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Bogleheads on Investing with Jason Hsu – Episode 34

Post on: May 28, 2021 by Rick Ferri

Jason Hsu, Ph.D., is one of the world’s top thought leaders on factor investing and the co-creator of the fundamental indexing™ methodology. We discuss his academic and professional careers, value investing, efficient markets, active management in the US and in China, and why less desirable Chinese companies prefer to list their shares on US stock exchanges rather than in China.

Jason has authored more than 40 peer-reviewed articles and won numerous research awards. Jason is a member of the board of directors at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, as well as an adjunct professor in finance. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Investment Management and serves on the editorial board of the Financial Analysts Journal, the Journal of Index Investing, the Journal of Investment Consulting, and the Journal of Investment Management. Jason is the founder and chairman of Rayliant Global Advisors, and formally the co-founder and vice-chairman of Research Affiliates.

You can discuss this podcast in the Bogleheads forum here.

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Rick Ferri: Welcome everyone to the 34th edition of Bogleheads on Investing. Today our special guest is Jason Hsu. Jason is one of the smartest investors I’ve met.  He has published more than forty peer-reviewed articles, won numerous awards; he co-created the fundamental indexing concept, and today focuses on inefficiencies and Chinese stocks.

Hi everyone my name is Rick Ferri, and I’m the host of Bogleheads on Investing. This episode, as with all episodes, is brought to you by the John C Bogle Center for Financial Literacy, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Visit us at Bogelcenter.net, and your tax deductible donations are greatly appreciated.  

Today we have a special guest, Jason Hsu. Jason graduated with a degree in physics from California Institute of Technology, was awarded his masters of science and finance from Stanford University, and earned his PhD in finance from UCLA where he conducted research on the equity risk premium, business cycles, and portfolio asset allocations. Jason has authored more than forty peer-reviewed articles. He is associate editor of the Journal of Investment Management, and serves on the editorial board of the Financial Analyst Journal, the Journal of Index Investing, the Journal of Investment Counseling, and the Journal of Investment Management.

Professionally Jason has been on the forefront of factor investing as one of the founders of Research Affiliates and now is taking factor investing to a new level as he applies it to the Chinese stock market. So with no further ado let me introduce Jason Hsu. Welcome to the Bogleheads on Investing podcast Jason.

Jason Hsu: Glad to be here Rick.

Rick Ferri: Well it’s great that you joined us. I’ve always been super impressed with your background and all the things that you’ve done in the financial services industry and the investment management industry. Been a very successful person although I have to say you kind of fly under the radar and that you’ve done so much, and you’ve got so many awards but you may have fortune but you don’t have the fame, which is a little bit odd in a way, given who you are and everything that you’ve done. And so maybe we’ll elevate that a little bit here, at least among the Bogleheads.

So I’ve been a big fan of yours for years and before we get started tell us, going as far back as you feel comfortable, a little bit about your background.

Jason Hsu: Well going really far back Rick, I came to this country really as an immigrant. Now you know I arrived when I was ten. At the time I spoke, I think, no English but the country’s been really really good to me. I learned a tremendous amount and eventually I found myself at Caltech studying to be a physicist.

Rick Ferri: You got into California Institute of Technology and you decided you were going to be a physicist and you’ve excelled in that. You actually graduated summa cum laude in physics. What happened after that? I mean when you made a pivot for sure.

Jason Hsu: Yeah, the one thing that I experimented with while at Caltech was I did sort of a weekend gig at an economic laboratory where they had students play essentially market games, and we were the the subject of the experimentation and that’s when I got to learn about markets and about equilibrium and also about market efficiency and how competition leads to price efficiency and how that generally leads to better outcomes for everyone involved. And I was really good at those games. Eventually they prevented me from participating.

Rick Ferri: And what year was this when all this was going on?

Jason Hsu: Uh, 1994. That I was a sophomore.

Rick Ferri: And then you decided after you graduated to pursue a Master’s of Science and Finance at Stanford University. You’ve got some pretty good schools in your background.

Jason Hsu: Yeah, I decided to, you know, learn about financial markets, really be an economist and understand how this stock market thing works, how the capital markets work, how that’s relevant to the real economy, and I guess to how society is shaped as a result of how these markets interact.

 Rick Ferri: And then from there you went on to get your PhD at UCLA.

Jason Hsu: That’s right.

Rick Ferri: And what was your PhD thesis?

Jason Hsu: So I was studying  the differences between American households and Asian households and the thing that I was trying to understand is why do Asian households save too much and American households save too little. And as a result what you see is Asian households participate in the stock market very directly and very meaningfully and American households do not. Like the participation is very indirectly through their defined benefit pension plans or 401k. There’s really very little individual wealth outside the retirement plan that’s committed to the stock market. So that was kind of the primary thing that I studied.

