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How We Evaluate Funds like GARS

First published on FTAdviser: August 17, 2017 by Fundhouse

We have evaluated Standard Life GARS, Invesco Global Targeted Return, Aviva Aims and many other similar strategies, including ones that aim for higher outcomes like the JP Morgan Global Macro Opportunities. Given the complexity of this genre of strategy, many clients ask us: what do we do to evaluate them? And do we even understand them?

The first thing to mention is that these types of strategies often make extraordinary claims. And extra ordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For example, they tend to say they can deliver around cash + 5% (some aim higher), which is what global equities have done over the past 100 years or so. They further suggest this return will be achieved with a lot less risk – often with half the risk of equities, for example. It is a genuine cake and eat it outcome. But there is an additional objective too; that they can achieve these outcomes with significant regularity – usually on a three or five year rolling basis. Our bar for evidence is, unsurprisingly, very high.

These strategies also tend to have a strong macro aspect to them and we always find qualitatively impressive macro views and teams. Yet, we also know that most economists are smart and eloquent, but that few tend to consistently have views that play out as expected. The risk teams behind these strategies are also impressive (as are their risk tools) and again we can easily get qualitative comfort. Yet, risk, is also tough to anticipate, particularly when it matters most: at big market inflection points. And, therefore, while the teams behind these offerings are some of the strongest around, we tend to assume that a pure qualitative assessment could easily lead us astray. So, we look at the data.

Where we can get the data, we process every single underlying investment idea since inception, which we have done on many of these funds. By doing this, we aim to separate out signal from noise – to see what signs of skill exists. We then do various tests on these since inception. For example, we look at the base hit rate – what proportion of ideas delivers as expected over time, versus those that don’t. We also look for bias: have trade types done most of the heavy lifting or is there genuine diversification? We also test how the individual strategies do when market conditions are weak or negative – are they able to deliver returns, when markets are not supportive? It would also be important to us that they have broad-based skill, across many (not all) strategy types, rather than a handful. This would increase their odds of achieving their goals regardless of future market conditions. These and many other tests help us build a detailed picture of whether they can achieve their goals.

We also look at risk and test whether they generally manage risk well. For example, is the magnitude of returns generally commensurate with the risk being taken? Currency or Equity strategies, for example, often take a lot of the risk budget and pay offs are not always commensurate. Bonds have often been the opposite – where pay offs have been exceptional, but risk taken has been disproportionately low. We also ask: are they taking enough risk? We then build a detailed picture of whether we feel they can achieve the upside with the lower levels of risk they take inside the fund.

Given the deep dive needed, it takes many months to evaluate each strategy and go through the data. But, in the end, you can look past the many moving parts and complexity and gain a very clear bottom up picture of whether these funds are likely to deliver the extraordinary outcomes they target. Unfortunately, more often than not, we find the odds of these strategy types achieving their tough goals seem low.

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