Liquidity Factor Investing

Liquidity: Factor Investing’s Hidden Gem

Interest in factors is on the rise. Since the launch of our factor products, Head of Quantitative Equity Product Management Matt Jiannino and Senior Product Manager Frank Chism have been fielding advisors’ questions on leveraging factor exposures, especially liquidity.

Q3 hedge fund letters, conference, scoops etc

Liquidity Factor Investing

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What the pair discovered is, while advisors are intrigued by liquidity, some are hesitant to adopt it as a strategy. Vanguard U.S. Liquidity Factor ETF (VFLQ) is the first of its kind to specifically target liquidity exposure, so, naturally, many advisors want to perform due diligence before investing in it.

To support that effort, Jiannino and Chism sat down to answer some common liquidity questions they’re hearing from advisors.

What’s the reception to liquidity as a factor been like so far?

Matt Jiannino: Advisors have read a lot about value and momentum in the press. But while the liquidity factor is just as enduring, it’s kind of a hidden gem that people aren’t aware of. It’s existed just as long and makes intuitive sense when you realize that you’re getting it in other spaces. And every time we talk to advisors about this, they get it.

Frank Chism: And when advisors get it, they’re into it. They see it as something different, which makes it useful. I recently met with an RIA who showed me his portfolio, and it had a little bit of everything. But it didn’t have liquidity represented. He wanted to figure out how to get it in there. So it’s something people are hungry for even though they haven’t had access to it before.

Where does the liquidity conversation with advisors usually start?

FC: I tell them our story. When Vanguard was considering launching factor products, we went to our Quantitative Equity Group (QEG), who’ve been running a multifactor product since the early ’90s, and asked which single-factor products we should do.

The first three QEG came back with were quality, value, and momentum. We thought that was great because they’re from Fama-French’s research and other academic studies, so we were very familiar with those. Then QEG said liquidity. My first reaction was, “Where’s size? Size is the other Fama-French factor, why aren’t we doing that?”

MJ: What we found out was that, in many cases, active managers’ small-cap strategies were really attempts to access this liquidity premium that exists out there.

FC: Right, so we think liquidity is a distinct factor. And a third of all our single-factor portfolios are in small caps, so we’re getting size exposure anyway.

So what premium is VFLQ targeting?

MJ: The premium is that relatively less liquid securities tend to outperform their more liquid peers. If you look across the entire market-cap spectrum, you see this premium. Even if you look at large cap, if you were to divide the world of large-cap stocks and order them from more liquid to less liquid, the less liquid part has outperformed.

Considering its ties to size, is it safe to say investors have been getting liquidity exposure without realizing it?

FC: Yes, they’ve been getting it as a byproduct. If you equal weight the Russell 2000 Index—and there is a product that will let you do that—you’re going to own as much of the smallest names as you do of the biggest ones. And I guarantee you that some of the ones at the bottom will be remarkably less liquid than the biggest ones. So you’re getting it, but we would say, “Why would you own the superliquid ones? Why not just go after the less liquid ones?”

MJ: And some of those larger names could be less liquid. If they are, you would target them. But you want to be explicit in what you’re targeting. The liquidity factor targets the premium that investors such as endowments and foundations are trying to get by buying real estate, private equity, fixed assets, and things like that that most investors can’t access.

Why is that?

MJ: They either can’t get access to private equity or can’t find a way to make money doing so. Or they don’t have the capital to buy a diversified portfolio of real estate.

FC: Think of it this way: Someone might buy one rental house to add income to their portfolio, but they’re not able to effectively build a real estate portfolio.

MJ: But if you were able to diversify across multiple real estate assets, not only do they add that income, but a lot of what you’d also capture is this liquidity premium. You’ve diversified away the single-property risk, and now you hold a portfolio of properties. And what you’re capturing is the premium that exists for holding that diversified portfolio of illiquid assets. It may take you a long time to sell a single property, but with a liquidity factor fund, you could find a different property to sell.

With the liquidity product, you can build a nice, diversified portfolio across liquid assets, and hold less liquid names to collect the premium. To get the premium, you have to build diversified portfolios. That’s why we built VFLQ to hold 900 stocks. Holding a single name gets you exposure, but it comes along with all the idiosyncratic risk of holding a single asset.

A good way to look at it is like having a huge art or antique-car collection. Buying one classic car or painting is probably not a good investment. You want a diversified portfolio so that you’re not relying on one piece.

FC: And there’s a tremendous amount of costs with collectibles, and also private equity. If you have to hire someone to buy private companies, they have to be compensated.

So the fund helps you get the instant access to the liquidity premium, but it’s at an obtainable price. There’s no middle person. We can do it quantitatively, and very quickly, across the whole market.

Read the full article here by Matt Jiannino and Frank Chism of Vanguard, Advisor Perspectives


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