What are investing style factors, and how can you use them to improve the returns on your stock portfolio?
Both are excellent questions. Style factors are different ways to slice and dice approaches to the market. Many investment funds draw a distinction between styles and factors and consider styles to be different strategic approaches to investing such as value, growth, momentum, quality, or volatility while factors have distinct risk-reward profiles. These terms are often used interchangeably which can confuse the discussion.
Style and factors can be used for investment approaches to different asset classes such as stocks, fixed interest, and other asset classes. For our purposes, we are considering stocks and we can slice and dice our market approach in different ways.
In the most fundamental way, we can build our portfolio with a mix of different assets. From a US perspective, the main asset classes are:
- US stocks
- International stocks
- fixed interest assets
When we compare the return on these broad asset classes we get a ranking in order of relative strength. This ranking tends to stay fixed for significant periods of time. During bull markets, US stocks and international stocks tend to be high on the list especially when interest rates are low. When interest rates are high then fixed interest assets will come high up on the list.
Where we are right now
Right now, late in 2020 interest rates are at an all-time low so fixed interest assets are not doing well. Actually, people who rely on income from fixed interest assets are losing hand over fist. At this time US stocks lead the pack.
What this means in simple terms is that if you want the best returns currently available, you need to be investing in stocks.
The world’s stock markets trade shares in thousands of companies which range in market capitalization from the low hundreds of millions of dollars to the trillion-dollar-plus capitalization of the mega-cap stocks like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. The market divides capitalization into a few categories:
- Large-cap above $10 billion
- Mid-cap from approx $2 billion to $10 billion
- Small-cap from approx $300 million to $2 billion
You could also say that the mega-cap stocks are in a class of their own, but so that we can model these categories using ETFs we will stick with the above three designations. The above categorizations are what most institutions and fund managers work with.
Stocks in these different capitalization groups behave differently. When we watch the indexes that track these different capitalization levels we frequently see different returns, whether on a daily, weekly, or monthly, etc basis.
There are also seasonal patterns frequently observed in the returns on the stocks with different market capitalization. Traditionally, conventional wisdom says that for most of the year small-cap will outperform the other two except during the last quarter when small-cap usually falls out of favor.
This is often attributed to institutional fund managers seeking higher risk and higher returns earlier in the year, and then wanting to be less aggressive in the last quarter taking risk off the table to defend their gains and hence their annual results.
For our purposes, the point is that investing in different market capitalization groups constitutes an investing style factor.
What about micro-caps?
There are also micro-cap stocks to consider. Penny stocks that have a stock price of less than $1 are often also micro-cap. But investing or trading micro-cap and penny stocks is a different ball of wax. It is a domain in its own right. These very small-capitalization stocks trade with very low volumes and higher bid/ask spreads that make them less liquid and more expensive to trade.
For the purposes of this article, we will leave micro-cap stocks to one side. However, from my experience micro-cap stocks in the upper range of their market capitalization band, i.e. from about $150 million to $300 million can be liquid and traded at a reasonable cost especially if you hold them for more than a year.
These stocks can also experience dramatic price rises and while most institutions have to ignore them because the position sizes they work with would cause big shifts in price, it can be a fertile field for retail investors. More on that another time.
Growth vs value vs quality
We have looked into three broad investing approaches in other articles, namely value, quality, and growth. These different approaches appeal to different kinds of investors. There are value funds, quality funds, and growth funds each following those distinct strategies.
In broad terms value investing looks for stocks that the market has currently undervalued on the assumption that in the future the true intrinsic value will be reflected in the stock price. Quality investing looks for high-quality stocks also looking for intrinsic value but considers the quality primarily and is less focused on whether a stock is currently undervalued or not. Value and quality investing rely heavily on fundamental analysis to research the intrinsic value of companies.
Growth investing focuses more on how the market favors some stocks over others and looks to take positions in stocks whose market valuations are set to appreciate. Growth investing pays more attention to technical analysis though most growth investors will not entirely discount value considerations.
