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## May 1, 2019

### Increasing the Probability of Success - Part 1

I was discussing with a new client how analysts should approach probabilities. Probabilities are used in calculating probability-weighted returns by multiplying them by the client’s scenarios of price forecasts to come up with a probability-weighted return.

The probability piece is the most subjective part of the probability-weighted return (see our “False Precision” blog post that discusses why it is important to set probabilities), so we came up with several approaches to see what fit best for their firm. I thought I’d share them with anyone that may be struggling with probabilities:

1. Fixed Probabilities (Distribution)

Analysts come up with price targets that match the part of the forecast distribution associated with the probabilities. In this example, all positions have a “fixed” 20%/60%/20% probability framework. The goal is to come up with price targets that match those buckets (i.e. what is the 20% risk price target?).

This method pulls price targets associated that reflect the probability-weighted outcomes associated with a broad range of outcomes associated with different probability “buckets”. An analyst would iterate the assumptions in their financial model to estimate the extreme outcomes (two 20% probability buckets at the end) and the higher probability outcomes (60% probability bucket in the middle). The result is a price target that blends the possible outcomes in each bucket by their associated probability. Another way to think of this is a cumulative probability distribution.

For example, the analyst may associate-5% sales growth and 10% EBITDA margins as the 20% cumulative probability outcome, 25% sales growth and 40% EBITDA margins as the 80% cumulative probability outcome, and 60% growth and 55% margins as the 99% cumulative probability. There would be many other points in between (represented by the green dots) where the analyst would apply different assumptions in their model.

The benefits of this method are that the probabilities are fixed and require no subjective assessment. This method also allows for highly-sensitive models with extreme outcomes to be reflected in the resultant probability-weighted return. The downside of this method is that it is time-intensive and allows no flexibility in the probabilities.

## March 1, 2019

### Your Position Size is Wrong: A Plea to Put Down the Mental Calculator

Hedge funds throw away half of their potential returns by not explicitly calculating probability-weighted return. After working for a fund and having numerous conversations with hedge and mutual fund managers over the past decade, it is obvious that an overwhelming majority of funds’ mistakes come from poor estimation of risk-reward. In fact, most funds have not explicitly defined an upside price target, downside risk target, and conviction level for each investment in their portfolio. This is because most fund managers trust that they can manage the portfolio in their head. They analyze and discuss the upside, downside, and conviction level for every investment, so they assume these factors’ influence is carefully measured into every decision. But I would posit that there is a distinct difference between factoring in upside, downside, and conviction level through mental calculation and measuring it with probability-weighted return. Why would you trust your mental calculator for such an important decision? Could you imagine a bungee jumper that knows the height of a bridge, tension of the bungee cord, and weight of the jumper but just estimates the correct length of the bungee cord? Absolutely not. For every jump, a calculation is performed to make sure that easily avoidable risk is eliminated. Investors all too often skip the “bungee cord” calculation of probability-weighted return and end up assuming undue risk.

Empirical research and common sense prove that probability-weighted return is the optimal method to measure an asset’s quality. But most firms do not use probability-weighted return because it questions the output of their mental calculators. Researchers in Behavioral Finance and Neuroeconomics have cautioned investors for over 30 years that their brain is poorly designed to make financial decisions. Armed with this knowledge, investors still do not adjust their process to eliminate known decision-making frailties. In most cases, these shortcomings can be eliminated by calculating a probability-weighted return for every investment.

A quick example from a meeting with a portfolio manager highlights the problem of not using probability-weighted return. I was working with a successful fund manager when I asked for the logic behind the largest position in his fund. He told me that it was a company that he knows well, and he is sure they are going to beat earnings. I asked for his upside target if they beat earnings and the probability of it occurring. His best estimates were a profit of 10% and a probability of 90%. I then asked him to explain what would happen if they did not beat earnings. He described a dire scenario where the stock would be down at least 20% because the Street was expecting a beat. I quickly took his estimates and calculated a probability-weighted return of 7%. This caused the manager to change his exposure to the relatively weak idea. He had all of the correct information in his head, but his mental calculator was being corrupted by his over-confidence in his thesis. If this happened with the largest position in the portfolio, you can guarantee that there are other inefficiently sized positions.

It is all too common that funds perform the intense research to drive the ball 99 yards down the field but do not “punch it in” by explicitly defining upside profit, downside risk, and probability. Probability-weighted return takes into account the full breadth of your fundamental research and creates a discipline that treats each position like it is brand new every day and performance-draining oversight is eliminated. As you can see from the example, calculating probability-weighted return is easy and only requires that the firm explicitly define upside, downside, and probability and then compare the probability-weighted sum to the current price.

Once you calculate a probability-weighted return for every investment in the portfolio, you will quickly point out position sizes that do not match your research. Probability-weighted return becomes the synthesis of your research, the common vernacular of investment discussions, and the anchor for decisions.  Your portfolio generates greater returns because you are continuously improving the portfolio to give more exposure to the firm’s best ideas while constantly pruning the weakest. Return is only half the equation. A portfolio constructed with probability weighted return has considerably less risk. Every decision is now made in the context of downside potential. If the downside risk increases, the probability-weighted return falls, which in turn lowers the position size.

