Interest rate strategies for a low and rising interest rate environment

There are several options available for investors who are relying on fixed income investments to generate income in the current extremely challenging environment – characterised by low short-term rates and rising longer-term interest rates.

Short-term fixed income funds and private debt funds are two examples.  Both seek to deliver a healthy return above cash and term deposits.  They achieve this in a variety of ways, chiefly by gaining exposure to different investment risks.

In addition, active management is an important source of return from short-tern fixed income funds.  And exposure to the illiquidity premium is a source of “excess” returns in relation to private debt funds.

Crucial to success in the current environment is an investor’s perception and measurement of risk.

In measuring risk, investor focus should be on avoiding permanent loss of capital, rather than volatility of capital and investment returns.

So long as permanent loss of capital is appropriately managed, investors should be prepared to accept a higher volatility of capital from their fixed income investments, along with less liquidity. 

Such an approach will likely result in higher and more consistent levels of income in retirement.

Short-term fixed income funds

Short-term fixed income funds are actively managed fixed income funds that seek to take advantages of opportunities in short-term fixed income and credit markets to generate returns above cash and term deposits.

Although short-term fixed income funds target a lower average portfolio duration, they are often able to invest in securities that have up to 5 years until they mature. (Duration is a measure of a security and portfolio’s sensitivity to movements in interest rates.  The higher a portfolio’s duration the more volatile it will be.  A portfolio rises in value when interest rates fall and decreases in value when interest rates rise.  Duration is measured in years.)

The target duration on “short-term fixed income funds” can vary materially, from less than 1 year and up to a maximum of three years.

Likewise, credit quality can vary significantly between different funds, ranging from high quality investment grade exposures to sub-investment grade (High Yield).  On a more technical note, and often not considered, the credit duration of these funds can also vary, particularly in relation to the maximum term of credit security invested in.  Like interest rate duration, credit duration is measured in years and the higher the credit duration the more volatile will be the security or portfolio.

Some of the short-term fixed income funds can also invest into inflation-linked securities, an additional diversifying source of return and risk exposure for a portfolio. And maybe a valuable addition to portfolios in the years ahead.

Funds also differ in the countries they invest into, from domestic markets (e.g. New Zealand and Australia) to internationally, including the emerging markets.

Therefore, there is a very broad spectrum of Funds in this category and fund selection should be undertaken relative to risk tolerances and any investment mandate constraints where applicable e.g. limits on credit quality.

In my mind, a broad investment mandate is better.  This provides more opportunity for a manager to add value and manage portfolio risks – should they have the skill, resources, and capabilities to do so.

Lastly, short-term fixed income funds are generally highly liquid, and more liquid than term deposits.

My approach would be to implement as broad an investment strategy as possible given the constraints of fees, risk tolerance, and access to appropriate vehicles.

There are a number of these funds in the marketplace. For a Kiwi Investor, a strategy denominated in New Zealand dollar terms should be preferred.

Private Debt Funds

For those investors with a longer-term investment horizon and can maintain within their portfolio illiquid investments, Private Debt Funds offer the potential to boost returns, not only in the current investment environment, in the future as well.

Typically, the term “private debt” is applied to debt investments which are not financed by banks (non-bank lending) and are not issued or traded in an open market.

Private debt falls into a broader category termed ‘alternative debt’ or ‘alternative credit’, and is used interchangeably with ‘direct lending’, ‘private lending’ and ‘private credit’.

Within the private debt market, investors lend to investee entities – be they corporate groups, subsidiaries, or special purpose vehicles established to finance specific projects or assets – in the same way that banks lend to such entities.

Private debt investments are often used to finance business growth and provide working capital.

Private Debt Funds invest in loans to a wide range of borrowers such as public and private companies, infrastructure providers, property developers, and project finance groups.

Private Debt has been one of the fastest-growing asset classes.  Part of this growth reflects a change in debt markets since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and a corresponding demand from investors, attracted by the return potential and a broader set of credit investment opportunities to invest in.

Illiquidity Risk Premium

To generate returns over cash and term deposits investors need to take on more risk. 

Arguably the most efficient way to take on more risk is to invest into a diversified range of risk premiums.  The best known risk premiums are value, growth, momentum, and to a lesser extent low volatility.  Equity markets, interest rates, and credit are also risk premiums. Good active managers will add value over and above, or independently, of all these premiums.

There is also an illiquidity risk premium, which is often underrepresented in portfolios.

The illiquidity premium is the additional compensation to investors for not being able to access their capital for a specific period.

As a result, illiquid investments, such as Private Debt, should offer a “premium” in the form of higher yield expectations.

These higher relative yields could be a helpful in boosting income in the current environment and in the future.

Measuring Risk

“Risk means, more things can happen than will happen”, Elroy Dimson. 

An investor’s perception and measurement of risk are important in managing an investment portfolio.

Perception toward risk is critical. For example, often, adding new “risks” to a portfolio leads to a less risky portfolio. 

Most importantly, in managing investment risks, the ability to think in terms of probabilities is important.  This involves understanding and appreciating the likelihood/chance of an event occurring and then the expected impacts of that event occurring to all parts of the portfolio.

In relation to measurement of risk, investor focus should be on avoiding permanent loss of capital, rather than measuring risk as fluctuations in capital and returns.

Warren Buffett understands this concept of risk very well.  And, it has not done him any harm implementing this approach to risk!