Combining the style factors
If we take our three market capitalization groups and the two strategies of value and growth, that gives us a total of six different investment styles to compare. Namely,:
- Large-cap growth
- Large-cap value
- Mid-cap growth
- Mid-cap value
- Small-cap growth
- Small-cap value
We can also find ETFs that follow each of these strategies. These are a number of investment groups that have funds that fall into these categories, but for the sake of consistency and to ensure a clear distinction between the funds, it makes sense to consider ETFs from the same group. For the sake of this article, we will consider the ETFs of the iShares group. Here they are:
I’ve used the same color-coding system that I will use in later charts for consistency.
Ranking over time
What happens if we look back over the last ten years and see how they performed against each other.
At first glance, it looks as if they all pretty much follow the same path with Russel 1000 Growth, i.e. the large-cap growth fund outperforming the others.
But then when we look closely we see that other funds lead the field at different times.
For the first 8 or 9 months of 2015, small-cap growth was in the lead, and from around November 2016 until about March 2017 small-cap value was the leader.
This confirms what fund managers and many investors know, in any given year, one style of investing beats the others, but the next year a different investing style wins out. Let’s see what happens if we rank each of these funds against each other for each of the ten years restarting everyone from zero at the beginning of each year.
Ranking over annual periods
Here are the annual returns of each of the six investing style factors.
1)Historical stock data source: Yahoo finance, calculations, and charts by badinvestmentsadvice.com
Looked at like this it is a confusing array of numbers. To get an idea of what is going on let’s see how the funds rank each year showing the best performer on the left and the worst performer on the right.
Now we have something we can work with.
Let’s compare how different portfolios would have performed by different mixes of these funds. Let’s examine the approaches listed here. We will look at the annualized returns of the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019:
- Holding each fund for the whole 10-year period
- Holding the best performing fund from the previous year, for 10-years
- Holding the worst performing fund from the previous year, for 10-years
- Holding the two best performing funds from the previous year and rebalancing the portfolio each year, for 10 years
- Holding the two worst performing funds from the previous year and rebalancing the portfolio each year, for 10 years
Since we will need prior year data for all years including 2010, we will need the annual returns of each fund for 2009. It turns out that in 2009 all the funds had an excellent year coming out of the market crash of 2008. The results for 2009 were:
- Large-cap growth, IWF: 36.77%
- Large-cap value, IWD: 19.42%
- Mid-cap growth, IWP: 46.60%
- Mid-cap value, IWS: 33.75%
- Small-cap growth, IWO: 35.03%
- Small-cap value, IWN: 20.90%
Here is what each of those approaches would return over that 10-year period.
1. Holding each fund for 10-years
For this 10-year period, overall growth beat value in all cases, and large-cap growth beat both mid-cap and small-cap growth respectively. The average return of these funds was 234.10% over the 10-years.
2. Holding the best performing fund from the previous year.
Following this strategy, these are the funds we would have held in each year.
As we can see, holding the best performing fund from the previous year gave us a compounded return over the 10-year period of just 189.95% which is only marginally better than the worse performing fund, the small-cap value which returned 170.08% over the 10-years.
3. Holding the worst performing fund from the previous year.
This would be the list of funds we would hold, following this strategy:
So, this approach achieved a reasonable return of 216.24% over the 10-years, but that isn’t as good as the average of the individual funds and nowhere near as good as the best fund.
4. Holding the 2 best funds from the previous year.
With this approach, these would be the funds held each year, the average return of those funds, and then the results compounded over 10-year.
This approach achieved a compounded return of 197.12% which again is not as good as the average return of each of the funds.
5. Holding the 2 worst funds from the previous year.
The returns from the last strategy from our list are shown here.
In this case, we see a compounded return over the 10-year period of 270.32%. Though not as good as the best performing fund, this is an improvement on the average 10-year return of 234.10% of the funds.
Considering longer periods
To test these ideas further we should look at the performance of these funds over a longer period.
Taking the best performing fund, the large-cap growth fund IWF, since its inception in May 2000 to date, it has achieved a total return of 259.58%. That equals an annualized return of just 4.76%. So actually for the first 10 of those years, it didn’t do well at all and for the last 10-years, it did particularly well. As we can see from its chart this fund languished in negative territory from its beginnings until some time in 2012 and only then did it take off.
