Trend-following, the primary approach used in managed futures strategies, has generally delivered strong returns over multiple decades.1 Today, the heightened possibility of increased volatility coupled with the prospect of lower returns going forward, suggests that the time may be right to consider the potential benefits of trend-following strategies. Portfolio manager Matt Dorsten and product manager Michael Connor discuss the mechanics of trend-following strategies, and how PIMCO TRENDS Managed Futures Strategy Fund (TRENDS), which recently hit its three-year mark, is differentiated in the marketplace.
Q: What are managed futures and how do they work?
Michael Connor: Managed futures funds – also known as trend-following or momentum strategies – have been around since the 1980s. Historically, investors have been drawn to these strategies mainly for their diversification benefits and their potential for equity-like returns. Because of their low-to-negative correlation with many risk assets, they may help to lower overall portfolio volatility and contain drawdowns. Ideally, they should demonstrate their best performance during equity sell-offs, when investors need returns the most. In choppier markets without clear trends, performance may be down or muted.
Q: Why have investors been allocating to managed futures strategies?
Connor: With low annual returns expected for mainstream stocks and bonds over the next decade, and asset prices in both the equity and bond markets near all-time highs, investors are looking to alternative strategies for return and diversification potential. As such, investors have been allocating to managed futures strategies, which offer the potential for both.
Q: How have managed future strategies performed during recent market shocks?
Connor: The last two years have offered a good test case for trend-following strategies as equity markets experienced a number of notable sell-offs. A natural question for investors to ask is: During these sell-offs, did trend-following funds do what they’re supposed to do? For true managed futures strategies, we believe the answer is yes.
A closer look at these three drawdowns – the China devaluation scare in August of 2015, the negative rate scare in early 2016, and Brexit in mid-2016 – helps provide insight into the potential benefits, and limitations, of trend-following strategies. Trend following strategies may not always out perform the broader market as displayed in Figure 1, but the chart below examines how managed futures strategies fared during these market sell-offs, noting some key distinctions in the three different episodes.
- China Devaluation: This downdraft occurred very quickly and somewhat unexpectedly over the course of four days. Trend-following strategies that were particularly fast-moving, like PIMCO’s strategy, were able to identify the trend and then take appropriate positions. However, note that the diversification effect here (trend-followers rally as the equity market sells off) is somewhat muted due to the speed of the move.
- Negative Rate Scare: The January-February 2016 selloff took several weeks and the rebound in risk market assets was slower which allowed trend-following strategies to provide a much stronger diversifying effect with particularly strong performance from strategies, like TRENDS, which are designed to react more quickly.
- Brexit: The sell-off in June 2016, like the China devaluation scare, also occurred very quickly, taking place over two days. However, the performance of trend followers was stronger this time, because, given previous market moves, trend-followers generally were well positioned for the event. PIMCO TRENDS, for example, was up over 4.15% on the day following the Brexit vote.
Q: How do you expect managed futures to perform in different market
environments going forward?
Matt Dorsten: Managed futures strategies are all designed differently so there is considerable disparity among these funds. Trend horizons, portfolio construction and risk management criteria are three main factors that determine the nature of a managed futures fund.
At PIMCO, we focus on shorter-term trend windows because we believe this makes our strategy more responsive in an equity market selloff, and also that it positions us to trade ahead of other managers who track longer time horizons. This seeks to increase the likelihood that investors will benefit during surprise market shocks but does expose the fund to risk in choppier markets. Investors should educate themselves on specific strategies to understand how performance can vary in different environments.
Q: What is PIMCO’s managed futures investment philosophy?
Dorsten: PIMCO TRENDS specializes in capitalizing on shorter-term trends and is characterized as a faster moving, adaptive strategy that limits long equity exposure. With 14 years of dedicated quantitative expertise, PIMCO integrates macroeconomic insight and bottom-up microeconomic (i.e. security-level) considerations to create a strategy that is designed to maximize diversification potential without sacrificing return. The fund possesses several distinct characteristics relative to competitors:
- Fast moving: By focusing on shorter moving‐average windows, TRENDS seeks to enter newly formed market trends quickly and potentially exit completely once trends have reversed, often ahead of other slower-moving trend followers.
- Adaptive: Over the short term, TRENDS aims to scale up or down quickly in response to strong or weak market trends. This allows us to focus allocation to the strongest trend signals which may outperform.
- Limits long equity exposure: Short equity exposure in the fund can reach ‐100%, but TRENDS limits long equity exposure to +50% to emphasize diversification characteristics of the strategy.
Q: What is PIMCO’s managed futures investment process?
Dorsten: PIMCO’s approach to trend-following is to refine the standard models using both macro- and micro-level insights informed by PIMCO’s investment process, such as:
- Active collateral management: In an era of low returns, maximizing the potential from investing collateral through PIMCO’s active fixed income management may add a significant boost.
- Drag reduction: We use PIMCO’s carry forecasts in an effort to avoid a significant portfolio drag from negative carry and roll-down.
- Scaling rules: We do not target a constant risk level, but rather scale up volatility as opportunities develop and scale down when market trends are few.
- Cross-market trends: Robust macroeconomic insights provide the ability to look both within and across markets to identify trend signals.
- Risk management bias: TRENDS is designed to maximize its risk management role by constraining exposures that may overlap with traditional portfolio risks.
New strategy ideas are vetted by the Trends Research Advisory Group, which is comprised of senior portfolio managers across a variety of specialist desks.
PIMCO’s derivatives execution is conducted by specialist portfolio managers on our global derivatives execution platform. Futures rolls are determined and executed by the appropriate specialist desk. Collateral is managed by our specialist Short Term Portfolio Managers. And, an appropriate liquidity buffer is mandated and monitored by our Risk Management Desk. Through this robust process, our TRENDS strategy harnesses the scope of PIMCO’s industry-leading global resources, which we believe provides a competitive advantage.
Implementing managed futures within a portfolio
Managed futures strategies seek to generate attractive returns by capturing price trends across major asset classes. Incorporating managed futures strategies in portfolios has the potential to and can provide diversification to a traditional portfolio of stocks and bonds, especially during times of market stress. This strategy was once reserved for large institutional investors through private funds, but now we can provide access with the transparency and daily liquidity of a 40-act open-end fund that many investors desire.
Depending on an investor’s objectives and tolerance for risk, managed futures strategies can play a few different roles in a portfolio and are
commonly implemented in the following ways:
Roles in Portfolio
Improve potential risk-adjusted returns
Improve diversification potential
Improve potential portfolio performance during market downturns
As impactful as managed futures strategies can be, their impact on the overall portfolio depends on the size of the allocation. Many investors incorporate managed futures into their overall alternatives allocation, which can often range from 10% to 30% depending on the investment objectives and the role of managed futures in the portfolio.
1 Measured by Eurekahedge CTA/Managed Futures Hedge Fund Index
2 The net expense ratio reflects two contractual expense reduction agreements
of 0.25% through 31 July 2017 and 0.06%, an amount equal to the management
fee and administrative services fee, respectively, paid by the PIMCO Cayman
Commodity Fund VIII, Ltd. (the Subsidiary) to PIMCO. This waiver may not be
terminated so long as PIMCO’s contract with the subsidiary is in place.