How to Review Style-Based Stock Portfolio Performance Evaluations

Stock or Manager Relevance Comparisons and Philosophy

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA, CMP™


One relatively recent performance evaluation approach that was developed to help improve the relevance of comparisons is the separation of stock universes and managers by style. This classification method attempts to distinguish between stocks or manager philosophies based upon general financial characteristics of the investments.

The Managers

In very general terms, a manager is often a growth manager if the investment approach that the manager uses focuses on stocks showing growth and momentum in its earnings and price.

A value manager is generally considered to be a manager that attempts to identify under-valued securities based upon fundamental analysis of the company.  A stock may be considered either “growth” or “value” based on a given set of valuation measures such as price-to-earnings, price-to-book value, and dividend yield.

The Style

The goal of style-based performance comparisons is to take some of the biases of the market environment out of the comparison, since a portfolio’s returns will ideally be evaluated versus a universe of alternatives that represent similar investment characteristics facing the same basic market environment.  Thus, if the environment is one in which investors in stocks with strong past earnings and price momentum have generally performed better than those using fundamental analysis to find under-valued stocks, comparing the growth/momentum portfolio to a growth index or universe should help eliminate the bias.

Style-based universes can help the medical professional better understand the basic environment captured over a given performance time period.

However, there are significant limitations with the various approaches to constructing style-based stock and manager universes that should be understood if they are to be used in direct performance comparisons.  Taking style-based stock universes separately from style-based manager universe, one of the most significant issues regarding the categorization of stocks by “growth” and “value” styles is the lack of agreement in the specification of what a growth stock is versus a value stock.  With some universes divided by price-to-book value, others by price-to-earnings and/or dividend yields and some by combinations of similar variables, stocks are often classified very differently by two different stock universes.  Further, stocks move across a broad spectrum as their price and fundamentals change, resulting in stocks constantly moving between growth and value categories for any given universe.  If there is ambiguity in the rating of a given stock, then the difficulty is only compounded when we attempt to boil what may be complex investment processes of an investment manager or mutual fund portfolio manager to a simple classification of growth or value.  A beaten down cyclical stock that no self-respecting growth/momentum manager would purchase may be classified as “growth” because it has a high price-to-earnings ratio (i.e., from low earnings) or a high price-to-book value (i.e., from asset write-offs).  Value managers are not the only ones to own low valuation stocks that have improving earnings.

The second problem with style categorization is that managers are often misclassified or they purposefully “game” the categorization of their own process in order to appear more competitive.  As an example, if a manager that typically looks for relatively strong earnings/price momentum is lagging in a period when “growth” managers are outperforming, the rank of the manager can be improved simply by claiming a “value” approach.  Morningstar’s “style box” classification of mutual funds by size and style of the current portfolio highlight this problem for any given fund by showing how their portfolio has changed its classification annually.

Current Events

The stock market has been booming lately. Up almost 100% since March 2009, after being down almost 50%. And so, perhaps this is a good time to re-evaluate the performance of your investment portfolio[s].


However, this leads to an interesting question for the medical professional or his/her advisor: If a manager is still using the same basic investment philosophy and disciplines, but their “style” category has changed according to the ratings service, should you fire them?  If the answer is “yes”, then the burden of monitoring and the cost of manager turnover are an inevitable part of narrow style based performance comparisons.

But, if the answer is “no,” then it is easy to see the difficulty of fitting every management approach into a simple style box.  The more reasonable alternative is to use style-based stock and manager universes as a tool for understanding the environment, rather than an absolute performance benchmark.


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