Portfolio optimization in R using a Genetic Algorithm

Gianluca Malato
Nov 17, 2018 · 10 min read
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Portfolio optimization is one of the most interesting fields of study of financial mathematics. Since the birth of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) by Harry Markowitz, many scientists have studied a lot of analytical and numerical methods to build the best investment portfolio according to a defined set of assets.

In this article, I’ll show a method to optimize a portfolio by using a numerical technique based on genetic algorithms. The power of genetic algorithms makes it possible to find the optimal portfolio even when the objective function isn’t smooth or differentiable.

Portfolio composition

Let’s say we have selected N financial assets we want to invest in. They can be stock, funds, bonds, ETF etc. Each one of them has many historical returns, that are the price relative difference from one period to another. Periods can be days, weeks, months and so on.

The return of the i-th asset between period t and period t-1 is defined as:

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Now, when we want to build an investment portfolio, we want to mix many assets together allocating a fraction x of our capital to each one of them. Each fraction is called weight.

The portfolio return at time t is then:

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The goal of portfolio optimization is to find the values of the weights that maximize some performance metric of our portfolio according to the weights constraints, which are:

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So, we are talking about a constrained optimization problem.

Objective function

In his famous essay, Harry Markowitz explains a complete theory about portfolio composition. Further studies have identified a useful objective function for portfolio optimization which is called Sharpe ratio, defined as:

E[P] is the expected return of the portfolio, Var[P] is the variance. For simplicity, we are not considering the risk-free return that is included in the original Sharpe ratio formula.

There are many interpretations of the Sharpe ratio. I’ve always considered it a stability metric. If it’s high, it means that the average return is higher than the variance, so the returns are quite stable around the mean value. Remember that our goal as investors is to reach the highest stability of portfolio, not the highest profit.

There are many objective functions we could use for our optimization, but in this article, I’ll use Sharpe ratio maximization for its simplicity. The examples I’m going to provide can be generalized to many other performance metrics.


Constraints are the real hard part of the problem as they make it much more difficult to solve.

Remember that in portfolio optimization the basic constraints are the following:

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In fact, our weights must be positive (let’s suppose we don’t or we can’t go short) and must be less than 1. Their sum must be exactly equal to 1 in order to cover the entire capital we want to invest.

Constrained optimization is a tough analytical challenge that can be fought in many ways. In the following part of the article, I’ll show you the method of the penalty function.

The penalty function method

In science, it’s often useful to transform a complex problem in a simpler one. The great issue of a constrained problem are the constraints, so it could be useful to transform our problem in an unconstrained optimization problem.

Let’s suppose we want to optimize (i.e. minimize) a generic f(x) function subjected to some constraints. In order to make the constraints disappear explicitly from our problem, we can create a new function that penalizes all the points in the function domain that don’t satisfy the constraints.

Since we are facing an optimization problem, the simpler way to do it is adding a positive penalty to the original f(x) for all the points outside the constraints. With this trick, the only way we can find the global minimum is by the satisfaction of the constraints.

Building the penalty function according to the constraints

When our constraint is an inequality in the form g(x) < 0, we can build a penalty function in the form max(0,g(x)). This way, if g(x) is negative, the max function returns 0, else it returns the value of g(x) itself, increasing the value of the penalty function and discouraging the optimization. The higher the value of the penalty function, the further the global minimum is.

In order to keep our function reasonably differentiable, it’s useful to square it. So, our inequality constraints give us the following penalty functions:

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What about the sum constraint? It’s an equality constraint, which is simple to describe as a penalty function.

If we have a generic constraint in the form f(x)-d=0, we can easily build a quadratic form like this:

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This function has an obvious global minimum when f(x)=d, which is exactly what we want.

So, the equality constraint becomes:

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For the final function, we want to emphasize the constraints in the optimization procedure. Remember that we are transforming a constrained problem in an unconstrained one, but our algorithm doesn’t know it, so it’s useful to force the global minimum search multiplying the penalty function by a factor. Usually, it’s multiplied by 10, but I suggest you multiply it by 100, in order to enhance the optimization process.

Finally, the function we want to optimize is the Sharpe ratio with minus sign. We want to maximize Sharpe ratio, but the penalty function formalism seen so far works only for functions to be minimized, so we can multiply Sharpe ratio by -1 in order to transform a maximization problem in a minimization problem.

The final function we have to minimize is then:

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Genetic algorithms

Genetic algorithms follow the natural selection law, according to which only the best individuals survive to evolution. These algorithms are nearly a science by themselves and writing too much about them goes beyond this article. What it’s worth saying is that genetic algorithms are very useful because the random part of their process makes them work even with non-continuous or non-differentiable functions. Therefore, they can escape really well from local minima and go toward the global minimum, unlike deterministic methods like the Gradient Descent.

Optimization framework in R

After the theory there comes the practice. In this section, I’ll show you some example code written in R.

Collect data of assets returns

First of all, we must choose the assets we want to invest in and collect their historical returns.

For this example I’ve collected historical data for these assets:

  • Apple
  • Amazon
  • Facebook
  • Nasdaq index
  • S&P 500 index
  • WWE

I’ve used Yahoo Finance in order to get daily data in CSV format from November 11, 2013 to November 9, 2018.

Each asset data is stored in a separate CSV file.

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Historical data for Apple downloaded from Yahoo Finance

Now we can open RStudio and change the working directory to the one that contains the CSV files.

