How arbitrage can benefit the portfolios of high-net-worth individuals Featured

9:21pm EDT March 31, 2012
How arbitrage can benefit the portfolios of high-net-worth individuals

Arbitrage is a trading technique that has been around for decades, but it’s not one that most investors have heard of.

However, in today’s economy, it can be a smart investment, says Brian Hopkins, portfolio manager at Ancora Advisors, LLC.

“Warren Buffett employed this strategy for decades with his short-term bond money, until Berkshire got so big that he couldn’t do it anymore,” says Hopkins. “It has been a smart money strategy for decades.”

Smart Business spoke with Hopkins about arbitrage and how it can benefit an investor’s portfolio.

What is arbitrage?

Arbitrage can take two forms. One is purchasing a security with a known value in the future trading at a discount to that value after adjusting for the risk free rate. Another is when two securities with virtually identical characteristics trade at different prices. An arbitrageur can purchase the cheaper security and sell short the more expensive security and wait for the two securities to reflect their intrinsic value.

One example of this is merger arbitrage, a strategy employed when a company is being purchased by another company. Typically, there is a six-month window between when a merger is announced and when the deal finally closes. Often, during that six-month period, the stock of the company that is the target of the takeover will trade at a discount to final value because the large mutual funds are not concerned about making that incremental couple percent and decide to sell. As a result of this selling, the market price of the target company may be less than the final transaction price. At this point, an arbitrageur can step in and buy the shares of the company being acquired.  The bet is that the deal will close and the spread between the market price and the takeover price will close to zero.

Another arbitrage example is when you take advantage of the mispricing of different securities that relate closely to one another. For instance, a number of companies have two classes of common stock. One will be voting stock and one is nonvoting stock and they both trade on an exchange. They have the same economic rights in terms of dividends, cash flows, proceeds in a sale etc. so they are identical except for the voting rights. Typically the share class with the higher voting rights trades at a steady, predictable premium to the nonvoting class.

For a variety of reasons, there can be times where temporarily the steady, predictable spread widens or maybe even inverts. In that scenario, the arbitrageur buys the less expensive stock and shorts the more expensive stock. An arbitrageur would then wait for the two classes of shares to come back to the normal premium/spread relationship. This strategy has limited risk because you are only betting that the historical relationship between the two share classes will restore itself.

Is this strategy one that investors can pursue on their own?

I would advise against it. An arbitrageur will run several screens to identify opportunities, using technology that feeds in pricing data for different types of securities and the relationships between them. There is quite a bit of manpower that goes into identifying and researching those opportunities and managing overall portfolio risk.

Why is now a good time to consider this strategy?

Historically, the risk of arbitrage strategies as measured by standard deviation has been in line with the risk of the bond markets. Our feeling is that the bond market right now does not offer investors much in the way of return on capital. Fixed income investors are losing purchasing power because the yields on many bonds today are less than the rate of inflation. This is where an arbitrage strategy can come in as a complement to fixed income only portfolios.

Arbitrage has historically outperformed bonds and inflation, and we think will do so again in the future. In the current environment, we believe it represents a good way for conservative investors to diversify their sources of return away from fixed income only.

In terms of the environment for public company merger activity, there is a significant amount of cash sitting on the balance sheets of corporations, and we think that cash may be deployed in part in mergers and acquisitions. This creates a good environment for arbitrageurs because the more mergers the higher the spreads and therefore the rate of return. More deal supply in the market widens spreads and adds upside to the strategy.

What is the risk profile of this strategy?

There is some risk, but the risks of the stock market are much higher. The strategy has only been down twice in the past 22 years. Both occurrences happened in the worst years of the recent bear markets. In 2002, this strategy as measured by the HFRI Merger Arbitrage Index was down 1 percent in a horrible year for the stock market. In 2008, one of the worst years for the market since the Great Depression, the strategy was down 3 percent, giving you a reasonable idea of what can happen in the most difficult of potential environments. Following each of those down years, the strategy bounced back and returned in the double digits the following year, leaving merger arbitrage investors up over the two-year period. The strategy has had numerous years of double-digits returns since the early ’90s, typically in years when merger activity was high.

What role should this strategy play in an investor’s portfolio?

It should be a portion of the portfolio, and investors should view it as an allocation to their fixed income portfolio.

An attractive element is that the correlation between this strategy and fixed income is very low. As a result, as you add a merger arbitrage strategy, the volatility of your fixed income portfolio should decrease.

Brian Hopkins is a portfolio manager at Ancora Advisors, LLC (an SEC Registered Investment Advisor). Reach him at (216) 825-4000 or brian@ancora.net.

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