A Protocol for Factor Identification

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We propose a protocol for identifying genuine risk factors. The underlying premise is that a risk factor must be related to the covariance matrix of returns, must be priced in the cross-section of returns, and should yield a reward-to-risk ratio that is reasonable enough to be consistent with risk pricing. A market factor, a profitability factor, and traded versions of macroeconomic factors pass our protocol, but many characteristic-based factors do not. Several of the underlying characteristics, however, do command material premiums in the cross-section.

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