The Greatest Anomaly in Finance: LowBeta Stocks Outperform
Buying Canada right now, particularly income trusts and highdividendpaying corporations, means accessing a relatively stable, lowbeta play on a global economic recovery.
— Roger Conrad, Canadian Edge
With the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI: ^DJI) down 3.5% today in a continuing investor revulsion toward the “Operation Twist” monetary policy action taken by the Federal Reserve yesterday, stock market volatility continues to amaze. Some market pundits have reportedly recommended that investors buy highbeta stocks as a way to recoup losses quickly.
Beta is a measure of a stock’s relative price volatility compared to the general stock market. A stock with a beta of 1.0 has the same price volatility as the S&P 500 index. Highbeta stocks have betas above 1.0 and move by a larger percentage than the S&P 500 moves, both during S&P up moves and down moves. The rationale given for recommending the purchase of highbeta stocks is that the only way to get a higher return is to take higher risks (i.e., higher volatility).
Don’t believe it!
Forget the CAPM: Higher Rates of Return Do Not Require Higher Risk
In Buy SmallCap Stocks Before They Grow Up and The Growth vs. Value Debate, I discussed how the traditional capital asset pricing model (CAPM) predicted a stock’s future returns based solely on its beta – the higher the beta, the higher the expected return. I then explained how University of Chicago finance professor Eugene Fama and Dartmouth College finance professor Kenneth French had improved on the original CAPM by creating a threefactor model based on two additional risk factors besides beta: (1) smallness and (2) cheapness.
But a new 2011 study headed by Harvard University finance professor Malcolm Baker has turned finance theory on its head. Based on a 40year study of stock returns between 1968 and 2008:
Lowvolatility and lowbeta portfolios offered an enviable combination of high average returns and small drawdowns. This outcome runs counter to the fundamental principle that risk is compensated with higher expected return.
We believe that the longterm outperformance of lowrisk portfolios is perhaps the greatest anomaly in finance. Large in magnitude, it challenges the basic notion of a riskreturn tradeoff.
Professor Baker calls investing in lowbeta stocks “the best of both worlds” because you get both a higher return and lower volatility. It doesn’t matter whether you rebalance the lowbeta stock portfolio monthly or annually — the same outperformance occurs, which shows that lowbeta investing is a very robust phenomenon.
“Betting Against Beta” is a Winning Stock Strategy
A similar New York University investment study in December 2010 concludes that “betting against beta” (BAB) has a sharpe ratio twice as high as value investing and 40% higher than momentum investing. Wow, that’s a powerful force, and its not limited to U.S. equity markets! In fact, the NYU study found lowbeta outperformance in:
18 of 19 global equity markets, in Treasury markets, for corporate bonds sorted by maturity and rating, and in futures markets.
The return of the BAB factor rivals that of standard asset pricing factors such as value, momentum, and size in terms of economic magnitude, statistical significance, and robustness across time periods, subsamples of stocks, and global asset classes.
Roger Conrad, editor of the marketbeating Canadian Edge investment service which recommends many dividendpaying and lowvolatility stocks, has favored lowbeta stocks for years. During the current stock market turmoil, Mr. Conrad recently wrote to subscribers that “relatively unexciting and low beta stocks provide a good refuge during volatile periods.”
The Reasons LowBeta Stocks are Undervalued
The obvious question that follows this amazing research finding on lowbeta investing is this: why has the stock market remained so inefficient — and for so long — that it continually provides smart investors like us with the golden opportunity to buy undervalued lowbeta stocks and mint money safely? Professor Baker argues that the market inefficiency is based on irrational investor behavior, which I discussed under the topic “behavioral finance” in 10 Rules For Happiness and 7 Rules of Investing. Specifically, Baker says that the average investor is willing to pay up for highbeta stocks — which makes them overvalued and produce subpart returns going forward — because of three behavioral flaws:
1. Preference for Lotteries. Most people would prefer to bet $1 to make $5,000 even if the probability of success is so low — like 0.01% — that the expected value of the gamble is negative: (0.01% * $5,000) = $0.50, which is less than the $1.00 cost of the gamble. In contrast, most investors will refuse the opportunity to invest $100 to make $110 if there is a 50% chance of losing the $100, despite the fact that the expected value of the investment is positive: (50% * $110) – (50% * $100) = +$5.00.
