Optimal Momentum™ Optimal Momentum™

Frequently Asked Questions

It seems that a lot can happen between the beginning of the month when your momentum indices adjust their positions and the beginning of the next month when new signals are given.

Research has shown that stock prices are reactive rather than trending over shorter periods of time such as days and weeks. Stocks are more likely to rebound from short-term fluctuations than to continue in the same direction. It is best to ignore short term movements and retain a longer term perspective.   

If momentum investing is so great why aren’t more people using it?

It usually takes awhile for research to work its way into the investment marketplace. We saw that with indexing. Public awareness should grow as information about momentum becomes more accepted over time.

There are also other reasons why momentum investing has not caught on. First, it is not as psychologically appealing to buy what has gone up in price as it is to buy things that appear to be cheap. Second, momentum may seem too simple to those who think more complex approaches have more merit. Finally, some investors have prejudices against newer styles of investing or investing in indices rather than in stocks. Interestingly, the same behavioral factors that explain why momentum works also explain why momentum has not caught on yet: anchoring, conservatism, herding, and the slow diffusion of information. Dual momentum has additional biases that keep others from using it: familiarity bias and home country bias.

     What are the main risks associated with dual momentum investing?

         One risk is that past history is driven by randomness, and the future may not be like the past.          However, there are several hundred years of out-of-sample performance supporting both relative          and absolute momentum. There are also behavioral reasons why momentum has a good chance to          continue working.

         There is some risk that momentum will attract substantial capital and not work as well in the          future because of too many participants. But the broad stock indices we use are more scalable          than individual stocks. They are also less popular as momentum investments.


         There is risk associated with the trend-following component of dual momentum being slow          moving in order to reduce whipsaws. This means that much of the short term volatility of the          stock market still exists with dual momentum. Additionally, there are re-entry lags when a new          bull market begins after being in bonds during bear markets.

         Over the past 47 years, our Global Equities Momentum (GEM) model under performed its          benchmarks in 1979-80 and 2009-11. No strategy outperforms all the time. Future drawdowns may          be larger than those during the past 47 years. Please see our Disclaimer page for additional risk          factors.

      Should one invest using your papers’ momentum portfolios?

         My papers were meant to illustrate the principles of momentum investing and not as models for          investing. Data on some markets is limited. REIT index data began in 1972. That is also when the          price of gold was allowed to fluctuate. Stocks have traded though since the 1600s. Historically,          the highest risk premium has come from equities. There are still some who believe that a more          diversified approach is better. But long term research shows that momentum works best when          applied to geographically diversified stock indices.  

      How many sectors does your Dual Momentum Sector Rotation (DMSR) model invest in?  

         The number of sectors depends on one’s attitude toward reward and risk. Fewer sectors mean          higher expected returns and higher volatility. You can search for parameters to create a sector          rotation model that suits your risk preferences. However, data mined parameters may not hold up          out-of-sample. I show here the performance of DMSR using additional data since my book was          published. DMSR is no longer as attractive as broader-based dual momentum models like GEM.          Using data back to 1801, Geczy and Samonov (2015) also show that momentum with          geographically diversifed stock indices outperforms momentum with sectors.

      What about adding small caps, REITs, gold, commodities, or the NASDAQ100 to GEM?

        None of these add value to GEM over the long run. As with sectors, their volatility and drawdown         are high. Dual momentum does best with moderate volatility. When volatility is too high, you may         give up significant profits before you can enter or exit positions. You do not get compensated         enough when you take on more idiosyncratic volatility with assets such as these.

      Why don’t you use the U.S. Total Stock Market index instead of the S&P 500?

        Results have been better with large cap stocks. This is likely because there is no small cap         premium. See here for more on this.

      How about using emerging markets as a separate asset with GEM?

        EMs are included in the MSCI ACWI ex-U.S. index that we use. They make up 17% of that index         based on their market capitalization. We feel this is an appropriate amount of exposure. Investors         are more prone to panic sell more volatile assets like EMs during times of crisis.

        MSCI EM index data begins in December 1988. We recently acquired additional non-MSCI EM data.         When we tried adding additional EM exposure to GEM, the results were disappointing. Drawdowns         and volatility were unacceptably high. As with sectors, this shows the importance of longer data         sets.

