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July 22, 2021

Factor Investing in ETFs & The 3 P’s for Evaluating Smart Beta Funds

The last decade has been quite fruitful for investors as we experienced one of the greatest bull markets in beta or passive investing. To put it into perspective, a $10,000 investment in an S&P 500 Index-tracking product at the end of March 2009 would have grown to $65,000 by the end of May 2021. While the multi-decade decline of interest rates helped contribute to the success of passive investing, current market conditions might favour a fundamental approach using factor investing – commonly referred to as smart beta.


Evaluating Factor ETFs


Looking at investing through a factor lens can help dissect and construct stronger portfolios, but it’s important to remember that not all factor indexes or strategies are created equally. Given the recent resurgence in value strategies (and the money that has followed suit), I felt it would be prudent to cover some best practices and what we coin as the 3 P’s for evaluating factor ETF strategies.


1. Process 


It’s quite common to have two strategies that are classified the same but have very different investment processes. For example, you may have two strategies that focus on the dividend factor but end up looking completely different from a holdings and performance perspective. This is because there is no uniform way to quantify a factor. One strategy may focus on a history of dividend payments (backward looking), while another might focus on a company’s ability to grow its dividend over time. This highlights the importance of looking under the hood to ensure the strategy’s objective is consistent with your views.


When examining a strategy, work with your advisor or broker to look at the portfolio’s holdings, investment process or index methodology, and use third-party sites that quantify factor exposure. This will help ensure that you are capturing the right factor benefits without any style drift.


2. Performance 


As noted above, you can have two strategies focused on the same factor with entirely different performance results. When evaluating factor strategies, it’s important to look at how the strategy performed in different periods and regimes. 


When evaluating performance – if it’s real-world performance – ask yourself if the performance was internally consistent and does it deliver what was intended by the portfolio’s design. With a new product that lacks a track record, you can look at the performance back test, but you or your advisor will want to do some additional due diligence and look closely at the underlying methodology.


3. Price 


With price, you want to look at the total cost of ownership. This goes beyond just the management fee and involves looking at other costs such as the bid-ask spread and premium/discount to the net asset value (NAV). It‘s important to consider whether the additional cost is justified. For example, a strategy that targets the size factor tends to focus on smaller-cap companies, which may have a wider bid-ask spread. As compensation, these companies typically offer a size premium with the potential for higher alpha.


Putting it all together


By having a framework and looking at process, performance and price, you can have a better and smarter way of evaluating which factor funds work best for you. And of course, it’s always best to focus on how the product fits into your long-term portfolio objective.


Visit our ETF data page and see what ETF solutions we have to offer that could add value to your portfolio and help you achieve your financial goals.

About the Author

Nirujan Kanagasingam

Nirujan Kanagasingam, CFA

Blog Author
CI Global Asset Management

As Vice-President of ETF Strategy, Nirujan’s primary responsibility includes working with the various departments within CI GAM to set and execute the ETF Sales Strategy and help promote the growth of the ETF business. Nirujan’s responsibilities also includes overseeing the ETF Sales Support team where he works alongside the sales team in assisting investors and advisors on ETF education and support. Nirujan brings a wealth of ETF knowledge, including ETF product management, indexing, factor research, ETF portfolio development, and has been involved in the launch of many ETFs in the Canadian marketplace. Prior to joining CI GAM, Nirujan held progressively senior roles with global asset managers Invesco and Horizons ETFs, where responsibilities included product management, product development and sales strategy in both the Canadian and U.S market. Nirujan holds a Bachelor of Commerce (Finance and Accounting) from Ryerson University and is a CFA Charterholder.



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Published July 22, 2021.