Alternatives Investments will improve the investment outcomes of Target-Date Funds

Including alternative investments in Target-Date Funds (TDF) will improve their investment outcomes.

This is the conclusion of a recently published research report by the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, developed in conjunction with Willis Tower Watson.   The Evolution of Target Date Funds: Using Alternatives to Improve Retirement Plan Outcomes

The study concludes the use of alternative investment strategies “can improve expected retirement income and mitigate loss in downside scenarios.”


Many TDF are over exposed to equity risk, they are not truly diversified.

The above study notes that TDF need to increase their diversification away from equities and fixed interest that dominate their portfolios.  In short, TDF need to broaden their diversification to allow access to alternative return drivers.

This is seen as very important, “even more important step is improving the performance of the underlying investments. The use of alternatives in DB (Define Benefit) plans is an investment practice that should be considered in today’s DC (Define Contribution) plans, specifically in TDFs”

The article outlines the growing popularity of TDF and therefore the opportunity that is available to build better portfolios and improve investment outcomes for clients.


The study compared TDF’s comprising of only equities, bonds, and cash.  To this traditional portfolio they added individual allocations to Private Equity, Unlisted Property, and Hedge Funds separately.

The study first looked at outcomes of adding these alternative strategies in isolation to the Traditional Portfolio, and then when all are added to the Portfolio all together.

When adding the alternatives in isolation to a traditional equities and fixed interest portfolio they concluded that investment outcomes for TDF were improved by:

  • Increasing the amount of income that can be generated in retirement from the portfolio;
  • Increase the probability of maintaining positive assets after 30 years of retirement spending;
  • Delivering higher expected returns; and
  • Reducing downside risk, particularly reduce the negative impact of a negative market at time of retirement (reducing sequencing risk)


Therefore, investment outcomes for Target-Date Funds can be improved with greater levels of diversification (as can any portfolio which only invests in equities, bonds, and cash).

Investment outcomes were improved with any one of the alternative strategies implemented in isolation.


The study then looked at TDF when all the alternative strategies were added to the Traditional Portfolio.

As they note “previous examples look attractive in isolation, we now turn to considering how these strategies contribute to a diversified implementation that includes allocations to all these assets. Not only do these alternative asset classes provide diversification or differentiated return drivers relative to equities and fixed income, but they also provide attractive cross-correlation benefits when viewed in combination with each other (meaning they outperform and underperform at different times from one another).”


Importantly, portfolios were constructed to be of similar risk along the glide path, the increased diversification of adding alternative provides risk benefits over time.

A higher allocation to return seeking assets is able to be maintained over time given the diversification benefits of adding alternatives to the TDF.

Again investment outcome were improved upon compared to a Traditional Portfolio of Equities and Fixed Interest, higher retirement income (+17%) and improved downside risk outcomes (+11%)


Importantly, they noted:  “One straightforward way to mitigate downside risk is to shift more equities into fixed income, though that approach would materially lower expected returns and adversely impact participants who intended to utilize the funds as a source for income throughout retirement.  Additionally, shifting from equities to core fixed income lessens equity risk but increases other risks such as interest rate and inflation. Instead, participants may be better off by further diversifying their portfolios.”


Notably they comment that this is part of an overall plan to improve retirement income outcomes:

“In order to improve retirement income outcomes, plan sponsors must pull all of the levers at their disposal across their organizations. While a number of enhancements have been made with investment vehicles …., plan design…….., and communications, DC plans still lag behind other large investment pools in the use of alternative asset classes. There is a reason why alternative assets are used more often in other investment pools: They can improve investment efficiency and the net-of-fee value proposition.”


Implementation Considerations

The paper covers a number of implementation issues, such as Governance, liquidity, and fees.

Their comments of fees hits the mark:

“To include the potential benefits of alternatives in TDFs, plan sponsors need to be comfortable increasing total fund fees, which can be accomplished through a prudent process focused on enhancing potential outcomes for participants. The fee compression in TDFs has come at the expense of the potential increased returns, lower volatility and portfolio efficiency alternatives could provide.”

Think about after fee outcomes.


