Real Assets offer real diversification benefits

Real assets such as Farmland, Timberland, Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Real Estate, TIPS (Inflation Protected Fixed Income Securities), Commodities, Foreign Currencies, and Gold offer real diversification benefits relative to equities and fixed income.

They offer real diversification benefits to a Balanced portfolio (60% equities and 40% fixed income) in different macro-economic environments, such as low economic growth, high inflation, stagflation, and stagnation.

These are a conclusive findings of a recent study by PGIM. PGIM is one of the largest asset managers in the world, managing over US$1 trillion in assets, and can trace its heritage to Prudential Financial in 1875.

 

The comprehensive analysis undertaken by PGIM outlines the role Real Assets can play in an Investment Portfolio.

Initially they identify and provided a brief outline of the investment characteristics for a number of real assets (see detail below).

The analysis primarily focuses on the sensitivities of real assets to both macroeconomic variables (e.g. economic growth and inflation) and traditional financial markets (e.g., equities and fixed income returns). This analysis is undertaken for each of real assets identified.

Pertinent points of the analysis:

  • There is a wide diversity in real assets’ sensitivities to inflation and growth, and stocks and bonds.
  • These sensitivities vary over time.
  • The time varying nature of these sensitivities can be mitigated by holding a portfolio of real assets or actively managing the real assets exposures.

 

An important observation from the perspective of portfolio diversification, equities and fixed income have different sensitivities to inflation and growth than many of the real assets.

 

A summary of the sensitivity to economic growth and inflation, along with some specific investment characteristics, for some of the different real assets is provided in the Table below.

Asset

Growth

Sensitivity

Inflation

Sensitivity

Accessibility Data Availability & Quality Specific Risks Sector Difference
Real Estate Core

mid

mid high high mid

mid

Real Estate Debt

low

low mid low low mid

Natural Resources

high

high mid mid high

high

Infrastructure

mid

mid mid low mid

mid

Timberland

mid

mid mid mid high

mid

Farmland (annual crops)

mid

high mid mid mid

mid

Farmland (permanent crops)

low

mid low mid high

high

TIPS

low

high high high low

low

Commodity

high

high high high low

high

Gold

low

high high high low

low

Currency

low

mid high high mid

Mid

 

PGIM then constructed three real asset strategy portfolios – Diversification, Inflation-Protection and Stagnation-Protection, by including some of the real assets identified above.

While the real asset portfolios’ macro-economic and financial market sensitivities still varied over time they were more stable than holding individual real assets.

Furthermore, across various economic environments, the three strategies displayed lower risk (lower volatility of returns) compared to equities.

PGIM then showed how these strategies performed in different economic environments: ideal, overheating, stagflation and stagnation.

The following Table outlines what Real Asset Strategy Portfolio performs best in different inflation and economic growth environments, compared to Equities and Fixed Income. The frequency of the different likely economic environments is also provided.

Portfolio Strategy

Ideal Overheating Muddled Stagflation Stagnation
Inflation &/ Growth Low & High High & High Median/Median High & Low Low & Low
Diversification

Y

Y

Y

Y

Y

Inflation-Protection

Y

Y Y

Stagnation Protection

Y

Y

Y

Equities

Y

Y

Y

Fixed Income

Y

Scenario frequency

8.9%

11.4%

53.9%

10.2%

15.8%

 

The PGIM analysis concludes that an allocation to real assets can improve the investment outcomes for a traditional portfolio dominated by equities and fixed income. These benefits are noticeable in different economic environments, like stagflation and stagnation, and particularly for those investment portfolios where objectives are linked to inflation, cost of living adjustments.

This conclusion comes as no surprise given the demonstrated diversification benefits as outlined within the Report.

 

I provide more detail below by summarising the various sections of the PGIM Report.

