Alternative beta strategies: Alpha/beta separation comes to hedge funds - J.P. Morgan Asset Management
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Alternative beta strategies: Alpha/beta separation comes to hedge funds

Contributor Yazann Romahi

A quiet revolution is taking place in the alternatives world. The idea of alpha/beta separation has finally made its way from traditional to alternative investing. This development brings with it a more transparent, liquid and cost-effective approach to accessing the “alternative beta” component of hedge fund return and a new means for benchmarking hedge fund managers.

The good news for investors is that the separation of hedge fund return into its components—rules-based alternative beta and active manager alpha—has the potential to shift investing as we know it. These advancements could democratize hedge funds and, at long last, make what are essentially hedge fund strategies available to all investors—even those who aren’t willing to hand over the hefty fees often associated with hedge fund investing.

A benchmark for alternatives

With respect to traditional equity investing, we have long accepted the idea that there is a market return, or beta—but this hasn’t always been the case. Investors used to assume that to make money in the stock markets, one needed to buy the right stocks and avoid the wrong ones. The idea of a market return independent of skilled stock selection seemed ridiculous to most market participants. Yet today, we would never invest in an active manager’s strategy without benchmarking it against its respective beta.

Interestingly, hedge fund managers have been held to a different standard. Investors have been much more willing to accept the notion that hedge fund strategy returns are pure alpha, and that their investment returns are based entirely on the skill of the fund manager. That notion explains why investors have been willing to accept a “two and twenty” fee structure just to access what has been perceived as one of the most sophisticated and powerful investment vehicles available.

In thinking about the concept of beta, consider its precise definition—the return achievable by taking on a systematic exposure to an economically compensated risk. In traditional long only equity investing, the traditional market beta has been further refined as a number of other risks have been identified that are commonly referred to as “strategic beta.” These include factors such as value, momentum, quality and size. But no one ever said that these risk factors must be long-only.

Over the past decade, as more hedge fund data became available, academics began to disaggregate hedge fund return into two components: compensation for a systematic exposure to a long/short type of risk (alternative beta), and an unexplained “manager alpha.” What they found is that a significant portion of hedge fund return can be attributed to alternative beta. That fact has turned the tables on how we look at hedge fund return. With the introduction of the alternative beta concept, hedge fund managers will have to state their results, not just in terms of total return, but also as excess return over an alternative beta benchmark.

Merger arbitrage—an alternative beta example

The merger arbitrage hedge fund style can be used to illustrate the alternative beta concept. In the case of merger arbitrage, the beta strategy would be the systematic process of going long every target company, while shorting its acquirer. There is an inherent return to this strategy because the target stock price typically does not immediately rise to the offer price upon the deal’s announcement. This creates an opportunity to purchase the stock at a discount prior to the deal’s completion. The premium that remains is compensation to the investor for bearing the risk that the deal may fail.

Active merger arbitrage managers can add value by choosing to invest in some deals while avoiding others. Therefore, their benchmark should be the “enter every deal” strategy, not cash. In fact, the beta strategy explains the majority of the return to the average merger arbitrage hedge fund. And it doesn’t stop there. Other hedge fund styles that can be explained using alternative beta include equity long/short, global macro, and event driven. Note that the beta strategy invests in the same securities, using the same long/short techniques as the hedge fund strategy. The difference is that the beta strategy is a rules-based version that can become the benchmark for the hedge fund strategy. After all, if a hedge fund strategy cannot beat its respective rules-based benchmark (net of fees), an investor may be wiser to stick to the beta strategy.

Implications for investors

What does all this mean for the end investor? Hedge funds have traditionally been the domain of sophisticated investors willing to pay high fees and sacrifice liquidity. Alpha/beta separation in the hedge fund world means that investors can finally choose whether to buy the active version of the hedge fund strategy or opt for the passive (beta) version. Hedge fund strategies can be effective portfolio diversifiers. Now, through alternative beta, virtually all investors can access what are essentially hedge fund strategies in a low cost, liquid, and fully transparent form. For investors who haven’t had prior access to hedge funds, this could be welcome news. Not only can investors look at an active hedge fund manager’s strategy and determine how it has done compared to the systematic beta equivalent, they can also invest in ETFs that encapsulate these systematic strategies.

When looking at one’s traditional balanced portfolio today, there are plenty of questions around whether the fixed income portion will achieve the same level of diversification it has provided in the past. After all, with yields still low, there is little income return. Additionally, the capital gains that came from interest rate declines are likely to reverse. With fixed income unlikely to adequately fulfil its traditional role in portfolios, there is a need to find an alternative source of diversification. This is where alternative strategies may help. For investors seeking to access diversifying strategies in liquid and low-cost vehicles, alternative beta strategies in ETF form are one option.