Concluding remarks

Overall the outcomes from this Study are hardly surprising.  The use of alternatives has been shown to improve the investment outcomes of other investment portfolios and are widely used e.g. endowments, Insurance Companies, Super (Pension) Funds, and as mentioned Defined Benefit Funds.

The Study notes “As of 2016, the largest corporate pension plans in the Fortune 1000 (assets greater than $2.1 billion) held average allocations of 4.2 percent to hedge funds, 3.4 percent to private equity, 3.0 percent to real estate and 3.6 percent to “other” asset classes.” And “public pensions allocate even more to alternative investments (approximately 25 percent), according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.”

This is not to take anything away from the Study, it is great analysis, enhances our understanding of TDF, and is well worth reading.


Lastly, investment outcomes for Target-Date Funds can also be enhanced with the more active management of the glide path strategy.  This may include delaying the pace of transitioning from risky assets (which would include alternatives!) to safer assets or stepping off the glide path given extreme risk environments.

Investment outcomes for clients can also be improved if more client information is used over and above age to determine an investment glide paths e.g. changes in salary leading to a higher expected standard of living.  This is where technology can have a massive impact on the industry.

Many TDF have their limitations, particularly they have no goal and the glide path is based solely on age.

The experience in retirement is changing, we are living longer, more robust retirement solutions are needed.


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

Is All-Passive Really the Best Thing for Target-Date Funds?

A recent AB article highlights the limitation of some Target-Date Funds (Life Cycle Funds).

AB propose:

“With market returns expected to be lower going forward, target-date funds that invest in passively managed underlying components are at risk of underdelivering. We think diversifying beyond traditional asset classes and tapping alpha opportunities with a multi-manager structure can increase the chances of success. “


I would argue more broadly, despite the market outlook, any passive portfolio that only invests into the traditional markets of equities, bonds, and cash are not well diversified for a range of possible economic and market outcomes. They are further at risk if they take a set and forget approach to the overarching strategic asset class positioning of the fund i.e. these short-comings are not limited to passively managed Target-Date Funds.


In short, AB argue that the outlook for traditional markets (beta) is challenging. As a result, this environment pose:

“major headwinds to target-date funds as they work to provide the growth participants need. Target-date funds that invest only in traditional asset classes, such as large-cap equities and core bonds through indices, face limitations in their glide path designs. This can make it a struggle for target-date funds to meet participants’ needs in anything but a high-return, low-risk market environment. And in terms of environments, that ship has likely sailed for now.”

Further: “A lower-beta landscape challenges a popular line of thinking that says investing in funds with the lowest fees will ensure compliance with plan sponsors’ fiduciary responsibilities. Low fees aren’t the end all and be all. For one thing, focusing too much on fees could cause sponsors to overlook other factors in retirement investing that also have fiduciary implications.”

The bold is mine.


My Opinion and solution

Increase the diversification of the Target-Date Fund and more actively manage the glide path of the strategy.

There could well be a blend of active and passive strategies.

Quite obviously increasing true portfolio diversification is paramount to building robust portfolios and increasing the likelihood of achieving investment objectives.

The prospect of a low returning environment only reinforces this position.

As mentioned in my last post, Reports of the death of Diversification are greatly exaggerated, also see my post Invest more like an Endowment, which also touches on the fee debate, investors should seek true portfolio diversification. The portfolio should be constructed to meet an investor’s objectives “through a range of potential outcomes”. There would appear to be a diverse range of likely economic and market outcomes currently.

Robust portfolios are positioned for a range of outcomes and are “forecast-free as possible”.

We all know a robust portfolio is broadly diversified across different risks and returns.   Increasingly institutional investors are accepting that portfolio diversification does not come from investing in more and more asset classes. True portfolio diversification is achieved by investing in different risk factors that drive the asset classes e.g. duration, economic growth, low volatility, value, and growth.


Limitations of Target Date Funds

The AB article touches on the limitations of most Target-Date Funds, weather the underlying asset classes are actively or Index (passively) managed.

Essentially, most Target-Date Funds have two main short comings:

  • They are not customised to an individual’s consumption liability, human capital or risk preference e.g. they do not take into consideration by way of example future income requirements or likely endowments, level of income earned to retirement, or investor’s risk profile.

