Slow Down, Rise Above the Noise and Find Your Own Way
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’” – George Orwell, 1984
I read a fascinating article in New York magazine about what happens when a lie hits your brain. It wasn’t new information—Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert presented his findings more than 20 years ago—but it was new to me. And it just may be more important now than ever.
What Gilbert proposed was that our brains are forced to do some stunning acrobatics whenever we hear a lie. First, the lie is told. And when that happens, our brains have to accept that information as true to understand and make sense of it. That means that even if we know something is a lie, in that first critical moment, our brains tells us the information is true. Thankfully, we’re usually able to take the next step, which is to certify mentally whether the information is true—or not. According to Gilbert, the challenge is that the first step of mental processing is easy and effortless. The second? Not so much. It takes time and energy. Which means if we become distracted or overloaded, it’s all too easy for us to never take that second step. Suddenly, something we knew to be a lie begins to sound more and more reasonable. In fact, in a more recent study, researchers tested this hypothesis, asking people to repeat the phrase “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth.” After repeating it enough times, the participants started to believe the statement to be true. Why? Their brains just took the easier route to closing the loop on processing new information. Scary, but true.
I’m embarrassed to say that I can think of too many examples in my own life when I’ve done the same thing. You probably can too. Every one of us is guilty. But in our defense, it’s not our fault. As humans, we all have a limit to our “cognitive load”—or how much our brains can process at one time. When we’re hit with a constant stream of information, our brains reach that limit, and we’re no longer able to take that important second step of mental certification. And, boy, is that cognitive load being challenged lately! Every day we’re inundated with noise on every topic. Television. Radio. Newspapers. Magazines. Facebook. Twitter. Every outlet is screaming for us to pay attention, and whether it’s the media or our friends flooding our brains with information, we’re spending an incredible amount of time trying to discern facts from “alternative truths.” The result: our brains are overloaded… and downright exhausted.
As an advisor, my mission is to help my clients rise above the noise to make careful, thoughtful financial decisions. In this environment, it isn’t easy! The media and everyone’s well-meaning friends are overflowing with information. Unfortunately, some of that information can be misleading. For example, the media has focused on the market indices for years. As a result, so do investors—even if they know that the fact that the Dow hit 20,000 yesterday has nothing to do with their long-term financial outlook. But for the media, this magic number is an easy target. They can report on it. They can speculate on it. They can create headline-grabbing sound bites about it. The result: a whole lot of noise that carries about as much importance as reporting on the path of a rollercoaster when all that matters (really!) is where the ride ends.
What’s the solution? We need to lessen our cognitive load. We need to slow down the noise, slow down our brains, and regain our mental strength. For me, that means turning off the television and the radio. I’m able to slow down and think more clearly when I read written information rather than listening to “talking heads.” This is true in finance and every aspect of my life. And when that doesn’t work? I meditate. (For more on how our brains can inhibit or ensure our own happiness, check out Daniel Gilbert’s bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness.)
Whenever I feel challenged by the noisy world around me, I remember Viktor Frankl’s famous quote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Perhaps by taking the time to slow down and rise above the noise, we can each make that choice and, indeed, choose our own way.
Alternative Beta Strategies: Alpha/Beta Separation Comes to Hedge Funds
Written by: Yazann Romahi, Chief Investment Officer of Quantitative Beta Strategies, J.P. Morgan Asset Management
A quiet revolution is taking place in the alternatives world. The idea of alpha/beta separation has finally made its way from traditional to alternative investing. This development brings with it a more transparent, liquid and cost-effective approach to accessing the “alternative beta” component of hedge fund return and a new means for benchmarking hedge fund managers.
The good news for investors is that the separation of hedge fund return into its components—rules-based alternative beta and active manager alpha—has the potential to shift investing as we know it. These advancements could democratize hedge funds and, at long last, make what are essentially hedge fund strategies available to all investors—even those who aren’t willing to hand over the hefty fees often associated with hedge fund investing.
A benchmark for alternatives
With respect to traditional equity investing, we have long accepted the idea that there is a market return, or beta—but this hasn’t always been the case. Investors used to assume that to make money in the stock markets, one needed to buy the right stocks and avoid the wrong ones. The idea of a market return independent of skilled stock selection seemed ridiculous to most market participants. Yet today, we would never invest in an active manager’s strategy without benchmarking it against its respective beta.