Rick Ferri: Well it’s interesting and we’re going to get to this a little bit later on in the podcast. But it’s interesting now that you’ve circled back to that with your new company, in a way, to try to capitalize on these individuals in the market as opposed to through institutions. I could see where you ended up going with all this a little bit, where you currently are right now. And without getting too far ahead is that true?

Jason Hsu: Yeah. I mean I didn’t know at the time that that was going to be of any practical usefulness. Really I was very much set on pursuing an academic research career. It really was through a sequence of, I guess, happy coincidence that ends up being more of a practitioner than an academic scholar. It’s like a bigger accident that twenty, twenty five years later it ended up being quite useful, given the business I’m in.

Rick Ferri: Yeah, but you did do a lot of academics. I mean you were an adjunct professor and you were visiting professor at various colleges both here and in Asia, and you did get that feel for being an academic.

Jason Hsu: Yes I did put my PhD to good use.

Rick Ferri: And you also wrote many papers. You wrote forty peer-reviewed papers. And could you explain what the difference is between just writing something and having it published in a peer reviewed paper?

Jason Hsu: Yeah. So it is now fashionable in our industry for firms to do white papers and you know white papers feel a little less marketing and salesy and perhaps, you know, more educational and neutral, but frankly oftentimes the quality is suspect and you can definitely see an angle where this is just a dressed up marketing document. When it’s a peer reviewed journal article, whether it’s industry journals or academic journals they’re meant to be educational, right? You’re supposed to do research that answers the important question and you’re supposed to use methods that are robust, that are replicable. And the conclusion you draw from it has to be logical and there’s at least one referee, if not two. And the general editor will also vet the paper to ensure that it is truly educational and useful and then not sort of a sales document in disguise.

So it’s a much higher bar that’s required in terms of rigor and the time committed to doing a peer reviewed article. You know most articles submitted to journals are actually rejected and even the ones that get accepted go through two, three rounds of editing and re-editing.

Rick Ferri: You are also very familiar with getting articles published. Not only have you written forty peer-reviewed articles but you’re also a member of the editorial board for the Financial Analyst Journal. You’re a trustee for the CFA Institute Research Foundation. You’re an associate editor for the Journal of Index Investing, an associate editor for the Journal of Investment Management. You could tell the difference, I think, if anybody could between something that’s a marketing piece and something that is an actual academic paper.

Jason Hsu: Yep, part of that is the PhD training and part of that is also, you know, being on both sides of the table writing something as a scholar and of course being a gatekeeper to ensure that only scholarly pieces that have come through. And I’ve been doing that for about twenty years.

Rick Ferri: Yeah, you also have been in the field. You’ve got a distinguished career not only in academics but also you have a distinguished career in the investment management field, first as the co-founder of Research Affiliates and co-founded that with Robert Arnott. Give me a little history because I know Rob and I’ve known him for many years and he’s an interesting character. But I’d like to know how that all came about.

Jason Hsu: Yeah, again as I mentioned, a very lucky coincidence. So I was at UCLA really finishing up–that was my last year in the PhD program, and Rob had just sold and exited out of his last company, First Quadrant, and decided to volunteer at UCLA Anderson School. Of course you know the dean was very excited having someone who was so well known and who at some point in the future could be a very meaningful donor to business school and so we were put together to co-teach a class together because obviously I’ve been a lecturer at UCLA, by that time for a number of years, and Rob, obviously someone with great war stories.

So the dean thought that would be a great pairing and so that’s how we got to know each other. And you know Rob is someone, I guess at that time still very young, had a lot of ambition and had a lot more left in his tank. And he quickly decided, well  he said, “Hey you know I’m going to start something, and Jason would you be interested in joining in the startup?” And that’s how we got started, literally two guys in a garage, because we didn’t have an office back then. And then you know a Bloomberg.

Rick Ferri: Living room and a Bloomberg that’s how I actually got started myself in the advisory business. So I understand where you’re coming from on that. But that’s interesting, and tell us originally about the focus of Research Affiliates. What is it that you were trying to do with that company? And then what did it evolve into? 

Jason Hsu: Like many startups that eventually succeed, what the original founder set out to do is often not what ended up being successful. So I think when Rob and I first got started a number of ideas we tried, like we initially wanted to offer software actually. It was way ahead of the time, right. It was a smart software to help wealth management platform, to manage wrap accounts. So it would be very intelligent in terms of tax loss harvesting, crossing offsetting trades. That great idea was probably ahead of its time. At the time when technology was a lot more expensive, a lot more unwieldy. 

So that didn’t fly but I still think it was a great idea and later others have clearly done a much better job with that idea. We then set out to do a liability defeasement strategy. Again a clever strategy that played off of the way the geocurve worked and we thought there was going to be great demand. But I think liability defeasement back in the early 2000s was still a little too early for most pension funds. So again a decent idea. I even got a seed investor there to try the program but didn’t actually go anywhere.

