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What’s in a name?

This article is part of
Guide to smart beta

What’s in a name?

According to respondents to the study, smart beta isn’t a very helpful name at all for you to use with your clients.

It was selected to describe a way of investing based on different rules apart from following generic indexes that are weighted according to the market capitalisation of the companies listed.

The concept was forged in the 1990s, by Chicago Booth professors Eugene Fama and Kenneth French, who designed a three-factor model of investing looking at company size, company price-to-book ratio, and market risk.

Professor Carhart added ‘momentum’ to the model and gave investors four ways of assessing an investment.

Based on this, academics contemplated a way of using these and other models to create a way of getting better returns by exposing portfolios to these different risk factors. Hence Bryon Lake, head of Invesco PowerShares EMEA, says: “Smart beta originated in academia”.

Ben Seager-Scott, director of investment strategy at Tilney Bestinvest, calls it a “marketing-derived term promoted very heavily by a certain group with deep marketing pockets. Smart Beta is an umbrella term for a range of strategies”.

Whether from academia or marketing, ‘Smart Beta’ has entered the retail investment space – but as Chris Mellor, executive director, equity product management at Source explains, there is “still no standard definition – it is a catch-all term for a diverse group of funds”.

In fact, several firms tend to avoid using ‘Smart Beta’ altogether. Index creator Nasdaq Indices sees smart beta as “a rules and selection-based index methodology that drives to a particular outcome”, according to Dave Gedeon, vice-president and head of research and development.

Tilney Bestinvest prefers ‘alternative beta’, Novia Financial likes ‘rules-based investing’; Deutsche Asset Management calls it ‘strategic beta’.

Martin Weithofer, head of strategic beta at Deutsche Asset Management, says: “Smart beta is not the most accurate term.

“We call it strategic beta because it’s about implementing a strategic investment strategy in a passive way. It still tracks an index but with a different type of risk and reward performance to traditional cap-weighted indexing.”

The term could also be considered rude in some circles. Vivian Tung, vice-president, BBH Exchange Traded Fund Services, comments: “Those against the term ‘smart beta’ argue this implies passive, market cap-weighted strategies are not an intelligent choice.

“This is one reason why other terms such as alternative beta or strategic beta are becoming more popular’.

Nomenclature aside, what about the definition? What is such a strategy and what does it do?

Even this, according to Mr Seager-Scott, is “still the subject of debate”. Essentially, Smart Beta – which is the term we’ll use for the purposes of this guide – covers a range of strategies that enable the investor to invest passively, in an index, but the index itself has been constructed in a certain way to provide a different exposure.

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