prefers the term “Factor Indices” over smart beta. He quoted Voltaire and said that the saying “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” applies to smart beta. He encouraged the audience to read William Sharpe’s The Arithmetic of Active Management, which concluded that the average active manager’s return will be less than the average passively managed dollar, a conclusion that helps support the smart beta premise. Craig’s definition of smart beta is simple: Indices that try to deliver returns (or a pattern of returns such as low beta, high volatility, etc) of a factor, not of a benchmark.

Craig went on to say that smart beta factor indices allow a user to “indicize” returns of an active management strategy. “Twenty or thirty years ago, you’d have to pay an active manager to get these kinds of returns,” Craig said. And now with smart beta products, you don’t.

Eugene Podkaminer of Callan Associates began his remarks by saying that he was skeptical about smart beta and thinks that the name smart beta is “stupid”. He said that there is a lot of confusion around smart beta, how strategies are packaged and sold and what is under the hood. Smart beta has been driven largely by retail investors, who are susceptible to return-chasing behavior and clever marketing, while institutional investors with longer time horizons haven’t been as involved. “When you open the hood of a smart beta investment, it’s a different story,” said Eugene, who said he is interested in smart beta from a risk factor allocation perspective.

One important question that needs to be asked of smart beta, according to Eugene is “are you confident that the returns from these factors will continue?”

Trey Heiskell of Blackrock said that smart beta is both old and new. Like Eugene, he also hates the term smart beta and prefers ‘factor-based investing’, which he believes to be a more accurate name. “There is a shift from alpha to smart beta happening right now,” Trey said. And much of its growth is due to the context of the market we are in, with retail investors dissatisfied with the recent underperformance of active managers and growing adoption of ETFs. These are some of the main factors driving the growth in smart beta.

Craig agreed with Trey about smart beta being both old and new, saying that “these strategies have been around for years, packaged differently”.

Once, Craig was asked “What is it that ETFs allow large institutional investors to do that they can’t already do?”

DSC_2612“Absolutely nothing,” he answered. But as a retail investor, now you can get the benefits of factor exposure you want cheaply and easily without dealing with an active manager.

Eugene gave an update on how Callan’s process has evolved and said that now they are very risk and diversification-focused, and when evaluating a potential investment, more interested in its covariance with other investments than its forecasted returns. You need to have a robust set of tools to determine what your factor exposures are, such as a risk model. Some advantages of smart beta ETFs are that they are liquid, transparent and cheap. He said that the question “Why am I paying so much for hedge funds,” will continue as risk factor-based investing grows in popularity. “Indexing and smart beta have chipped away at what we call alpha,” Eugene said.

Craig said that investors need to think about their investments not as a portfolio of stocks, but as a portfolio of attributes. He thinks investors need to consider how they might use smart beta to avoid or minimize paying active management fees.

Eugene stated that smart beta does have some problems. Just because the portfolio appears to perform well in the past, the returns won’t necessarily continue. “Backtests by definition look good,” Eugene said. Smart beta needs to be forward looking, it has to be ex-ante, he said. Investors are trying to build portfolios that work well in the future, and you need to forward-looking economic rationale for any investment you make, which also must apply to smart beta products. Smart beta puts the onus of complex portfolio management tasks on the individual, who now must answer “Why did I make that tilt” instead of asking that same question to a manager.

Trey responded that while an economic rationale is important, it is dangerous to be hyper-focused on short term performance of smart beta.

Craig noted that it is important to watch out for spurious correlation, giving an example of extensive data mining leading to a researcher to conclude that butter production in Bangladesh is a strong leading indicator of the S&P 500.

Trey said that just because it is smart beta, it doesn’t mean you’re excluded from doing your own due diligence.

Eugene posed a philosophical question and asked “Can all market participants do the same thing at the same time? And can everyone be in smart beta at the same time?” This isn’t possible. There has to be someone on the other end. We can’t all be in low volatility products. Why ought to these risk factors continue to deliver these kinds of returns? And how many factors truly exist? At Callan, they don’t believe that there are hundreds of investible factors, they look at about 10.

DSC_2605Trey said that better product definitions on smart beta from index providers are coming up. “Smart beta is the gateway drug to explicit risk factor investing,” said Trey.

Eugene said that smart beta is interesting like a bicycle is interesting, while risk factor investing is more like a race car. “Everyone hates fixed income benchmarks,” Eugene said, saying that that may lend itself well to a smart beta product.

Michael Hunstad said that Northern Trust has been doing factor based investing for 20 years and smart beta is definitely not new. “The hard part with smart beta is making a lot of decisions that were formerly made by your portfolio manager”, Michael said. Some of these decisions are “what factors do I choose?” There are many smart beta providers also, and there are some big considerations involved that clients need help and guidance with.

