Why the tortoise can beat the hare in investment strategy

The benefits of low-volatility investing outweigh those of high-risk stocks, argues Pim van Vliet, in an interview with David Woods-Hale

For generations, investors have believed that risk and return are inseparable. Just ask the huge banks who invested billions in sub-prime mortgages prior to 2008. But is it time we accepted the truth: this just isn’t the case anymore? Pim van Vliet, the founder and fund manager of the multi-billion-dollar Conservative Equity funds at Robeco, has set out to rewrite the rule book on investment strategy. 

In his book, High Returns from Low Risk: A Remarkable Stock Market Paradox, van Vliet combines the latest research with stock market data going back to 1929 to prove that investing in low-risk stocks gives surprisingly high returns – significantly better than those generated by high-risk stocks.

The low-risk funds, in which van Vliet specialises, are based on academic research and provide investors with a stable source of income from the stock market. 

He is a guest lecturer at several universities, the author of numerous financial publications and travels the world advocating low-volatility investing. Together with investment specialist Jan de Koning, van Vliet has presented his counter-intuitive story as a modern upbeat stock market equivalent of ‘the tortoise and the hare’. And he explains why investing in low-risk stocks works and will continue to work, even once more people become aware of the paradox. 

But this theory flies in the face of traditional and accepted thought regarding classic investment theory – so how did he build a theory that goes against the grain?

‘High risk does not bring more return,’ he explains. ‘It’s a paradox and I want to get the message out there. Unfortunately, this is an inconvenient truth for the finance community and it’s puzzled me for half my life.

‘It’s because we define risk in the wrong way, but when I was able to reconcile the paradox and started to research and apply the knowledge I was accumulating, by managing low-risk funds for investors, we were able to generate high risk-adjusted returns by investing in low-risk stocks, which attracted billions of dollars

The concept of investing in low-risk stocks for high returns is a compelling argument, but at odds with the views of some economists. Van Vliet, outlines his own hypothesis as follows, explaining: ‘My investment hypothesis is evidence-based: any idea on investing should be validated by empirical data. Although this approach is common in the field of medicine, it’s not in the world of finance.’   

He pauses, then adds: ‘In general – at a high level – the truth still holds: more risk will equate to more return. In the long run, stocks will earn higher returns than bonds for example. But if you dig a level deeper down, this idea fails within the stock market and also within the bond market. Lower-risk stocks provide higher returns than higher-risk stocks. The slow stock beats the fast stock. I explore this at length in my book. 

‘Benchmarking provides an important explanation for this effect. If you have stocks with lower risk factors, you will be less affected by the stock market. Imagine a stock posting a fixed return of 10% per year. That stock has – in absolute terms – 0% risk. However, when adopting a relative perspective this low-risk stock would lag behind if the market is delivering a return of 40% in a year, or be well ahead of the market during a market loss of -20%. This 30% return gap – whether positive or negative – is perceived as relative risk. It is the misalignment of interest here that poses a problem, because the role of an investor is different to that of a money manager. A professional investor is paid to take risks with people’s money to generate return and if they are not taking these risks, they could be shunned. In other words: due to benchmarking low-risk stocks become unattractive.’

Van Vliet compares his investment hypothesis similar in idea to the fable of the tortoise and the hare in that ‘slow and steady’ often wins the race but there is a human nature lesson here as well as advice for financial strategy. 

‘Most people want to bet on hares,’ he says. ‘In psychology, finance and literature it’s the moves in the market that generate the most attention and they drive up prices in stocks, which in turn makes the news. Tortoises are never in the news. Volatility makes headlines – this exacerbates a culture of short-termism and people who are bullish and want a quick buck.’

Van Vliet is quick to point there is fine line between ‘bullish’ and ‘reckless’ when it comes to investment and he worries that investors in general are too quick to ‘shun’ more defensive equity funds. 

He elaborates: ‘For this reason, society is experiencing a collective sense of over-confidence [in that they want to invest in high-risk funds]. This is really good for people’s mental wellbeing but it’s bad for financial health.’ 

Tortoises, according to van Vliet, are stable companies and defensive funds that ‘never seem to go up’ in stock market terms. But, as the saying goes, at least, fortune favours the brave – and in van Vliet’s analysis, it’s those that invest in risky funds that view themselves as brave. He counters this assumption. 

Re-defining bravery

‘Low-risk investors are brave,’ he asserts. ‘They are seen as conservative, but in reality they are not following the crowd. It’s like the character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, following a tough long road, but leading to a good end result.’

To capitalise on the low-risk anomaly, a long-term investment vision is required. The advantage of a low-volatility strategy is that the stocks involved will fall less than other stocks in a declining market. Once the market recovers, low-volatility stocks have less ground to make up to recover and start yielding positive returns again. 

Citing the experiences of the world’s second-richest man as an example, van Vliet explains that Warren Buffett is inclined to take a long-term view when it comes to his investments. Instead of following the crowd, Buffett has built his career and success on seeking out undervalued investments. Although Buffett’s portfolio has lagged behind the market several times during his career, he has beaten the market average decisively over time. 

For Buffett, average is doing what everybody else is doing; to rise above the average, you need to measure yourself by what he terms the ‘inner scorecard’ – judging yourself by your own standards and rather than the world’s.

A sustainable approach

 But where do ethics fit into a low-risk investment strategy? Does van Vliet agree that a values-led, sustainable approach to investing is becoming more important in the current financial climate?

He explains: ‘Low-risk portfolios make for sustainable, long-term investments, but in terms of ethics, the key consideration is how we, as investors, take care of our clients’ money – perhaps by investing in green companies or more sustainable funds for that reason.

‘High-risk and low-risk investments have the same mechanisms. And low-risk investments drive up risky projects. I’m not saying that a degree of risk is not a good thing – but prudent decision making is more important.’ 

Does van Vliet therefore believe that would-be investors have to be finance experts to understand the intricacies of the market?

‘You can over-train for a marathon,’ he explains. ‘You need information about the markets and I’ve outlined this in my own work – but the secret to successful investment is wisdom [rather than market knowledge only]. For example, the latest “hare” in the market place is FinTech and investors are keen to invest here. The truth is that some of these FinTech organisations will win, but most will lose.’

 He sums up by adding: ‘I think a good philosophy for investment is “some risk”. Putting this into the context of diet, a moderate amount of vitamins and salt is a good thing – but not taken to the extreme. There is no such thing as “no risk” as the risk spectrum is not linear. You have to create a bit of risk to generate value. If there is no risk, your investments will be negative. I believe the ideal investment choice, is what I call the “conservative middle”, which is a situation between very high and very low risk. 

‘We often are attracted to the extremes, but ancient philosophers wisely pointed to the virtue in the middle. Too much risk hurts long-term wealth creation, but a moderate amount of stock market risk is good. There are more and more companies that live and work according to this prudent investment principle, from private equity firms to family businesses. This is the secret to sustainable investing.’

Dr Pim van Vliet is a Senior Portfolio Manager within the Quantitative Equities team of Robeco, an international asset manager with
a strong belief in sustainable investing, quantitative techniques and constant innovation. His primary responsibility is Robeco’s conservative equity strategies.

Van Vliet has published articles in the Journal of Banking and Finance, Management Science, the Journal of Portfolio Management and other academic journals, plus a book on the topic of low-volatility investing. He is a guest lecturer at several universities, advocating low-volatility investing at international seminars, and holds a PhD and
MSc (cum laude) in Financial and Business Economics from Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

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