Morningstar Solutions
Morningstar Solutions
Relative Discounts & Premiums
Slide 2: Relative Premiums & Discounts

This Solution presumes an understanding of absolute discounts and premiums. For a refresher on that, please click here. Here, we will consider relative discounts and relative premiums.

In truth, all discounts and premiums are relative to another number. Absolute discounts/premiums are relative to the net asset value (NAV). Relative discounts/premiums are relative to the average discount of the particular CEF being considered.

Slide 3: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Because absolute discounts and absolute premiums tend to persist, relative discounts and relative premiums matter.

Academic studies have shown that current discounts/premiums converge to their average discounts/premiums much more regularly than they converge to their NAVs.

Slide 4: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Measuring Relative Discounts/Premiums

  • To measure relative discounts, we use a z-score:
    z = (current discount – average discount) / standard deviation of the discount
  • A negative z-score indicates that the current discount is lower than its average.
  • A positive z-score indicates that the current premium is higher than average.

In our opinion, a z-score of less than -2 signals that a fund is relatively inexpensive, and a z-score greater than +2 signals that a fund is relatively expensive.

Slide 5: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Example 1

  • Current discount = -8%
  • Average 1-year discount = -15%
  • 1-year standard deviation of discount/premium = 2
  • z-score = (-8 - -15) ÷2 = (-8 + 15) ÷ 2 = 7 ÷2 = 3.5

With a z-score of 3.5, this fund would be considered relatively expensive. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the CEF is overvalued.

Slide 6: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Example 2

  • Current discount = -15%
  • Average 1-year discount = -10%
  • 1-year standard deviation of discount/premium = 2
  • z-score = (-15 - -10) ÷2 = (-15 + 10) ÷ 2 = -5 ÷2 = -2.5

With a z-score of –2.5, this fund would be considered relatively inexpensive. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the CEF is undervalued.

Slide 7: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Why Are Relative Discounts Helpful?

For one, they can help you avoid value traps.

Let's look at the mythical CEF trading at a 15% discount. According to the oft-cited "CEF wisdom," this would be a good trade because the market is offering investors $1.00 of assets at the bargain price of $0.85. (Forget the fact that the $1.00 worth of assets may fall in value to $0.85!)

Slide 8: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Consider this:

  • 3-year average absolute discount = -25%.
  • Current absolute discount = -15%
  • Standard deviation over the certain time period = 2
  • z-score = (-15 - -25) ÷ 2 = (-15 + 25) ÷ 2 = 10 ÷ 2 = +5.

A z-score of +5 indicates that, far from being relatively inexpensive--as CEF wisdom would have it--this CEF is relatively expensive. It could represent a classic value trap.

Z-score can also help investors uncover potentially truly undervalued and overvalued CEFs. If the z-score is greater than +2 or less than -2, more research would be warranted.

Slide 9: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Using relative discounts/premiums is a bit of an art. The time period analyzed is a large factor in the z-score.

The same CEF may look relatively expensive on a 6-week basis and relatively cheap on a 3-year basis.

Even though the CEF may look relatively expensive or relatively cheap, it may not be truly overvalued or undervalued.

Slide 10: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Consider a CEF that is going to liquidate in one month. Liquidation is a method of making a CEF's share price converge with its NAV. All assets are sold and the remaining capital is distributed to shareholders. At the point of liquidation, the discount will be 0.

  • Current discount = -2% (in anticipation of the pending liquidation)
  • 1-year average discount = -12%
  • 1-year standard deviation = 1.5
  • z-score = (-2 - -12) ÷ 1.5 = (-2 + 12) ÷ 1.5 = 10 ÷ 1.5 = +6.7
  • This CEF is relatively expensive, but with very good reason: A corporate action has narrowed the discount. If an investor attempted a short sale of this CEF in the market, the likely outcome would be a capital loss.
Slide 11: Relative Premiums & Discounts

There could be a fundamental reason behind a high or low z-score. Do not buy or sell a CEF simply because of its z-score. Further analysis as to why the current discount has deviated so far from its historic average is warranted.

Slide 12: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Key Takeaways

  • Buy-and-hold investors can use z-scores to determine whether the absolute discount/premium is truly signaling that the CEF is under- or overvalued or whether the absolute discount/premium could be a value trap.
  • Trading-oriented investors can z-scores to find candidates for buying or selling short. (In practice, this is the most common use of relative discounts/premiums.)
Slide 13: Relative Premiums & Discounts

Key Takeaways

  • Regardless of how they are used, they are no guarantee of future investment gains. All that matters once a CEF is purchased is the subsequent total return. Just as absolute discounts/premiums can converge to NAV with no gain for the shareholder, so too can relative discounts/premiums.
  • It is important to understand why a CEF is trading at a current discount/premium that is widely divergent from its historic average. There could be a very good reason, aside from market sentiment.
Accompanying Video
Relative Discounts & Premiums
This slide does not have an accompanying video.