Liquidity: Factor investing's hidden gem

Interest in factors is on the rise. Since the launch of our factor products, Head of Quantitative Equity Product Management Matt Jiannino and Senior Product Manager Frank Chism have been fielding advisors' questions on leveraging factor exposures, especially liquidity.

What the pair discovered is, while advisors are intrigued by liquidity, some are hesitant to adopt it as a strategy. Vanguard U.S. Liquidity Factor ETF (VFLQ) is the first of its kind to specifically target liquidity exposure, so, naturally, many advisors want to perform due diligence before investing in it.

To support that effort, Jiannino and Chism sat down to answer some common liquidity questions they're hearing from advisors.

What's the reception to liquidity as a factor been like so far?

Matt Jiannino: Advisors have read a lot about value and momentum in the press. But while the liquidity factor is just as enduring, it's kind of a hidden gem that people aren't aware of. It's existed just as long and makes intuitive sense when you realize that you're getting it in other spaces. And every time we talk to advisors about this, they get it.

Frank Chism: And when advisors get it, they're into it. They see it as something different, which makes it useful. I recently met with an RIA who showed me his portfolio, and it had a little bit of everything. But it didn't have liquidity represented. He wanted to figure out how to get it in there.

Where does the liquidity conversation with advisors usually start?

FC: I tell them our story. When Vanguard was considering launching factor products, we went to our Quantitative Equity Group (QEG), who've been running a multifactor product since the early '90s, and asked which single-factor products we should do.

The first three QEG came back with were quality, value, and momentum. We thought that was great because they're from Fama-French's research and other academic studies, so we were very familiar with those. Then QEG said liquidity. My first reaction was, "Where's size? Size is the other Fama-French factor, why aren't we doing that?"

MJ: What we found out was that, in many cases, active managers' small-cap strategies were really attempts to access this liquidity premium that exists out there.

FC: Right, so we think liquidity is a distinct factor. And a third of all our single-factor portfolios are in small caps, so we're getting size exposure anyway.

So what premium is VFLQ targeting?

MJ: The premium is that relatively less liquid securities tend to outperform their more liquid peers. If you look across the entire market-cap spectrum, you see this premium. Even if you look at large cap, if you were to divide the world of large-cap stocks and order them from more liquid to less liquid, the less liquid part has outperformed.

Considering its ties to size, is it safe to say investors have been getting liquidity exposure without realizing it?

FC: Yes, they've been getting it as a byproduct. If you equal weight the Russell 2000 Index — and there is a product that will let you do that — you're going to own as much of the smallest names as you do of the biggest ones. And I guarantee you that some of the ones at the bottom will be remarkably less liquid than the biggest ones. So you're getting it, but we would say, "Why would you own the superliquid ones? Why not just go after the less liquid ones?"

MJ: And some of those larger names could be less liquid. If they are, you would target them. But you want to be explicit in what you're targeting. The liquidity factor targets the premium that investors such as endowments and foundations are trying to get by buying real estate, private equity, fixed assets, and things like that that most investors can't access.

Why is that?

MJ: They either can't get access to private equity or can't find a way to make money doing so. Or they don't have the capital to buy a diversified portfolio of real estate.

FC: Think of it this way: Someone might buy one rental house to add income to their portfolio, but they're not able to effectively build a real estate portfolio.

MJ: But if you were able to diversify across multiple real estate assets, not only do they add that income, but a lot of what you'd also capture is this liquidity premium. You've diversified away the single-property risk, and now you hold a portfolio of properties. And what you're capturing is the premium that exists for holding that diversified portfolio of illiquid assets. It may take you a long time to sell a single property, but with a liquidity factor fund, you could find a different property to sell.

With the liquidity product, you can build a nice, diversified portfolio across liquid assets, and hold less liquid names to collect the premium. To get the premium, you have to build diversified portfolios. That's why we built VFLQ to hold 900 stocks. Holding a single name gets you exposure, but it comes along with all the idiosyncratic risk of holding a single asset.

A good way to look at it is like having a huge art or antique-car collection. Buying one classic car or painting is probably not a good investment. You want a diversified portfolio so that you're not relying on one piece.

FC: And there's a tremendous amount of costs with collectibles, and also private equity. If you have to hire someone to buy private companies, they have to be compensated.

So the fund helps you get the instant access to the liquidity premium, but it's at an obtainable price. There's no middle person. We can do it quantitatively, and very quickly, across the whole market.

