Should You Be Concerned About Correlations?

Correlation – how different asset classes behave relative to one another – is an important concept in portfolio construction and at the heart of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) as developed in the 1950s by Harry Markowitz.

To put it simply, MPT describes the use of asset classes with varying levels of correlation to one another to help smooth out portfolio returns over time. It doesn’t mean there are no risks in the portfolio; you need risk to get return. But in a diversified portfolio the sources of risk are different. Correlations tend to be a bit of an afterthought for most investors when markets are going up, but volatility like we’ve experienced lately tends to bring it back as a topic of conversation. The recent market gyrations, seemingly driven in large part by the U.S./China trade dispute is a case in point. As recent headlines unfolded, stocks declined and U.S. Treasuries went up, a common reaction driven by investors making a “flight to safety.”If you were 100% in Treasuries you would have done fine at that moment but the problem, of course, is one of timing. When do you get out of the market, and when do you get back in? There’s a mountain of research that suggests that trying to time the market doesn’t work. For that reason (among others) we have advocated for a different approach: build a portfolio that uses hedges in the form of liquid alternatives that demonstrate a low correlation to the broad market.Correlation is generally stated as a ratio, with 1.0 indicating a perfect correlation (two assets move in lockstep, both on the way up and on the way down) and -1.0 a perfect negative correlation (they move in exact opposite directions). Sometimes one sees a correlation between asset classes where you wouldn’t expect it – small cap stocks and high yield bonds, for example.In the case of the IQ Hedge Multi-Strategy Tracker (QAI) the correlation to the S&P 500 is 0.71 (Source: Bloomberg, using daily returns for the last 12 months ending May 31, 2019); while for IQ Merger Arb ETF (MNA), it’s 0.38. Both provide a level of diversification relative to the broad market as represented by the S&P.The two ETFs achieve this by different strategies. MNA holds positions in stocks involved in announced merger and acquisition transactions. The risk here is that deals are not completed. This risk tends to be different than short-term market risk. There’s also a short component, which seeks to act as a partial equity market hedge. QAI, on the other hand, is a multi-strategy vehicle, designed to give investors exposure to the return characteristics of various hedge fund styles, including long/short equity, global macro, market neutral, fixed income and more. Again, this diversification seeks to dampen correlation with the broader market. The risk with QAI is the allocation itself. Both funds, however, provide some exposure to equities, eliminating the need to try and time the market, or to be “all in” or “all out.”Modern Portfolio Theory was revolutionary when it was introduced – the idea that creating a diversified portfolio of non-correlated assets was a better way for most investors to gain exposure to the market. Finding opportunities to add truly non-correlated exposures, however, remains no easier than it was when Markowitz first published on MPT, but approaches like liquid alternatives can prove to be valuable components in a truly diversified portfolio.