The sections include:

    • The Real assets universe and their investment characteristics
    • Real Assets sensitivity to Macro-economic and financial market exposures
    • Real Asset Diversification Benefits relative to equities and fixed income
    • Analysis of Real Asset Strategy Portfolios
    • Diversification Benefits of the three Real Asset Portfolios, sensitivities to equities, fixed income, economic growth, and inflation.
    • Benefits of Real Asset Strategies in Investment Portfolios

 

Access to the PGIM Report is provided below.

 

The Real Assets Universe and their investment characteristics

PGIM identify the following real assets: Farmland, Timberland, Infrastructure, private equity and debt, Natural Resources, private and public equity, Real Estate, Private Equity, Core, Value-add, opportunistic, private debt, REITS, TIPS (Inflation Protected Fixed Income Securities), Commodities, Foreign Currencies, and Gold.

The PGIM paper provides a brief description of each real asset, including sources of return drivers and key investment attributes.

Investment return characteristics of the real assets over the period January 1996 – June 2017 are provided.  I have reproduced for some of the real assets in the following Table.

Asset

Annual p.a. returns

Risk annual volatility

Sharpe Ratio

Real Estate Core

8.3%

11.0%

0.55

Real Estate Debt

6.3%

4.8%

0.85

REIT

10.7%

19.8%

0.43

Natural Resources

15.9%

23.8%

0.58

Energy Equity

9.0%

19.7%

0.35

Infrastructure

4.0%

12.7%

0.14

MLP

12.6%

26.2%

0.39

Timberland

7.3%

6.9%

0.74

Farmland

12.2%

7.3%

1.37

TIPS

5.2%

6.0%

0.50

Commodity

-0.9%

28.2%

-0.11

Gold

5.6%

16.2%

0.21

Currency

-1.2%

8.5%

-0.40

US Cash

2.2%

2.2%

US 10 yr Treasury

5.2%

8.6%

0.35

US Equity (S&P 500)

8.6%

18.3%

0.35

 

Sensitivity to Macro-economic and financial market exposures

PGIM reviewed the sensitivity of Real Assets to several macro-economic variables over the period 1996-2017 and subperiods 1996-2007 and 2008-2017:

Inflation and growth

PGIM found an unstable return sensitivity profile to inflation and growth i.e. variation in return outcomes to different inflation and economic growth periods.

Of note, and an important observation from the perspective of portfolio diversification, equites and fixed income have different sensitivities to inflation and growth than many of the real assets.

Inflation Protection

PGIM found that many real assets had large positive sensitivities to inflation.

They found that commodity, currency, energy equity, gold, infrastructure, TIPS and natural resource real assets provided inflation protection, not only for the full period but generally (except for gold and currency) for both subperiods as well.

Stagnation Protection

Equities have a high sensitivity to economic growth, cash a low sensitivity.

Farmland, gold, real estate debt, TIPS, and currency had insignificant sensitivity to economic growth. Their sensitivity to growth surprises were also low and statistically insignificant i.e. their return outcomes are largely independent of economic growth.

The growth surprise sensitivity for farmland was negative and statistically significant.

PGIM define a real asset as offering “stagnation protection” if its full-period estimated growth and growth surprise sensitivity were approximately equal to or less than the corresponding growth sensitivity for cash.

Therefore, farmland, currency, gold, real estate debt, and TIPS provided stagnation protection for the full period and often for both subperiods.

 

A summary of the sensitivity to economic growth and inflation, along with some specific investment characteristics, for some of the different real assets is provided in the Table below.

Asset

Growth

Sensitivity

Inflation

Sensitivity

Accessibility Data Availability & Quality Specific Risks

Sector Difference

Real Estate Core

mid

mid high high mid

mid

Real Estate Debt

low

low mid low low

mid

Natural Resources

high

high mid mid high

high

Infrastructure

mid

mid mid low mid

mid

Timberland

mid

mid mid mid high

mid

Farmland (annual crops)

mid

high mid mid mid

mid

Farmland (permanent crops)

low

mid low mid high

high

TIPS

low

high high high low

low

Commodity

high

high high high low

high

Gold

low

high high high low

low

Currency

low

mid high high mid

Mid

 

Real Asset Diversification Benefits relative to equities and fixed income

The different sensitivities of real assets to economic and inflation outcomes, on an absolute basis and relative to equities and fixed income, highlights the potential diversification benefits they could bring to a traditional portfolio of just equities and fixed income.

