Using Derivatives To Improve Risk-Adjusted Equity Returns

Key Points

  1. Equity derivatives can help investors to protect their equity allocations against market downturns without having to significantly increase their exposure to cash.
  2. Before entering into hedging strategies, the first step to reducing the risk in equity investments is to invest in a risk-­efficient portfolio.
  3. The optimal hedging portfolio involves finding the best trade-off between cost and efficiency at each roll-over date, typically through a combination of index futures.
  4. Defining a strategic hedge ratio can reduce market timing risk when hedging downturns.
  5. Using Nowcasters helps to navigate between a return and a risk objective by enabling dynamic adjustment of the hedge ratio.

Overview

At the tail end of a protracted cycle with equity markets setting new highs, how can investors protect their portfolio against equity downturns without forgoing long-term growth? In the short run, cash is always the safest asset, helping investors to manage their risk exposures and meet short-term liabilities. However, with interest rates remaining below inflation in most G10 currencies, a high cash allocation poses a major challenge for meeting long-term return objectives. Derivatives can help to overcome this problem by allowing investors to manage their risk exposures without increasing their cash allocation significantly.

In this paper, we focus on how to improve risk-adjusted equity returns by using an optimal hedging portfolio of futures combined with a low risk equity strategy.

Removing Unrewarded Risks

Before entering into a hedging strategy, the first step to reducing the risk in equity investments is to invest in a risk-efficient portfolio, in the form of minimum variance or low volatility portfolios. The aim of these strategies is to outperform market capitalisation-weighted indices by producing a portfolio designed to exhibit lower overall volatility than the broader market.

There are many pitfalls when relying solely on past volatility. However, a risk­managed equity strategy follows a multi-disciplinary investment process that considers a wide spectrum of risks, taking a 360-degree view. It combines both rigorous systematic analysis with discretionary, forward-looking estimates of future downside risks, with the aim of delivering better downside protection. By aiming to reduce downside risks, risk-managed equity portfolios are not only more efficient from a standalone perspective, they also reduce the need for hedging and the associated cost.

Removing Unrewarded Risks

Reducing Market Exposure with an Optimal Hedging Portfolio

Once unrewarded risks are removed, the residual market risk (beta) can be seen as truly undiversifiable. The next question is whether this market risk, which typically ranges between 0.6 and 0.8, is still appropriate given the investor’s specific risk budget. If we assume an expected shortfall for equities of 40%, a residual market exposure of 60% to 80% means a downside risk of between 24% and 32%. Investors who face tighter risk budgets should consider entering into a market risk hedging strategy using futures and options. Hedging an active equity portfolio by selling futures, instead of simply reducing the equity allocation, reduces market exposure but also maintains full outperformance potential. This allows for an improved risk­adjusted return profile (Sharpe ratio) compared to a capitalisation-weighted index, such as the MSCI AC World index.

Hedging an active equity portfolio by selling futures, instead of simply reducing the equity allocation, reduces market exposure but also maintains full outperformance potential.

Hedging market risk with futures involves a trade-off between cost and effectiveness. The cost of hedging with futures reflects the slippage from holding and rolling the futures continuously. From a cost perspective, the most liquid indices, such as the S&P 500 and Euro Stoxx 50, tend to be the cheapest to roll, but what if the asset portfolio is very different from these indices? The most effective hedging portfolio corresponds to the maximum achievable correlation between the asset and hedge portfolios, but this can be expensive as, to ensure a high correlation, one may need to roll regional or sector indices with much wider spreads. The optimal hedging portfolio lies somewhere in between. In short, there is no optimal index and investors need to select the portfolio of index futures that exhibits the best trade-off at each roll-over date.

Reducing Timing Risk by Defining the Optimal Hedge Ratio

While tactical hedges may work well around known events, investors face significant timing risk when applying such tactics to hedging market downturns. To reduce this risk, one should first define the strategic hedge ratio. This is particularly important for active low risk strategies as a hedge ratio below 100% can already be excessive.

