Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Jan 11, 2023

Quantitative Strategies: A 2023 Return?

With Vishy Tirupattur and Stephan Kessler


Vishy Tirupattur: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I am Vishy Tirupattur, Morgan Stanley's head of fixed income research and director of Quantitative Research.

Stephan Kessler: And I'm Stephan Kessler, Morgan Stanley's global head of Quantitative Investment Strategies Research.

Vishy Tirupattur: And on this special episode of the podcast, we will discuss the return of quantitative investing. It's Wednesday, January 11th, at 10 a.m. in New York.

Stephan Kessler:And 3 p.m. in London.

Vishy Tirupattur: Stephan, 2022 was a pretty dismal year for traditional investment strategies across various asset classes. You know, equities, credit, government bonds—all of them had negative total returns for the year. And in fact, for traditional investment strategies, there really was nowhere to hide. That said, 2022 turned out to be a pretty decent year for systematic investing or factor investing or quantitative investing strategies. So can you start us off by giving us an overview of what systematic factor strategies are and how they performed in 2022 versus traditional investment strategies?

Stephan Kessler: Absolutely. So, if you look at quant strategies, or systematic strategies, key is 'systematic.' So we look at repetitive, persistent patterns in the markets which can be beneficial for investors. Usually they're data driven. So we look at data which can be price data, fundamental data like economic growth data and the like, which then gives us signals for our investment. Those strategies tend to have low long-term exposures to traditional markets such as equities and fixed income. So they work as diversifiers and the rationale for why they work comes from academic theory, by and large, where we look at risk premia, we look at structural or behavioral patterns that are well known in the academic world. So common strategies that investors apply can be carry investing, for example. So we benefit here from interest rate differentials where we borrow, for example, money in low yielding regions or currencies, and then we invest in high yielding currencies, clipping the difference in the interest rate between these regions. Value investing is another important style that investors implement, where they simply identify undervalued investments, undervalued assets by looking at price to book ratios, by looking at dividend yields, for example, to identify what appears to be cheap. Momentum investing is probably the third most important strategy here, which is where we benefit from the price trends in markets which we know to be persistent. So those are the, I think, the important styles—carry, value and momentum—but there are also more complex strategies where we model and identify very minute details in markets. We go really deep into the functionality of markets. Then the final point I would make is that these strategies tend to be long-short so they are not long biased as traditional investing is, but they can go really both directions in terms of their positioning.

Vishy Tirupattur: Investors often ask how quant strategies, that are typically predicated on historical data patterns, can handle volatile market environments with very few historical precedents. 2022 was anything but normal. Don't such market aberrations break quant strategies?

Stephan Kessler: That's a really good question. If you look at it from the higher level, it does seem like this was a unique market that actually should be challenging for systematic strategies which look at historical patterns. When you dig a little bit deeper, it becomes actually more nuanced. So the strong outperformance of quant in '22, we think is driven by the different catalysts that we saw in the markets. So for example, the tightening by central banks led to substantial and durable macro trends that can be captured by trend following. We saw a reemergence of interest rates across the globe through this monetary policy, which sparked the revival of carry investing. And then equity value investing reemerged as higher rates forced investors to focus more on fundamental valuations, and that led to an increase in efficiency of the value factor.

Vishy Tirupattur: Will any of the performance patterns that you saw in 2022 carry over into 2023? Or do you think the investment landscape for quant investors would be very different in this year?

Stephan Kessler: 2023 we think we'll look, of course, different from the past year. So, we'll move into an environment of low inflation where terminal rates are going to be reached by many central banks. And then equities will start the year in Q1 likely down to then end the year rather flat according to our equity strategists. Now, from a quant perspective, while this is different in terms of the actual dynamics, what remains is that we are likely to see market swings, which tend to favor short- to mid-term trend following strategies. The differences in central bank policies are also likely to remain so there's going to be a dispersion in rates and this dispersion in rates will help, in our expectation, carry strategies. It makes carry strategies attractive. Indeed, if you think about being exposed to, say, for example, carry in fixed income, where we go long bonds with high yields, we go short bonds with low yields and clip the difference, those bonds with particularly high interest rates are likely to also benefit from a normalization of rates. So, you could actually see an additional benefit where being invested in high yielding bonds will be then doubly positive because you earn the carry, but you also benefit from a normalization of rates and the increase in prices of those bonds. And finally, when we look at, you know, value investing, we think that is also likely to remain important because higher rates simply force investors to be focused on the valuations, to be focused on the financing of business activities, to be focused on healthy companies. And so we think that the market dynamics, while different, will continue to favor quant investing.

Vishy Tirupattur: So Stephan, you talked about a wide range of investment strategies within the quant world. Which of those strategies, what kinds of strategies do you think will drive outperformance in 2023?

Stephan Kessler: Yeah, I think it's specific forms of what I've mentioned is generally strategies which will do well. So, you know, if we start again with trend following, the market should be positive for it. There are though iterations of trend falling where we bias. And we think these types of biases—we have a long-bias or as we call it defensively-biased trend following strategies—those will be particularly positively performing because they will benefit from the higher rates that we see. We also think that some of the pricing out of inflation and then eventually in terms of the lower rates that we see, that should be beneficial for rates value strategies, where rates converge to longer term levels. And then something we haven't talked much about yet; volatility carry we feel is particularly interesting. Volatility carry means we are selling options in the markets. We sell a call option, a put option in the market, we earn the premium and then we hedge the beta that is embedded. So, we essentially try to earn the option premium without taking directional market risk, which works quite well in terms of harvesting a carry in calm market environments. But it tends to be causing negative returns, when you see spikes in volatility, when you see jumps in markets. We think that this is going to be an interesting investment opportunity, first on the Treasury side and then, once equity markets through this more difficult slowdown that we see at the moment, we also think volatility should get lower and that should benefit generally volatility carry in equities. So, selling equity options into the market. So those would be the particularly strong strategies. And then, as I already mentioned, there's this crossing of equity value and quality is a theme that we believe is particularly well-suited for the environment.

Vishy Tirupattur: If you're thinking about the outlook for 2023 for quant investors, what are the real risks? What can go wrong?

Stephan Kessler: So I think there's, of course, a range of things that can go wrong in such a dynamic and fluid market environment as we are at the moment. So one is that rates could continue to increase more than we expect at the moment, possibly driven by inflation being more resilient. That would not be good for rates carry strategies which tend to underperform in such environments because they are long. And so as those assets build up further, as the rates go up, the price of those assets would be hit. And on the back of that, the carry strategies would suffer. We also think that against all odds, growth is very resilient. There's a growth rally. That would, of course, hurt value type strategies, maybe through higher efficiency or resilience of tech stocks, for example. And then finally, if markets become to gap-y, i.e., if they don't trend but they really jump around through this market environment, that that might actually be negative for trend following strategies.

Vishy Tirupattur: Looks like 2023 will be a fascinating year ahead for quant investing strategies. So, Stephan, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

Stephan Kessler: Great speaking with you, Vishy.

Vishy Tirupattur: And thanks for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today.

In 2022 it seemed like there was nowhere to hide from the negative returns in traditional investing. But if we look to quantitative strategies, we may find more flexibility for the year ahead.

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