To me, this demonstrates the need to use long time frames to assess the performance of a fund.
For the six investing style factor funds we have been looking at, given the results of the above study of how they perform using the five strategies, I think it makes sense to see how the same six funds perform if we invest in the three worst-performing funds from the previous year as a sixth strategy to try.
6. Holding the 3 worst funds from the previous year
Here are the results of that study:
Well, I’d say that was not entirely discouraging and not particularly exciting either. On the other hand, there is an important consideration that we have been ignoring so far and that is the variability of returns. From this perspective achieving this level of returns with greater diversification, we can see that the standard deviation of returns is steadily lower as we increase the number of funds.
The differences are small but as with all things that relate to long-term investing, consistent small percentages will make a significant difference over time.
Even further analysis
If I were to investigate this approach further, I would look at comparing and ranking quarterly results and six-month results. After all, there is no reason why annual periods should be a sweet spot and funds are reported quarterly so looking for relationships over this time frame makes sense.
Nevertheless, this analysis of investing style factors has demonstrated how they can be used to improve portfolio performance and reduce the variability of results.
This article gives more on the context of investing style and factors.
Q. What are the important style factors in investing?
A. The important investing style factors are: Value, growth or momentum, quality, volatility, and in the case of stocks, market capitalization can also serve as a style factor.
Q. Are investing style and factors the same thing?
A. Not really. Investing style usually means an investing strategy, while factors mean attributes of different assets within an asset class that have similar qualities in terms of risk and reward.
Q. Which factors offer the highest returns?
A. The simple answer is it depends. Some studies show that a value approach offers the highest assured reward over the long-term. Other studies show that a growth strategy offers higher rewards albeit with higher risk.
Here is a single-page PDF summary of investing style factors available as a PDF download.
I hope you found this article interesting and useful. Do leave me a comment, a question, an opinion, or a suggestion and I will reply soonest. And if you are inclined to do me a favor, scroll down a bit and click on one of the social media buttons, and share it with your friends. They may just thank you for it.
Disclaimer: I am not a financial professional. All the information on this website and in this article is for information purposes only and should not be taken as investment advice, good or bad.
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|↑1||Historical stock data source: Yahoo finance, calculations, and charts by badinvestmentsadvice.com|
Hi, I am now thinking more and more about investing. Although you are not a professional, you wrote very sensibly and in detail, thank you very much! Now I have more information.
Hi Federico, thanks for stopping by and your positive feedback. Best regards, Andy
Great share Andy,
Value, growth, quality, volatility, got it! I’ve always known this at the back of my mind but I never gave much thought to the volatility part, boy I was wrong. The pandemic affecting the economy all around the world shakes the very being of investment as they are more volatile than ever except for certain markets which profit from it.
Hi Riaz and thanks for the comment. The pandemic definitely caused not just a dent in the raging bull market but yes, shifted investors’ attention to particular industries and sectors. Hence we have – groups of work from home, pandemic stocks, and on the other hand back to work post-pandemic stocks. I think it is fair to say that volatility is often a concern of institutional fund managers who are judged on quarterly and annual performance and risk-averse investors, but the lower risk comes at the inevitable cost of lower reward. Best regards, Andy
Wow thanks for the article my brother! Ya know, I’m pretty knew to the online business scene. I’ve never even heard of investing style factors, but it sounds like something I might have to learn if I want to maximize my business. I’ve never invested either, but I’d like to give it a try. Thanks again!
Hi and thanks for stopping by. I am glad you found the article interesting and useful. Good luck with your online business. Best regards, Andy
Do you think that now may be a good time to invest? The stocks have gone down a lot, haven’t they? So, I was wondering if now would be convenient to invest in stocks. Do you think their value will go up again in the coming year?