What should an advisor's goal be with VFLQ?

MJ: Primarily it's for those who believe that the factor exists and that it's enduring. They want to add the tilt to their clients' portfolios to realize that premium long term.

FC: I totally agree. One of the objectives has to be to outperform the market. In the same way investors put exposure to value in their portfolios because they believe it will outperform over long periods of time. You'd say the same thing about liquidity.

How does the way we target liquidity work?

FC: When you think about factor investing, you're really trying to create exposure or have beta to the factor. If the factor does well, you want your portfolio to mirror that performance.

So you must decide on the characteristics of stocks that are going to make your portfolio move in line with that factor. For liquidity, we look at each stock and say:

  • How much turnover has it experienced on an average daily basis over the last year in terms of percentage of shares outstanding that are trading?

  • How much, in terms of dollars, is trading on an average daily basis? We do that to scale things. You might have a company that trades a lot of shares outstanding, but it might be a really tiny company that's really only trading a few thousand dollars a day. Or you might have a giant company that's not trading too many of its shares, but it's expensive enough to make it look as if it has huge trading volume.

  • What's its Amihud illiquidity score? Yakov Amihud came up with a way for measuring liquidity in a stock market: You take the amount of a price change a stock is experiencing on average on a daily basis and divide it by the dollar turnover measure. And you're looking for a big number, meaning if a stock is experiencing a lot of price movement, you want the amount of trading to not be that big.

So we're looking for stocks that don't have to trade a whole lot to move the price. Stocks where you can trade a ton and the price barely moves are what we shy away from.

You take an equal-weighted ranking of the three factor scores, and you go through each of the segments of the market and rank them separately. We construct the portfolio by taking the best stocks on those three measures from each of the three market-cap buckets.

Is there a liquidity "sweet spot" that our product aims for?

MJ: We're not targeting a number. It's all about taking the names that score best on these liquidity measures relative to their peers.

That's why we built it the way we did. Some people say, "900 stocks, wow that's a lot." Nine hundred stocks gets us a ton of targeted exposure to a factor in a diversified portfolio so that one name shouldn't affect the overall return of the portfolio. The return of the factor is what's captured long term.

How do you get a liquidity premium if you're buying the things that are less liquid? Are you potentially buying away the premium at some point?

FC: We get this question a lot. We have 900 stocks. If someone gives us a few million dollars to add to the portfolio, we're not adding a tremendous amount of money to any single name. Plus, the names need to have at least $2 million worth of average daily volume to pass the initial liquidity screening.

You'd have to see numbers like $40 million, $50 million, $80 million in a day to get to a point where you're talking about being a significant chunk of the daily trading value. And even then, we're active, so we could spread it out or do something to counter that.

We'd have to get to tens of billions of dollars, north of $20 billion at least, before we even start to look at whether we're getting less of a liquidity premium.

MJ: I think about the lottery effect, where investors search for the one stock that goes up 200 percent. Those stocks are out there, and people continue to hunt for those. But for every one of those, there's a bunch more that blow up or don't do anything.

What we're talking about with long-term factor strategies is not finding a single name, but capturing factors that exist out there. If all these funds had a tagline, it'd be that they're a convenient, low-cost, targeted exposure to an enduring premium that's difficult to access anywhere else.

Dive deeper into liquidity

For more on liquidity, read "Drawing Systematic Value From the Public Equity Liquidity Premium" or watch this 3-minute clip on liquidity from our recent factors webcast. Our product brief contains detailed information on Vanguard U.S. Liquidity Factor ETF (VFLQ). You can also access more factor-based investing strategies and product details in The Factor Center.


  • Vanguard ETF Shares are not redeemable with the issuing Fund other than in very large aggregations worth millions of dollars. Instead, investors must buy and sell Vanguard ETF Shares in the secondary market and hold those shares in a brokerage account. In doing so, the investor may incur brokerage commissions and may pay more than net asset value when buying and receive less than net asset value when selling.

  • All investing is subject to risk, including possible loss of principal.

  • Funds that concentrate on a relatively narrow market sector face the risk of higher share-price volatility.

  • Factor ETFs are subject to investment style risk, which is the chance that returns from the types of stocks in which the ETF invests will trail returns from the stock market. Factor ETFs are subject to manager risk, which is the chance that poor security selection will cause the ETF to underperform relevant benchmarks or other ETFs with a similar investment objective.

© 2018 The Vanguard Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

This page was paid for by our sponsors. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.