Factors, Fortitude, and Faith

“Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues.” – John Locke

Factors, factors, factors. Everyone seems to love factors these days.


Because they have exhibited high returns in the past and investors love high returns.

But just because factors have outperformed over long periods of time in the past doesn’t mean they outperform all of the time. Not even close.

All factors have experienced multi-year (and sometimes longer) periods of underperformance. All factors will face such periods again in the future.

Few investors want to envision such periods before investing in factors. This is understandable – who wants to think about losses or underperformance when buying a new investment. It’s much more fun to stare at the long-term performance chart (up and to the right) and assume such gains were easily achieved.

factors image

But that is not reality.

The reality is that factor investing is hard, requiring both fortitude and faith. You need fortitude to ride out inevitable bad times and faith to believe the good times will come again.

The only way to have fortitude and faith in my view is to understand what drives factor performance. Knowing only about a factor’s strong returns is not enough; you need to understand the why in order to have any chance of sticking with it in the future.

Five of the most prominent factors are:

  • Market (stocks beat risk-free bonds)
  • Value (cheap beats expensive)
  • Momentum (strong recent returns beats weak recent returns)
  • Low Volatility (low volatility beats high volatility)
  • Size (small beats large)

All have done well in the past. The key question is why.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to explaining factor performance: risk and behavior. The former posits that factor premiums are compensation for taking on more risk. The latter posits that factor premiums are a result of investor behavior (errors and constraints).

Let’s run through some of the “why” theories for each of the five factors…


Stocks outperform risk-free bonds over time. Why?

  • Economic uncertainty: the value of future cash flows is uncertain due to fluctuations in the overall economy.
  • Long-run growth risk: small downward revisions in long-run growth can have large changes in stock prices.
  • Borrowing constraints: young investors with low wages/assets, who should be holding equity, are prevented from doing so due to borrowing constraints (they cannot borrow to purchase equity).
  • Myopic loss aversion: investors are more sensitive to losses in wealth than gains and take a short-term (myopic) view of their portfolios.


Cheap stocks beat expensive stocks over time. Why?


Stocks with stronger recent returns (1-month to 1-year) outperform stocks with weaker recent returns. Why?

Low Volatility

Stocks with low volatility outperform stocks with high volatility. Why?


Small cap stocks outperform large cap stocks. Why?

Understanding the Why

The current research on the why is not the final word by any means. There is still much disagreement among academics and practitioners over what really drives factor returns. Some prefer risk-based explanations, others prefer errors-based (behavioral), and others still prefer some combination (they are not mutually exclusive). The debate is forever changing and expanding over time as new evidence comes in.

I’m pretty sure we’ll never have a simple, definitive “reason” for factor premiums, but that should not dissuade investors from attempting to understand why they own something.

For this understanding is critical when investors need it most: during the many hard times in which factors are out of favor. During good times when your factor is going up or outperforming, performance alone seems to be all that matters. But when your factor is going down or underperforming, you need more of a reason to hold on. Investors are much more likely to sell something if they don’t understand why they bought it in the first place.

That understanding helps give you the fortitude to stick with factors for the long-term (no, 6-months is not the long-term), the time frame necessary to truly benefit from them. And given the painful cyclicality of all factors (there is no free lunch), you will need a lot of it, which is a strong argument as to why factor premiums have persisted (rewards patient, resilient long-term investors) and have not been arbitraged away (if it worked all the time, money would flow endlessly into a factor until its premium was eliminated).

But fortitude is not enough. You also need faith. Faith that the drivers of factors are real and faith that they will continue in the future. That faith will be tested when you need it most, when a factor is down or underperforming. It will be mocked by others who only invest in “what’s working.” But without it, you have no chance of benefiting from even the world’s best strategy because you will abandon it at the first sign of real weakness (which all of the best-performing strategies have at one time or another).

The next time you see an attractive long-term performance chart on a factor, avoid the temptation to invest blindly. Take the time to understand the why and how it fits into your overall portfolio. Then ask yourself if you really have the fortitude and faith to stick with it when it’s down.

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This writing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute an offer to sell, a solicitation to buy, or a recommendation regarding any securities transaction, or as an offer to provide advisory or other services by Pension Partners, LLC in any jurisdiction in which such offer, solicitation, purchase or sale would be unlawful under the securities laws of such jurisdiction. The information contained in this writing should not be construed as financial or investment advice on any subject matter. Pension Partners, LLC expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken based on any or all of the information on this writing.



Charlie Bilello is the Director of Research at Pension Partners, LLC, an investment advisor that manages mutual funds and separate accounts.  He is the co-author of four award-winning research papers on market anomalies and investing. Mr. Bilello is responsible for strategy development, investment research and communicating the firm’s investment themes and portfolio positioning to clients. Prior to joining Pension Partners, he was the Managing Member of Momentum Global Advisors and previously held positions as a Credit, Equity and Hedge Fund Analyst at billion dollar alternative investment firms.

Mr. Bilello holds a J.D. and M.B.A. in Finance and Accounting from Fordham University and a B.A. in Economics from Binghamton University. He is a Chartered Market Technician (CMT) and a Member of the Market Technicians Association. Mr. Bilello also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certificate.

You can follow Charlie on twitter here.


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