Thursday, March 27, 2014

Update on the fundamentals factors: their effect on small cap stocks

In my last post, I reported that the fundamental factors used by Lyle and Wang seem to generate no returns on SP500 large cap stocks. These fundamental factors are the growth factor return-on-equity (ROE), and the value factor book-to-market ratio (BM).

I have since studied the effect of these factors on SP600 small cap stocks since 2004, using a survivorship-bias-free database combining information from both Compustat and CRSP. This time, the factors do produce an annualized average return of 4.7% and a Sharpe ratio of 0.8. Though these numbers are nowhere near the 26% return that Lyle and Wang found, they are still statistically significant. I have plotted the equity curve below.

Equity curve of long-short small-cap portfolio based on regression on ROE and BM factors (2004-2013)
One may wonder whether ROE or BM is the more important factor. So I run a simpler model which uses one factor at a time to rank stocks every day. We buy stocks in top decile of ROE, and short the ones in the bottom decile. Ditto for BM. I found an annualized average return of 5% with a Sharpe ratio of 0.8 using ROE only, and only 0.8% with a Sharpe ratio of 0.09 using BM only. The value factor BM is almost completely useless! Indeed, if we were to first sort on ROE, pick the top and bottom deciles, and then sort on BM, and pick the top and bottom halves, the resulting average return is almost the same as sorting on ROE alone. I plotted the equity curve for sorting on ROE below.

Equity curve of long-short small-cap portfolio based on top and bottom deciles of ROE (2004-2013)

Notice the sharp drawdown from 2008-05-30 to 2008-11-04, and the almost perfect recovery since then. This mirrors the behavior of the equity market itself, which raises the question of why we bother to construct a long-short portfolio at all as it provides no hedge against the downturn. It is also interesting to note that this factor does not exhibit "momentum crash" as explained in a previous article: it does not suffer at all during the market recovery. This means we should not automatically think of a fundamental growth factor as similar to price momentum.

My conclusion was partly corroborated by I. Kaplan who has written a preprint on a similar topic. He found that a long-short portfolio created using the ratio EBITA/Enterprise Value on large caps generates a Sharpe ratio of about 0.6 but with very little drawdown unlike the ROE factor that I studied above as applied to small caps.

As Mr. Kaplan noted, these results are in some contradiction not only with Lyle and Wang's paper, but also with the widely circulated paper by Cliff Asness et al. These authors found the the BM factor works in practically every asset class. Of course, the timeframe of their research is much longer than my focus above. Furthermore, they have excluded financial and penny stocks, though I did not find such restrictions to have great impact in my study of large cap portfolios. In place of a fundamental growth factor, these authors simply used price momentum over an 11-month period (skipping the most recent month), and found that this is also predictive of future quarterly returns.

Finally, we should note that the ROE and BM factors here are quite similar to the Return-on-Capital and Earnings Yield factors used by Joel Greenblatt in his famous "Little Book That Still Beats The Market". One wonders if those factors suffer a similar drawdown during the financial crisis.


My online Momentum Workshop will be offered on May 5-7. Please visit for registration details. Furthermore, I will be teaching my Mean Reversion, Momentum, and Millisecond Frequency Trading workshops in Hong Kong on June 17-20.