2013/08/05

Momentum strategies

Momentum is an age-old feature of financial markets. It is perhaps the simplest and also the most puzzling of the “anomalies” discovered.  It is simply the tendency for assets (for example shares of some company) that did well (or poorly) in the past to continue to do so for a time in the future. It has been extensively examined in academia and has been found to be present in virtually all markets and going as far back as we have data. It has even persisted some decades after being extensively investigated for the first time. And still, it seems, we do not understand it very well. In today’s post I just want to highlight some different momentum strategies and their uses.

A property and a strategy

Momentum is a property of asset prices in markets and momentum strategies try to benefit from this property. One way of understanding momentum is to consider different momentum strategies and the profits they make, which gives an indirect means of understanding how asset prices work. For investors, of course, this is perhaps the most convenient way to study momentum as they are inherently interested in the strategies. They only care about momentum as a property if they can exploit it. The distinction between momentum as a property and as a strategy is not always clear because academics have not yet, I think, deemed it important to make the distinction explicit and thus both are simply called momentum. 

How to construct a momentum strategy

Momentum strategies come in all shapes and forms. Basically all of technical analysis is some kind of momentum strategy. A very general way of thinking about constructing a momentum strategy is depicted in the picture below. One starts by identifying some kind of trend (or signal) for each of the assets you are considering. This gives the direction of the momentum for the asset (for instance up or down). One can then assign a strength (or score) to this signal, which can be related to the magnitude of the momentum or the confidence you place in it. Then based on the signal and strength one makes an allocation decision – you decide how to bet in order (hopefully) to profit.


Time-series and cross-sectional momentum

Momentum strategies come in two main forms (though they are related). The first is to consider momentum for individual assets – the tendency for an asset’s price to go up if it went up in the past.  Here the signal and strength are evaluated for assets in isolation. This is time-series momentum. This form of momentum can be contrasted with cross-sectional momentum, which considers the momentum of assets relative to each other, e.g. the tendency of one asset to perform better than other assets if it also did so in the past, for instance. Here the signal and strength depends on how assets compare to each other.

Time-series momentum (strategy) tends to do well if an asset’s return is related positively related to its own past (property), for instance in what is called an AR(1) process:


Thus a higher return in the past predicts a higher return in the future.

Cross-sectional momentum (strategy) tends to do well if one asset’s return is negatively related to the past return of another asset (property), for instance if (numbering the assets 1 and 2)



This means that a high return on the one asset predicts a lower return for the other asset in the future.


Some simple strategies

Here are some simple strategies, based on a simple taxonomy:

Signed time-series momentum: buy any asset that went up in the past; sell any asset that went down.

Signed cross-sectional momentum: this is analogous to the above, but now invest in deviations from the average return or the market return. For instance the deviation of asset i’s return from the average is



If the asset did better than the average, buy the asset and sell the market and do the opposite if it did worse. This is a bet that assets that had above average performance in the future will continue to do so in the future.

Linear time-series strategy: again buy any asset that went up and sell any asset that went down, but invest more in assets with larger returns (invest proportionally to the asset’s past return)

Linear cross-sectional strategy: the same as above, but for deviations from the average (or market) return.

Quantile cross-sectional strategy: buy, for instance, the top third of assets and sell the bottom third.


In practice only the signed time-series and quantile cross-sectional strategies are used. The other strategies are, however, useful in formulating theory. For instance the linear strategies are easier to cope with mathematically, but amplify volatility too much to make them useful in practice.


Some references


My thesis:
  • Du Plessis, J. (2013). Demystifying momentum: time-series and cross-sectional momentum, volatility and dispersion. University of Amsterdam. Retrieved from http://www.johandp.com/downloads/johandp_momentum_final.pdf?attredirects=0
Some empirical articles looking at momentum strategies:
  • Jegadeesh, N., & Titman, S. (1993). Returns to Buying Winners and Selling Losers: Implications for Stock Market Efficiency. The Journal of Finance, 48(1), 65–91. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6261.1993.tb04702.x
  • Lewellen, J. (2002). Momentum and Autocorrelation in Stock Returns. (C. H. Schiller, Ed.)Review of Financial Studies, 15(2), 533–564. doi:10.1093/rfs/15.2.533
  • Moskowitz, T. J., Ooi, Y. H., & Pedersen, L. H. (2012). Time series momentum. Journal of Financial Economics, 104(2), 228–250. doi:10.1016/j.jfineco.2011.11.003


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