Accordingly, investors would do better thinking along these lines in relation to risk.

So long as permanent loss of capital is appropriately managed, investors should prepare to accept a higher volatility of capital from their fixed income investments and less liquidity. 

Such an approach will likely result in higher and more consistent levels of income in retirement.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

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

source: Forbes.com

Investment Framework for a Rising Interest Rates Environment

Amongst the strategies to employ for the current interest rate environment is a Liability Driven Investment (LDI) approach. 

LDI provides a framework for managing retirement income outcomes in what is likely to be a rising interest rate environment over the years ahead. 

LDI places retirement planning goals at the centre of the investment approach leading to several key benefits:

  1. More stable level of income in retirement;
  2. More efficient use of capital – potentially need less retirement savings; and
  3. Better framework to make trade-off between allocation to equities and the retirement income portfolio in improving the likelihood of reaching desired standard of living in retirement.

Under LDI a more customised investment solution can be developed.

Conversely, if an investor runs with a Cash strategy, where the goal is primarily capital preservation, they will likely need additional precautionary savings to meet their income requirements over retirement.

Therefore, while an LDI strategy increases the likelihood of reaching the retirement income objectives, it also achieves this with a more efficient allocation of investment capital.

The additional capital could be used for current consumption or invested in growth assets to potentially fund a higher standard of living in retirement, or used for other investment goals e.g. endowments and legacies.

Accordingly, LDI potentially provides a better framework in which to evaluate the risk of meeting your retirement income goals in a rising interest rate environment.

Retirement Planning (mis) focus

Arguably the primary goal of retirement planning is to provide a stable and secure stream of income in retirement – income to support a desired standard of living in retirement.

However, retirement planning investment approaches often focus too heavily on accumulated wealth e.g. how much do I need to save to retire on?

This could potentially result in the wrong focus.  For example, if a New Zealander retired in 2008 with a million dollars, their annual income would have been around $80k by investing in retail term deposits.  Their income would have dramatically dropped in 2009 to approximately $35k.  That is a big drop in income!  But interest rates have fallen further, currently (Feb 2021) a million dollars invested in New Zealand Term deposits will generate around $10k.

As a result, the focus should not necessarily be on the size of the account value e.g. KiwiSaver account balance.

This reflects that volatility of capital and investment returns are not a true measure of a retiree’s investment risk.

Investment strategies that focus on capital preservation, such as holding high levels of cash and short-term fixed income strategies, are riskier and more volatile relative to the investment goal of generating a stable and secure stream of income in retirement.

Redefining the Retirement Goal

Those planning for retirement seek to secure essential (sufficient income) and aspirational goals (additional wealth accumulation) with a high probability of achieving them.

Accordingly, the goal for retirement can be split between retirement income (essential goals) and wealth accumulation (aspirational goals). 

Those saving for retirement should be focusing on more than accumulated wealth alone. Other key considerations may include a desired level of retirement spending, meeting children’s education costs, healthcare costs, and a legacy.  These can be considered as future liabilities that need to be met.

Consequently, a better measure of a retiree’s investment risk becomes uncertainty around how much spending can be sustained in retirement.

Liability Driven Investing

Liability-driven investment (LDI) strategies, otherwise known as asset-liability management (ALM), take a complete and holistic approach.

LDI explicitly includes an investor’s current and future liabilities e.g., essential and aspirational goals.

The traditional way of building portfolios focusses more on risk tolerance, return expectations, and accumulated wealth rather than achieving the investment goals outlined above.

LDI creates better portfolios, particularly when it comes to retirement needs.  A more robust portfolio is generated, and the focus is on the key investment risk; failure to meet your investment objectives.

Obviously most financial planning processes take into consideration investment and retirement goals. Nevertheless, LDI makes retirement goals the central piece of constructing a portfolio. With LDI, portfolio allocations and management of risks are relative to meeting retirement objectives.

A more customised investment solution is developed.

See here for more on LDI.

The Benefits of LDI

Dimensional Funds Advisors (DFA) undertook analysis comparing two investment strategies relative to the goal of generating a stable and secure level of income in retirement:

  1. Goals based strategy that looks to generate sufficient income in retirement to match expected spending (consumption). This is the LDI strategy.
  2. Capital preservation strategy that is invested in Cash to manage the volatility of the account balance.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the DFA analysis:

  • The LDI strategy provides a more stable stream of income in retirement;
  • The LDI strategy provides greater clarity and confidence to plan for retirement; and
  • The Cash strategy results in a high level of volatility relative to the goal of generating a stable level of income in retirement.

See here for a detailed review of the DFA Research. 

In simple terms, the LDI strategy is a long-term bond portfolio that matches the expected retirement spending/consumption goal. Effectively, the LDI strategy generates cashflows to match future expected spending.

This reduces volatility relative to retirement spending goals.

Insurance Company’s implement a similar approach in meeting (paying out) future expected liabilities (insurance claims).

DFA conclude that “any strategy that attempts to reduce volatility using short- to intermediate-term fixed income, when the goal is a long-term liability like retirement consumption, will not be as effective as the LDI strategy.”

Although cash is perceived as low risk, it is not low risk when it comes to generating a steady and secure stream of income in retirement. Likewise, short term fixed income securities, while appropriate for capital preservation, are risky if the goal is to meet future spending/consumption in retirement.