2. Representativeness. A small number of highbeta stocks pay off big time like Internet stocks Amazon.com and Google. But the odds of finding the few big winners among all highbeta stocks is very low. The average investor ignores the low probability of success and buys highbeta stocks on the hope they will act “like” Amazon.com and Google, rather than like the much more numerous losers.
3. Overconfidence. Even if an investor realizes the low probability of finding the few big winners among highbeta stocks, they think they have the investment acument to pick them when they actually don’t. I discusss the problem of investor overconfidence in Invest Like a Woman.
Mutual Fund Managers Make the Same Investing Mistake
Interestingly, Baker says that investor irrationality does not apply only to retail investors, but also infects many mutual fund managers whose fund performance is judged versus a fixed benchmark like the S&P 500. The average beta of mutual funds is 1.10 — higher than the S&P 500’s 1.0. In other words, most mutual fund managers are highbeta investors despite the fact that highbeta stocks underperform! Fund managers are so afraid of tracking error and underperforming their fund’s benchmark index in the shortrun, that they willingly take on more risk than is rationale. The result is that the average mutual fund manager chooses a stock allocation that doesn‘t produce the highest longterm riskadjusted return.
Individual investors can do better than mutual funds!
LowBeta Stock Screen
In conclusion, smart investors can take advantage of the stock market’s ineffiicency by buying lowbeta stocks. With this investing insight in mind, I thought I would perform a stock screen on my trusty Bloomberg terminal to discover which stocks currently sport the magical combination of low beta and solid dividends. If there is any way to survive this down market, investing in the following type of stocks may be the answer:
Top 7 LowBeta Stocks
Company 
Beta 
Industry 
Dividend Yield 
Spectra Energy Partners (NYSE: SEP) 
0.13 
6.4% 

Sunoco Logistics Partners (NYSE: SXL) 
0.17 
Energy MLP 
5.5% 
Boardwalk Pipeline Partners (NYSE: BWP) 
0.18 
Energy MLP 
8.0% 
Flowers Foods (NYSE: FLO) 
0.19 
Bakery Products 
3.3% 
Aqua America (NYSE: WTR) 
0.21 
3.1% 

NTT Docomo (NYSE: DCM) 
0.21 
Japan Telecommunications 
3.0% 
WGL Holdings (NYSE: WGL) 
0.22 
Natural Gas Utility 
3.8% 
Stock Talk
Robert Allan Schwartz
You wrote:
“most investors will refuse the opportunity to invest $100 to make $110 if there is a 50% chance of losing the $100, despite the fact that the expected value of the investment is positive: (50% * $110) – (50% * $100) = +$5.00.”
I believe this is inaccurate. If there is a 50% chance of losing the $100, then the expected value is (50% * $110) + (50% * 0) = $55, which is less than the original bet, so investors should refuse.
John Fred
I believe that Robert Allan Schwartz does realize that one of the possible outcomes is that the investor makes $110 profit, on top of his/her original investment of $100. So that gives him/her $210 under the bestcase scenario, vs. $0 at worst. The average of $0 and $210 is $105, thereby mathematically confirming the original hypothesis. Further, the negative interpretation by Mr. Schwartz also confirms the psychological behavioral hypothesis, as well.
– John Fred
B Nerbas
Wouldn’t that be – a $10 profit (not $110) – on the original $100 investment?? If half the time, you are going to lose your $100, and the other half of the time you stand to gain all of $10 (going by the article description…) – then it would appear that there is no sense to the ‘low risk’ example. Was the example used stated correctly? In the case shown, I would go with the $1 in: possibly get the $5000. At least I’d have a chance of getting something of some value. To have a 5050 chance of either losing $100 or gaining $10 doesn’t seem to offer any opportunity of ever coming out ahead.
Jim Fink
Commenter John Fred states it correctly. The term “making $110” refers to a profit of $110 and not the entire amount of cash received for winning (i.e., including the initial $100 bet). When there is a 50% chance of making a $110 profit on a $100 bet, it means that one would receive $210 for winning — the initial $100 bet plus a profit of $110 for a total cash return of $210.
When there is a 50% chance of losing, it means that the $100 bet is lost for a $100 loss and one would receive back zero.
The correct equation in terms of total cash received:
(50%*$210) + (50%*0) = an expected value of $105 cash inflow, which is $5 greater than the initial bet (i.e., cash outflow) of $100.
The correct equation in terms of profit or loss:
(50%*$110) + (50%*$100) = an expected value of $5 profit.
Best,
Jim
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jia
good.
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