I think the market is very strong at the moment. If you are going to invest I would be careful to choose stocks of ETFs in strong sectors. After the US election, there was a fair bit of sector rotation. Technology took a hit while steel and other traditional cyclicals have been in favor. Normally under these circumstances, the market is getting overbought and seems to be heading for a top that could presage a decline. But the rules have changed a bit or at least been bent a bit by all the liquidity that central banks have pumped into the economy. We will see but I think the market will go higher still before we see the next significant correction. Best regards, Andy
Hey Andy. That’s a well-researched, in-depth article. I have to admit that, as a beginner, I felt a bit overwhelmed at first. The mouse-hover glossary was of huge help to me. However, can you possibly guide me to where to start as an investment beginner? Maybe something that sheds some light on the complicated topic, especially in these weird times of economic mayhem, as it sometimes appears. Thank you so much for your efforts, Chris
Hi Chris and thanks for the excellent question. Investing is indeed a complicated topic. I think one of the most important things to sort out first is what kind of investor you would be? What are your objectives, your risk tolerance, and your risk appetite? There are a few articles here that can help you ask yourself the right questions.
How to begin investing in stocks
How to invest money in the stock market
would be good places to start.
Thanks again and best of luck, I’d be happy to hear how you get on and if you have any further questions.
Andy, I seriously want to start looking into investing. In the past I was looking into forex trading, but recently I had a friend that invested in Tesla when the pandemic hit and made a lot of money when the shares in Tesla did a massive climb in recent days and which resulted in Elon Musk now being the second richest man in the world.
Do you have any advice on where to start if you are looking into buying stocks etc? Any particular trading platform you would recommend?
Hi Schalk, it is indeed an interesting time in the markets. Tesla clearly has a bit of glamourous fantasy factored into the price which has seen some massive swings lately. If you are lucky or clever enough to get in and out on the right side of those trades then so much the better but I would not risk it myself. I would think that the best all-around way to start investing in the markets now is to buy a few ETFs of the best-performing sectors and industries. If you are going to get in the market right now though I would be ready to be nimble about it. While many of the broad market indicators are showing strength, there are also many indicators showing that the market or markets are heading into overbought territory. That means a correction is likely at some point.
Here is an article that gives some general information on investing in stocks,
And here is an article that explains sectors.
As for trading platforms, I use ETrade myself and it works great for me.
Here is an article that compares many of the most popular platforms.
Good luck and best regards
Hi Andy thank you very much such a detailed piece, I am very new to stock investment and have been searching for the best information online to help me understand the game of stock, I am happy that I stumbled on your website and will learn alot from your posts. Thank you so much for taking time to create this.
Hi Mercy and thanks for stopping by and this positive feedback. I am very glad you found the article interesting and useful.
Best regards, Andy
This is such an informative article, but I am still a bit skeptical about investing. I know lots and lots of people do it, but I still get the messages on LinkedIn and Facebook that are very clearly scams. They are mainly cryptocurrency people and they really do get on my nerves.
However, since the pandemic hit us in March, we are struggling a bit with money. So I need to start looking at new ways to make more money, possibly a little easier too. Investing definitely is one of those ways, but it has to be right and not a scam.
You and I have supported each other quite a bit and you definitely know your stuff. So you are one that I can trust.
If I do eventually take your advice then I will let you know and I will update you on how I am doing.
In the meantime, thank you for another great article and keep up the great work.
All the best,
Thanks for your comments. I agree that investing scams abound and you are very right to be both skeptical and cautious. In my opinion particular areas where I see red flags are around cryptocurrencies, forex, and penny stocks. While there are many people who successfully invest and trade these assets, there are also people trying to sign you up for dubious schemes with outlandish promises. The reality is that most people who trade lose money when they trade as a speculative venture. Anyone who promises crazy returns is mostly likely cherry-picking their own results. I would add a word of caution, as a general historical rule, when the publicity around stock market returns encourages complete first-timers to enter the market – that is one of the sure signs that the market is hitting a top and likely to decline. If you have a look at other articles on this site I hope you will see that I do not push any particular stocks or funds. The focus here is on providing information and researching aspects of investing and helping people understand themselves and their own objectives when they invest.
I wish you the very best of luck and thank you for your positive comments.
Being the ever-cautious investor I’ve not spent much time looking at the markets over the past few years.
You kinda nailed it with what you said, as I always seemed to focus on either fixed-term or fixed-interest assets.