In summary a LDI strategy provides the following benefits:

  1. More stable level of income in retirement;
  2. More efficient use of capital – potentially need less retirement savings; and
  3. Better framework to make trade-off between allocation to equities and retirement income portfolio in improving the likelihood of reaching desired standard of living in retirement.

If an investor runs with a Cash strategy, where the goal is primarily capital preservation, they will likely need additional precautionary savings to meet their retirement income requirements.

Therefore, while an LDI strategy increases the likelihood of reaching the retirement income objectives, it also achieves this with a more efficient allocation of capital.

This additional capital could be used for current consumption or invested in growth assets to potentially fund a higher standard of living in retirement, or used for other investment goals e.g. endowments and legacies.

Accordingly, LDI potentially provides a better framework in which to assess the risk of meeting your retirement income goals in a rising interest rate environment.

LDI Investment Framework for Individuals

Under the LDI model there are two portfolios: the liability portfolio and a return seeking portfolio. Most investment products offered today are return seeking portfolios with some dampening down of risk (measured by volatility of returns).

LDI is used by pension funds and insurance companies where their investment objectives and portfolios are primarily reflected in the terms of their future liabilities.

“Institutional” investment approaches such as LDI, Two-portfolio separation, and being more dynamic, are finding their way into wealth management solutions.

Goals-Based Investing is the wealth management counterpart to LDI. By way of example is EDHEC Risk Institute Goal-Based Investing Approach.

EDHEC suggest investors should maintain two portfolios:

  1. Goal-hedging portfolio – this replicates future replacement income goals; and
  2. Performance-seeking portfolio – this portfolio seeks returns and is efficiently diversified across the different risk premia – disaggregation of investment returns.

And, over time the manager dynamically allocates to the hedging portfolio and performance seeking portfolio to ensure there is a high probability of meeting retirement income levels.

Nevertheless, and most importantly, the Goal Based Investment framework outlined by EDHEC focuses on the goal of generating income in retirement.

Instead of worrying about fluctuations in capital, investors investing for retirement should worry about fluctuations of income in retirement.

With regards to capital specifically, the focus should be on avoiding permanent loss of capital, rather than fluctuations in capital.

See here for more on the EDHEC Goals Based Investment approach.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

 

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

Competitor Analysis KiwiSaver Conservative Funds – the value of a good investment strategy

An analysis of KiwiSaver Conservative Funds identifies a variation in underlying asset allocations, despite there being a generic look at a higher level (Income / Growth split).

The area of most pronounced difference is within the Income asset class allocations: Cash, New Zealand Fixed Income, and International Bonds.  There are also nuances within each of these asset classes, particularly level of benchmark duration risk.

These differences will drive performance outcomes, having nothing to do with active management skill and very little in relation to fees paid.

Portfolio performance is primarily driven by portfolio construction and implementation decisions.  The value of a good investment strategy.

Within the Income asset classes, the decision on duration and credit quality will drive performance (absolute returns and relative to peers).  These decisions impact return outcomes over both the short and longer term.

A comparison to Australian Super Funds with similar objectives provides useful insights into asset allocation decisions being made in New Zealand.

Analysis of Balance and Growth KiwiSaver Funds has also been undertaken and will be provided at a later date.

Analysis of KiwiSaver Conservative Funds

The Table below provides average, min, and max allocations of the Strategic Asset Allocations of 12 KiwiSaver Providers’ Conservative Funds, sourced from their latest Statements of Investment Policy and Objectives (SIPO).

  Cash Fixed Income
NZ
Fixed Income
International
Income
Allocation
Average 15.6%22.7%39.1%77.4%
Min1.0%14.0%28.0%70.0%
Max30.0%36.0%50.0%82.0%
Median17.3%23.0%40.5%79.0%
 Listed Equities
New Zealand
Listed Equities
International
Listed
Property
AlternativesGrowth
Allocation
Average6.6%12.4%4.0%2.1%22.7%
Min4.0%9.0%0.0%0.0%18.0%
Max9.5%16.0%7.5%5.0%30.0%
Median6.3%12.5%4.0%1.6%21.0%

Income Assets

From a top level, by and large the managers are tightly grouped around 77% allocation to Income assets (Cash, NZ Fixed Income and International Bonds). 

There are a small group of four managers which are outliners, with income allocations closer to 70%.  

This group is materially different from the bulk of the managers.  They tend to have lower cash allocations and much higher equity allocations. Only one of these managers has a material weighting outside of the listed equity markets e.g. Alternatives.

Within Income Assets

The variation within Income asset class occurs at both the asset allocation and performance benchmark level.  Both of which drive performance outcomes.

As can be seen from the Table above the variation in the allocation to Cash is extreme. Ranging from 1.0% to 30.0%.

Maintaining high levels of cash does not make a portfolio less risky. High levels of cash can raise risks relative to certain investment objectives, particularly if the investor is seeking a stable and more predictable income stream in retirement.

High levels of cash increase the variation of income in retirement and is less effective in providing portfolio protection at the time of sharp sharemarket declines.  On both counts, longer maturing fixed income provides a better solution.  See here for why holding high levels of cash at retirement can be scandalous.

Given the current environment of very low interest rates and higher equity market valuations in the US and NZ, a higher weighting to cash could be warranted.

The key benefits of cash are that it is highly liquid, provides emergency funds without impacting longer-term investments, and can arguably be “dry powder” funds when sharemarkets decline sharply.  The key to the dry powder factor is having the investment discipline to act accordingly.

