These years we are seeing a proliferation of smart betas. The intention of smart betas is to create alternative weighting schemes beyond value / market weighting. Smart betas can be weighed according to their risks or any other characteristics that the fund manager chooses. For example, if we believe that smaller firms outperform larger firms, a smart beta fund can simply inverse weight the firm – a small firm gets a large weight, a big firm gets a smaller weight.
To me, a smart beta is simply an active management instrument simplified. In the past, managers can decide which stocks to be included in their fund based on stock characteristics. But a smart beta stock uses algorithms to weigh each stock according to the fund manager’s assessment. Because it is rather automated, the fees are lower than traditionally managed active funds.
But they fact is that these smart beta funds trade too much to re balance according to these “novel” factors. A value weighted index re balances just once or twice a year. These factors used to develop smart betas are decades old. They are typically the same factors known to the public comprising value, momentum, quality and size. It is challenging to understand why anyone would pay anymore money to smart beta funds to get exposed to these factors when there are much cheaper value weight indexes out there. For example, if you wanted to have exposure to smaller firm index, do not use a smart beta fund. Simply long a value weighted index that is made up of smaller firms.
Let’s go back to the basics of portfolio management – minimize risk per unit of return. The best portfolio is one that lies on the capital market line which the entire market in one portfolio. Perhaps you can read this article. If you wanted higher returns the simpler method would be to invest in the market index fund and use leverage to enhance the return. It is clear that the smart beta fad will be a passing one. Investors must continue to follow what John Bogle says – just invest in the simplest cheapest index fund.