      Why don’t you invest in long-term Treasury bonds when you are out of stocks, since they are       negatively correlated?

         The negative correlation you see now has not always been there.



          Source: Graham Capital Management Research Note, September 2017

         Long term bonds also have considerable duration risk. During times of crisis, investors prefer safe          harbor assets with little risk of any kind.

          Long-term bonds have had similar returns to intermediate bonds despite their higher volatility.          The return of intermediate bonds includes compensation for reinvestment risk once these bonds          mature. Long bonds do not have this reinvestment risk and do not require a risk premium for it.

         Over the past 47 years bonds have been in a bull market much of that time and the correlation          between stocks and bonds has been negative. Yet long-term bonds have not outperformed short          to intermediate term ones when we have been out of stocks. See here for more on long-term          bonds as a safe harbor asset.    

       I like your Global Balanced Momentum (GBM) model because it holds both stocks and bonds        simultaneously. What can I do along those lines?

        Bonds behave differently than stocks. My enhanced GBM model has different parameters than GEM.         Enhanced GBM is one of the proprietary models I license to investment professionals. To achieve a         similar risk profile, you can use the suggestion at the end of chapter 8 of my book and allocate a         permanent percentage of your portfolio to short-term bonds.

      What are differences between your published and proprietary models?

        My proprietary models adapt more to market conditions, include more ETFs, and apply dual         momentum to the bond markets. I also have proprietary models to accommodate different risk         preferences.

       My 401k plan does not include an all country world stock fund. What can I use instead?

         Most 401k plans include a fund for non-U.S. stocks. You could use that. If your 401k has an          emerging markets fund, you could create a synthetic ex-U.S. all country world fund by allocating          15-20% to the emerging market fund and 80-85% to a non-U.S. developed markets fund. Your          signals could still be derived from an ex-U.S. all country world stock fund.

      What about adding value, growth, quality, low volatility, momentum or other factors to GEM?

        They do not improve GEM’s results. Even if they did, I would be suspicious of them. Many of these         funds are subject to data mining and selection bias in their construction. Real time results from         factor-based investing have often been disappointing. This may get worse in the days ahead as         the amount of capital in factor-based funds continues to grow. See our blog posts here and here.

      Are there any outside validations of your GEM model?

        There are a number of them. One is by TrendXplorer. You can also do your own back testing with         ETFs or mutual funds at Portfolio Visualizer to approximate GEM. You should use an S&P 500 fund         to determine “single absolute momentum.”

       I’ve seen GEM signals on the internet where they use an MSCI EAFE rather than an MSCI        ACWI ex-U.S. ETF.  What do you think of that?

         I use the All Country World Index ex-US along with the S&P 500 in order to be all inclusive and         avoid selection bias. EAFE omits Canada and emerging markets which represent a significant 24%         of the world’s equity markets. Holding all else constant, GEM earned 130 basis points more in         annual return using MSCI ACWI ex-U.S. rather than MSCI EAFE from December 1988 when ACWI ex-         U.S. was created by MSCI. I see no reason to invest with MSCI EAFE having lower expected returns         than MSCI ACWI ex-U.S.

       Why do you do your backtesting on indices instead of ETF or mutual fund data?

        A major reason is that index data has a lot longer history. Another is that non-U.S. stock ETFs and         mutual funds (as well as index data of net returns) withhold 30% of their dividend income for         foreign taxes that are often recoverable by investors as a tax credit. This causes the performance         of non-U.S. stock funds to suffer relative to other funds. Expense ratios also distort the relative         performance between assets. Momentum is based on relative or absolute asset performance. The         markets do not care about your taxes or other expenses afterwards.   

      Have you looked at whether there is a best time of the month to rebalance your portfolios?

        Studies show that stocks perform best early in the month. This is when institutional investors make         changes to their portfolios. Prices then are most representative of their true value. Rebalancing         during that time frame has given the best results with our models.  

      GEM has had some close signals for switching in and out of stocks. What do you do then?

        All our published results are based on month-end closing prices. I have tested using a 50/50         allocation to stocks and bonds when the signal is close. Results are about the same as following         the signal exactly. To reduce feelings of regret no matter what happens, you may want to use this         approach. Another possibility is to wait a few days and see which way the signal goes.