The benefits of probability-weighted return position sizing are profound and because the process is based on common-sense and sound math, it will become the de facto standard in the coming years. Some of the brightest fundamental managers in the world have been utilizing this discipline for years and your firm can capture the benefits of probability-weighted return in as little as a few weeks. Make a commitment to put down the mental calculator and you are guaranteed to make better decisions.

## February 8, 2019

### Alpha Theory 2018 Year in Review

THE STREAK CONTINUES!  For the seventh consecutive year, Alpha Theory clients have outperformed their peers, more than doubling the returns of the industry average over the same period. This year, our clients beat the primary Equity Hedge index by 3.9% despite missing out on 0.9% of return if they more closely followed the model they built in Alpha Theory.

From a global perspective, Alpha Theory clients and optimal sizing outperformed major indices.

Despite the difficult year for equity funds, including our clients, who averaged a decline of 3.0%, they still outperformed their peers who experienced an average decline of 6.9%.

Clients would have done even better if they would have more closely followed the model they built in Alpha Theory.

It was a particularly satisfying year to post these results. The streak of momentum fueled markets transitioned into one with much higher volatility in 2018 and it was great to see that our tool is effective at driving alpha in both types of market conditions.

2018 INDUSTRY TRENDS

Some new trends have started to gain traction across the industry in 2018.  While some larger funds have been headed in this direction for years, the change we saw in 2018 was more widespread adoption—even in smaller funds.  As we talked to hundreds of prospective clients and allocators in 2018, we noticed three major trends in how the most successful PMs are changing their investment strategies:

1. Leveraging more alternative data sources in their research.

2. Acute focus on repeatable processes around research, risk, and position sizing.

3. Emphasis on capturing data that can leverage statistical analysis and machine learning.

At first, these three trends seemed unrelated. It was only recently that we realized that they are deeply connected by one dominant trend: the reduction in available alpha due to the ubiquity of research data, increased number of analysts, decreased number of publicly available securities, and the rapid rise in computers ability to find market inefficiencies faster than humans. This is making it virtually impossible to gain a sustainable edge through traditional “stock picking.” Put simply-- the largest traditional source of alpha has almost completely dried up.

We are seeing this trend in our batting average data as the average of our clients converges towards 50%. The good news is that there is still alpha out there to be harvested and our data bears that out.  Supporting point 2 above, as you will see in the tables below—our most process-driven clients (as represented by our most active clients based on usage) strongly outperform our most passive users.  We also have several clients who are making deep dives into their historical forecasting data to determine which of their analysts have the forecasting best track records and teasing out the strengths and weaknesses of the poor performers so they can target specific areas of improvement.

Our clients are a self-selecting cohort who believe in process and discipline; process orientation goes together with Alpha Theory software that serves as a disciplining mechanism to align best risk/reward ideas with rankings in the portfolio. Shown below, the most active users as measured by frequency of update, research coverage, and correlation with the model have the highest ROIC.

PROCESS ENHANCES PERFORMANCE

Alpha Theory clients use a process to reduce the impacts from emotion and guesswork as they make position sizing decisions. Alpha Theory highlights when good ideas coincide with largest position sizes in the portfolio. This rules engine codifies a discipline that:

1. Centralizes price targets and archives them in a database

3. Calculates probability-weighted returns (PWR) for assets and the portfolio as a whole.

4. Enhances returns

5. Mitigates portfolio risk

6. Saves time

7. Adds precision and rigor to the sizing process

8. Enables real-time incorporation of the market and individual asset moves into sizing decisions.

DISCIPLINED USAGE REDUCES RESEARCH SLIPPAGE

Alpha Theory’s research not only suggests that adoption of the application by itself leads to improved performance, but actual usage intensity further enhances results.

Usage intensity is determined by:

1. Percent of Positions with Research

2. Correlation with Optimal Position Size

OPTIMAL POSITION SIZING REDUCES RESEARCH SLIPPAGE

Comparing clients’ actual versus optimal returns shows:

HIGHER TOTAL RETURNS
ROIC is 4% higher.

IMPROVED BATTING AVERAGE
Batting Average is 9% higher. Explanation: many of the assets that don’t have price targets or have negative PWRs are held by the fund but recommended as 0% positions by Alpha Theory. Those positions underperform and allow Alpha Theory’s batting average to prevail.

1. Measured as the average full-year return for clients where full-year data was available, adjusted for differences in exposure, net of trading costs

PRICE TARGETS REDUCES RESEARCH SLIPPAGE

Alpha Theory has further found that ROIC for assets with price targets is 4.8% higher than for those without price targets. Some investors chafe at price targets because they smack of “false precision.” These investors are missing the point because the key to price targets is not their absolute validity but their explicit nature which allows for objective conversation of the assumptions that went into them.  Said another way, the requirements of calculating a price target and the questions that targets foster are central to any good process.

Finding alpha will not become easier. It is imperative that the funds of the 21st century develop plans to evolve into new realities. Data and process are critical to that evolution. Let Alpha Theory help you and your team grow to meet the challenges of tomorrow.