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Northern Trust Asset Management Study: Hitting the Target with Risk Factor Investing

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As greater numbers of institutional investors turn to equity strategies that capture style factors such as volatility, value, momentum or yield, most continue to lack clarity on the factor exposures across their combined equity portfolios, according to new research by Northern Trust Asset Management.

A survey of 139 global institutional investors found that just 18 percent of global investors said they were “very certain” of the actual risk factor exposure across their listed equity portfolios, while 51 percent were only “moderately certain” and 31 percent were either “fairly uncertain” or unaware of their exposures.

Based on the survey results and in-depth analysis of three pension funds in the United Kingdom, Europe and United States, the study finds that institutional investors incorporating a wide range of active and passive equity strategies in their overall portfolio end up with a neutral factor exposure – despite intended tilts to one or more factors – so that portfolios do not always reflect the investors’ goals and objectives.

The study demonstrates how significant allocations to factor-based equity strategies would achieve the investors’ objectives more effectively and includes case studies of four “early adopter” institutions that have successfully implemented factor-based strategies as a guide for others considering the approach.

“Interest in the blurring space between active and passive management continues to grow, as many investors are less concerned with beating a broad market benchmark and more interested in meeting their particular objective,” said Matthew Peron, Managing Director of Global Equity at Northern Trust Asset Management. “While our research identifies some of the challenges to risk factor investing, it also validates our ‘Engineered Equity’ solutions, which aim to capture exposure to specific factors, either individually or in combination, to meet investors’ specific goals. Engineering exposure to certain factors, while engineering out unintended exposures, are both equally critical to achieving objectives.”

Survey: Global Investors on Risk Factors

Seeking to understand how global institutional investors are using factor-based strategies, Northern Trust Asset Management surveyed 139 investors in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Approximately 45 percent had more than US$1 billion in assets under management. Of those surveyed:

  • 51 percent said they employ factor tilt strategies in their listed equity portfolios.
  • The most widely used risk factors were value (33.9%), quality, size, momentum (each 16.9%) and volatility (13.9%).
  • Within their listed equity portfolios, across managers, the top investor concern was “overexposure to certain factors/regions,” followed by “absolute volatility” and “unexpected factor bias within the overall combined exposure” and “tracking error versus benchmark.”
  • To assess overall factor exposure, 57 percent use an internal team, 17 percent use consultants and 6 percent use other resources, while 20 percent either don’t assess or don’t consider it a priority.

“If the key concern is overexposure to a certain factor or region, being able to look across the portfolio to understand how that exposure looks is imperative,” said John Krieg, Managing Director of Institutional Distribution at Northern Trust. “The fact that fewer than one in five respondents felt certain of their factor exposures shows the difficulty of monitoring a large, complex institutional portfolio.”

Qualitative Analysis: 3 Pension Funds

The study includes an in-depth examination of the equity portfolios of three substantial, experienced pension funds in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. The funds had between four and 25 equity portfolios, tracked up to nine equity benchmarks and employed factor-based strategies to reach investment objectives such as value, low volatility or liability matching. However, Northern Trust’s analysis showed the actual factor tilt for each pension fund was neutral.

“What we found was that, regardless of the approach used to define the asset allocation – asset-liability management, core-satellite, tactical or strategic – the portfolios didn’t always reflect the investors’ goals, objective and intended exposures,” Krieg said. “In each case, the analysis showed how the replacement of some active and passive strategies with an Engineered Equity solution like Northern Trust’s Quality Dividend Focus or Quality Value Strategy would have increased the desired exposures.”

Krieg added: “In general, taking an experimental approach to factor-based investing does not produce the desired results. Investors have a greater likelihood of success if they make a substantial commitment to these strategies.”

Learning from Early Adopters

As a road map to implementation of factor-based strategies, the study describes the successful experience of four large institutional funds in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Taiwan with combined assets under management of more than US$375 billion. While all four were at different stages of adoption and complexity, the study found three key takeaways that can be applied for any investor:

  • Taking stock of what is currently in your portfolio before making any future investment decisions is crucial to success.
  • Failing to base future investment decisions on a strong understanding of your current portfolio can lead to unintended bias or cancel out intended bias.
  • Using Engineered Equity strategies in your portfolios can provide more risk-efficient and cost-effective outcomes while still achieving your performance goals.

“For all four successful investors, understanding their current portfolios was an essential first step to making investment decisions that achieved their intended exposures while avoiding unintended bias,” Peron said. “Our analysis showed that to realize noticeable results, you need to make a deliberate and substantial commitment to Engineered Equity strategies.”

The white paper, entitled Through the Looking Glass: Portfolio Truths. Factor Solutions, is the latest in a series, “The Equity Imperative,” that has previously established the trend toward equity strategies that aim to meet specific investment objectives beyond broad market exposure. In addition to industry surveys, The Equity Imperative series includes research examining the principles underpinning Engineered Equity at Northern Trust Asset Management. The research series and related information can be found at www.northerntrust.com/equityimperative.

Asset Management at Northern Trust comprises Northern Trust Investments, Inc., Northern Trust Global Investments Limited, Northern Trust Global Investments Japan, K.K., NT Global Advisors, Inc. and investment personnel of The Northern Trust Company of Hong Kong Limited and The Northern Trust Company.

About Northern Trust

Northern Trust Corporation (Nasdaq: NTRS) is a leading provider of asset servicing, fund administration, asset management, fiduciary, and banking solutions for corporations, institutions, families, and individuals worldwide. Chicago-based Northern Trust has offices in 19 states, Washington, D.C., and 19 international locations in Canada, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. As of June 30, 2014, Northern Trust had assets under custody of US$6 trillion, and assets under investment management of US$924.4 billion. For 125 years, Northern Trust has earned distinction as an industry leader in combining exceptional service and expertise with innovative products and technology. For more information, visit www.northerntrust.com and follow us on Twitter @NorthernTrust.

Northern Trust Corporation, Head Office: 50 South La Salle Street, Chicago, Illinois 60603 U.S.A., incorporated with limited liability in the U.S. Global legal and regulatory information can be found at http://www.northerntrust.com/disclosures.

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