A Review of DIY Financial Advisor, by Gray, Vogel, and Foulke

This post will review the DIY Financial Advisor book, which I thought was a very solid read, and especially pertinent to those who are more beginners at investing (especially systematic investing). While it isn’t exactly perfect, it’s about as excellent a primer on investing as one will find out there that is accessible to the lay-person, in my opinion.

Okay, so, official announcement: I am starting a new section of posts called “Reviews”, which I received from being asked to review this book. Essentially, I believe that anyone that’s trying to create a good product that will help my readers deserves a spotlight, and I myself would like to know what cool and innovative financial services/products are coming about. For those who’d like exposure on this site, if you’re offering an affordable and innovative product or service that can be of use to an audience like mine, reach out to me.

Anyway, this past weekend, while relocating to Chicago, I had the pleasure of reading Alpha Architect’s (Gray, Vogel, Foulke) book “DIY financial advisor”, essentially making a case as to why a retail investor should be able to outperform the expert financial advisers that charge several percentage points a year to manage one’s wealth.
The book starts off by citing various famous studies showing how many subtle subconscious biases and fallacies human beings are susceptible to (there are plenty), such as falling for complexity, overconfidence, and so on—none of which emotionless computerized systems and models suffer from. Furthermore, it also goes on to provide several anecdotal examples of experts gone bust, such as Victor Niederhoffer, who blew up not once, but twice (and rumor has it he blew up a third time), and studies showing that systematic data analysis has shown to beat expert recommendations time and again—including when experts were armed with the outputs of the models themselves. Throw in some quotes from Jim Simons (CEO of the best hedge fund in the world, Renaissance Technologies), and the first part of the book can be summed up like this:

1) Your rank and file human beings are susceptible to many subconscious biases.

2) Don’t trust the recommendations of experts. Even simpler models have systematically outperformed said “experts”. Some experts have even blown up, multiple times even (E.G. Victor Niederhoffer).

3) Building an emotionless system will keep these human fallacies from wrecking your investment portfolio.

4) Sticking to a well thought-out system is a good idea, even when it’s uncomfortable—such as when a marine has to wear a Kevlar helmet, hold extra ammo, and extra water in a 126 degree Iraq desert (just ask Dr./Captain Gray!).

This is all well and good—essentially making a very strong case for why you should build a system, and let the system do the investment allocation heavy lifting for you.
Next, the book goes into the FACTS acronym of different manager selection—fees, access, complexity, taxes, and search. Fees: how much does it cost to have someone manage your investments? Pretty self-explanatory here. Access: how often can you pull your capital (EG a hedge fund that locks you up for a year especially when it loses money should be run from, and fast). Complexity: do you understand how the investments are managed? Taxes: long-term capital gains, or shorter-term? Generally, very few decent systems will be holding for a year or more, so in my opinion, expect to pay short-term taxes. Search: that is, how hard is it to find a good candidate? Given the sea of hedge funds (especially those with short-term track records, or only track records managing tiny amounts of money), how hard is it to find a manager who’ll beat the benchmark after fees? Answer: very difficult. In short, all the glitzy sophisticated managers you hear about? Far from a terrific deal, assuming you can even find one.

Continuing, the book goes into two separate anomalies that should form the foundation for any equity investment strategy – value, and momentum. The value system essentially goes long the top decile of the EBIT/TEV metric for the top 60% of market-cap companies traded on the NYSE every year. In my opinion, this is a system that is difficult to implement for the average investor in terms of managing the data process for this system, along with having the proper capital to allocate to all the various companies. That is, if you have a small amount of capital to invest, you might not be able to get that equal weight allocation across a hundred separate companies. However, I believe that with the QVAL and IVAL etfs (from Alpha Architect, and full disclosure, I have some of my IRA invested there), I think that the systematic value component can be readily accessed through these two funds.