The allocations to Fixed Income (NZ Fixed Income and Global Bonds) are tighter, ranging from 50% – 76%, and averaging around 62%.

The allocation International Bonds is higher relative to domestic Bonds, on average making up 64% of the Fixed Income Allocations. International Bonds are the largest asset allocation weight within the portfolios of just under 40%.

Risk and Investment Management

From a risk management, and investment management perspective, a portfolio’s capital allocations to cash, NZ Fixed Income, and International Bonds are less relevant relative to the Portfolio’s duration and credit exposures.

A more accurate way of looking at risk, and managing a portfolio, is a Portfolio’s level of duration and credit exposure.

Duration is a key risk measure, and in general reflects a portfolios capital value sensitivity to changes in interest rates. Duration is measured in years.  For example, assuming your Portfolio’s duration is 6 years, if interest rates rise by 1% the portfolio will decline by 6%, all else being equal.

See here for an explanation of Duration and here for credit risk.

Generally, those with a higher allocation to International Bonds have a higher level of interest rate risk.  These portfolios would have benefited more from the significant decline in interest rates over the last 20 years.

From a high level, the range in total Portfolio duration is estimated to be:

Total Portfolio Duration
Average 4.06
Min 3.27
Max 5.01
Median 3.99

These are estimates, based on current index duration and portfolio asset allocations.  The key points are, this is a more accurate view of portfolio risk and there is a reasonable spread in duration risk amongst the managers.

From this perspective, investors must be careful in assessing the relative risk of a Conservative Fund based on asset allocations alone.

By way of example, some Managers manage to a lower duration international bond index.  Thus, despite having a higher international bond allocation these Portfolios may have lower interest rate risk (duration) than a portfolio with a lower international bond allocation but managing to a higher duration index. They may also have the same level of interest rate risk!

Therefore, what is important is how much duration risk a portfolio should have in meeting its investment objectives.

From an investment governance perspective, Investment Committees should not be debating the level of allocation to cash, international, or NZ fixed interest without first considering what is the most appropriate level of portfolio duration risk to target in meeting investment objectives.  This is a different conversation and focus.

There is evidence that at least one of managers takes such an approach, maintaining a very low allocation to cash and a high allocation to Fixed Income.  This portfolio is not necessarily riskier than the other Funds just because it has a low cash holding.

Lastly, it should be noted that the duration on the International Bond Index has almost doubled over the last 10 years.  Therefore, if portfolio allocations to international bonds have remained static over the last 10 years, the risk of this allocation has increased along with the total portfolio’s risk profile.  Unfortunately, with interest rates so low, the return prospects are less, yet the risks have increased.

For more on the unintended risks within fixed income see here

Growth asset

As would be expected, the Growth Allocation is reasonably tight around 23%, the flip side of the Income Allocation.

Listed equities, including New Zealand equities, international equities, and listed property and infrastructure dominate the growth allocations i.e. there is very little investment in Alternatives.

Direct Property dominates the Alternative allocations.

Of interest, on average Domestic equities (New Zealand and Australia) make up around 35% of the core equities allocations e.g. domestic and international listed equities ex listed property and infrastructure.

Overall, core equities make up 19% of portfolios, domestic equities are around 6.5% of a Conservative Portfolio.

Ratio of Domestic Equities
in Core Equities Allocation
Core Listed Equities
Portfolio Allocation
Average 34.5%19.0%
Min25.0%13.0%
Max47.4%22.5%
Median31.5%19.5%

The Growth allocations will be discussed in more depth when presenting the results of the Balance and Growth Fund’s allocations.

Australian Fund Comparison

The Table below presents the average, min, max, and medium asset allocations of the largest Super Funds in Australia.  This list is dominated by Industry Funds.

The list includes funds with Conservative in their name and/or have similar return objectives to the KiwiSaver Funds.  The return objectives are express as inflation plus a margin e.g. CPI + 1.0%.

The following quick observations can be made:

  1. The Australian Funds have lower allocations to Income Assets than the New Zealand Funds, this is consistent with the Australian Funds having higher CPI + return objectives.  A return objective is necessary to undertake portfolio modelling. Also, don’t always choose a Fund my its name!
  2. At the same time, the Aussie Funds have much higher Cash allocations relative to the NZ Funds.
  3. The above means the Australian Funds have much lower Fixed Income allocations.  They also only show Fixed Income, not domestic and international bonds breakdown, which is consistent with the discussion above.
  4. Interestingly, the listed equity allocation is in line with the Kiwi Funds, around 20%.  However, the weighting in Australia to domestic equities in the total core equities allocation is closer to 50%, compared to 35% in NZ.  Domestic equities make up around 9% of a Conservative Fund in Australia, compared to 6.5% in New Zealand. Albeit, the Australian Funds do have a higher risk profile.
  5. The Australian Funds have significantly higher allocations to Alternatives than the NZ Funds.  When you consider a similar core equities allocations and higher cash allocations in Australia, the higher Alternatives allocation comes at the expense of Fixed Income.
Australian
Super Funds
CashFixed IncomeIncome
Allocation
Average27.5%36.7%59.6%
Min23.0%28.5%53.0%
Max37.0%67.0%67.0%
Median25.0%30.3%58.3%
Listed Equities
Domestic
Listed Equities
International
AlternativesGrowth
Average9.1%11.1%21.8%40.4%
Min7.0%7.0%6.0%33.0%
Max11.5%17.5%29.5%47.0%
Median9.5%10.5%24.0%41.8%

The Alternatives allocation will be discussed in more depth when presenting the results of the Balance and Growth Fund’s allocations.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

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

Most read Kiwi Investor Blog Posts in 2020

The most read Kiwi Investor Blog Posts in 2020 have been relevant to the current environment facing investors.  They have also focused on building more robust portfolios.

