Risk Reduction in Large Portfolios: Why Imposing the Wrong Constraints Helps

Ravi Jagannathan, Tongshu Ma

NBER Working Paper No. 8922
Issued in May 2002
NBER Program(s):   AP

Mean-variance efficient portfolios constructed using sample moments often involve taking extreme long and short positions. Hence practitioners often impose portfolio weight constraints when constructing efficient portfolios. Green and Hollifield (1992) argue that the presence of a single dominant factor in the covariance matrix of returns is why we observe extreme positive and negative weights. If this were the case then imposing the weight constraint should hurt whereas the empirical evidence is often to the contrary. We reconcile this apparent contradiction. We show that constraining portfolio weights to be nonnegative is equivalent to using the sample covariance matrix after reducing its large elements and then form the optimal portfolio without any restrictions on portfolio weights. This shrinkage helps reduce the risk in estimated optimal portfolios even when they have negative weights in the population. Surprisingly, we also find that once the nonnegativity constraint is imposed, minimum variance portfolios constructed using the monthly sample covariance matrix perform as well as those constructed using covariance matrices estimated using factor models, shrinkage estimators, and daily data. When minimizing tracking error is the criterion, using daily data instead of monthly data helps. However, the sample covariance matrix without any correction for microstructure effects performs the best.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w8922

Published: Ravi Jagannathan & Tongshu Ma, 2003. "Risk Reduction in Large Portfolios: Why Imposing the Wrong Constraints Helps," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 58(4), pages 1651-1684, 08. citation courtesy of

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