A Book Review of ReSolve Asset Management’s Adaptive Asset Allocation

This review will review the “Adaptive Asset Allocation: Dynamic Global Portfolios to Profit in Good Times – and Bad” book by the people at ReSolve Asset Management. Overall, this book is a definite must-read for those who have never been exposed to the ideas within it. However, when it comes to a solution that can be fully replicated, this book is lacking.

Okay, it’s been a while since I reviewed my last book, DIY Financial Advisor, from the awesome people at Alpha Architect. This book in my opinion, is set up in a similar sort of format.

This is the structure of the book, and my reviews along with it:

Part 1: Why in the heck you actually need to have a diversified portfolio, and why a diversified portfolio is a good thing. In a world in which there is so much emphasis put on single-security performance, this is certainly something that absolutely must be stated for those not familiar with portfolio theory. It highlights the example of two people–one from Abbott Labs, and one from Enron, who had so much of their savings concentrated in their company’s stock. Mr. Abbott got hit hard and changed his outlook on how to save for retirement, and Mr. Enron was never heard from again. Long story short: a diversified portfolio is good, and a properly diversified portfolio can offset one asset’s zigs with another asset’s zags. This is the key to establishing a stream of returns that will help meet financial goals. Basically, this is your common sense story (humans love being told stories) so as to motivate you to read the rest of the book. It does its job, though for someone like me, it’s more akin to a big “wait for it, wait for it…and there’s the reason why we should read on, as expected”.

Part 2: Something not often brought up in many corners of the quant world (because it’s real life boring stuff) is the importance not only of average returns, but *when* those returns are achieved. Namely, imagine your everyday saver. At the beginning of their careers, they’re taking home less salary and have less money in their retirement portfolio (or speculation portfolio, but the book uses retirement portfolio). As they get into middle age and closer to retirement, they have a lot more money in said retirement portfolio. Thus, strong returns are most vital when there is more cash available *to* the portfolio, and the difference between mediocre returns at the beginning and strong returns at the end of one’s working life as opposed to vice versa is *astronomical* and cannot be understated. Furthermore, once *in* retirement, strong returns in the early years matter far more than returns in the later years once money has been withdrawn out of the portfolio (though I’d hope that a portfolio’s returns can be so strong that one can simply “live off the interest”). Or, put more intuitively: when you have $10,000 in your portfolio, a 20% drawdown doesn’t exactly hurt because you can make more money and put more into your retirement account. But when you’re 62 and have $500,000 and suddenly lose 30% of everything, well, that’s massive. How much an investor wants to avoid such a scenario cannot be understated. Warren Buffett once said that if you can’t bear to lose 50% of everything, you shouldn’t be in stocks. I really like this part of the book because it shows just how dangerous the ideas of “a 50% drawdown is unavoidable” and other “stay invested for the long haul” refrains are. Essentially, this part of the book makes a resounding statement that any financial adviser keeping his or her clients invested in equities when they’re near retirement age is doing something not very advisable, to put it lightly. In my opinion, those who advise pension funds should especially keep this section of the book in mind, since for some people, the long-term may be coming to an end, and what matters is not only steady returns, but to make sure the strategy doesn’t fall off a cliff and destroy decades of hard-earned savings.

Part 3: This part is also one that is a very important read. First off, it lays out in clear terms that the long-term forward-looking valuations for equities are at rock bottom. That is, the expected forward 15-year returns are very low, using approximately 75 years of evidence. Currently, according to the book, equity valuations imply a *negative* 15-year forward return. However, one thing I *will* take issue with is that while forward-looking long-term returns for equities may be very low, if one believed this chart and only invested in the stock market when forecast 15-year returns were above the long term average, one would have missed out on both the 2003-2007 bull runs, *and* the one since 2009 that’s just about over. So, while the book makes a strong case for caution, readers should also take the chart with a grain of salt in my opinion. However, another aspect of portfolio construction that this book covers is how to construct a robust (assets for any economic environment) and coherent (asset classes balanced in number) universe for implementation with any asset allocation algorithm. I think this bears repeating: universe selection is an extremely important topic in the discussion of asset allocation, yet there is very little discussion about it. Most research/topics simply take some “conventional universe”, such as “all stocks on the NYSE”, or “all the stocks in the S&P 500”, or “the entire set of the 50-60 most liquid futures” without consideration for robustness and coherence. This book is the first source I’ve seen that actually puts this topic under a magnifying glass besides “finger in the air pick and choose”.

