Control and Flexibility: How Trading can Add Value to the Investment Process
Michael Corcoran of ITG sits down with Jason Lapping, Head of Asia Pacific Trading for Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), to discuss the practical impact of electronic trading and dark aggregation on his trading process.
Michael Corcoran, ITG: DFA is one of the largest users of electronic trading techniques in Asia Pacific. Why have you chosen this model and what benefits does it bring?
Jason Lapping, DFA: The primary driver for us using electronic trading is to give us full control over the trading outcomes. DFA’s unique process of generating investment returns is highly focused on the overall returns of an investment decision, and that includes the impact of trading. Portfolio managers generate orders for the trading desk but provide some flexibility over what to purchase on a specific day. This means we can be patient, exploiting the opportunities and liquidity available at any given moment. As a result, around 90% of our global trading volume is electronic. In Asia Pacific, that number is even higher, with over 95% of trading managed by our own traders using DMA and algorithms accessing both lit and dark liquidity simultaneously.
Dark and alternative sources of liquidity also form an important part of our strategy. DFA manages in excess of US $240bn, so we are often interested in trading a large percentage of a day’s volume in a stock. We utilize dark pools to try to achieve this in a way that does not signal to the market. Most of our dark pool fills are small, but cumulatively they amount to a significant extra size traded without signaling the extent of our interest to the market.
We generally trade in dark and lit simultaneously as there is an opportunity cost to placing an order only in the dark. So for us dark liquidity is particularly useful as a complementary strategy.
Firms often describe what they do as trading securities, but in fact what we are doing is trading liquidity. And anything that helps us interact with more liquidity is really important. Therefore in the developed Asia Pacific markets, about 10-15% of our total executions are done in dark pools. We believe this helps reduce implementation costs while getting more done. Both of these elements benefit our investors.
MC: Has the move to full control of the trading process been explained to your investors and do you find it’s a differentiator for DFA?
JL: Trading is very much a value-add in DFA’s overall investment process. So our engagement with clients involves explaining that we have an integrated investment process where portfolio managers work closely with the trading desks, giving them a degree of flexibility. When the market is not going our way, this flexibility allows DFA traders to be patient on a specific stock at a given point in time. When the market is going our way, it allows our traders to be opportunistic. We execute at prices where it makes sense to do so, not because we have been told to get the order done today.
What this ultimately means is that trading can start to add value, rather than being a drag on a portfolio’s returns. The cost of implementation can be significant, and our job as traders is to minimize the gap between the theoretical and actual returns of portfolios. I think that many of our clients find this is a differentiator for DFA, and it is potentially a reason to choose us over another investment manager.