The Benefits of AI Portfolio Management

The first exchange-traded fund (ETF) to be managed by artificial intelligence, AI Powered Equity ETF (AIEQ) was launched with a bit of fanfare back in October 2017. After all, it used the ground-breaking (and Jeopardy-beating) logic of IBM’s Watson Artificial Intelligence to manage the stock selection and portfolio management function. Asset growth started slow, then jumped to over $100 million in 2018 and it currently resides close to the $150 million range.

The benefit to the investor of this ETF is its active strategy that is insulated from behavioral biases and scours all financial and unstructured (news articles) information as the portfolio management approach. Its investment goal is to outperform the broad equity market (investing in all market capitalization sectors) at a similar level of risk. In theory, it should provide a good low-correlated complement to an index-based approach to portfolio management.

Performance since inception has been mixed. It has rotated from lagging, then matching, then beating (by a lot!), then lagging again (by a lot!), while now recently beating the S&P 500. From inception through April 5, 2019, AIEQ is up +15.4% compared to SPY being up +16.4%. On a YTD basis through April 5, 2019, AIEQ is way ahead at +21.46% compared to S&P 500 at +16.02%; ranked in the highest 2 percentile in its Morningstar Large Blend Category.

It is too early to evaluate how well AIEQ has performed as a portfolio complement, but it has certainly provided a strong case for it to remain as a portfolio position. Unlike tactical asset managers, the drawdown in 2018 Q4 did not scare away AIEQ from its portfolio positioning. Some constant large exposures in Alphabet (GOOGL), Amazon (AMZN), Costco (COST), NETAPP Inc. (NTAP), and SS&C Technologies (SSNC)(overall, 10.7% of its portfolio) have contributed to its 2019 recovery (and last years drawdown!)  AIEQ maintains a current cash weighting of 3.7%.

What can we learn from how AIEQ weathered the 2018 Q4 drawdown leading into 2019 Q1? First, if you have a strong fundamental basis, there is no reason to run away from your core positioning since they will recover. Certainly, one of its largest holding in Amazon and its -25% drawdown in Q4 could have scared away many active investors; and perhaps causing it to miss its strong 22.3% YTD recovery. Second, there will be periods where you will underperform the market, but over a long horizon you only need to be right 51% of the time to provide an advantage. Third, relatively large and diverse positions can create alpha if you have a firm conviction; for example, AIEQ is currently overweighted to Alphabet (GOOGL) at 3.8% compared to its S&P 500 weighting of 3.0%, thus benefiting from Alphabet's +15.9% YTD index-matching performance.  Additionally, broadening the universe to include all market cap sectors provides better diversification exposures.  AIEQ includes three mid-cap holdings in its current top 5, being SSNC, NTAP, and Aaron's (AAN).