What is factor investing?

What is factor investing?

Factor investing is an investment approach that involves targeting specific drivers of return across asset classes. There are two main types of factors: macroeconomic and style. Investing in factors can help improve portfolio outcomes, reduce volatility and enhance diversification.

Introduction to factors

Factors are the foundation of investing—broad, persistent drivers of returns across asset classes. Understand how factors work to better capture their potential for excess return and reduced risk, just as leading investors have done for decades.

  • Global markets are made up of dozens of asset classes and millions of individual securities…making it challenging to understand what really matters for your portfolio. But there are a few important drivers that can help explain returns across asset classes. These FACTORS are broad, persistent drivers of return that are critical to helping investors seek a range of goals from generating returns, reducing risk, to improving diversification.

    Today, new technologies and expanding data sources are allowing investors to access factors with ease.

    Factors are the foundation of investing, just as nutrients are the foundations of the food we eat. We need carbohydrates and protein to power through the day, which we can find in different foods like bread, milk, and fruit. Putting together a balanced diet means understanding what nutrients are contained in our food, and choosing the mix that best supports our body’s needs.

    Similarly, knowing the factors that drive returns in your portfolio can help you to choose the right mix of assets and strategies for your needs.

    There are two main types of factors that drive returns. Macro factors like the pace of economic growth and the rate of inflation can help to explain returns across asset classes like equity or bond markets.

    Style factors can help explain returns within those asset classes. For example, Value stocks – those that have low prices relative to fundamentals – have historically generated returns greater than the broad market.

    Factors can help us build portfolios that better suit individual needs; just as knowing the nutrients in your food can help your body perform. Similarly, investors looking for downside protection in a volatile market environment might add exposure to minimum volatility strategies to seek reduced risk, while Investors who are comfortable accepting increased risk might look to more return-seeking strategies like momentum.

    Now – why do factors work? Extensive research, including that of Nobel prize winners, has proven that certain factors have driven returns for decades. These factors have generated returns due to the following three reasons: an investor’s willingness to take on risk, structural impediments, and the fact that not all investors are perfectly rational all the time.

    Some factors earn additional returns because they involve bearing additional risk, and may underperform in certain market regimes.

    Some factors arise from structural impediments, those investment restrictions or market rules that make certain investments off-limits for some investors, creating opportunities for others who can invest without those constraints.

    And finally, some factors capture investor behavior, that is, actions of the average investor that are not always perfectly rational. Sometimes people want French fries instead of salad even if they are watching their cholesterol. These behavioral biases can give rise to investment opportunities for those who can take on a contrarian view.

    Let’s discuss ways to access factors. Advancements in technology and data allow investors to take advantage of these time-tested ideas in new ways, from smart beta to enhanced factor strategies.

    Smart beta strategies target factors using a rules-based approach, usually with the goal of outperforming a market-cap weighted benchmark. Smart beta strategies are now widely available in ETFs and mutual funds, making factor strategies affordable and accessible to every investor.

    Enhanced strategies use factors in more advanced ways - trading across multiple asset classes, sometimes investing both long and short. Investors use these enhanced factor strategies to seek absolute returns or to complement hedge fund and traditional active strategies.

    Factors can help to power your investments and can help to achieve your goals.

    BlackRock is a leader in factor investing, launching the first factor fund in 1971 and driving innovation in the category for over 40 years.

Types of factors

There are two main types of factors that have driven returns: macroeconomic factors, which capture broad risks across asset classes; and style factors, which help to explain returns and risk within asset classes.

Macroeconomic factors

Economic growth
Economic growth
Exposure to the business cycle
Real rates
Real rates
The risk of interest-rate movements
Exposure to changes in prices
Default risk from lending to companies
Emerging markets
Emerging markets
Political and sovereign risks
Holding illiquid assets

Style factors

Stocks discounted relative to their fundamentals
Minimum volatility
Minimum volatility
Stable, lower-risk stocks
Stocks with upward price trends
Financially healthy companies
Smaller, high-growth companies
Income incentive to hold riskier securities

Explore factor-based strategies

BlackRock offers a range of solutions designed to tap into the potential of factors – from low-cost, efficient factor ETFs to smart beta target date funds to dynamically managed enhanced factor strategies.

Paragraph-3,Related Materials-1,Paragraph-4
Paragraph-5,Related Materials-2,Paragraph-6
Paragraph-7,Related Materials-3,Paragraph-8

Don’t pay active fees for factor-based returns

Modernize your approach to the traditional style box and use factors to target specific sources of return.

Seek market-like exposure with below-market risk

Don’t let market volatility get in the way of achieving long-term investment outcomes. Consider minimum volatility strategies to manage risk while also participating in the market.

Pursue portfolio resilience and enhanced returns with a multi-asset approach

Investors can access factors in more advanced ways across multiple asset classes and long-short strategies.

Performance data represents past performance and does not guarantee future results. Investment return and principal value will fluctuate with market conditions and may be lower or higher when you sell your shares. Current performance may differ from the performance shown. For standardized performance and most recent month-end performance click on the fund names above.


Read our views on factors

Stay up to date on the latest research and insights from BlackRock’s factor investing professionals.

A Systematic Framework to Factor Tilting

Factors are cyclical. Individual factors may experience periods of underperformance. A time-varying approach to factors may supersede factor investing alone.
Andrew's Angle

More about factor investing

  • Institutional investors and active managers have been using factors to manage portfolios for decades. Today, data and technology have democratized factor investing to give all investors access to these historically persistent drivers of return.

  • Smart beta is one subset of factor investing. Factor investing harnesses the power of broad and persistent drivers of return. Factor investing can refer to macro factors (which affect returns across asset classes) as well as style factors (which affect returns within asset classes) and can be implemented with or without leverage. Smart beta strategies generally refer to style factors within a single asset class, implemented without leverage, most commonly in style factor strategies that are long only and index based, most commonly in an ETF.

  • When it comes to factor-based strategies, investors have a lot of options. Each strategy is constructed in a unique way and may have different risks. It’s important that investors understand underlying exposures in the context of the outcome you wish to achieve. Investors who choose long-short factor strategies will add risks associated with leverage.

  • One of the most pervasive myths around factor investing is that it must be used instead of indexed or active investments. Factor-based strategies, including Factor ETFs, can be used both to replace and to complement traditional index or active investments in the portfolio.

  • As with any investment, there's no guarantee of performance. Individual factors have tended to perform well at different parts of the economic cycle, and may be less correlated with equity market moves. Be aware of this aspect of factor investing as you investigate whether any particular strategy makes sense with your investment goals. A multi-factor investment is diversified across factors and may help to reduce the effect of this cyclicality.

  • BlackRock has been at the forefront of factor-based investing for decades and continues to innovate new strategies to help address clients’ investment challenges. BlackRock offers a variety of ways to implement the time-tested principles of factor investing. These range from Factor ETFs and target date funds, which offer low-cost, efficient access to factors, to multi-asset, multi-factor strategies, that incorporate BlackRock's active insights, invest across asset classes and employ leverage and shorting.

    You can also tap into BlackRock's deep experience with investment factors via insights provided by our factor experts (such as Andrew Ang and Sara Shores) and online resources and tools designed for investors seeking access to factor investing opportunities.

Interested in more systematic investment insights?

Get the latest insights from BlackRock’s systematic investing experts.
Systematic fixed income investing