Was almost a side hustle, which was subadvising an asset allocation mutual fund, kind of a little pilot experiment for Pimco, and that ended up taking off and became a runaway success. And then like I think what most of you know us for eventually, we used the income from that product to develop fundamental indexing, which is what today Research Affiliates with Rob and I are probably best known for and likely will be best remembered for.

Rick Ferri: I recall all of this because I was in the industry at the time and watching this happen and to me DFA – Dimensional Fund Advisors – had a real head start on this factor investing, fundamental indexing strategy, but you did it in an exchange-traded fund form mostly. And you captured that market fairly quickly.

Jason Hsu: Back in the early 2000s ETF was a very new concept. A lot of people didn’t know what it was, right? The mutual fund at the time was the vehicle of choice. All the big ETF players you know of today didn’t exist back then and probably back then they didn’t want to do ETF. They thought it was a stupid thing to do. So very early on, after we wrote the paper on fundamental indexing, we were contacted by Bruce Bond and Ben Fulton. They only started Powershares and they said they are looking for innovative indexes on top which they can create ETFs on, and they knew it wouldn’t make sense for them to do an S&P and compete with the Spyder so they really wanted something that was very differentiated. And they saw our research paper that was published in the Financial Analyst Journal and said this is it.

And so  we met one snowy afternoon in New York, agreed to a deal, found FTSE had halfway basically converted our fundamental index methodology into an index.

Rick Ferri: Just to clarify, FTSE is who?

Jason Hsu: Yeah FTSE is one of the largest index calculators in the world owned by the London Stock Exchange.

Rick Ferri:  And they took your methodology and created an index out of it.

Jason Hsu: That’s right.

Rick Ferri: It was one of the things that I looked at and I personally said, well this isn’t an index, this is active management and that was really a debate back then. I know that ship has sailed because the SEC said yes it’s an index. But back then I could recall the mudslinging that went on between you or your company and Standard and Poor’s as to what is an index. But I think that the SEC allowed all this to be called indexing, and there it was. Much different than what the slang became, and the slang became “smart beta” which at first you embraced but then later on it didn’t seem like you were embracing it so much.

Jason Hsu: Yeah, so Rick I got to tell you the backstory to that. So we didn’t come up with the moniker “smart beta”, you know we called our strategy fundamental indexing and we really were trying to play off of cap weighted indexing, right.  We think about cap weight indexing is market capitalization, which is determined by price times shares outstanding. So really there’s a lot of price indexing in that construct and we wanted to play off of price based indexing, again something that’s not priced, but still related to value. So if we think of your company’s fundamentals. So we said, okay now fundamental indexing would be this play on word and it would contrast against say cap weighted or price-based indexing and that’s really how we came up with the name. And like you say most people didn’t think what we created was an index because everyone had by that time come to accept that the index should be cap weighted because that’s how S&P is built and you know there’s a paper by Bill Sharpe and others that talk about the merit of cap weighting as an index, as a portfolio construct. And so we were really swimming upstream against that established school of thought, and as we were talking to investment consultants, financial advisors, most people said, look you got an active strategy, it’s not an index, so you really shouldn’t be in the ETF space because ETFs really meant to track passive indices for people who believe in market efficiency. And so we actually had a lot of struggle in the early get-go.

Rick Ferri: And I think I was part of that struggle. I was the only one sitting in the audience raising my hand yelling at you.

Jason Hsu: Yeah that’s right. I do remember that.

Rick Ferri: Well anyway it took a lot, fundamental indexing. You know I talked with Rob Arnott about this. I think it’s an everlasting term but you know the “smart beta” isn’t it because it kind of dirties the water and muddies the water in my opinion. Okay this thing takes off then. I mean you start rolling like a steamroller with fundamental indexing due to great returns from value stocks after the tech wreck in the early 2000s. I mean you’re on the radar and things are growing. Can you just take us through that part of the growth of the company?

Jason Hsu: Yeah absolutely. So from the initial get-go where people didn’t even like the word indexing, it being embraced by, I think it was first by at the time Towers Watson, later on Mercer and they coined the category name “smart beta” and then, like you say, it just grew like wildfire once consultants sort of validated the concept with a category name. And we were the first off the board. Yeah we just had momentum behind us being the first mover, being the claim to the original IP.  We had a lot of I would say active oriented pension funds who say, hey you know we heard about the merit of a lower cost more transparent index strategy but we’re not ready to go full-on passive into the S&P 500, so going into a fundamental index is kind of like halfway move going from full active to full passive. And that was a good compromise for I think a lot of pension funds and their investment consultants.

And similarly I think we had a lot of people who already bought into the concept of indexing and love and understood the ETF chassis who said well you know here is an index product that could actually have incredible success in delivering outperformance slightly more consistently and slightly more scientifically and so we kind of were attracting flows from both sides of the argument, right. Attracting flows from active investors and attracting flows from some passive investors and that really, like you say, it sort of steamrolled through the industry and then put Research Affiliates on the map.

