Black Swan Debate Fueled by AQR and a 3,612% Return

A recent Bloomberg article reports that the attention garnered by options-based hedge products that have “dominated the headlines for making a killing in the sell-off” has fueled a fierce debate on Wall Street, “pitting proponents of tail-risk hedging for a volatile world against those who warn insurance premiums can eat long-term returns.”

Among the naysayers of such “black swan” hedge strategies is quant pioneer AQR, who is warning investors that gains they earned in March are not worth the expense of “being constantly prepared for doom.” The firm argues that extended drawdowns do more harm to long-term investors than “short and sharp shocks.”

In a recent research note, AQR’s portfolio solutions group wrote, “Recent headlines focus on option-buying strategies and their extraordinary performance in March, usually leaving out their generally high long-term cost. The tail insurance strategies with the largest wins in crash months are likely ones that in good times lose all or most capital allocated to them, perhaps many times over.”

The article reports that the firm Universa Investments returned 3,612% in March due to black swan hedge strategies, adding, “The Universa proposition is that by allocating just a small portion of their holdings toward crash protection, investors can take a more aggressive approach with the rest of their portfolio.”

Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and scientific adviser for Universa, reportedly dismisses AQR’s warning regarding tail-risk bets, suggesting that the two firms’ strategies should not be compared.

The article also notes that because these options-based defensive strategies have become more popular, they have also become more expensive.