Interestingly, hedge fund managers have been held to a different standard. Investors have been much more willing to accept the notion that hedge fund strategy returns are pure alpha, and that their investment returns are based entirely on the skill of the fund manager. That notion explains why investors have been willing to accept a “two and twenty” fee structure just to access what has been perceived as one of the most sophisticated and powerful investment vehicles available.
In thinking about the concept of beta, consider its precise definition—the return achievable by taking on a systematic exposure to an economically compensated risk. In traditional long only equity investing, the traditional market beta has been further refined as a number of other risks have been identified that are commonly referred to as “strategic beta.” These include factors such as value, momentum, quality and size. But no one ever said that these risk factors must be long-only.
Over the past decade, as more hedge fund data became available, academics began to disaggregate hedge fund return into two components: compensation for a systematic exposure to a long/short type of risk (alternative beta), and an unexplained “manager alpha.” What they found is that a significant portion of hedge fund return can be attributed to alternative beta. That fact has turned the tables on how we look at hedge fund return. With the introduction of the alternative beta concept, hedge fund managers will have to state their results, not just in terms of total return, but also as excess return over an alternative beta benchmark.
Merger arbitrage—an alternative beta example
The merger arbitrage hedge fund style can be used to illustrate the alternative beta concept. In the case of merger arbitrage, the beta strategy would be the systematic process of going long every target company, while shorting its acquirer. There is an inherent return to this strategy because the target stock price typically does not immediately rise to the offer price upon the deal’s announcement. This creates an opportunity to purchase the stock at a discount prior to the deal’s completion. The premium that remains is compensation to the investor for bearing the risk that the deal may fail.
Active merger arbitrage managers can add value by choosing to invest in some deals while avoiding others. Therefore, their benchmark should be the “enter every deal” strategy, not cash. In fact, the beta strategy explains the majority of the return to the average merger arbitrage hedge fund. And it doesn’t stop there. Other hedge fund styles that can be explained using alternative beta include equity long/short, global macro, and event driven. Note that the beta strategy invests in the same securities, using the same long/short techniques as the hedge fund strategy. The difference is that the beta strategy is a rules-based version that can become the benchmark for the hedge fund strategy. After all, if a hedge fund strategy cannot beat its respective rules-based benchmark (net of fees), an investor may be wiser to stick to the beta strategy.
Implications for investors
What does all this mean for the end investor? Hedge funds have traditionally been the domain of sophisticated investors willing to pay high fees and sacrifice liquidity. Alpha/beta separation in the hedge fund world means that investors can finally choose whether to buy the active version of the hedge fund strategy or opt for the passive (beta) version. Hedge fund strategies can be effective portfolio diversifiers. Now, through alternative beta, virtually all investors can access what are essentially hedge fund strategies in a low cost, liquid, and fully transparent form. For investors who haven’t had prior access to hedge funds, this could be welcome news. Not only can investors look at an active hedge fund manager’s strategy and determine how it has done compared to the systematic beta equivalent, they can also invest in ETFs that encapsulate these systematic strategies.
When looking at one’s traditional balanced portfolio today, there are plenty of questions around whether the fixed income portion will achieve the same level of diversification it has provided in the past. After all, with yields still low, there is little income return. Additionally, the capital gains that came from interest rate declines are likely to reverse. With fixed income unlikely to adequately fulfill its traditional role in portfolios, there is a need to find an alternative source of diversification. This is where alternative strategies may help. For investors seeking to access diversifying strategies in liquid and low-cost vehicles, alternative beta strategies in ETF form are one option.
Looking for an alternative to enhance diversification in your portfolio?
For investors looking to further diversify their overall portfolio, JPMorgan Diversified Alternatives ETF (JPHF) seeks to increase diversification and reduce overall portfolio volatility through direct, diversified exposure to hedge fund strategies using a bottom-up, rules-based approach.
Learn more about JPHF and J.P. Morgan’s suite of ETFs here.
Call 1-844-4JPM-ETF or visit www.jpmorganetfs.com to obtain a prospectus. Carefully consider the investment objectives and risks as well as charges and expenses of the ETF before investing. The summary and full prospectuses contain this and other information about the ETF. Read them carefully before investing.
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