The momentum strategy, however, is much simpler. There’s a momentum component, and a moving average component. There’s some math that shows that these two signals are related (a momentum signal is actually proportional to a difference of a moving average and its last value), and the ROBUST system that this book proposes is a combination of a momentum signal and an SMA signal. This is how it works. Assume you have $100,000 and 5 assets to invest in, for the sake of math. Divide the portfolio into a $50,000 momentum component and a $50,000 moving average component. Every month, allocate $10,000 to each of the five assets with a positive 12-month momentum, or stay in cash for that asset. Next, allocate another $10,000 to each of the five assets with a price above a 12-month simple moving average. It’s that simple, and given the recommended ETFs (commodities, bonds, foreign stocks, domestic stocks, real estate), it’s a system that most investors can rather easily implement, especially if they’ve been following my blog.

For those interested in more market anomalies (especially value anomalies), there’s a chapter which contains a large selection of academic papers that go back and forth on the efficacies of various anomalies and how well they can predict returns. So, for those interested, it’s there.

The book concludes with some potential pitfalls which a DIY investor should be aware of when running his or her own investments, which is essentially another psychology chapter.
Overall, in my opinion, this book is fairly solid in terms of reasons why a retail investor should take the plunge and manage his or her own investments in a systematic fashion. Namely, that flesh and blood advisers are prone to human error, and on top of that, usually charge an unjustifiably high fee, and then deliver lackluster performance. The book recommends a couple of simple systems, one of which I think anyone who can copy and paste some rudimentary R can follow (the ROBUST momentum system), and another which I think most stay-at-home investors should shy away from (the value system, simply because of the difficulty of dealing with all that data), and defer to either or both of Alpha Architect’s 2 ETFs.
In terms of momentum, there are the ALFA, GMOM, and MTUM tickers (do your homework, I’m long ALFA) for various differing exposures to this anomaly, for those that don’t want to pay the constant transaction costs/incur short-term taxes of running their own momentum strategy.

In terms of where this book comes up short, here are my two cents:
Tested over nearly a century, the risk-reward tradeoffs of these systems can still be frightening at times. That is, for a system that delivers a CAGR of around 15%, are you still willing to risk a 50% drawdown? Losing half of everything on the cusp of retirement sounds very scary, no matter the long-term upside.

Furthermore, this book keeps things simple, with an intended audience of mom and pop investors (who have historically underperformed the S&P 500!). While I think it accomplishes this, I think there could have been value added, even for such individuals, by outlining some ETFs or simple ETF/ETN trading systems that can diversify a portfolio. For instance, while volatility trading sounds very scary, in the context of providing diversification, it may be worth looking into. For instance, 2008 was a banner year for most volatility trading strategies that managed to go long and stay long volatility through the crisis. I myself still have very little knowledge of all of the various exotic ETFs that are popping up left and right, and I would look very favorably on a reputable source that can provide a tour of some that can provide respectable return diversification to a basic equities/fixed-income/real asset ETF-based portfolio, as outlined in one of the chapters in this book, and other books, such as Meb Faber’s Global Asset Allocation (a very cheap ebook).

One last thing that I’d like to touch on—this book is written in a very accessible style, and even the math (yes, math!) is understandable for someone that’s passed basic algebra. It’s something that can be read in one or two sittings, and I’d recommend it to anyone that’s a beginner in investing or systematic investing.

Overall, I give this book a solid 4/5 stars. It’s simple, easily understood, and brings systematic investing to the masses in a way that many people can replicate at home. However, I would have liked to see some beyond-the-basics content as well given the plethora of different ETFs.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “A Review of DIY Financial Advisor, by Gray, Vogel, and Foulke

  1. Pingback: Quantocracy's Daily Wrap for 10/06/2015 | Quantocracy

  2. Hi Ilya, I have just purchased the book. There is a lot of research there that you have highlighted. In the interest of reproducible research (you have posted about how hard that can be!), can you confirm some of the findings you highlight in this post? It’s always interesting to get your perspective and validation. Thank you for your efforts!

  3. Pingback: Review: Invoance’s TRAIDE application | QuantStrat TradeR

  4. Pingback: A Book Review of ReSolve Asset Management’s Adaptive Asset Allocation | QuantStrat TradeR

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