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For investors looking to further diversify their overall portfolio, JPMorgan Diversified Alternatives ETF (JPHF) seeks to increase diversification and reduce overall portfolio volatility through direct, diversified exposure to hedge fund strategies using a bottom-up, rules-based approach.

Learn more about JPHF here.

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RISK SUMMARY

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal. Shares are bought and sold at market price, and are not individually redeemed from a fund. Brokerage commissions will reduce returns. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and financial industry regulatory authorities in other countries may impose prohibitions, restrictions or other regulatory requirements on short sales, which could inhibit the ability of the adviser to enter into short sale transactions on behalf of the Fund. The Fund’s investments in bonds and other debt securities will change in value based on changes in interest rates. If rates rise, the value of these investments generally drops. The Fund may also invest in securities including junk bonds, loans and instruments that are issued by companies that are highly leveraged, less creditworthy or financially distressed. These investments are considered to be speculative and are subject to greater risk of loss, greater sensitivity to interest rate and economic changes, valuation difficulties and potential illiquidity. Loans are subject to additional risks including subordination to other creditors, no collateral or limited rights in collateral, lack of a regular trading market, extended settlement periods, liquidity risks and lack of publicly available information. International investing involves a greater degree of risk and increased volatility. Changes in currency exchange rates and differences in accounting and taxation policies outside the U.S. can raise or lower returns. Also, some overseas markets may not be as politically and economically stable as the United States and other nations. Emerging markets involve heightened risks related to the same factors as well as increased volatility and decreased trading volume. Investing in alternative assets involves higher risks than traditional investments and is suitable only for sophisticated investors. Alternative investments involve greater risks than traditional investments and should not be deemed a complete investment program. They are not tax efficient and an investor should consult with his/her tax advisor prior to investing. Alternative investments have higher fees than traditional investments and they may also be highly leveraged and engage in speculative investment techniques, which can magnify the potential for investment loss or gain. The value of the investment may fall as well as rise and investors may get back less than they invested. Alternative investment strategies use a variety of complicated investment techniques and involve complex securities transactions that include risks in addition to those risks with direct investments in securities described in the prospectus. The Fund may invest in futures contracts, options, swaps, forwards and other derivatives. Many derivatives create leverage thereby causing the Fund to be more volatile than it would be if it had not used derivatives. Derivatives may be more sensitive to changes in economic and market conditions and could result in losses that significantly exceed the Fund’s original investment. The Fund may use derivatives in connection with its investment strategies. Derivatives may be riskier than other types of investments because they may be more sensitive to changes in economic or market conditions than other types of investments and could result in losses that significantly exceed the Fund’s original investment. Many derivatives will give rise to a form of leverage. Derivatives are also subject to the risk that changes in the value of a derivative may not correlate perfectly with the underlying asset, rate or index. The use of derivatives may not be successful, resulting in losses to the Fund, and the cost of such strategies may reduce the Fund’s returns. Derivatives also expose the Fund to the credit risk of the derivative counterparty. In addition, the Fund may use derivatives for non-hedging purposes which increases the Fund’s potential for loss. The Fund could experience a loss and its liquidity may be negatively impacted when selling securities to meet redemption requests by shareholders. The risk of loss increases if the redemption requests are unusually large or frequent or occur in times of overall market turmoil or declining prices. Similarly, large purchases of Fund shares may adversely affect the Fund’s performance to the extent that the Fund is delayed in investing new cash and is required to maintain a larger cash position than it ordinarily would. There is no guarantee that the use of long and short positions will succeed in limiting an investment’s exposure to domestic stock market movements, capitalization, sector swings or other risk factors. Investments in a portfolio involved in long and short selling may have higher portfolio turnover rates. This will likely result in additional tax consequences. Short selling involves certain risks, including additional costs associated with covering short positions and a possibility of unlimited loss on certain short sale positions. The Fund will likely engage in active and frequent trading leading to increased portfolio turnover, higher transaction costs, and the possibility of increased capital gains. There is no guarantee the Fund will meet its investment objective.
Diversification may not protect against market loss.

Opinions and statements of market trends that are based on current market conditions constitute our judgment and are subject to change without notice. These views described may not be suitable for all investors. References to specific securities, asset classes and financial markets are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investment returns and principal value of an investment will fluctuate so that an investor’s shares, when sold or redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost. ETF shares are bought and sold throughout the day on an exchange at market price (not NAV) through a brokerage account, and are not individually redeemed from the fund. Shares may only be sold or redeemed directly from a fund by Authorized Participants, in very large creation/redemption units. For all products, brokerage commissions will reduce returns.