Part 4: and here’s where I level my main criticism at this book. For those that have read “Adaptive Asset Allocation: A Primer”, this section of the book is basically one giant copy and paste. It’s all one large buildup to “momentum rank + min-variance optimization”. All well and good, until there’s very little detail beyond the basics as to how the minimum variance portfolio was constructed. Namely, what exactly is the minimum variance algorithm in use? Is it one of the poor variants susceptible to numerical instability inherent in inverting sample covariance matrices? Or is it a heuristic like David Varadi’s minimum variance and minimum correlation algorithm? The one feeling I absolutely could not shake was that this book had a perfect opportunity to present a robust approach to minimum variance, and instead, it’s long on concept, short on details. While the theory of “maximize return for unit risk” is all well and good, the actual algorithm to implement that theory into practice is not trivial, with the solutions taught to undergrads and master’s students having some well-known weaknesses. On top of this, one thing that got hammered into my head in the past was that ranking *also* had a weakness at the inclusion/exclusion point. E.G. if, out of ten assets, the fifth asset had a momentum of say, 10.9%, and the sixth asset had a momentum of 10.8%, how are we so sure the fifth is so much better? And while I realize that this book was ultimately meant to be a primer, in my opinion, it would have been a no-objections five-star if there were an appendix that actually went into some detail on how to go from the simple concepts and included a small numerical example of some algorithms that may address the well-known weaknesses. This doesn’t mean Greek/mathematical jargon. Just an appendix that acknowledged that not every reader is someone only picking up his first or second book about systematic investing, and that some of us are familiar with the “whys” and are more interested in the “hows”. Furthermore, I’d really love to know where the authors of this book got their data to back-date some of these ETFs into the 90s.

Part 5: some more formal research on topics already covered in the rest of the book–namely a section about how many independent bets one can take as the number of assets grow, if I remember it correctly. Long story short? You *easily* get the most bang for your buck among disparate asset classes, such as treasuries of various duration, commodities, developed vs. emerging equities, and so on, as opposed to trying to pick among stocks in the same asset class (though there’s some potential for alpha there…just…a lot less than you imagine). So in case the idea of asset class selection, not stock selection wasn’t beaten into the reader’s head before this point, this part should do the trick. The other research paper is something I briefly skimmed over which went into more depth about volatility and retirement portfolios, though I felt that the book covered this topic earlier on to a sufficient degree by building up the intuition using very understandable scenarios.

So that’s the review of the book. Overall, it’s a very solid piece of writing, and as far as establishing the *why*, it does an absolutely superb job. For those that aren’t familiar with the concepts in this book, this is definitely a must-read, and ASAP.

However, for those familiar with most of the concepts and looking for a detailed “how” procedure, this book does not deliver as much as I would have liked. And I realize that while it’s a bad idea to publish secret sauce, I bought this book in the hope of being exposed to a new algorithm presented in the understandable and intuitive language that the rest of the book was written in, and was left wanting.

Still, that by no means diminishes the impact of the rest of the book. For those who are more likely to be its target audience, it’s a 5/5. For those that wanted some specifics, it still has its gem on universe construction.

Overall, I rate it a 4/5.

Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “A Book Review of ReSolve Asset Management’s Adaptive Asset Allocation

  1. I liked the last part of your summary point #3 as well as the lack of “how” in the book. Thanks for the summary!

  2. nice review Ilya—just a typo to point out I did the “minimum variance algorithm and minimum correlation” not the max decorrelation—same idea, just a different author.

  3. I thought the book was strong on showing why something other than buy and hold is needed these days, but I also wasn’t convinced that their approach has merit. It seemed a lot like the Alpha
    Architect DIY book – let’s try to impress people so they will invest with us.

  4. I think you were far too generous with a rating of 4/5. I was extremely shocked and disappointed with the fact that part 4 was taken entirely from their whitepaper and no further insight or detail was added. I’m really surprised that given your experience coding the Markowitz paper for Butler and Keller, that you weren’t privy to more of ReSolve’s methodology.

  5. Hi Ilya, Thanks for the review. It is very disappointing that the authors chose not to disclose information that would help to validate their claims. Anyone who is managing their own money (or other people’s) already know the theoretical stuff – the reasons “why”. So the book is targeted at newbies. But without tools to actually put the information to good use, it won’t help them. Everybody has ideas. It’s the tools for implementation that matter and without those, this book is nothing more than an extended marketing brochure for services. So what we have is a book that serves neither the practitioner nor the novice. This is probably a 1 star book (marketing disguised as research) but I would give it 2 stars because the ideas, although found elsewhere, are useful to the beginner.

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