“Where does smart beta go in my portfolio,” is a very good question. It’s not exactly active, yet not totally passive either. The old way of deciding a manager allocation was by making a list, and allocating to the manager who performed best. This doesn’t work with smart beta, and the selection of products is tough. According to Michael, smart beta is two things:

1) A source of excess return
2) A risk paradigm

If smart beta risk factors are independent sources of return, then they are also independent sources of risk.

Mehmet Beyraktar counted himself among the many in the panel who dislikes the term smart beta, and said investors need to question how the products complement their existing portfolios, and the challenge of smart beta is how to integrate. He said that a big part of the investment process is obtaining the right tools to get transparency into smart beta investments and a means of calculating exposure to risk factors, such as a factor-based risk model. Not that much research is available into how risk factors and smart beta will perform is available just yet, he said.

Ben offered an exchange he heard between a Middle East-based client and an advisor, where the advisor asked how long the client’s time horizon was, and he responded “We measure in generations.” The client then asked “How often do you look at performance?” and the client said “quarterly”, a huge mismatch between the evaluation period and the investment horizon.

Michael told a story about an investor who thought he could use PMI to make a tactical call on the market. There certainly are leading indicators, but the hard part is determining when they will play out. He said that he doesn’t have much confidence in anyone’s ability to time cycles and market behavior. But multifactor products are the wave of the future in dealing with cyclicality. With smart beta, there is a concentration risk on one end of the allocation spectrum and a dilution risk on the other end. If you simply allocate equally among all the risk factors, you probably will end up with an investment that looks very similar to a cap-weighted benchmark.DSC_2610



Corporate Tax Evasion or Avoidance?

On December 16th, CFA Society Chicago hosted a timely panel discussion focused on US corporate tax policy and how it compared to the tax policies of other nations.  The current policy motivates US companies to move profits to overseas subsidiaries where corporate taxes are much lower.  Corporate tax inversions may become more common; these will become an important political issue as the election year unfolds.

Mr. Graziano began the event with a presentation entitled “Corporate Tax Risk, The Thin Gray Line”.  He makes the case that US Corporate Tax Policy is not competitive on a global basis.  The US has not cut its corporate tax rate in over 25 years and has the highest tax rate (35%) of any developed country. This antiquated tax policy has motivated US corporations to take action to avoid paying tax in their home country.

The method whereby US companies are able to enjoy the lower tax rates of foreign countries has led to the storing of corporate cash in the country where the lower tax is paid.  Many multi-national US companies now have large cash holdings in countries other than the United States.  The ramifications of these large cash holdings being held abroad by US corporations was discussed at length in the presentation and during the panel discussion.  To repatriate the cash, US corporations would have to pay the 35% federal tax along with any state tax.

Panel Discussion:

Mr. Graziano began the panel discussion by asking if it thinks that US corporations have an economic (or moral) obligation to pay a repatriation tax.  The panelists were unanimous in their opinion that there is not an obligation.  The US has created its own problem in this regard due to its inability to reform these policies.

There was a brief discussion as to how a US value added tax (VAT) might help to replace lost tax revenue if the corporate tax rate was lowered.  The possibility of repeating another “one-time” tax repatriation holiday as was done in 2004 was also discussed.  The panelists were convinced that another “one-time” tax holiday would not solve the problem.  There was very little evidence that the US economy benefitted from the 2004 tax holiday.

Panelists were unanimous in their belief that the antiquated US corporate tax rate puts US corporations in a difficult predicament. Under the current laws, corporations are incented to move cash and business overseas to the detriment of the US economy.  In this environment, tax inversion transactions that make American companies subsidiaries of a parent company in another country can be expected to increase.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution without bipartisan support for reform.

Ron GrazianoModerator: Ron Graziano, CPA

Mr. Graziano is a Director at Credit Suisse and serves as the Global Accounting & Tax Strategist with the HOLT advisory service of Credit Suisse.


Barry Jay EpsteinPanelist: Barry Jay Epstein, Ph.D., CPA, CFF
Dr. Epstein is a Chicago based financial reporting expert, author, and litigation consultant. In his work with Epstein & Nach LLC, he has consulted and/or testified in over 120 cases.


Anna GreenPanelist: Anna Green, CPA
Ms. Green is a Tax Partner with PwC Chicago’s Industry Tax Practice. She is responsible for managing a team of professionals providing tax accounting advice to large corporate clients.


Robert M. WilsonPanelist: Robert M. Wilson
Mr. Wilson is an investment officer and research analyst at MFS Investment Management. He is responsible for working with portfolio managers to integrate ESG (environmental, social and governance issues) into the investment decision making process