Rick Ferri: You know I remember this whole period of time and I remember discussions with you and discussions, I know I had discussion with Rob about this. It was, look you’re sort of barking up the wrong tree. This is initially, this is right at the beginning, once you came out with fundamental indexing, I remember saying you know don’t go after the cap weighted indexers don’t go after them. I mean that’s not your market. Your market is active management because what you’ve done here is you’ve lowered the cost of active management and you’ve made it more consistent than what it was in the past because you have a set of rules and that’s the enduring part of what you’re doing. So in my view it was exactly what you said about a lot of these pension funds, look we’re not ready to go from active to calculated indexing but what we’re ready to do at least partially is to go from active to fundamental indexing and at least lower our cost and make things more consistent. When that shift happened, you know that kind of the mental shift of marketing, if you will, happened, I think that really helped to propel the whole industry that you started.

Jason Hsu: Yeah Rick, you’re absolutely right. I think your prediction and then your advice at the time turned out to be, I think, key. I think ultimately we attract a lot more assets from the active camp who really haven’t had that much success with active management. But you know I think it — going fully to pure passive took some meandering, I think, before they could fully sort of get on board, and going to fundamental indexing was kind of a safe middle-way compromise.

Rick Ferri: Like I said I really cut the cost of doing it and it was consistent. I mean when you’re following a strategy like you’re following and you have to follow a systematic methodology, you don’t get manager whims, don’t get in the way. I mean if you believe in the methodology and you look at the data and you say well it’s worked in the past and you know this is why it worked in the past and so we know that since it’s a quote-unquote “index”–that this is the methodology that’s going to be used in the future so we can rely on that–rather than relying on the manager to one day be a value manager and the next day they’re not so much a value manager because that’s just not where the momentum is at the time, that there was a lot of value to that. And I have to believe that that’s continuing to be that way.

Although it was a struggle, right? I mean after the financial crisis occurred value investing, fundamental indexing although a lot of assets were going that direction those factors didn’t perform well. I want to get into here a little bit that they’re not always going to perform well and that there is a 25 year–I don’t want to say cycle or something, a wave–to these things, and that people who are in it need to be patient.

Jason Hsu: Yeah Rick. I mean I think what we saw in 25 years, probably going out 30 years, there are really two things happening in the background that’s made it difficult to be a value investor, and given value is a big underpinning of the fundamental index methodology it’s been tough for value investors in fundamental index the last 30 years, and part of what’s driving that is market has become more efficient, right. If you think of value as an anomaly, meaning you can buy good quality assets cheap, right. That’s not supposed to happen, like good quality assets are supposed to be expensive and it’s also generally the risky stuff that’s supposed to be cheaper. So you’re generally supposed to see the value stocks as more expensive, not cheaper if they’re truly high quality, right. So a lot of value premium you could say was an anomaly, whatever reason it existed, but as the market gets more efficient it’s supposed to go away.

So I think part of the diminishing value premium is related to the US market becoming ever more institutional, ever more efficient, and any anomalies that’s been documented historically are arbed out or just less relevant. But you also have, I think, the last few years if you’re looking at reddit, you’re looking at Robinhood trading, you’re looking at prices for cryptocurrency and GameStop stocks. You also recognize the US market has the last few years became probably more inefficient. I think retail trading has gone from three percent to closer to thirty percent now and where exciting sexy growth has done much better because that’s where the retail sort of flows and retail trading have been concentrating on, so you got two things, right. One is the market becoming more efficiently priced which makes value work less well and then more recently the market sort of, you know, kind of gone to a bit of a tech bubble which has a further punished value. And you combine those two together it’s been tough to be to be a value investor.

Rick Ferri: But has that been true internationally? And let’s kind of work outside the US now and look internationally at developed markets and then secondly emerging markets becoming more efficient.

Jason Hsu: Yeah so generally I would say when you want to get a sense of efficiency probably the best indicator to look at is the fraction of the trading volume that’s accounted for by retail trading because I guess market efficiency is about price discovery. So it’s about well-informed analytical rational experienced investors making trades and when you’re talking about individuals that’s not what drives efficiency. So if you look at developed markets, by and large, are very institutionalized because they have giant pension funds and a very developed mutual fund and wealth management industry. So most of the money has been delegated out and ultimately the people who manage these assets are experienced. So it’s basically super smart experienced traders and PMs [pension managers] competing against each other. So markets tend to be more efficient.

That’s, by and large, not what you see in emerging markets. Many of them have an underdeveloped wealth management market, their mutual fund industry is in its nascent stage, a lot of the trading is still just done by individual investors who are gambling in the stock market, and so as a result efficiency is generally poor. And the funny thing is in the Asian emerging markets I would say the efficiencies are particularly poor. Part of it you might say, might be a culture for gambling. A lot of the Asian investing is more gambling than really retirement planning or retirement saving, and also what you see is Asian households, like my dissertation found out, they save way too much and some of that money ends up going to the stock market unproductively.