They are prescribed asset allocations which are the same for all investors who have the same number of years to retirement, this is the trade-off for scale over customisation.

  • The glide path does not take into account current market conditions.

Therefore, linear glide paths, most target date funds, do not exploit mean reversion in assets prices which may require:

      • Delays in pace of transitioning from risky assets to safer assets
      • May require step off the glide path given extreme risk environments

Most Target-Date funds don’t make revisions to asset allocations due to market conditions. This is inconsistent with academic prescriptions, and also common sense, which both suggest that the optimal strategy should also display an element of dependence on the current state of the economy.


Therefore, there is the risk that some Target-Date Funds will fall short of providing satisfactory outcomes and meeting the key requirement in retirement of sufficient income. See A more Robust Retirement Income Solution is needed.

Target-Date Funds (Life Cycle Funds) focus on the investment horizon without protecting investors’ retirement needs, they focus on one risk, market risk.   The focus is not on producing retirement income or hedging risks in relation to investment risk, inflation risk, interest rate risk, and longevity risk. A better solution is required.


The optimal Target-Date fund asset allocation should be goal based and multi-period:

  • It requires customisation by goals, of human capital, and risk preferences
  • Some mechanism to exploit the possibility of mean reversion within market


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

Why Low-Cost Index Investing Is Not Necessarily Low Risk

The US equity market has become more concentrated and not for the first time in history.

Current market concentration has been compared to 1999.

The market observations in this short article are consistent with the recently published Research by Research Affiliates, which I covered in a recent post, Buy High and Sell Low with Index Funds.


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

Reports of the death of Diversification are greatly exaggerated.

Is Portfolio Diversification dead?

One could think so given the extraordinary performance of equities over the last five to six years and the absence of a significant market correction.

The US equity market is likely to record its longest running bull market in August of this year, which is the longest period of time without a 20% or more fall in value.  The equity market correction in February/March of this year ended a record period of historically low volatility for US equities, having experienced their longest period in history without a 5% or greater fall in value.


This is a theme picked up by Joe Wiggins in a recent post on his Blog site, Behavioural Investment, titled “The Death of Diversification”.

Wiggins proposes that the success of equities over the last few years could be used by some to argue as evidence of the failure of portfolio diversification.  Furthermore, such has been the superior performance of equities that some could argue “prudent diversification” is no longer important.

The benign environment could well lead some to believe this, reflecting there has been “scant reward” for holding other assets.  Diversification has come at a “cost”.

Of course such a worldly view, if held, is rubbish.

Wiggins does not hold these views.  He does however indicate it is hard in this environment to argue for the benefits of diversification.

Nevertheless the benefits of portfolio diversification still exist.

It is not a time to become complacent, nor suffer from FOMO (Fare of missing out).


Building robust and truly diversified portfolios will never go out of fashion.

This is well summed up in Wiggins’s post:

“The idea of diversification is to create a portfolio that is designed to meet the requirements of an investor through a range of potential outcomes – it should be as forecast-free as possible. It is also founded on the concept of owning assets that not only provide diversification in a quantitative sense (through low historic correlations) but also sound economic reasons as to why their return stream is likely to differ from other candidate asset classes. Crucially, in a genuinely diversified portfolio not all of the assets or holdings will be delivering strong results at any given time, indeed, if all of the positions in a portfolio are ‘working’ in unison – it will feel like a success but actually represent a shortcoming.


Well said.

I like the turn of phrase: as forecast-free as possible.

In my opinion, a portfolio still needs to be dynamically managed and tilted to reflect extreme valuations and a shifting economic environment, the focus should be on factors rather than asset classes.

Invest like an Endowment, seek true diversification and always remember the long-term benefits of diversification.  The portfolio should be constructed to meet an investor’s objectives “through a range of potential outcomes”.

There would appear to be a diverse range of likely economic and market outcomes currently.

Robust portfolios are positioned for a range of outcomes and “forecast-free as possible”.

We all know a robust portfolio is broadly diversified across different risks and returns.   Increasingly institutional investors are accepting that portfolio diversification does not come from investing in more and more asset classes.  True portfolio diversification is achieved by investing in different risk factors that drive the asset classes e.g. duration, economic growth, low volatility, value, and growth.


