Managed Risk ETFs: Taking a Page from Insurers’ Playbook

Worth noting is that the volatility of portfolio A (10.7%) is significantly lower than that of portfolio B (15.4%); portfolio A also exhibits a much smaller drawdown. Resulting in large part from this risk profile, portfolio A finishes the 20-year decumulation period with $1.4 million more than portfolio B.

Also noteworthy is the timing of the drawdowns. Portfolio B experiences its largest drawdown (34%) in its first year, while Portfolio B doesn’t experience its largest until year 13. Having experienced such a precipitous decline early in the decumulation phase, the portfolio is penalized by having a smaller base when the market finally begins to climb. The portfolio will of course still be exposed to the market’s subsequent positive returns, but will have less assets available to benefit from the growth, at a time when it can least afford to. This is the essence of sequence of returns risk.

Portfolio A Portfolio B
Start Date January 1950 January 1974
S&P 500 Return 398.7% 398.7%
Volatility 10.7% 15.4%
Drawdown -23.5% -34.2%
  Decumulation Stats
Starting Value $1 million $1 million
Ending Value $2,252,657 $473,704

Source: Bloomberg, June 2018

Generally speaking, the less volatility a portfolio experiences, the less exposed it is to sequence of returns risk. Accordingly, one of the primary ways that insurance companies seek to limit their exposure to sequence of returns risk is by managing their portfolio volatility.

In the post-crisis era, a number of volatility-based strategies have emerged with the aim of offering investors equity exposure with less volatility. While they all have a focus on volatility, they’re not all created the same.

The “low” or “min vol” strategies that rely solely on stock selection may end up exhibiting lower volatility, but offer no explicit way to actually limit portfolio volatility. As such, they don’t offer the level or quality of risk management that is required by investors who rely on their assets to meet future liabilities, whether insurance companies, pensions, endowments or individual retirees.

Alternatively, a Managed Risk approach is another volatility-based strategy, but incorporates an explicit mechanism to prevent portfolio volatility from exceeding a predetermined threshold. Through the use of quantitative models that forecast volatility, equity exposure within the portfolio is dynamically changed with the aim of keeping overall portfolio volatility below its threshold.

[1] For decumulation phase, each portfolio begins with $1 million and takes annual withdrawals beginning with $60,000, taken on a monthly basis and increased 2.5% each year for inflation.