Rick Ferri: So back to Research Affiliates.  Are you still associated with Research Affiliates?

Jason  Hsu: I’m associated with Research Affiliates as an advisor. So I exited  it or I spun out of Research Affiliates in 2016 to launch Rayliant Global Advisors to focus on basically China. We are now a specialty China manager working with large institutions as well as financial advisors to help them get access to all things China. That’s my new focus now and it’s because that’s where I think as a researcher, as a portfolio manager, we could still create alpha consistently and reliably net of fees.

Rick Ferri: Research Affiliates was a research shop. You actually didn’t manage investment portfolios there, you were doing research and you were creating the methodologies for choosing stocks and weighting stocks. Is that what your company Reliant is also?

Jason Hsu: Research Affiliates had a very small book of business that was running assets directly but it was so small as to be not known by most people who’ve done business with us. Rayliant Global Advisors we now are more like a traditional quantitative active manager. We both develop the IP, the strategy, and while we do license them out to other larger asset managers who want our research and our strategies we also have a thriving practice in terms of creating our own funds, right. We have funds in China, in US, and we run segregated accounts for institutional clients. So we got a different business model now versus Research Affiliates.

Rick Ferri: So let’s get into all of the research that you did on factor investing that was pretty much centered on US investors and the US markets with fundamental indexing initially. I know you expanded that globally but you primarily started it in the US markets and a lot of the work that you did, a lot of your papers and so forth were on the US markets. You take these tools that you created, this research you bring them to China and now the first thing you do is take those, and did you attempt to apply them to the Chinese market, and if so, what happened?

Jason Hsu: Yep. So the first thing I did was just apply everything as is, right. So I’ve taken all of the anomaly factors that we documented in academia based on US data and say, well do they work in China? And surprisingly or not surprisingly they work in China and they work quite well. And when I thought about it I went oh of course, right. A lot of the anomaly factors for the US they sort of lived in the past and are sort of less effective or almost non-effective the last 10-15 years because markets have become so efficient. But they certainly worked when the US market was less efficient. Now if you’re applying the same intuition to China it being a much more inefficient market, these anomalies ought to be larger and since these anomalies are often related to retail individuals and their behavioral biases right, you know, mental accounting, loss aversion, preference for high volatility as sort of lottery substitutes. So you see all that in China in spades so what used to work in the US that maybe doesn’t work anymore are alive and well in China.

Rick Ferri: I listened to your podcast with Jeff Ptak and Christine Benz on Morningstar Longview and you were talking about a nine percent performance gap between Chinese fund returns and investors in those funds, and just for some background, in the US that gap has been closing significantly over the last 10 or 15 years and the gap between mutual fund returns and market returns and client investor returns has really narrowed down. In fact balanced funds, if you’re actually getting an alpha now by being in a balanced fund, but this is not the case in China. Can you elaborate on that?

Jason Hsu: Yeah. There are two things that are super surprising when you look at Chinese fund data. First of all, if you just track the average mutual fund in China on a net of cost basis, they outperform by about four percent per annum. So this is adjusting for survivorship bias, obviously taking costs into account. So this is really net performance and of course that’s not what you see in the US, right. In the US net of cost, the average mutual fund underperforms, so that’s the first surprising thing. Now again you know this, if you think about it, just tells you the US market is very efficient therefore even well-trained portfolio managers can’t consistently beat the market. In China it’s very inefficient so someone who’s a trained money manager he’s basically extracting alpha from essentially retail gamblers. That’s the first surprising thing.

The next surprising thing is the mutual fund industry in China is very underdeveloped, meaning most people don’t trust mutual fund managers enough to buy mutual funds. They somehow trust their own skill more or prefer to gamble and so as a result they speculate in the stock market to obviously great detriment of their own wealth. So that’s another thing we see in China. Despite the outperformance, the mutual fund industry is in its very nascent stage. It’s actually not grown very fast at all.

Rick Ferri: I was reading a research paper that you put out, China’s Got Talent: Fund Manager Skill and Alpha in Chinese stocks and you track the growth of the mutual fund industry and back in 1999 there were a whopping 22 mutual funds for all of China. But by the end of 2020 you wrote there were almost 8,000 mutual funds. So most of them were developed in the last, call it seven years. How do you think this is going to affect the efficiency, the market efficiency in China?