The ultra-low interest rate environment and sobering low return forecasts present a bleak outlook for the Traditional Balanced Portfolio (60% Equities and 40% Fixed Income.)  This outlook for the Balanced Portfolio was a developing theme in 2020, which gained greater prominence as the year progressed.

In essence, there are two themes that present a challenge for the Traditional Balanced Portfolio in the years ahead:

  1. That fixed income and equities (mainly US equities) are expensive, so now may not be a great time to invest too heavily in these markets; and
  2. With interest rates at very low levels, there is increasing doubt that fixed income can still effectively protect equity portfolios in a severe market decline in ways they have done historically.

My highest read Posts address the second theme above.

The Balance Portfolio has served investors well in recent years.  Although equities and fixed income still have a role to play in the future, there is more that can be done.

The most read Kiwi Investor Blog Posts outline strategies that are “more that can be done”.

I have no doubt investors are going to have to look for alternative sources of returns and new asset classes outside equities and fixed income over the years ahead.  In addition, investors will need to prepare for a period of higher inflation. 

Not only will this help in increasing the odds of meeting investment return objectives; it will also help protect portfolios in periods of severe sharemarket declines, thus reducing portfolio volatility.

The best way to manage periods of severe sharemarket declines, as experienced in the first quarter of 2020, is to have a diversified portfolio.  It is impossible to time these episodes.

Arguably the most prudent course of action for an investor to pursue in the years ahead is to take advantage of modern investment strategies that deliver portfolio diversification benefits and to employ more advanced portfolio construction techniques.  Both of which have been successfully implemented by large institutional investors for many years.

From my perspective, maintaining an array of diversification strategies is preferred, investors should diversify their diversifiers.

The most read Kiwi Investor Blog Posts in 2020 were:

Posts closely following were Understanding the impact of Volatility on your Portfolio and Optimal Private Equity Allocation.

Thank you all for you continued support and all the best for the year ahead.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

 

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

The benefits of behavioral finance in the investment planning process

Investment advisors who stay active across their client base in times of market volatility are more likely to add new clients from a variety of sources.

Clients and prospects want to know that their advisor is looking out for them, even when the advice they are delivering is to stay the course or focus on the long term.

Laying a foundation for communications based on behavioral finance allows advisors to better set expectations early on in client relationships, while also offering an opportunity to maintain an open dialogue when markets become turbulent.

When properly employed, behavioral finance allows advisors to pursue the twin goals of helping investors feel less financial stress while making better decisions in pursuit of their long-term goals.

A recent study found those advisors who employed behavioral finance in their approach:

  1. Gained a better understanding of clients’ risk appetite and kept them invested during the market turbulence in early 2020;
  2. Reported elevated client acquisition activity earlier in the year; and
  3. Developed deeper relations with clients.

As market volatility escalated, advisors increasingly turned to behavioral finance to help keep clients invested and focused on their long-term goals.

These are the key conclusions of a White Paper by Cerulli Associates, in partnership with Charles Schwab Investment Management, Inc., and the Investments & Wealth Institute: The Evolving Role of Behavioral Finance in 2020.    The Evolving Role of Behavioral Finance in 2020 | Schwab Funds

These findings will not be surprising to most investment advisors.  Nevertheless, the evidence supporting including elements of behavioral finance in the planning process is growing, and it is becoming more widely accepted.

It goes without saying, that advisors truly need to get to know their clients and use these insights to create personalised action plans to help them achieve their goals.  Clients prefer this too. 

Incorporating elements of behavioral finance in the planning process will help achieve this, benefiting both the client and advisor.

We all have behavioral biases and are prone to making poor decisions, investment related or otherwise. Therefore, it is important to understand our behavioral biases. From this perspective, behavioral finance can help us make better investment decisions.

For a further discussion on how investment decisions can be improved by employing behavior finance see this Kiwi Investor Blog Post, which includes access to a Behavioral Finance Toolkit.

Behavioral Biases

The following Table outlines the Top 5 behavioral biases identified by advisors in the Cerulli Associates study.

Recency biasBeing easily influenced by recent news events or experiences
Loss aversionOpting for less risk in portfolio than is recommended
Familiarity/home biasPreferring to invest in familiar (U.S. domiciled) companies
FramingMaking decisions based on the way the information is presented
Mental accountingSeparating wealth into different buckets based on financial goals

Not unexpectedly Recency bias was found by advisors to be the most common behavioral bias amongst clients this year.  This was also the most common behavioral bias in 2019, on both occasions 35% of Advisors indicated that Recency bias was a significant contributor to their clients’ decision making.

Loss aversion held the number two spot in both years.  The Paper provides a full list of Client behavioral biases identified, comparing 2020 results with those in 2019.

Clients are more than likely affected by several behavioral biases.

Source: Staib Financial Planning, LLC

Advisors can help clients improve their investment outcomes by influencing the behavioral bias in a positive way.  By way of example in the paper, Framing (easily influenced by recent events), “an advisor can emphasize how rebalancing a portfolio during an equity market decline allows investors to accumulate more shares of their favorite stock or funds at a reduced price.”