I’ll leave the final comment from a great post from Wiggins:

“At this point in the cycle the temptation to abandon the concept of prudent portfolio diversification is likely to prove particularly strong; but unless a new paradigm is upon us, investors will be well-served remaining faithful to sound and proven investment principles.  Take the long-term view and remain diversified”


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

How long will the record US equities bull market run continue for?

An interesting view from JP Morgan.

The US Equity market is within a month of recording its longest ever bull market.  Many are expecting it to continue well into 2019.  The US economy will reaches its longest period of economic expansion in modern history July 2019.

History of Sharemarket corrections – An Anatomy of equity market corrections


JP Morgan view.


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

Index Funds buy high and sell low…….

We know this.  This is related to an earlier post on the Limitations of Passive Index Investing.


A recent Research Affiliates article has looked into the cost of buying high and selling low by market indices and Index Funds.

Research Affiliates highlight that stocks added to market weighted indices are “routinely priced at a substantial premium to market valuation multiples (i.e., buying high), while discretionary deletions (excepting removals related to mergers, acquisitions, and other corporate actions) are routinely of deep-discount value stocks (i.e., selling low). In fact, additions tend to be priced at valuation multiples—using a blend of price-to-earnings (P/E), price-to-cash-flow (P/CF), price-to-book (P/B), price-to-sales (P/S), and (if available) price-to-dividends (P/D) ratios—that average over three times as expensive as those of deletions. This helps explain why from October 1989 through December 2017, the performance of additions lagged discretionary deletions by an average of over 2,200 basis points (bps) in the 12 months following the addition or deletion. Once investors recognize this buy-high/sell-low dynamic, they can avail themselves of some surprisingly simple ways to earn above-market returns”.


Obviously Index Fund providers understand this and may adjust their trading activities around additions and deletions from an index to minimise trading costs and impacts on performance.

A passive index solution is not passive, they are actively managed.


Nevertheless, there are costs around market index changes over time.  These costs are incurred by the Index Funds, yet the costs are not evident given they are also included in market index returns.

Given Index Funds look to closely match market index returns (low tracking error) they incur these costs.

Based on the Research Affiliates analysis if Index Funds were to tolerate a higher level of tracking error they would add value above the index they are tracking by avoiding the longer term costs of market index changes.  This is achieved largely by delaying changes to their portfolios.

Some serious thought needs to be given when appointing a passive index provider.


What are these costs?

The costs reflect that a stock outperforms over the period from the date it is announced it will be included in a market index until the effective date (when it is added to the market index).

Similarly, stocks removed from the market index underperform the market from the date of the announcement until effective date.

Research Affiliates estimates that additions outperform the market by 5.23% on average over the period between announcement date and effective date.

They also estimate that deletions underperformed the market by 4.29% on average over the period from announcement date to the day they are removed from the market index.

A total return different of 9.52%!  (this analysis was undertaken over the period October 1989 to December 2017)


Research Affiliates also estimate that over one-third of the performance differential takes place on the day the Index makes the changes (e.g. adds the new stocks and makes the deletions).


As Research Affiliates says, the additions win big before they are added to the market index and deletions lose big before they’re dropped out.


Furthermore, once a stock is added to a market index, on average it underperforms the market over the next twelve months.

Likewise, a stock deleted from the market index will on average outperform the market over the next 12 months.


There is value to be added around market index changes and more broadly the rebalancing policy of an investment portfolio.


Happy investing.


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.


Please see my Disclosure Statement

Is Sector exclusion Lazy? Responsible Investing

I have some sympathy with the view that excluding sectors is lazy.

Doing so alone does not make one a Responsible Investor (RI), more an ethical investor.

Nevertheless, excluding sectors (negative screening) could be part of an Investor’s RI approach.


This post is in response to a recent GoodReturns article, Sector exclusions lazy CIO says.


In my mind, RI can be thought of as a continuum, at one end is do nothing, non RI, and at the other end is ethical investing, which would include a number of exclusions depending on ethical positions.  In between are different shades of RI.  RI is a broad church.

For most institutional Investor’s their RI approach centres around the United Nations supported Principles of Responsible Investing (PRI).  PRI has six principles, see below.


