MSCI Factor Indexes


In this article, Youssef LOURAOUI (ESSEC Business School, Global Bachelor of Business Administration, 2017-2021) presents the MSCI Factor Indexes. MSCI is one of the most prominent actors in the indexing business, with approximately 236 billion dollars in assets benchmarked to the MSCI factor indexes.

The structure of this post is as follows: we begin by introducing MSCI Factor Indexes and the evolution of portfolio performance. We then delve deeper by describing the MSCI Factor Classification Standards (FaCS). We finish by analyzing factor returns over the last two decades.



A factor is any component that helps to explain the long-term risk and return performance of a financial asset. Factors have been extensively used in portfolio risk models and in quantitative investment strategies, and documented in academic research. Active fund managers use these characteristics while selecting securities and constructing portfolios. Factor indexes are a quick and easy way to get exposure to several return drivers. Factor investing aims to obtain greater risk-adjusted returns by exposing investors to stock features in a systematic way. Factor investing isn’t a new concept; it’s been utilized in risk models and quantitative investment techniques for a long time. Factors can also explain a portion of fundamental active investors’ long-term portfolio success. MSCI Factor Indexes use transparent and rules-based techniques to reflect the performance characteristics of a variety of investment types and strategies (MSCI Factor Research, 2021).

Performance analysis

Understanding portfolio returns is crucial to determining how to evaluate portfolio performance. It may be traced back to Harry Markowitz’s pioneering work and breakthrough research on portfolio design and the role of diversification in improving portfolio performance. Investors did not discriminate between the sources of portfolio gains throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Long-term portfolio management was dominated by active investment. The popularity of passive investment as an alternative basis for implementation was bolstered by finance research in the 1980s. Through passive allocation, investors began to effectively capture market beta. Investors began to perceive factors as major determinants of long-term success in the 2000s (MSCI Factor Research, 2021). Figure 1 presents the evolution of portfolio performance analysis over time: until the 1960s, based on the CAPM model, returns were explain by one factor only: the market return. Then, the market model was used to assess active portfolio with the alpha measuring the extra performance of the fund manager. Later on in the 2000s, the first evaluation model based on the market factor was augmented with other factors (size, value, etc.).

Figure 1. Evolution of portfolio performance analysis.
Source: MSCI Research (2021).

MSCI Factor Index

MSCI Factor Classification Standards (FaCS) establishes a standard vocabulary and definitions for factors so that they may be understood by a wider audience. MSCI FaCS is comprised of 6 Factor Groups and 14 factors and is based on MSCI’s Barra Global Equity Factor Model (MSCI Factor Research, 2021) as shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Factor decomposition of the different factor strategies.
Source: MSCI Research (2021).

The MSCI Factor Indexes are based on well-researched academic studies. The MSCI Factor Indexes were identified and developed based on academic results, creating a unified language to describe risk and return via the perspective of factors (MSCI Factor Research, 2021).

Performance of factors over time

Figure 2 compares the MSCI factor indexes’ performance from 1999 to May 2020. All indexes are rebalanced on a 100-point scale to ensure consistency in performance and to facilitate factor comparisons. Over a two-decade period, smart beta factors have all outperformed the MSCI World index, with the MSCI World Minimum Volatility Index as the most profitable factor which has consistently provided excess profits over the long run while (MSCI Factor research, 2021).

Figure 2. Performance of MSCI Factor Indexes during the period 1999-2017.
Source: MSCI Research (2021).

Individual factors have consistently outperformed the market over time. Figure 2 represents the performance of the MSCI Factor Indexes for the last two decades compared to the MSCI ACWI, which is MSCI’s flagship global equity index and is designed to represent the performance of large- and mid-cap stocks across 23 developed and 27 emerging markets.

It is possible to make some conclusions regarding the performance of the investment factor over the previous two decades by dissecting the performance of the various factorial strategies. The value factor was the one that drove performance in the first decade of the 2000s. This outperformance is characterized by a movement towards more conservative investment in a growing market environment. The dotcom bubble crash resulted in a bear market, with the minimal volatility approach helping to absorb market shocks in 2002. When it comes to the minimal volatility approach, it is evident that it is highly beneficial during moments of high volatility, acting as a viable alternative to hedging one’s stock market exposure and moving into more safe-haven products. Several times of extreme volatility may be recognized, including the dotcom boom, the US subprime crisis, and the European debt crisis as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Table of performance of MSCI Factor Indexes from 1999-2017.
Source: MSCI Research (2021).

Why should I be interested in this post?

If you are a business school or university undergraduate or graduate student, this content will help you in understanding the evolution of asset management throughout the last decades and in broadening your knowledge of finance.

Smart beta funds have become a trending topic among investors in recent years. Smart beta is a game-changing invention that addresses an unmet need among investors: a higher return for lower risk, net of transaction and administrative costs. In a way, these investment strategies create a new market. As a result, smart beta is gaining traction and influencing the asset management industry.

Useful resources

Business analysis

MSCI Factor Research, 2021.MSCI Factor Indexes

MSCI Factor Research, 2021. MSCI Factor Classification Standards (FaCS)

Related posts on the SimTrade blog

Factor investing

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Factor Investing

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Origin of factor investing

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Smart beta 1.0

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Smart beta 2.0


   ▶ Louraoui Y. Size Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Value Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Yield Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Momentum Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Quality Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Growth Factor

   ▶ Louraoui Y. Minimum Volatility Factor

About the author

The article was written in October 2021 by Youssef LOURAOUI (ESSEC Business School, Global Bachelor of Business Administration, 2017-2021).

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