Jason Hsu: So usually I would be on the side of competition will bring about greater efficiency. As I study, more time with the data, what I have discovered when I look at this proliferation of mutual funds are really two things. One is most mutual funds in China are very concentrated. So unlike the US where most mutual funds are benchmark huggers, right, where you’re looking at closet indexers and therefore net of cost it’s very hard for them to beat the index. In China most of the mutual funds are quite concentrated. They would have enormously large bets on a sector, sometimes on a single stock, and you kind of think about well why does that happen, right? That goes against diversification, it goes against sensible portfolio management. The reason it happens is Chinese fund investors are very short-term oriented, meaning they look at mutual fund performance peaks table on a weekly basis and they would buy a fund and if they see another fund that had the better performance the next time they pick up a newspaper they would be trading out of their last fund to get into this new hot fund, and as a result, if you’re a mutual fund company and you want to not lose assets or at least keep the assets within your family of funds you’ve got to constantly launch a new fund that’s sort of flavor of day, theme of the day, and that’s very concentrated so when the theme is right you have insane performances. And so that’s largely what describes the funds industry in China. So this fund proliferation hasn’t brought about better price discovery or better competition. It’s really just everyone creating more and more extreme portfolios trying to benefit from the volatility effect so they can randomly become the best performer and gather a lot of assets.

Rick Ferri: You know it does remind me of the mutual fund industry in the United States say in the ’70s and ’80s. There was a lot of that going on. I think that Fidelity would create a fund based on whatever, it didn’t matter what it was, we’re going to create it and we’re going to launch it because people want it and even though the owners of that company would never put a dime of their own money in it it didn’t matter. They’re in the mutual fund business and if this is what people want then we’re going to give it to them now. That’s not so much anymore in the United States. I think it’s become too expensive to do that and it’s thinned out as far as the amount of money that’s available. So it’s almost become almost prohibitively expensive to do that. You still see some of that perhaps in the ETF industry but just not as much as they used to be. But it seems like in China this is what is going on.

Jason Hsu: Yes, it is the mainstream practice and so the fund proliferation really hasn’t created a competition to lower fees or a competition toward sort of better practices in portfolio management that leads to better price discovery, which then would lead to a more efficient market. So we’re many many innings away from getting to that outcome.

Rick Ferri: Now the market in China, if you want to use an MDC [Moderately Developed Country], I’m just looking at the China MSCI Stock Price Index, there is a beta there although that if you look back in from 1995 through 2001 this market collapsed about, well it looks like 95 percent, and then it came roaring back from 2002 up to 2007, by I don’t know how many multiples, and then it collapsed again during the financial crisis and now it’s been crawling back up again. Can you tell us a little bit about you know beta and people who say well I get what you’re saying about the inefficiencies in the market and then if I used an active manager that I might do better, but I don’t, I wouldn’t know one active manager from another. Of course, without getting into your firm yet of course but you know, what if you just bought beta? I mean, would that work in China?

Jason Hsu: So if you just bought beta it would have worked out okay the last 15 years. Prior to that not so much. Now the question is, is that just me cherry picking the last 15 years. Well no, because prior to the last 15 years beta is poorly constructed in the following sense: it was mostly stable enterprises; there weren’t a lot of companies and so when you kind of bought that beta you actually really have just a very concentrated exposure to a few large state-owned entities. And then that I don’t think is what you want to buy when you’re betting on, you know, the growth of China, the transformation from being an export-oriented economy into a more consumption-based economy where you’re hoping a very educated hungry young workforce will drive productivity gains, right. Like the 15 years prior to the last 15 years you just couldn’t buy things like that, so it’s really the last 15 years that you’re starting to have breadth, where the listed market is more than just state-owned enterprises. Actually a lot of interesting smaller cap stocks that were purely you know privately controlled became listed and were driving value and driving earnings growth.

So I think the last 15 years is more representative. Still, last 15 years of course you still had the Global Financial Crisis, you had the European debt crisis that had some spillovers like China, you had China’s own crisis of 2015 with the credit crisis. But even through those ups and downs that the beta did deliver about an 11 percent return compounded geometric return, which is not bad. So yes the beta itself even if you go purely passive is decent. It is a lot more volatile than say the S&P 500.

Rick Ferri: I found some of your research that you did on state-owned enterprises to be interesting because you divide them up into big mega country-wide state-owned enterprises and then more local enterprises that are localized, and the research found that these localized state-owned enterprises were far less likely to produce profits. Could you dig into that a little bit for us?

Jason Hsu: Yeah, I think most of us when we think about state-owned enterprises we tend to have a very negative view, right? We don’t think of them as actually companies. You just don’t see it very efficient, nor do they really care about say stakeholder value, and that is not entirely true, but it’s true enough. So in the data set, when we look at just the sort of city level, town level state-owned enterprises, when you look at all the operating efficiencies they’re just not very efficient. They have poor margins. They have a lot of debt. If you look at all the metrics for management efficiency and quality, just not very high quality teams. And you’re not surprised because they’re really controlled, dominated by local bureaucrats and then subject to all the issues that occur when a local sort of political power boss has his sway with everything in town.

But when you look at the big Beijing connected central state-owned enterprises they tend to be well-oiled machines, the very best of the managers are in leadership positions and their efficiency ratios are very, very high and they actually tend to have decent performances over time.