The minimum variance hedge ratio (MVHR), also known as the optimal hedge ratio, is nothing more than the beta of the hedged portfolio to the hedging portfolio. Even if the beta is broadly stable over the long run, it can vary significantly over a short period. Defining the hedge ratio dynamically is in fact a market timing problem. As shown in Figure 1, while the 20-day rolling beta ranges from 0.12 to 1.0, the long-term strategic MVHR is stable between 0.54 and 0.60. A time window of 3 to 5 years is therefore appropriate to define the strategic hedge ratio.

Figure 1: Rolling Beta vs Optimal Hedging Portfolio

Figure 1: Rolling Beta vs Optimal Hedging Portfolio
Simulated past performance includes back-tested data and is not a reliable indicator of future performance, the value of investments can fall as well as rise and there is no guarantee that your initial investment will be returned. Source: Unigestion, Bloomberg.

As its name implies, the MVHR is the hedge ratio that exhibits the lowest volatility once combined with the hedged portfolio and so is optimal from a risk perspective. The MVHR is robust in the sense that a 60% level is the minimum risk hedge ratio regardless of whether we consider average levels of risk (Volatility) or extreme ones (Expected Shortfall) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios

Figure 2: Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios
Simulated past performance includes back-tested data and is not a reliable indicator of future performance, the value of investments can fall as well as rise and there is no guarantee that your initial investment will be returned. Source: Unigestion, Bloomberg.

From a return perspective, it depends on the profile of the equity allocation. For low risk equity portfolios, which are usually overweight low risk and quality styles, outperformance tends to be concentrated around periods of high uncertainty, while risk-on markets are usually a source of underperformance, meaning that a hedged portfolio using MVHR can experience the worst drawdowns not only in bear markets but also during bull and mean-reverting markets.

For investors with a defensive equity portfolio, running a strategic under-hedging makes sense from a risk­adjusted return perspective.

For investors with a defensive equity allocation, running a strategic under-hedging therefore makes sense from a risk-adjusted return perspective (see Figure 3). Starting from a 40% hedge ratio (i.e. under-hedged by 20%), the risk of the residual beta is more than offset by the performance behaviour of the excess return. Consequently, the “Maximum Sharpe Hedge Ratio” lies around 40%.

Figure 3: Return Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios

Figure 3 Return Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios
Simulated past performance includes back-tested data and is not a reliable indicator of future performance, the value of investments can fall as well as rise and there is no guarantee that your initial investment will be returned. Source: Unigestion, Bloomberg.

In brief, defining the strategic hedge ratio depends on both the investor’s objective and the style of the equity allocation. For investors with strict risk-targeting preferences, a strategic hedge ratio around the MVHR is appropriate. However, for investors looking to maximise risk-adjusted returns, a residual beta of between 0.2 and 0.3 is optimal.

Dynamic Hedge Ratio: A Macro-based Approach to Market Timing

Market timing is a difficult exercise and should be implemented very cautiously, in particular when it relates to hedging. As a general principle, a dynamic hedging model (‘Dynamic’ in Figure 4) can help to navigate between a return and a risk objective, in our case between the Maximum Sharpe Hedge Ratio (MaxSharpe is 40%) and the Minimum Variance Hedge Ratio (MinRisk is 60%).

The more the economy is supportive for growth assets, the lower the hedge ratio can be reduced down to the MaxSharpe level. Conversely, if the economy is showing signs of recession, the higher it can be increased up to the MinRisk level.

To do this, investors can use macroeconomic nowcasters, which assess the current state of the economy in real time. The more the economy is supportive for growth assets, the lower the hedge ratio can be reduced down to the MaxSharpe level. Conversely, if the economy is showing signs of recession, the higher it can be increased up to the MinRisk level.

Figure 4: Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios

Figure 4: Risk and Return Statistics with Various Strategic Hedge Ratios
Simulated past performance includes back-tested data and is not a reliable indicator of future performance, the value of investments can fall as well as rise and there is no guarantee that your initial investment will be returned. Source: Unigestion, Bloomberg.

Conclusion

With equity markets at the tail end of a prolonged cycle, the risk of market stress episodes is increasing. There are a number of derivatives hedging strategies available to help investors manage their risk exposures and improve the risk-adjusted returns of their equity allocations. At Unigestion, we offer a range of hedging solutions that can be tailored to investors’ specific requirements. Contact us at clients@unigestion.com for more information.


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