       It looks like the GEM model under performed the S&P 500 after 2009. Is momentum still        effective?

         Dual momentum has a trend following component that lags behind when a new bull market          begins.That is the cost of avoiding the carnage of the preceding bear market. It is unfair to look          only at a new bull market without also considering the preceding bear market.You need to          consider at least a full market cycle to make a proper evaluation of performance. GEM has          outperformed its benchmark portfolio since 2008 and earlier.

         You also need to understand why GEM has outperformed over the long run. First, are its profits          from switching between U.S. and non-U.S. stocks according to relative momentum. Since 2009,          U.S. stocks have continuously outperformed non-U.S. stocks, so there have been no opportunities          for relative strength profits. Second, the current bull market has been one of the longest in          history, so there have also been no opportunities for absolute momentum profits. It is difficult for          any trend following approach to keep up with the stock market when it is abnormally strong.

         One should focus on process rather than on short-term performance. You could say that GEM has          lost its effectiveness only if you believe U.S. stocks will always outperform non-U.S. stocks or that          there will never be another bear market. Finally, if GEM underperforms over shorter periods of          time, dual momentum investors are willing to accept that because of the drawdown protection it          has shown during bear markets.


       Since there is no dual momentum ETF, how tax efficient is GEM?

         Since 1971 73% of its gains have been long-term, while nearly 100% of its losses have been          short-term. Many investors don’t know that over 40% of the long-run return of the S&P 500 has          come from dividends. These are taxed whether or not they are earned in an ETF. You can defer all          income, including interest and dividends, by investing through a low-cost Fidelity variable annuity.

       Stock valuations look now high, and bond yields are low. Will this adversely affect dual        momentum returns?

         High stock valuation levels can mean lower expected stock returns, and low bond yields usually          point to lower future bond returns. But stocks and bonds still fluctuate and create opportunities.          In 2000, there were also high stock market valuations and low bond yields. But our GEM model          had a compound annual return of 11.6% over the next 10 years when a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio          returned only 2.3%.


          Past performance is no assurance of future success.

       The stock market is up a lot this past year. Is there more risk if I get started now?

         The stock market is subject to V-shaped, panic-induced bottoms. But tops are often a different          matter. It takes time for them to form as bulls and bears battle for dominance. By the time this          happens, absolute momentum can catch up with prices so that stock market exits are not that far          away from market tops. You can see that by looking at the GEM charts on our Performance page.                 

       Will dual momentum will lose its effectiveness if more people start using it?

         Any anomaly can lose profitability if it becomes widely followed. However, the behavioral basis          behind momentum is strong and persistent. Human nature does not readily change.

         It is unlikely that too many people will become dual momentum believers. Their biases should          keep them from adopting it. This is especially true of institutional investors who often have an          aversion to any kind of tactical allocation. Shleifer and Vishny (1997) also show that asset          managers are afraid of strategies that deviate from their benchmarks because investors may leave          following periods of under performance. Home country bias is also strong. It keeps investors from          having as much as they should with non-U.S. stocks when they are stronger than U.S. stocks.


         In aggregate, the performance of actively managed funds is inferior to passively managed funds.          People have known about that since the 1960s. Yet over 70% of all domestic equity funds are still          actively managed. Dual momentum investing may very well show the same disconnect.


       How do you determine the best look back periods for your models? Won’t shorter look back        periods get you in and out of the market sooner?

         Academic research shows that over the long run, momentum for stocks works well with a look          back period of 3 to 12 months. Longer look back periods minimize transaction costs and increase          the likelihood of long-term capital gains.


         A 12-month look back period was found to work well by Cowles & Jones in 1937. It has held up          well ever since. Staying with this look back period reduces concerns about data mining and          seasonality bias.

         While shorter look backs may get you out of and back into markets sooner, they can produce more          whipsaw losses. This actually leads to lower returns and larger drawdowns. A 3-month look back          worked well with GEM until 1979-1980. Overall since 1971, a 12-month look back has performed          better. See our blog post “Perils of Data Mining” for more details.

       Some investors skip the last month when applying momentum. Why don’t you do that?

          It makes sense to skip the last month when you are applying momentum to stocks because           individual stocks overreact to news and then mean revert. If you use stock indices or other asset           classes like we do, you do not need to skip the last month.

