What is Smart Beta?

You’ve undoubtedly heard this term, used to describe a certain type of investment that is becoming increasingly popular. What does it mean? And if these investments are “smart,” does that mean that the others are “dumb?”

So-called “smart beta” investing is a bit of an active/passive hybrid methodology. Traditional passive investments are typically replicas of well-known market capitalization-weighted indices, like the S&P 500. A market cap-weighted ETF holds each company in the index according to its size in the index, which can be calculated by multiplying a company’s outstanding shares by the current market price of one share. While this provides broad market diversification at a very low cost, one drawback of this approach is that the companies whose stock prices are rising become relatively larger while companies whose stock prices are falling become relatively smaller. If markets are less than perfectly efficient and stock prices are anything other than fairly valued, cap-weighted indices will tend to favor overvalued companies.

“Smart beta” strategies use different weighting schemes to construct a portfolio, involving metrics such as dividends or low volatility, or even equal-weighting, all of which sever the link between price and weight and tend to provide a value tilt to the portfolio. The reason for this is that, when rebalancing the portfolio, these strategies result in buying low and selling high. Portfolios based on market cap-weighted indices will often do the opposite when rebalancing, buying more shares of the companies whose stock prices are going up, and vice-versa. According to Research Affiliates, LLC, “smart beta” strategies must also encompass the best attributes of passive investing, such as transparency, rules-based methodology, low costs, liquidity, and diversification.

Does this mean that “smart beta” is a panacea that will bridge the gap between active and passive investing? Many of these strategies have back-tested well and have become increasingly popular, resulting in large inflows of capital. Rob Arnott, one of the pioneers of smart beta at Research Affiliates, has written about rising valuations in smart beta investments as a result of their soaring popularity (“How Can “Smart Beta” Go Horribly Wrong?”). He cautions against “being duped by historical returns” and advises investors to adjust their expectations for future returns to account for mean reversion. He and his co-authors think there is a possibility of a smart beta bubble in the works, due to the rising popularity of such strategies.

And what about traditional passive investments? Is there still room for these vehicles in an investor’s portfolio? Absolutely, particularly in the more efficient sectors of the broad market.  Even Arnott believes “there is nothing “dumb” about cap-weighted indexing.” At Parsec, we stay abreast of current investment trends, but use a measured approach to portfolio construction that is research-based and backed by sound financial theory. We don’t believe any one investment is particularly “smart” or “dumb,” but rather that there is room for different types of investments within the context of a well-diversified, well-constructed portfolio.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

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