Rick Ferri: You also did research on, and I found this to be fascinating by the way, the China companies that list in the US market– we are here in the US at least I’ve always been under the belief that well these things have to go through a certain level of scrutiny and that the accounting has to be right before they can be listed on the US exchanges and there’s a certain level of confidence that I would have in a Chinese company that lists in the US versus just listing in the local markets in Asia–so I would be more inclined as a US investor to trust those companies more. But your research actually shows the opposite.

Jason Hsu: Yep, I mean I had the same intuition as you did Rick. I though, look you know if you are willing to expose yourself to New York, to the financial money center and compete out here as a stock right you got to be pretty good when it comes to you know dotting your “i’s” and crossing your “t’s” and having good governance. As I did more research I realized it’s actually the opposite. So the listing requirement and the level of scrutiny that you have to go through as a firm before you get listed in China is extraordinary and it’s because the regulator at the stock exchanges who is in charge of approving your listing has personal liability so if you list it was discovered you made up numbers or for whatever reason you blow up later that regulator has a lot of personal liability and his career is ruined and he might be going to jail.

So they take forever to approve anything and essentially they actually have this very cynical view about the underwriter, the investment bank that’s helping you go IPO expecting all of you to be in kahoot to the investors so they actually have a separate underwriting process. Now in the US it’s not like that, right. In the US our regulatory environment and our listing requirement is such that look: consenting adults making trades, right? If you’re willing to buy shares in a Chinese company that doesn’t want to subject itself to independent auditing hey you know it’s in the disclosure, it’s you know buyers beware so you can’t blame anyone if you invest in these companies so as a result our listing requirements are actually very low and most Chinese companies who cannot qualify for listing in mainland China or Hong Kong have chosen to list in the US.

Rick Ferri: Sorry to interrupt Jason but could you say that one more time.

Jason Hsu: So the listing requirement for the US is substantially lower than the requirements for mainland China and Hong Kong. As a result a lot of companies who failed listing requirements in mainland China and Hong Kong actually choose to list in the US.

Rick Ferri: That’s just fascinating, when I  would have never known that. You know, I mean  here I am, a US investor, you know thinking “oh, all these big companies that come over here to list they must be the cream of the crop to come over here in the United States and list on the New York Stock Exchange or something like that.” But I would have never guessed that it’s much more difficult to list as a Chinese company, to list in China than it is to list in the United States.

Jason Hsu: It’s absolutely true, it’s very strange but it is true.

Rick Ferri: Okay. All right. So you set up the shop over there and you first started out with factor investing and that was in 2016. But I imagine you learned a lot very quickly and things are shifting for you.

Jason Hsu: Oh yeah absolutely. So first thing I learned was while many of these behavioral factors that we researched and discovered in the US can work and do work well in China, it is still a different market, certainly with a lot more retail participation, and also with accounting rules that are different than the US and then also a market structure that’s quite different. It’s still got a lot of state-owned enterprises. As a result you have to localize the research, right? You’ve got to take all these institutional features that’s uniquely China and adapt your research and so what we found is a lot of China specific factors. So again they’re behavioral in nature, but they exist in China only because either the data is available in China and not available in the US, so they’re just more ways to characterize that behavioral bias, or they’re just sort of features of the Chinese market that allow for retail individuals to express more of their biases. So what we found is you’ve got to really have boots on the ground, know that market, learn the psychology and if you do that you’ll discover a lot more factors.

Rick Ferri: Jason a lot of investors are worried about the ESG factors, which are environmental social and governance. In other words, a lot of these are state-owned companies. They’re not going to report human infractions, they’re not going to report environmental infractions. People don’t want to invest in China because a lot of things are covered up. What is changing in China to make more disclosure and can we trust it.

Jason Hsu: Well today if you want to apply ESG to Chinese stocks, if you hold them to western standard by requiring them to be at the same level, clearly you’re going to eliminate so many of the stocks as to make the portfolio very concentrated and perhaps one that is unlikely to produce return. But if you want to apply a rule which is more about the slope, meaning the speed at which they’re improving, you’ll find many companies to be great ESG citizens. That’s because they’re starting at a low base and the increased global pressure and increased self-awareness in terms of why ESG matters has actually encouraged a lot of them to make changes, you know part of that is because society becomes more wealthy. Frankly there’s very little difference between a Chinese parent and American parent — they all want better water, better air, better food safety, better work environment for their children and they’re going to demand that as consumers and they’re going to demand that as regulators. So we’re definitely seeing improvement, even though the level today is clearly not international standard.

And one thing that is additionally interesting is governance is certainly the one dimension of ESG that is highly correlated with return in China. It may be less so outside of China but in China it’s very correlated. I think it’s true for all emerging markets. I think people who are more short-term oriented in the way they buy stocks tend to not care about governance but in the long run it matters. So it’s an underappreciated factor in China and if you focus on firms with great governance you often end up having great returns. So even without requiring that, most portfolio managers in China and you know ourselves certainly included in that, are very governance focused and that’s critical in terms of driving portfolio value.

