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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

High Alpha Funds or Low Beta Funds

For investors in actively managed equity mutual funds, the worth of a fund lies in how much return it is able to generate over that given by the relevant benchmark. So, at a basic level, the choice of fund will have to be driven by how much value a fund manager is adding vis-a-vis an index.

Alpha, which measures this value addition, is often taken as a metric to gauge fund performance. Investors who seek outperformance would be drawn towards funds running a higher alpha. But can investors always benefit from the pursuit of high alpha?


Simply told, alpha is the excess return delivered by a fund over its benchmark index. But more precisely , it is the excess return or value generated by a fund manager over the fund's expected return. This expected performance is based on the risk taken by the fund manager relative to the market, which is defined by beta.

Thus, a fund's alpha is derived from its underlying beta. A beta value of 1.5 indicates the fund would deliver 1.5% return for every 1% gain in the value of its underlying index.

Suppose a fund with a beta of 1.5 delivers a return of 18% over a certain period while its underlying benchmark index posts 12% returns. Given the beta, the fund manager would be expected to deliver a return of 18% (12%*1. 5). So, in this case, the fund manager has actually failed to generate alpha even though the fund has delivered 6% excess return over its benchmark.

If the fund delivered a return of 20% for the same underlying risk, the alpha generated would be 2%. Which implies that alpha represents the fund manager's expertise in stock selection or portfolio building. Most top-performing funds over longer time periods boast of a high alpha. In most cases, if a fund has generated high alpha in the past, it is likely to generate the same in the future too. Thus, it would bode well for investors to pay attention to a fund's alpha when selecting equity funds.

However, experts insist that consistency in delivering alpha is critical. Certain funds are good at delivering alpha only during a market uptrend.The fund should show consistency in generating alpha across various time frames and market cycles. Alpha can be a good indicator of a fund manager's ability provided there is consistency in the philosophy and processes driving the portfolio selection. Also, bear in mind that extent of alpha varies between fund categories. Typically, mid-cap oriented equity funds are able to deliver higher alpha than large-cap oriented ones. While mid-cap funds can comfortably clock alpha in excess of 8-10%, alpha in large-cap funds is typically lower.


Alpha as a metric has a few shortcomings, which can make its extensive use counter-productive. First, alpha depends on the underlying benchmark index for the fund. Even though we may measure it in absolute terms, alpha is actually a relative measure dependent on market proxy . This can have several implications.

It can prevent effective comparison between funds, even within the same fund category . Since different equity funds within the same category also tend to be benchmarked against different indices, the alpha statistic will measure outperformance relative to that benchmark. You can end up comparing apples to oranges.

Besides, since it measures performance relative to beta, the accuracy of alpha depends on the credibility of the beta measure. The beta value of a fund may be flawed if its correlation to the underlying index is very low. So, a fund's alpha may be misleading if it does not have high correlation to the benchmark it is being compared with.

Another gripe analysts have with using alpha is that it is ignorant of the risk-adjusted performance. While it measures excess return given the level of market risk, it makes no adjustment for the risk involved in delivering that additional performance. As such, experts insist that alpha should not be used in isolation while picking funds.It should be supplemented with other metrics to really gain true understanding of the performance of the fund. Investors give equal importance to the underlying risk.  Go with a fund offering healthy alpha but lower beta.

Birla Sun Life Pure Value, for example, has delivered a healthy alpha of 10% over the past five years with a beta of 1.06. Its peer in the same category , BNP Paribas Midcap Fund has delivered similar return although at a lower beta of 0.83. Belapurkar says just looking at alpha does not provide the entire picture. Investors need to dissect the number further to see where the alpha is actually coming from. If it is due to a high risk taken by the fund manager, then it could be a red flag. Investors need to consider other risk factors apart from beta.

For instance, a large-cap fund taking high exposure to midor smallcap stocks would likely fetch a high alpha but that doesn't reflect the fund manager's acumen. Finally, investors should understand that past performance is not and never should be relied on as indicator of future performance.

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