Data preparation

First of all, we have to merge all data into a single structure, joining them by date.

f = NULL
files = c("AAPL.csv","SP.csv","AMZN.csv","NDAQ.csv","WWE.csv","FB.csv")
for (i in 1:length(files)) {
csv = read.csv(files[i])
csv = csv[,c("Date","Close")]
names(csv) = c("Date",files[i])
if (i == 1) f = csv
else f = merge(f,csv)

The resulting f data frame is:

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Now we have to calculate the returns. If the date field is the first one, we can use this simple R code

for (i in 2:ncol(f)) {
# Price time series of the i-th asset
prices = f[,i]

# Price lagged by 1
prices_prev = c(NA,prices[1:(length(prices)-1)])

# Returns time series
returns = (prices-prices_prev)/prices_prev

# Replace the i-th column with returns
f[,i] = returns
# Remove the first row with NAs and the Date column
asset_returns = f[2:nrow(f),2:ncol(f)]

The data frame asset_returns looks like this:

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Portfolio returns

Portfolio historical returns are a function of the weights. Remember that historical data is always the same and what we want to do is to find an optimal portfolio changing the weights values.

We can define portfolio returns time series in function of the weights by multiplying each asset return by the weight related to it. Then we can sum all the weighted time series element by element.

We can define a portfolio_returns function that does this job. It’s a function of an array x of weights.

portfolio_returns = function(x) {
port.returns = 0

# Multiplication of the i-th asset by the i-th weight in "x"
for (i in 1:length(x)) {
port.returns = port.returns + asset_returns[,i] * x[i]

return (port.returns)

Objective function with penalty

First of all, we have to calculate the Sharpe ratio on the historical weighted portfolio returns.

sharpe = function(x) {
port.returns = portfolio_returns(x)

return (mean(port.returns)/sqrt(var(port.returns)))


Now we have to write the code for the penalty function. We can write a constraint function that implements all the constraints.

constraint = function(x) {
boundary_constr = (sum(x)-1)**2 # "sum x = 1" constraint

for (i in 1:length(x)) {
boundary_constr = boundary_constr +
max(c(0,x[i]-1))**2 + # "x <= 1" constraint
max(c(0,-x[i]))**2 # "x >= 0" constraint

return (boundary_constr)

Finally, we write our objective function to be optimized.

obj = function(x) {
# We want the maximum Sharpe ratio, so we multiply it by
# -1 to fit an optimization problem

return (-sharpe(x)+100*constraint(x))

Optimization via Genetic Algorithm

Now comes the optimization procedure. R has a wonderful general purpose Genetic Algorithm library called “GA”, which can be used for many optimization problems.

Remember: the goal is to find the values of the weights that maximize the Sharpe ratio according to the constraints.

The ga function in R is a simple but effective genetic algorithm implementation for solving maximization problems.

For this article, I configured the genetic optimization in order to make it perform 50.000 iterations, stopping only if the maximum fitness doesn’t change for 50 consecutive iterations. This is our stopping criterion for the genetic algorithm.

Let’s take a look at the code:

library("GA")ga_res = ga(
# Tell the genetic algorithm that the
# weights are real variables

# "ga" function performs maximization, so we must
# multiply the objective function by -1

# x_i >= 0
lower = rep(0,ncol(asset_returns)),

# x_i <= 1
upper = rep(1,ncol(asset_returns)),

# Maximum number of iterations
maxiter = 50000,

# If the maximum fitness remains the same for 50
# consecutive transactions, stop the algorithm

# Exploit multi-core properties of your CPU

# We want to see the partial results of the process
# while it performs

# Seed useful for replicating the results

Optimization procedure may take a few minutes, depending on the speed of your CPU.

For this example and the settings I’ve shown you, optimization process took 310 iterations.

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Let’s store the resulting weights in a vector.

# Store the resulting weights in a vector
sol = as.vector(summary(ga_res)$solution)

And, finally, we can read their values near the names of our assets:

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According to these weights, we should allocate 11.9% of our capital on Apple stocks, 6.3% on S&P 500, 25.9% on Amazon and so on.

As you can see, each weight is positive and less than 1 and their sum is 0.99903, which is pretty close to 1 as we wanted. Don’t forget that numerical methods have a physiological inaccuracy that can be controlled in order to fit your problem needs.

Now we can plot the historical returns of the weighted portfolio versus the historical returns of the single assets.

optimal_returns = portfolio_returns(sol)plot(cumsum(optimal_returns),type="l",lwd=5)lines(cumsum(asset_returns[,1]),col="blue")
legend(0,1.5,legend=c("Weighted portfolio",names(asset_returns)),
col = c("black","blue","red","green","violet","peru","pink"),lty=1)
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As you can see, the portfolio return (black thick line) is the most stable curve, although it’s not the best performing one (Amazon performs better). It’s nice to see that our portfolio outperforms S&P 500.


In this article, I’ve covered the penalty function method in order to perform portfolio optimization. I’ve shown you how to perform it in R using genetic algorithms and I’ve plotted the results of the weighted portfolio versus the single assets.

Everything I’ve written it’s just an example of how we can do portfolio optimization using free software like R and free data sources like Yahoo Finance.

The method involved here is flexible enough to be used with other objective functions (e.g. Sortino ratio), it can be improved by the use of a deterministic optimization algorithm after the genetic algorithm, in order to reach a certain precision (e.g. gradient descent or any algorithm included in the optim R function).

Plus, we have performed an optimization without an out-of-sample cross validation, which is fine for this example but should not be done in live trading. Remember, never perform an optimization without cross-validate its results!

I hope this article helped you understand the power of genetic algorithms in portfolio optimization.

The Trading Scientist

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