       Why do you use momentum with stock indices instead of portfolios of individual stocks?

           See here for why we prefer to use momentum with indices instead of stocks. According to this            study, stock momentum profits have been insignificant since 1999. According to another study,            momentum profits disappeared in the early 1990s.This is considerably more than normal tracking            error. For more on stock momentum, see our review of the book Quantitative Momentum.

        Why does the performance of GEM begin in 1950 on your website but in 1974 in your book?


          I was constrained by the lack of non-U.S. stock index data when I wrote my book. The additional           data I acquired since then has validated the out performance of GEM. In addition, both relative           strength and absolute momentum were found to outperform buy and hold when they were tested           back to 1801 by Geczy & Samonov (2015). Absolute momentum also showed superior returns and           less downside risk back to 1223 in Greyserman & Kaminski’s book.

        Isn’t value investing the opposite of momentum investing? How can both be valid?


           Value and momentum operate on different time frames. Value is based on longer-term mean            reversion, while momentum relies on intermediate (usually 3 to 12 months) serial correlation.            

        Why don’t you just use relative momentum applied to stocks and bonds?


           Over the long run, dual momentum performs better. More important, is the logic behind dual            momentum. Stocks give us the best returns. We want to be in them as long as their trend is            positive. The best way to determine that is absolute momentum. Once we decide to be in            stocks, we use relative momentum to tell us whether to be in U.S. or non-U.S. stocks.

         Do you use Sharpe ratios to evaluate systems’ performance?          


          Volatility will be lower and Sharpe ratios higher for strategies that hold bonds. It makes more           sense to look at compound annual growth rates (CAGR). CAGRs incorporate volatility in a more           realistic way than Sharpe ratios, which divide average excess return by volatility. Sharpe ratios           are also not a good indicator of downside risk exposure, especially since returns are non-normal.           Some look at worst drawdown to judge downside risk, but that is only one point in time. We           prefer to look at the distribution of drawdowns along with CAGRs.

         When I back tested GEM there were some months in which GEM is in foreign stocks.            

         You show GEM in aggregate bonds then. Why is that?

           On page 98 of my book. I mention that I determine absolute momentum using only the S&P 500           index, since the U.S. leads world equity markets. I also cite a supporting reference. If you           calculate relative momentum first, you may occasionally be in aggregate bonds if the trend in           U.S. stocks is down even when non-U.S. stocks are the strongest asset.  

        Why do you use absolute momentum for trend following instead of moving averages?

          With moving averages, you compare an asset’s current price to an average of prices over the look           back period. With absolute momentum, you compare the current price to the price at the           beginning of the look back period. This makes moving averages signals are more sensitive. They           produce more trades than absolute momentum over the same look back periods. Absolute          momentum thus has lower transaction costs, as well as fewer false signals and whipsaw losses.

          Zakamulin also shows that absolute momentum outperforms 3 different types of moving averages           on 155 years of stock market index data. Absolute momentum and reverse exponential moving           averages are the only two methods that outperform the market with statistical significance.

        What about using stop-losses with dual momentum?

          Stop-losses were once thought to reduce return as they reduced risk exposure. Recent research           shows that stops can actually enhance returns if they are used with care. I have a blog post that           discusses this. Dual momentum has been more effective than stop losses in reducing risk           exposure and enhancing expected return. Stops are usually redundant and unnecessary when           using dual momentum.

        Since momentum works best geographically, why not use it with individual country ETFs?

          Dual momentum works best when volatility is not too high. Individual countries can have extreme           volatility. This can make it difficult to get in and out using trend following momentum without           giving up a lot of profit. This is the same reason we do not use small cap indices or stock           sectors. Additionally, country index funds have lower liquidity and higher bid-ask spreads than           broader-based index funds. This can create the same potential price impact and scalability issues           as momentum applied to individual stocks.

        How do leveraged ETFs perform with dual momentum?

          There are serious drawbacks to using leveraged ETFs. First, most leveraged ETFs use daily resets           which make them best suited for day trading. There can be large tracking errors when holding           leveraged ETFs on a longer term basis. Daily resets are also not tax efficient since leveraged           ETFs give mostly short term capital gains and loses. Finally, leveraged ETFs usually have a           leverage factor of 2X or greater. This may be too much leverage. There is still considerable short-           term volatility with dual momentum. That may cause discomfort with 2X or greater leverage.

