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DFA's Disciplined Approach Earns It a Top Mark

The firm puts theory into practice with a focus on investors.

Alex Bryan, 06/09/2015

Morningstar recently issued a new Stewardship Grade for DFA. The firm's overall grade--which considers corporate culture, fund board quality, fund manager incentives, fees, and regulatory history--is an A. What follows is Morningstar's analysis of the firm's corporate culture, for which DFA receives an A. This text, as well as analytical text on the other four Stewardship Grade criteria, is available to subscribers of Morningstar's software for advisors and institutions: Morningstar Advisor Workstation(SM), Morningstar Office(SM), and Morningstar Direct(SM).

Dimensional Fund Advisors has forged a strong and distinctive culture that has served investors well. The firm's low-cost structure and disciplined approach to investing, launching new strategies, and qualifying the financial advisors who use its funds help set it apart. It reflects a consistent, industry-leading focus on fundholders, and thus, we are raising its Corporate Culture grade to an A from a B.

Dimensional's investment philosophy is based on the idea that market prices reflect all publicly available information--commonly known as market efficiency. Therefore, it is not in the business of forecasting and individual security selection. But that does not consign it to a broad market-cap-weighted approach. The firm offers strategies that attempt to beat the market by targeting exposures to what it views as the types of risks that the market compensates. These are characteristics that historically have been associated with higher expected returns, such as credit, duration, value, small market capitalization, and profitability.

Each strategy the firm adopts must be economically sound and backed by substantial empirical evidence that it has consistently delivered attractive returns across different markets and time periods. DFA draws heavily on academic research to develop its strategies. For example, it maintains consulting relationships with several finance professors, including two Nobel laureates, to stay on the cutting edge of financial research. To bridge the gap between theory and implementation, DFA maintains an in-house research team, which focuses on vetting and applying academic research, testing new ideas, and improving the implementation of its existing strategies.

Academic research has guided the evolution of DFA's funds throughout its history. DFA started out specializing in small-cap and micro-cap funds, based on research suggesting that small-cap stocks outperform their larger-cap counterparts. The firm launched its first value strategies in 1993, a year after professors Eugene Fama and Kenneth French published their seminal three-factor asset-pricing model, which indicated that value stocks offer an additional return premium. Most recently, the firm has incorporated a profitability tilt into its equity funds, based on new research suggesting that profitability can help predict long-term returns. These changes refined the strategies but did not fundamentally alter them. This research paved the way for DFA to launch its first growth funds, which target stocks with strong profitability.

Transaction-cost management is an essential tenet of DFA's value proposition. It avoids high-turnover strategies and incorporates transaction costs into its portfolio construction framework. Because its funds do not track an index, DFA's managers are not forced to trade when doing so would not be cost-effective. For example, if a security is near the cusp of a fund's targeted style zone but trading it would significantly move prices against the fund, the fund may defer or avoid trading it. The firm's traders are rarely required to trade any specific stock. They can substitute one stock for another that would be cheaper to trade as long as it has the desired characteristics for the strategy.

DFA often leverages this flexibility to provide liquidity--responding to sell orders with purchase orders or selling stocks to satisfy investor demand. This flexibility distinguishes the firm and should help reduce transaction costs. To further reduce costs and retain full control of its orders, DFA has adopted an automated direct-market-access trading model, which it now uses to place nearly all of its stock trades. As of March 2015, DFA employed 23 traders with an average of 14 years of experience.

An investment committee meets twice a month to provide oversight for the strategies and approve implementation changes. The committee includes the firm's senior executives and portfolio managers. DFA also has a separate investment policy committee that meets to recommend new strategies and enhancements to its existing strategies. Professors Fama and French sit on that committee, in a consultancy role, along with many of the firm's senior executives.

Alex Bryan is an ETF analyst with Morningstar.

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