Head of the Class | Published in July 2012

Shifting Focus

Should you make the move from asset class to factor diversification?

By John Keefe | July 2012
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Illustration by Katherine Streeter

After thoughtful and extensive research, an investor concludes that people will double their consumption of cheeseburgers over the next three years. “How can I monetize this information?” he wonders. One way would be to invest in cheeseburgers directly, purchasing shares of McDonald’s Corporation or Burger King Holdings Inc.

Or, he could just zero in on the ingredients by investing in cattle, milk, wheat, lettuce and tomatoes. The analogy is imperfect, but investing at the level of ingredients, or factors, has been around forever. Sponsors hope that an informed factor approach, both in setting overall strategies and in day-to-day investing, can make portfolios more secure against the next big drawdown.

Although plan sponsors and their consultants and managers  had done their best to fully diversify their portfolios, few were satisfied with the results in 2008—even those who had added hedge funds, private equity and other such alternative assets in response to the last financial crisis, in 2001 to 2003. Advisers and asset owners are coming to realize, though, that the fault may lie not with the idea of diversification but with limitations in technique.

“There is ample room for improvement, by shifting the focus from asset-class diversification to factor diversification,” Antti Ilmanen, a managing director at quantitative investment specialist AQR Capital Management, wrote in the Spring 2012 Journal of Portfolio Management.* Stated simply, a factor perspective goes beyond traditional asset class categories and looks at the essential drivers of portfolio performance to quantify the risks associated with them.