Alpha, Beta, and Beyond

NEW YORK – Even in normal times, individual and institutional investors alike have a hard time figuring out where to invest and in what. Should one invest more in advanced or emerging economies? And which ones? How does one decide when, and in what way, to rebalance one’s portfolio?

Obviously, these choices become harder still in abnormal times, when major global changes occur and central banks follow unconventional policies. But a new, low-cost approach promises to ease the challenge confronting investors in normal and abnormal times alike.

In the asset management industry, there have traditionally been two types of investment strategies: passive and active. The passive approach includes investment in indices that track specific benchmarks, say, the S&P 500 for the United States or an index of advanced economies or emerging-market equities. In effect, one buys the index of the market.

Passivity is a low-cost approach – tracking a benchmark requires no work. But it yields only the sum of the good, the bad, and the ugly, because it cannot tell you whether to buy advanced economies or emerging markets, and which countries within each group will do better. You invest in a basket of all countries or specific regions, and what you get is referred to as “beta” – the average market return.