Alpha

Question: what does alpha have to do with an ox? Answer: as far as investing goes, nothing. But I did find an interesting nugget on Wikipedia when I Googled “alpha” this morning. In Moralia, Plutarch discussed why alpha should be the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The story goes that Cadmus, a Phoenician, put alpha at the beginning because it was the Phoenician word for ox, and the Phoenicians considered oxen a primary necessity. Plutarch, who was not a Phoenician, tended to side with his grandfather, who noted that the “a” sound is the easiest sound to make, and thus the first sound children make when learning to talk.

As much as I’d like to continue in this random vein, I’m afraid I must come back to investing, since this is the Parsec blog. Fortunately for me, alpha does have meaning in our world, too. Most often, it is used as a way to measure a portfolio manager’s skill – you may have heard it mentioned in conjunction with mutual fund performance. Well, here’s the Morningstar definition: “Alpha is a measure of the difference between a portfolio’s actual returns and its expected performance, given its level of risk as measured by beta.”

Crystal clear now, isn’t it? As Inigo says in The Princess Bride, let me ‘splain…no, there is too much – let me sum up. Let’s say you have a large cap mutual fund, and you want to know how it performed compared to the S&P 500 index. First, you look at the fund’s beta relative to the benchmark (the S&P, in this example). I’ve discussed beta before, so I won’t revisit the topic here, but basically if the beta is over 1 (let’s say it’s 1.10) you would expect the fund to return 10% over the S&P. If it does as expected, then the fund manager didn’t add any value – the fund performed as expected given its level of risk and its alpha is 0. However, if the fund returned 12% over the S&P, the fund’s alpha is 2%, meaning that it performed better than expected given its level of risk – the manager added value. Of course, this is assuming that the only risk is market risk (beta), and that the chosen benchmark is an accurate comparison for the fund in question.

Enough tedious financial arcana – get outside and enjoy the beautiful spring weather. Seriously, what are you doing reading this? Begone!

Sarah DerGarabedian
Research and Trading Associate

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