They conclude: “by embracing the principles of behavioral finance, advisors can nudge clients toward more constructive ways to think about their portfolios.”

Survey Results – the benefits of Behavioral Finance

The paper defines Behavioral finance as the study of the emotional and intellectual processes that combine to drive investors’ decision making, with the goal of helping clients optimize financial outcomes and emotional satisfaction.

As the White Paper outlines “Advisors must help investors create and maintain a mental framework to help ease their concerns about the fluctuations of the market. Behavioral finance can be a crucial element of advisors’ efforts to help investors overcome their emotional reactions in pursuit of their longterm financial goals.”

There has been an increase in advisors adopting the principles of behavioral finance in America, particularly in relation to client communications.

In 2020 81% of advisors indicated adopting the principles of behavioral finance, up from 71% in 2019.

The increase is likely in response by advisors to provide a “mental framework to deal with the adversity presented by increased uncertainty in the market and in life overall in 2020.”

Benefits of Behavioral Finance

Keeping clients invested was found to be a key benefit of incorporating behavioral finance in the advice process, 55% of advisors indicated this as a benefit, up from 30% in 2019.

The benefit of developing a better understanding of client’s comfort level with risk also grew in 2020, from 20% in 2019 to 44% in 2020 (probably not surprisingly given events in March and April of this year).

In 2019, the benefits of incorporating behavioral finance most cited by advisors was: strengthening relationships (50%), improving decisions (49%), and better managing client expectations (45%).  These benefits also scored highly in 2020. 

The paper provides a full list of the benefits of incorporating behavioral finance, comparing the results of 2020 with 2019.

To summarise, the results highlighted the dual role of behavioral finance in client relationships as:

  1. serving as a framework for deeper engagement to strengthen communications and prioritize goals during good times; and
  2. to help minimize clients’ instinctual adverse reactions during periods of acute volatility.

The paper then focused on two areas:

  • Growing the client base
  • Deepening client connections

Behavioral Finance Advisors experienced greater growth of their client base in 2020

In 2020 55% of advisor respondents indicated they had added new clients since the first quarter of 2020.  4% indicated they had experienced net client losses.

However, the results differed materially between advisors who adopted elements of behavioral finance compared to those who do not.

“Two-thirds (66%) of behavioral finance users reported adding to their client base, compared to just 36% of advisors who are not incorporating behavioral finance in their practices.”

The source of these new clients?:

  • “Approximately two-thirds of new clients were sourced from other advisors with whom clients had become dissatisfied, or as an outcome of investors seeking to consolidate their accounts and maintain fewer advisor relationships. This is frequently attributable to satisfied clients referring friends and family who are discontented with their current advisory relationship.”
  • “The other third of new client relationships was attributable to the conversion of formerly selfdirected investors who found the current conditions an opportune time to seek professional advice for the first time.“

Therefore, “behavioral finance adherents are more likely to not only educate clients regarding the potential for volatility, but also to urge clients to expect it. This scenario reinforces many of the key benefits of leveraging behavioral finance in advisory relationships, especially with regard to managing expectations and remaining invested during periods of volatility.”

Behavioral Finance Advisors develop deeper connections with their client base

Cerulli’s research has found that the level of an advisor’s proactive communication during periods of market volatility is the most reliable indicator of the degree to which the advisor will add new clients during the period.

In the study that they undertook, for example, they found that 72% of those advisors who employed elements of behavioral finance and increased their outgoing calls added new clients, compared to 42% of non-users of behavioral finance.

They conclude “The unifying element in these results is that proactive personal communication was valued by investors and was especially effective for advisors who have made behavioral finance a part of their client engagement strategy.“

A key point here, is that “Instead of having to pivot from touting their investment returns to focusing on explaining volatility, behavioral finance users were able to frame current conditions as expected developments within the context of the long-term plans they had previously developed and discussed.”

From this perspective, it is important to understand what type of communications clients and prospects prefer.

It goes without saying, that advisors truly need to get to know their clients and use these insights to create personalized action plans to help them achieve their goals.

Clients prefer this too. 

Incorporating elements of behavioral finance in the planning process will deliver this, benefiting both the client and advisor. 

Please read my Disclosure Statement

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

Behavioral Biases

Recency biasBeing easily influenced by recent news events or experiences
Loss aversionOpting for less risk in portfolio than is recommended
Familiarity/home biasPreferring to invest in familiar (U.S. domiciled) companies
FramingMaking decisions based on the way the information is presented
Mental accountingSeparating wealth into different buckets based on financial goals
Confirmation biasSeeking information that reinforces existing perceptions
AnchoringFocusing on a specific reference point when making decisions
HerdingFollowing the crowd or latest investment trends
Endowment effectAssigning a greater value to investments or assets already owned
Inertia/status quoFailing to take action or avoiding changes to a portfolio
Selective memoryRecalling only positive experiences or outcomes
Regret aversionFearing to take action due to previous mistakes or regret avoidance
Availability biasBasing decisions only on readily available information
OverconfidenceBeing overly confident in one’s own ability
Self-controlSpending excessively today at expense of the future

Sources: Cerulli Associates, in partnership with Charles Schwab Investment Management, Inc., and the Investments & Wealth Institute. Analyst Note: Advisors were asked, “To what degree do you believe the following biases may be affecting your clients’ investment decision making?”

