It’s that time of the year… time for the banks to try and out compete on who can be more bullish for next year. I always use this as a reminder to look at longer term, capital market assumptions for different asset classes and the different sub asset classes within global equities. As part of that, I was digging around on Research Affiliates’ asset allocation tool,https://interactive.researchaffiliates.com/asset-allocation.html#!/?currency=USD&model=ER&scale=LINEAR&terms=REAL , and came across their smart beta tool,https://interactive.researchaffiliates.com/smart-beta#!/strategies . None of these longer term expected return tools are helpful in the short term but I’ve always found them thought provoking, at least in terms of highlighting markets/regions that might be mispriced and therefore might have an interesting stock or two. However, digging around on the smart beta tool, I was intrigued to see low volatility stocks as having the lowest, actually negative, forward returns of any of these factors. Using the ETF, SPLV, which follows the S&P low vol index, I’m short this collection of companies.
What is low vol? Index construction: “… consists of the 100 securities from the S&P 500 Index with the lowest realized (emphasis mine) volatility of the past 12 months.” It’s rebalanced quarterly.
In the aggregate, it looks like these businesses are retaining ~25% of their earnings and reinvesting them at a 12% ROE, which should give them ~3% growth going forward. Combined with the 2.6% dividend yield, that gives you a ~5-6% total return, assuming the multiple stays the same. So how does the multiples compare to history? Not well. If you look at some of the largest constituents in the ETF, you’ll see near all-time/all-time highs in multiples despite relatively pedestrian growth rates and modest ROEs.
Below is Research Affiliates’ expected forward returns by different factor and low vol is at the bottom.
Looking underneath the hood, below are SPLV’s characteristics (ROE, dividends, multiples, and payout ratios) by sector vs. the S&P 500 and I walk through each point below.
Sectors: Utilities and REITs are the two largest sectors, and overweights, at 22% and 28% of SPLV
Dividends: SPLV pays 2.6%pa vs. 1.9% for the benchmark and this is primarily driven from the higher payout ratios in utilities and REITs.
Multiples here are high on an absolute and relative basis. SPLV’s PE is 24x vs. the market at 3.76 multiple points lower but it’s probably easier to see this in the top five constituents below, where I looked at the utilities on an EV/EBITDA basis and EV/EBIT for Republic services.
ROEs are >2.5 percentage points below the market and SPLV’s companies are paying out ~3/4 of their earnings in dividends.
SPLV’s top five holdings: Using Eversource energy, the largest holding, as a microcosm and here’s the valuation (EV/EBITDA) over the last five years:
The second largest name is Republic Services, which shows the same story, on an EV/EBIT basis:
DTE Energy (EV/EBITDA):
Duke Energy (EV/EBITDA):
American Electric Power (EV/EBITDA):
Another way to look at this is phenomenon is through Goldman’s multiple comparison between stable and volatile growth companies, which shows a similar story and their chart from October is below.