The Great Contra-Trade

May 18, 2009

Frightful times require rigorous discipline and the long view.

 

At its heart, rebalancing is a simple contrarian strategy. In ebullient times, this means taking money away from our biggest winners. In the worst of times, the process forces us to buy more of the assets that have caused us the greatest pain. Most investors acknowledge it as a critical part of the successful investor's toolkit. But recognition and action are two different things. Surrounded by bad news, pulling the trigger to buy securities down 50%, 75%, or even 90% is exceedingly difficult for even the staunchest of rebalancers. Many lose their nerve and blink, letting a healthy portion of the excess returns slip from their grasp.

Most investors focus some attention on rebalancing between asset classes, but not within asset classes. The Fundamental Index® strategy affects this uncomfortable, yet profitable, exercise within the stock market. Anchoring on company financial size, it annually rebalances stocks that have experienced the greatest price movements relative to their fundamentals. The past 15 months have been a frightful period challenging the efficacy of global Fundamental Index applications as they gravitated toward some of the sectors and stocks most afflicted by the financial crisis. Although it took a while, contra-trading against the markets' fears finally paid off in recent weeks with remarkable outperformance of global Fundamental Index applications.

As we lamented in January 2009, 2008 wasn't much of a year for value investors, running contrary to most bear markets in which growth stocks lead the way downward. The beginning of 2009 was even worse, with the Russell 1000 Value posting a -16.8% return, nearly 1,300 bps off of the Russell 1000 Growth's -4.1% in the year's first three months. It was the second-worst relative quarter ever for the Russell 1000 Value, eclipsed only by the tech-bubble-induced fourth quarter of 1999. As value stocks were punished in the first quarter, their representation in the capitalization-weighted indexes shrank and shrank. The FTSE RAFI® series, meanwhile, conducted its annual rebalance at the end of March and bought whatever had decreased more in price than fundamental size. That translated into a huge purchase of financials, consumer discretionary stocks, and industrials, widening the overweights to these deep value sectors in many RAFI applications.1

Many observers credit the value tilt of RAFI strategies as the source of its long-term historical success. The reality is more subtle. The main source of value-added is not the average value tilt of the RAFI portfolios, but its dynamic contra-trading against the most extreme market bets. Value stocks got cheaper and cheaper and—as a direct consequence—our value tilt got larger and larger. These dynamic style tilts are primarily the result of contra-trading against the market's constantly shifting expectations, fads, bubbles, and crashes.

Where did the huge rebalance into large companies at rock bottom prices lead us at the end of March? As shown in Table 1, virtually all RAFI strategies showed tremendous tilts toward value as measured by relative valuation multiples. The discounts in all areas (U.S. Large, U.S. Small, International Large, International Small, Emerging Markets, and All World) were the largest since the top of the bubble in 2000 for price/book, and the largest on record for price/sales. (The discounts on the dividend yield measures are more equivocal, because so many deep value companies have cut or eliminated their dividends.)

 

RAFI Portfolio Discounts as of March 21, 2009

 

 

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