Coronavirus – Financial Planning Challenges

For those near retirement this year’s global pandemic has thrown up new challenges for them and their Financial Advisor.

Early retirement due to losing a job, the running down of emergency funds, and a low interest rate environment are new challenges facing those about to retire.

Events this year are likely to have significant repercussions for how individuals conduct their financial planning.  Specifically, how they approach spending and saving goals.

The pandemic will likely have lasting implications for how people think about creating their financial and investment plans, and therefore raises new challenges for the Advisors who assist them.

These are the key issues and conclusions outlined by Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar, in her article, What the Coronavirus Means for the Future of Financial Planning.

In relation to the key issues identified above, Benz writes “All of these trends have implications for the way households—and the advisors who assist them—manage their finances. While the COVID-19 crisis has brought these topics to the forefront, their importance is likely to persist post-pandemic as well.”

Although the article is US centric, there are some key learnings, which are covered below.

How the Pandemic Has Impacted Financial Planning for Emergencies

The Pandemic has highlighted the importance of emergency funds as part of a sound financial plan and the difficulties that many individuals and households face in amassing these “rainy-day funds.”

Lower income families are more at-risk during times of financial emergencies.  Research in the US found that only 23% of lower-income households had emergency funds sufficient to see them through three months of unemployment.  This rises to 52% for middle income households.

It is advisable to have emergency funds outside of super.

The Morningstar article highlights “Withdrawing from retirement accounts is suboptimal because those withdrawn funds can’t benefit from market appreciation—imagine, for example, the worker who liquidated stocks from a retirement account in late March 2020, only to miss the subsequent recovery.”

An emergency fund helps boost peace of mind and provides a buffer and the confidence to maintain longer-term retirement goals.

Financial Advisors can assist clients in setting saving goals to amass an emergency fund, which is specific to their employment situation, and how best to invest these funds so they are there for a rainy day.

From an industry and Policymaker perspective, and reflecting many households struggle to accumulate emergency reserves, Morningstar raised the prospect of “sidecar” funds as potentially part of the solution.

Sidecars “would be for employees to contribute aftertax dollars automatically to an emergency fund. Once cash builds up to the employee’s own target, he could direct future pretax contributions to long-term retirement savings. Automating these contributions through payroll deductions may make it easier for individuals to save than when they’re saving on a purely discretionary basis.”

The concept of sidecar funds has recently been discussed in New Zealand.

Financial Planning for Early Retirement

The prospect of premature retirement will pose an urgent challenge for some clients. 

Although those newly unemployed will consider looking for a new job some may also consider whether early retirement is an option.

The US experience, to date, has been that those workers 55 and older have been one of groups most impacted by job losses.

Morningstar highlight that early retirement is not always in an individual’s best interest, actually, working a few years longer than age 65 can be “hugely beneficial to the health of a retirement plan,”….

They note the following challenges in early retirement:

  • Lost opportunity of additional retirement fund contributions and potential for further compound returns; and
  • Earlier withdrawals could result in a lower withdrawal rate or reduce the probability the funds lasting through the retirement period. 

Financial Advisors can help clients understand the trade-offs associated with early retirement and the impacts on their financial plans.  Often the decision to retire is about more than money.

Individual circumstances in relation to access to benefits, pensions, health insurance, and tax need to be taken into consideration.  Given this, a tailored financial plan, including the modelling of retirement cashflows on a year-to-year basis would be of considerable value.

Accommodating Low Yields in a Financial Plan

The low interest rate (yield) environment is a challenge for all investors. 

Nevertheless, for those in retirement or nearing retirement is it a more immediate challenge.

Return expectations from fixed income securities (longer dated (maturity) securities) are very low.  Amongst the best predictor of future returns from longer dated fixed income securities, such as a 10-year Government Bonds, is the current yield.

In the US, the current yield on the US Government 10-year Treasury Bond is not much over 1%, in New Zealand the 10-Year Government Bond yields less than 1%.  Expected returns on higher quality corporate bonds are not that much more enticing.

As Morningstar note, “These low yields constrain the return potential of portfolios that have an allocation to bonds and cash, at least for the next decade.“

The low yield and return environment have implications as to the sustainability of investment portfolios to support clients throughout their retirement.

The impact of low interest rates on “withdrawal rates” is highlighted in the graph below, which was provided by Morningstar in a separate article, The Math for Retirement Income Keeps Getting Worse, Revisiting the 4% withdrawal rule

The 4% withdrawal rate equals the amount of capital that can be safely and sustainably withdrawn from a portfolio over time to provide as much retirement income as possible without exhausting savings.

For illustrative purposes, the Morningstar article compares a 100% fixed income portfolio from 2013 and 2020 to reflect the impact of changes in interest rates on the sustainability of investment portfolios assuming a 4% withdrawal rate. 

As Morningstar note, since 2013 investment conditions have changed dramatically. When they published a study in 2013 the 30-year Treasury yield was 3.61% and expected inflation was 2.32%. Investors therefore received a real expected payout of 1.29%.

When they refreshed the study in 2020, those figures are 1.42% and 1.76%, respectively.  This implies a negative expected return after inflation.

The graph below tracks the projected value of $1 million dollars invested in 2013 and 2020.  The prevailing 30-year Treasury yields for July 2013 and October 2020, as outlined above, are used to estimate income for each portfolio, respectively, over time.  A “real” 4% withdrawal rate is assumed i.e. the first years $40k withdrawal grows with the inflation rates outlined above.