In terms of fixed interest, I always knew that I could perhaps do better, but the safety net of knowing my potential income was good enough for me.
This of course was especially true when interest rates and the markets were riding high.
However, as I say, this hasn’t been the case for a long time now, and I know that things have been on a downward spiral.
I certainly wouldn’t consider myself adverse to risk, and just reading through your explanation of what the investing style factors are, I can see myself leaning towards growth.
There’s something that caught my eye while going throught the various charts there, and I’m wracking my brain trying to think of an answer.
Is there something that happened in 2018 that saw such a downturn in fortunes of the various funds, irrespective of the which of the six investing style factors you chose?
2018 seems to have been a terrible year in terms of growth and I can’t for the life of me work out why.
A great read as always Andy, and I bow down to your vastly superior knowledge in this area.
Fixed-interest assets are definitely not doing so well these days, interest rates are likely to stay low for at least a few years. As you say, there was quite a serious decline in all those funds in the last quarter of 2018. Looking back it appears there was general negative sentiment triggered in part by concerns that the Fed was raising interest rates too quickly, and trade difficulties between the US and China. But I think it is also fair to say that the market was ripe for a correction just in terms of how long the preceding bull market had run. So really trying to understand why the market dropped when it did is a bit of armchair quarterbacking.
In general terms, the market climbs on greed and fear of losing out and drops on fear. This explains why the rises tend to take longer while the drops can happen very suddenly.
Thanks for the thought-provoking question.
Ah thanks, I appreciate the explanation.
That actually makes a lot of sense now.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the last bull market ended in January 2018, and I do recall the trade difficulties between China and the US, I just couldn’t remember exactly when that occurred.
That’s actually a really good point, plus a simplfied view of how the markets react (climbing and dropping), and in the main, I’d agree that this is generally how certain trends happen (greed and fear).
Thanks for the insights Andy, and also for clarifying about 2018.
Just following the S&P 500 as a large-cap market indicator, the bull market that ended in January 2018 started around March 2016 and followed almost a straight line up over that time. Since the recovery after January 2018 started, which was roughly the beginning of 2019 the bull market has continued albeit with significant corrections along the way. But in many respects, whether the market is a bull market or a bear market or a sideways market is really a matter of the perspective of the investor. If your approach is to buy and hold, ignore market gyrations and financial news and hold for the long term of about 30 years, then the market just looks like a bull market. If at the other extreme a trader is jumping in and out of positions in 5-minute increments then that person might see multiple bull surges and bear drops in a single day.
But that is another discussion.
Thanks again for the comments.
This is a huge amount of information!
I have dabbled in some investments in the past (mostly Forex) and have become a bit timid with what has been going in the world since 2016. Changes have been happening very quickly.
I have been studying a bit more to become more proficient and a bit quicker for important decisions and your articles have been a huge help in that endeavour.
Thanks and keep it up!
Thanks for the very positive feedback. I have never even tried trading forex. I just remember reading a story of how someone on their first day lost their entire portfolio in a matter of hours and I thought to myself – hmmm – doesn’t sound like my cup of tea!
You’re clearly know what you’re talking about, and with that being said, it would be my almost pleasure if I can hire you as a mentor to teach, or at least have you point me in the right direction.
I’ve been trying to make this investing thing work for such a long time now, and I’m honestly starting to think that it’s time for me to quit. Any good training or advise that you can share with me?
Thanks for your comments and question. The reason most people get shaken out of the market when they try investing is that they unwittingly adopt an approach that is not suitable for them. The market turns inevitably so there will be times when you see the value of your investments decline as well as increase. This can put people in a situation where they start closing out positions just before those positions rebound.
Here is an article that is designed to get a prospective investor to start asking themselves the right questions. There are many other articles on this site that deal with different aspects of investing and trading.
This article is a simplified all-around guide to investing.
I hope that you don’t despair and are able to find your way. Ultimately, we all have to do this for ourselves, unless you are heir to a fortune that is.
Thanks for sharing this piece of a content, mate. As for someone new to investing style factors and investing in general, posts like yours are a great way to learn more about all the terminology and everything related to investing.
