- ARK Invest is ill-prepared for a market downturn, according to Robby Greengold, CFA.
- Wood’s ARK Innovation ETF is backed by research from inexperienced analysts with “lax risk controls.”
- The ETF’s size and concentrated holdings could make it difficult for Wood to sell in a downturn.
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The analyst illustrated key potential weaknesses in Wood’s flagship exchange-traded fund, the ARK Innovation ETF, including inexperienced analysts, lax risk controls, and an illiquid, bloated asset base.
“Thematic-investing specialist ARK Investment Management has been in tune with the market’s unfolding narrative in recent years, but its lone portfolio manager, inexperienced team, and lax risk controls make it ill-prepared to grapple with a major plot twist,” Greengold wrote.
A one-woman show
It’s no secret Cathie Wood’s active exchange-traded-fund investing strategy has been immensely successful since ARK Innovation’s inception in 2014. Her fund has returned 495% to first-day investors since it began trading on October 31, 2014, and it’s up 183% in the past year alone.
Still, as Greengold pointed out in his article, Wood is the lone portfolio manager at her firm, and there isn’t a deep bench to replace her when she steps down. Greengold questioned whether having only one portfolio manager at ARK could lead to problems in the future, especially given the fund’s struggle to retain talent.
Additionally, Greengold notes that during Wood’s 2001 to 2013 tenure at AllianceBernstein, she “ran several strategies similar to this one that had high volatility, poor downside performance, and underwhelming long-term results.”
ARK Invest did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Greengold was especially critical about the fund’s inexperienced analysts.
Very few ARK analysts have experience beyond an undergraduate degree and only about half of the current team signed on with any work experience, Greengold said. He noted this contrasts with the norm for equity analysts who typically have an undergraduate degree, some internship or entry-level work experience, and at least some progress towards investment credentials like a CFA.
While Wood sees this as a benefit that allows her analysts to have unique perspectives, Greengold questioned their lack of experience. Although he did note Wood’s team is more diverse than much of the competition, and prior research has shown that this leads to more creativity, innovation, and even profits.
Inexperience leads ARK to outsource much of its more technical analysis to what the fund calls “theme developers.” The firm says these include academics, entrepreneurs, and former ARK analysts. According to Greengold, ARK’s “analytical edge remains unclear” given its strategy of hiring such outsiders for technical analysis,
Analysts at ARK also operate differently. Unlike other firms who break up their analysts by sector, ARK analysts are given one or more technological specialties, like DNA sequencing or robotics, and then asked to become experts in their field. Greengold argues this setup “could lead to ultra-specialization and potential blind spots that better-resourced firms wouldn’t miss.”
A lack of risk controls
Greengold also expressed concern about risk management at ARK Invest, citing how Cathie Wood doesn’t employ risk management personnel. The firm also has very few portfolio construction parameters that other firms use to stay within acceptable risk limits.
And on March 29, 2021, “the fund removed prospectus language limiting the size of its top positions and its ownership percentage of individual companies’ shares outstanding.”
Greengold worries this could lead to issues in a market downturn.
“Even a high-octane strategy like this one should be cognizant of the risks embedded in its portfolio and manage to a definable risk tolerance. It seems not to,” the strategist said.
“Without risk-management professionals to stress-test the portfolio’s risk exposures, estimate its potential losses during historical or hypothetical market environments, and gauge worst-case scenarios, the team is poorly positioned to prepare and react,” Greengold concluded.
A less than liquid portfolio
Finally, ARK Innovation’s portfolio has become less liquid and “more vulnerable to severe losses as its size has swelled,” according to Greengold.
Assets under management grew to over $23 billion in February. Additionally, the ETF has more positions in companies in which it holds at least a 10% stake than any other ETF.
Retaining stakes in small companies makes it difficult to sell without materially impacting their stock prices. This forces Wood’s ETF to exit and enter positions slowly over time, which, again, could be a problem in a downturn.
Wood overcomes the lack of liquidity in her portfolio by holding what she calls “cashlike” large-cap names. That way, in a downturn, Wood could sell those stocks and concentrate her holdings in top conviction plays.
The problem is, according to Greengold, that Wood followed a similar gameplan in 2008 at AllianceBernstein and her “large-growth-oriented separate account lost 45% before fees – substantially worse than the Russell 1000 Growth Index’s 38% decline.”