This is confirmed by the analysis undertaken by PGIM looking into the diversification benefits of real assets relative to equities and fixed income.

 

Diversifying Real Assets

Based on their criteria of sensitivity to equities and fixed income over the performance periods, PGIM found that currency, farmland, gold, natural resource, real estate, and timberland as diversifying real assets.

Not providing meaningful diversification benefits relative to equities was energy equity, listed property, and real estate.

Likewise, real estate debt and TIPS provided little diversification benefits relative to fixed income.

Although PGIM found diversification benefits from infrastructure, real estate debt and TIPS, they also found periods of time when there was limited diversification benefits relative to equities and fixed income.

 

Analysis of Real Asset Strategy Portfolios

PGIM used equal weights to the real assets to construct three Real Asset Strategy Portfolios. Each portfolio is a mix of public and private real assets.

A description of the three real asset Portfolios is provided below.

 

Diversification (80% private assets):

  • This portfolio is expected to have performance that has a low level of sensitivity with a traditional 60/40 Portfolio.
  • This ensures there will be diversification benefits regardless of the market cycle.
  • The Diversified Portfolio is made up of 20% Farmland, 20% Gold, 20% Natural Resource, 20% Real Estate, 20% Timberland

 

Inflation-Protection (33% private assets)

  • This strategy is designed to have better returns when inflation and inflation surprises are higher.
  • It is a strategy for investors with inflation-linked liabilities or a concern about overheating (high inflation and high growth) and stagflation (high inflation and low growth) economic scenarios.
  • Therefore, it includes real assets that have significant and positive exposure to both the inflation level and inflation surprise
  • The Inflation-Protection portfolio is made up of 17% Commodity, 17% Energy Equity, 17% Gold, 17% Infrastructure, 17% Natural Resource, 17% TIPS

 

Stagnation-Protection (50% private assets)

  • The Stagnation-Protection strategy portfolio is expected to perform better than cash in economic environments with below average growth.
  • This is a strategy for investors concerned about stagnation (low inflation and low growth) scenarios.
  • Included in this portfolio are real assets that have a sensitivity to both the real economic growth level and growth surprise that is lower than corresponding sensitivities for cash:
  • The Stagnation-Protection portfolio is made up of 25% Farmland, 25% Gold, 25% Real Estate Debt, and 25% TIPS.

 

Return Outcomes

PGIM measured the performance characteristic of these portfolios from January 1996 to December 2017. Including the sub-periods identified above.

The Diversification strategy produced the highest return (10.4%), with moderate risk (8.6%), and outperformed the 60/40 Portfolio (60% equities and 40% fixed income portfolio).

The Stagnation-Protection strategy offered similar absolute performance as the 60/40 portfolio, but due to its lower volatility produced much better risk-adjusted performance.

The Inflation-Protection strategy underperformed the 60/40 portfolio but generated slightly better risk adjusted returns. The Inflation-Protection strategy had the highest volatility of all three real asset strategies due to holdings of commodity and natural resource which have higher volatilities than stocks.

 

Diversification Benefits of the three Real Asset Portfolios

Sensitivity to Equities and Fixed Income

PGIM also found that the three Real Asset Portfolio strategies had low sensitivities to Equities.

The Inflation-Protection strategy tended to have the highest sensitivity to equities, while the Stagnation-Protection strategy had the lowest.

PGIM note the Stagnation-Protection portfolio had much lower sensitivity to equities than the 60/40 portfolio.