        Have you looked at inverse equity instead of using bond ETFs when absolute momentum

        tells you to exit stocks?

          Equities are the core of our models because they have shown the highest long-run risk premium.           Shorting stocks is therefore climbing an uphill battle. We want every advantage we can get by           having the most risk premium on our side to serve as a tailwind for future performance.

          There are also higher costs associated with inverse ETFs. You can own an S&P 500 ETF for an           annual expense of 4 basis points, while the expense ratio of an S&P 500 inverse ETF can be 89           basis points.

          Because stocks have an upside bias and our models are slow moving, there is often not much           profit from short positions by the time you enter and exit. The average bull market since 1942 has           lasted 32 months, while the average bear market has lasted only 12 months. Switching to bonds           during stock market weakness as identified by dual momentum has historically done better than           being short stock indices.


         There are international stock index ETFs that hedge their currency exposure. What about          using these with GEM?

          There is a tendency for international stocks to outperform U.S. stocks when the U.S. dollar is           weak and non-U.S. currencies are strong. This lets us profit from the strength in non-U.S.           currencies. When non-U.S. currencies are weak, GEM is usually out of international stocks. There           is thus little reason to use hedged ETFs. GEM automatically deals with exchange rate exposure.




        Is international diversification still beneficial now that companies are more globalized?

            Low correlation across global stocks is not the main source of our relative momentum profits. The             benefits come more on a global macro level from performance differences between the U.S.             economy (reflected in the U.S. dollar) versus the rest of the world. See the above chart. Strong             home country bias keeps investors from investing as much as they should in non-U.S. stocks             when strong. We are able to exploit that bias.

        What is the best way for non-U.S. Based investors to use dual momentum?

            We have a blog post called “Dual Momentum for Non-U.S. Investors” that discusses this in detail.            

         Is it better to scale into dual momentum or to invest all at once?

           If stocks have been up a lot during the past month or two, it might make sense to wait a bit to            avoid possible short-term mean reversion pullbacks. Otherwise, you are usually better off going            all in at once. But because everyone has different risk preferences, it is an individual decision.          

         Do you make your buy and sell decisions using month-end prices?

           Consistent with most academic work, our models’ entries and exits are based on monthly            closes that reflect total returns. If you want to trade the same day as your signals instead of            waiting until the next day’s open, you can set up a portfolio on SharpCharts that updates real-            time during trading hours and get your signals just before the markets close.

        What are momentum crashes, and do I need to worry about them?

          These are caused by the short side of long/short momentum portfolios suffering large losses when           stocks rebound sharply off V-shaped market bottoms. This happened in 1932 and 2009. Since we           do not hold short positions, momentum crashes are irrelevant to us.


         Can dual momentum be used with markets other than stocks and bonds?

          Both absolute and relative momentum have worked well with different asset classes for more than           200 years. But stock indices have historically given the best returns. Short and intermediate term           bonds have been a good safe harbor when stocks are weak.

         With bonds being in a bull market over the past 35 years, does the use of aggregate bonds          with Global Equities Momentum (GEM) overstate future expected performance?

           GEM has been out of equities only about 30% of the time. Aggregate bonds have been            responsible for only 20% of our profits.

           Aggregate bonds have an average duration of around 6 years. They are not as sensitive to            interest rate changes as longer duration bonds. Their credit risk is also minimal. Seventy percent            of their holdings are government debt. The remaining bonds are AAA rated corporates spread out            among over 6800 bond holdings. As the following chart shows, their returns have been relatively            stable and steady under varied market conditions. Their ETFs have the lowest of all bond            ETF expense ratios.


           Absolute momentum exits equities and enter bonds when it first identifies a bear market in            stocks. This usually happens just before or during a recession. This then leads to falling interest            rates as aggregate demand lessens. When stocks are weak, there is also a tendency for            investors to move their capital from stocks to bonds. This also increases demand for bonds.

           Our models aim to be totally in bonds only during bear markets in equities. You can see below            how intermediate bonds have performed then.


            We think it is reasonable to accept a little duration risk during bear markets in stocks. If you             disagree, you can substitute shorter-term bonds or Treasury bills with only a modest reduction             in overall performance.

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