Rick Ferri: Without getting too into politics at all there’s been some real changes in things like tariffs and that has affected some exports from China to the US. That is until the coronavirus hit and then we all started spending our government checks on Amazon and exports went up from China after that. But there’s a shift it seems out of China now towards places like Vietnam. Are you thinking of expanding your search for companies outside of China to some place like Vietnam?

Jason Hsu: Well we’re definitely sort of looking for other alpha reservoirs. Now the thing with Vietnam is it certainly is even more inefficient than China because it’s just an even younger stock market. But it doesn’t have a lot of depth and it doesn’t have a lot of stocks and then of course for a proper portfolio it’s got to have some breadth. And of course as a reservoir, right, to  really be able to extract alpha, the reservoir has to be large enough. So for small markets with very little liquidity and perhaps not enough wealthy households to enter the market to supply alpha, it’s — even though there’s inefficiency — it’s actually not likely for managers to do very much with them. You’re going to be severely capacity constrained so in a way if you think about big alpha reservoirs that are available in the EM basket really it’s China and maybe a distant second would be India and that has got the population.

Rick Ferri: And they have a trading mentality in many ways.

Jason Hsu: Yep as that market becomes more wealthy as the per capita GDP starts to catch up for the western world like China has, you’ll see more of the household wealth enter the stock market. And that’s when sort of retail trading as a fraction of the market and overall market liquidity will go up and therefore making the opportunity more meaningful for someone who wants to sort of be actively on the other side of those retail trades.

Rick Ferri: Well just really been interesting. Let’s get to your company and if our listeners want to learn about your company and what they might be able to follow you, where should they look?

Jason Hsu: So while we’ve been running a lot of different Chinese equity strategies onshore in China, the success of that business has convinced us to export that. So we’ve launched our very first active ETF in the US. So to find out more about that strategy you can go to funds.rayliant.com to to learn about what it does, whether it makes sense for you. We’re obviously looking to build out a whole family of different Chinese equities exposure and fixed income exposure and other alternative exposures.

And you know our belief is most investors are underexposed to China. So the correlation is definitely going to come in as a major benefit in terms of making your portfolio more diversified. And insofar that you want to have exposure to a different currency, Chinese assets will give you exposure to another major currency that might be emerging and rivaling China. So you don’t have to go to cryptocurrency to hedge against your dollar exposure, you can look at the renminbi based assets. And of course you want to buy more growth and it’s differentiated growth like China is on a different part of the growth curve versus the US. This is a market where you can buy that growth and buy it cheaper. But of course to find out more about our research go to our website rayliant.com and if you’re interested in the strategy go to funds.rayliant.com.

Rick Ferri: And it’s going to be great. I have to ask you one question because you brought it up. You know, the cryptocurrency. China’s central bank is rolling out a digital yuan, making it the first central bank to issue a central bank digital currency. What do you think about this?

Jason Hsu: Well I think it’s super smart, right, because as we’re looking at cryptocurrency we’ve often confound two things, right. One is the technology, the blockchain technology, which is just a superior technology in terms of settling payment, tracking the flow of funds, it’s safer and it’s  just more technological advance, right. The existing settlement process we have came from sixty years ago. So China is pursuing that, it’s pursuing the blockchain technology.

The rest of the cryptocurrency is a combination of that blockchain technology which is wonderful with a currency that you’re not sure if it’s actually a currency because it’s not backed by anyone, not backed by anything. It’s not really legal tender so I think this actually helps investors in terms of really understanding what the blockchain technology can do for central banks if they want to digitize their currency and improve the existing financial infrastructure and then it helps us then understand okay, if you take out the digital aspect and just have this new fiat currency issued by a non-central bank collective, like is there really value in that. So I think what China has done is genius in terms of adopting technology. Many central banks are likely to do the same thing and as that happens I think you’ll find existing cryptocurrencies to sort of be left behind.

Rick Ferri: Well, I don’t want to upset too many of our listeners by getting into cryptocurrency.  Discussions on cryptocurrency were just recently banned on the bogleheads.org website, but it’s been a fascinating discussion Jason. I mean you’ve done so well in your career, and we just greatly appreciate you being our guest today on the Bogleheads on Investing.

Jason Hsu: Thanks Rick, I’m so glad to be here.

Rick Ferri: This concludes Bogleheads on Investing. I’m your host Rick Ferri. Join us each month as we have a new guest. In the meantime visit bogleheads.org, boglecenter.net, the Bogleheads wiki. View our new Bogleheads Live Speaker Series, get involved in your local Bogleheads chapter or a virtual community and tell others about it. Thanks for listening.

About the author 

Rick Ferri

Investment adviser, analyst, author and industry consultant



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