 

Relative to Fixed Income, the three strategies had on average a low and statistically insignificant sensitivity to Fixed Income. However, it was a game of two halves, all three strategies had negative sensitivity to Fixed Income in the first sub-period but positive sensitivity in the second sub-period.

 

Sensitivity to Economic variables

Economic Growth

The Inflation-Protection and Diversification strategies showed positive sensitivity to economic growth in both the full period and the second sub-period.

In contrast, the Stagnation-Protection strategy had negative sensitivity to economic growth for the full period, although not statistically significant.

While the Stagnation-Protection strategy had positive and statistically significant exposure to economic growth in the second sub-period, it was still the lowest growth exposure of all three real asset portfolio strategies.

Importantly, all three strategies display lower economic growth exposure relative to equities, this suggests they may provide investors protection at times of economic downturn (especially Stagnation-Protection and Diversification).

 

As PGIM note “To highlight the potential benefit, the Stagnation-Protection strategy offered positive exposure to inflation and negative exposure to growth, the opposite exposures for the 60/40 portfolio.”

 

Inflation Sensitivity

All three strategies had positive and significant sensitivity to inflation for the full period.

As was desired, the Inflation Protection strategy displayed the highest and statistically significant inflation sensitivity in both the full period and in both sub-periods “suggesting the strategy may provide inflation protection going forward. Notably, the Inflation-Protection strategy had much higher inflation sensitivity than stocks, bonds or the 60/40 portfolio.”

The Stagnation-Protection strategy had the lowest sensitivity to inflation.

 

Further in-depth analysis was undertaken into how the strategies would perform in different economic environments.

This analysis found:

  • All three real asset strategies perform well when inflation is high.
  • During stagflation the three strategies all have higher average returns than stocks or bonds.
  • In overheating environments stocks do well but the Diversification and Inflation-Protection strategies do even better.
  • Performance across the three real asset strategies diverges when inflation is low.
  • During periods of stagnation (low inflation/low growth) bonds do well, but so do the Stagnation-Protection and Diversification strategies.

 

The following Table outlines what Real Asset Strategy Portfolio performs best in different inflation and economic growth environments, compared to Equities and Fixed Income. The frequency of the different likely economic environments is also provided.

Portfolio Strategy

Ideal

Overheating Muddled Stagflation

Stagnation

Inflation &/ Growth

Low & High

High & High Median/Median High & Low

Low & Low

Diversification

Y

Y Y Y

Y

Inflation-Protection Y Y

Y

Stagnation Protection

Y

Y

Y

Equities

Y

Y Y
Fixed Income

Y

Scenario frequency

8.9%

11.4% 53.9% 10.2%

15.8%

 

Diversification Benefits of Real Asset Strategies in Pension Plans

The last section of the PGIM report seeks to determine if an allocation to real assets will improve the outcomes for US Pension Funds. PGIM note that this research can be applied to portfolios in other countries.

It should come as no surprise, given the results of the in-depth analysis undertaken by PGIM above, that an allocation to Real Assets improves the investment outcomes to a portfolio dominated by equities and fixed income.

By way of example, even a 10% allocation to a real asset strategy, depending on the investment objective, can lead to a noticeable improvement in both the final funded ratio and the risk of being further under-funded (i.e., surplus risk) of a Defined Benefit plan.  Resulting from lower levels of portfolio volatility.

In high inflation environments an allocation to real assets improves the outcomes Pension Plan, especially those with liabilities tied to inflation (cost of living adjustments).

Likewise, in low growth environments they found an allocation to real asset strategies made a big difference.

It is similar across different environments, stagflation and stagnation protection.

To conclude, the PGIM Portfolio analysis highlighted that a real asset allocation can help Defined Benefit providers improve outcomes in different economic environments of concern, like stagflation and stagnation, improving either surplus risk or the average funded ratio.

 

Access to the PGIM Report

 

Happy investing.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

 

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

 

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