Whatever the “Responsible Investing” approach it should be based on a documented policy, preferably approved by the Board.  The policy would provide RI philosophy, approach, and guidelines e.g. the exclusion of sectors based on a investment research position or set of values.

I think the approach to RI should be addressing the PRI’s six principles.


With regards to impact on performance.  I’d see RI as having the ability to add value, certainly improve risk-adjusted returns.  There is increasingly more evidence suggesting this, particularly at the stock selection level for equities and bonds.

Likewise, heading down the road of excluding a large number of sectors will increase variability of returns relative to broad market indices (that is the math).  Nevertheless, I’d argue this is ethical investing, not RI.  Perhaps the two will come closer together over time.  That will need a growing consensus of what sectors are acceptable and what are not i.e. tobacco has wide acceptance as being excluded currently.


RI to me is much more about risk management.  Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors can impact on the long term financial outcomes of a company and a broader portfolio.  Well researched ESG positions will improve risk-adjusted performance.  Such a research driven approach may result in the exclusion of some sectors.  It may also result in making investment decisions a non-RI approach would not consider e.g. impact investing or reducing a portfolio’s carbon exposure given changing government regulations and taxes.  I have a preference that the ESG approach focuses more on a portfolio’s financial impacts, rather than ethics.  Albeit, RI should be set within a sound philosophy and values framework.

The ESG factors should be integrated into the investment process, through selection and monitoring of investments.

Therefore, the consideration of ESG factors will help improve long term risk-adjusted returns, provide better insights into the risk of companies and potentially wider portfolio risk exposures, not just listed equities but unlisted assets such as infrastructure and property.  ESG assists in considering portfolio risks more broadly.  RI can make for more robust portfolios.

RI also includes engagement, with companies and the industry.  It is proactive, e.g. proxy voting and engagement with companies.  RI is a lot more than just excluding an equity market sector.  From this perspective, an investment manager can do more good through engagement than just excluded particular sectors.  They can make a conscious and research based decision not to invest in a company with the consideration of ESG factors.

RI is consistent with being a long term investor and stewardship.  In this regard, RI is as much about sustainable investing.

And that highlights a problem, there is so much terminology in our industry, particularly within this space.  This leads to inconsistency in meaning across the industry, which is reflected within the media e.g. Ethical Investing and Social Responsible Investing are often described as “RI”, which is not really true, at best it is at the far end of the RI continuum and based more on values than financial impacts, it is a subset of RI at best.


As an aside, one of the best books I have read on sustainable investing is, Sustainable Investing for Institutional Investors, by Mirjam Staub-Bisang.  I am interviewed in one of the chapters (no I don’t get any royalties) along with Amanda McCluskey, chpt 16.  Both are wonderful people.



Happy investing.



Please see my Disclosure Statement


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.



PRI Principles:

Principle 1: We will incorporate ESG issues into investment analysis and decision-making processes.

Principle 2: We will be active owners and incorporate ESG issues into our ownership policies and practices.

Principle 3: We will seek appropriate disclosure on ESG issues by the entities in which we invest.

Principle 4: We will promote acceptance and implementation of the Principles within the investment industry.

Principle 5: We will work together to enhance our effectiveness in implementing the Principles.

Principle 6: We will each report on our activities and progress towards implementing the Principles.



Bitcoin a speculative bubble – Robert Shiller

An interesting Bloomberg interview with Robert Shiller, Nobel economics prize winner.

Shiller’s most interesting response, when asked about the possible comparison with the 17th century tulip bubble in the Netherlands: “Tulips are still valued, there are some expensive tulips”.

 He also made some other interesting observations in the Bloomberg interview:

  • Bitcoin is a social movement whose popularity is split along geographical lines, it is more popular on the West Coast, Silico Valley in particular, than in the East Coast of America
  • It’s an epidemic of enthusiasm
  • It’s a speculative bubble, that does not mean that it will go to zero


Of course Bitcoin, along with the other cryptocurrencies, has fallen heavily over recent months as regulators around the world have increasingly taken a closer look, particularly from the perspective of money laundering.

Bitcoin is currently trading around $6,600, down from $20,000 in December 2017.  Ouch.


Happy investing.


Please see my Disclosure Statement


Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.