I have a keen interest in learning all I need to know about style factors and investing in stocks, and other markets in general, so I’ll definitely come back to your site more often to learn as much as I can.
In my opinion, it’s critical to gather as much information as possible before investing your first dollar. However, how do you feel about hiring investment experts to run your portfolio for you?
For example, I run a business and have very little time to learn all this on my own. So my solution is to find an expert on stocks for example and join his team or simply hire him to share his investment with me.
Do you think this is a smart idea? I’ve recently read a book where the author said, it pays to buy specialized knowledge if you can’t acquire it on your own.
That is an interesting question and one that is the subject of much debate. My personal opinion on this is that for people who are very risk-averse and who have large sums to invest and no time or inclination to learn about investing it does make sense to use a professional financial advisor. It does come down to a simple cost vs benefits question. A professional financial advisor is going to cost you money. What you will need to gauge is whether the incremental performance that the advisor delivers exceeds the cost of the advice. It will take a few years to determine whether the payoff has been positive or not. And of course, during those few years, there will always be some activity in the markets and some story that can be spun if things don’t work out as well as expected. There are different models of financial advisors. Most large brokerage companies will offer advice ranging from the very simple to personalized depending on the size of your portfolio with them. If you are starting out small, with say around $50,000 to invest and adding $1,000 or so per month, then regular purchases of some index-linked funds and some sector funds is a good way to go.
There are two articles here that you might like to check out.
This article compares some of the major brokerage providers, most of whom also offer different levels of financial advice.
And this article compares Roboadvisers, which is an interesting innovation in computer intelligence etc.
Good luck my friend and I’d be happy to hear how you get on with either of these.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, much appreciated. I’ll take a look at those two articles and take my time to study the information before taking any action.
You are most welcome Ivan.
A thorough article as usual, Andy. I am still a bit unclear what the style refers to – to the investor or to the portfolio? Or maybe both, as chosing a portfolio says something about the investor’s style?
As you know I do invest at the moment, but am not active anymore. I have done penny stocks back in the time I wanted to be a day trader. But my character obviously wasn’t fit for day trading. 🙂
But as my half yearly observation of my investments is coming up, you provided some useful information, so thanks!
Hi Hannie. Style and Factor in investing are used somewhat interchangeably. There are some purist definitions that make a clear separation, but you will find a great deal written online that mixes the terms quite liberally. A clear definition of factors is – common attributes of investment assets the give a specific risk-reward characteristic. Some factors are macroeconomic and tend to affect all or many investment assets such as inflation, interest rates, and unemployment rates but assets have different sensitivities to these macroeconomic factors and that is how investors can build factors into a portfolio that react differently to macro factors. There are four commonly recognized factors, value, growth, quality, and volatility, while other factors can also be used that cut across those four, such as market capitalization and industry sector. Style is a bit of a looser term and as you say does actually apply to the investor and to the portfolio. Active and passive investing are both styles and growth, momentum, value, quality, and volatility are also frequently used to refer to an investor’s style, though these terms are often loosely used. Very specifically investing style factors are specific attributes of a class of investment assets that have been shown to behave in a specific way historically reacting to the market and economic factors. As I say the terms are often used a little loosely.
As regards your own style, I think it is important to know yourself as an investor, know your risk tolerance and risk appetite and adopt a style and an approach that you are comfortable with.
I haven’t tried penny stock or day trading either and I doubt either would be a good fit for me. Though I would never say never.
Thanks and all the best
Wow, that’s an impressive article. It is so detailed and full of value.
I wish I understood all the technical terms you are using. I am a complete newbie but am willing to learn. Did you study economics, finance, or something similar? Or did you learn all of that on your own?
Hi and thanks for your comments. I have some formal training in corporate finance but I am not a CPA or anything like that. I think investing seriously is a lifelong learning activity in its own right. I am sorry if there are technical terms that are not clear to you. You should find that all the words that are highlighted are terms clarified in the glossary. If you move your mouse over the word then a short definition pops up on the screen. If you want to dig deeper you click on the word and it will take you to a longer description in the glossary itself. I will make sure that if I introduce new terms I remember to add a definition in the glossary.
Thanks again for your comments.