As can be seen, the 2013 Portfolio lasts up to 30 years, the 2020 Portfolio only 24 years, highlighting the impact of lower interest rates on the sustainability of an investment portfolio.

Financial Advisors can help in determining the appropriate withdrawal rates from an investment portfolio and the trade-offs involved.  They may also be able to suggest different investment strategies to maintain a higher withdrawal rate and the risks associated with this.

This may also include the purchase of annuities, to manage longevity risk (the risk of running out of money in retirement) rather than from the perspective of boosting current portfolio income.

Morningstar suggests that new retirees “should be conservative on the withdrawal rate front, especially because the much-cited “4% guideline” for portfolio withdrawal rates is based on market history that has never featured the current combination of low yields and not-inexpensive equity valuations.”

The 4% withdrawal rate is an industry “rule of thumb”.  Further discussion on the sustainability of the 4% withdrawal rate can be found here.

I have posted extensively about the low expected return environment and the challenges this creates for the Traditional Portfolio of 60% Equities and 40% Fixed Income.

The following Post on what investors should consider doing in the current market environment may be of interest. This Post outlines some investment strategies which may help in maintaining a higher withdrawal rate from an investment portfolio.

Likewise, this Post on how greater customisation of the client’s invest solution is required and who would benefit most from targeted investment advice may also be of interest.

Lastly, Wealth Management.com covers Benz’ article in Retirement Planning in a Pandemic.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

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

Who would benefit most from targeted investment advice?

Those in the Retirement Risk Zone would benefit most from targeted investment advice.

The Retirement Risk Zone is the 10-year period before and after retirement (assumed to retire at age 65 years).

It is the 20-year period when the greatest amount of retirement savings is in play, and subsequently, risk is at its highest.  It is a very important period for retirement planning.

The Retirement Risk Zone is the worst possible time to experience a large negative return.  How much you lose during a bear market (20% or more fall in value of sharemarkets) may not be anywhere near as important as the timing of that loss.

Therefore, the value of good advice and a well-constructed portfolio aligned with one’s investment objectives is of most value during the Retirement Risk Zone.

Impact on timing of market losses

If a large loss occurs during the Retirement Risk Zone it will result in less money in retirement and raise longevity risk (the risk of running out of money in retirement).

The risk that the order of investment returns is unfavourable is referred to as sequencing risk. 

Sequencing risk can be viewed as the interaction of market volatility and cashflows. The timing of returns and cashflows matters during both the accumulation of retirement savings and in retirement.

Once an investor needs to take capital or income from a portfolio volatility of equity markets can wreak havoc on a Portfolio’s value, and ultimately the ability of a portfolio to meet its investment objectives.

It is untrue to say that volatility does not matter for the long term when cashflows are involved.  For further discussion on this issue see this Post, Could Buffett be wrong?

Longevity Risk

The portfolio size effect and sequencing risk have a direct relationship to longevity risk.

For individuals, longevity risk is the risk of outliving ones’ assets, resulting in a lower standard of living, reduced care, or a return to employment.

One-way longevity risk manifests itself is when an investor’s superannuation savings is subject to a major negative market event within the Retirement Risk Zone.

Materiality of Market Volatility in Retirement Risk Zone

Research by Griffith University finds “that sequencing risk can deplete terminal wealth by almost a quarter, at the same time increasing the probability of portfolio ruin at age 85 from a probability of one-in three, to one-in-two.“

Based on their extensive modelling, investors have a 33.3% chance of not having enough money to last to aged 85, this raises to a 50% chance due to a large negative return during the Retirement Risk Zone.

They also note “It is our conjecture that, for someone in their 20s, the impact of sequencing risk is minimal: younger investors have small account balances, and plenty of time to recover …… However, for someone in their late 50s/early 60s, the interplay between portfolio size and sequencing risk can cause a potentially catastrophic financial loss that has serious consequences for individuals, families and broader society.”

This is consistent with other international studies.

Managing Sequencing Risk

Sequencing risk is largely a retirement planning issue. Albeit a robust portfolio and a suitably appropriate investment approach to investing will help mitigate the impact of sequencing risk.

Two key areas from an investment perspective to focus on in managing sequencing risk include:

The Retirement Goal is Income

The OECD’s Core Principles of Private Pension Regulation emphasis that the objective is to generate retirement income.  This is different to the focus on accumulated value.  A key learning from the Australian Superannuation industry is that there has been too greater focus on the size of the accumulated balance and that the purpose of superannuation should be about income in retirement.

An important point to consider, without a greater focus on generating income in retirement during the accumulation phase the variation of income in retirement will likely be higher.

Therefore, it is important to have coherency between the accumulation and pay-out phase of retirement as recommended by the OECD.

The OECD recommends the greater use of asset-liability matching (LDI) investment techniques.   

This is not just about increasing the cash and fixed income allocations within the portfolio but implementing more advanced funds management techniques to position the portfolio to deliver a more stable and secure level of income in retirement.

This is aligned with a Goals Based Investment approach.

A greater focus on reducing downside risk in a portfolio (Capital Preservation)

This is beyond just reducing the equity allocation within the retirement portfolio on approaching retirement, albeit this is fundamentally important in most cases.

A robust portfolio must display true portfolio diversification, that helps manage downside risk i.e. reduce degree of losses within a portfolio.

This may include the inclusion of alternative investments, tail risk hedging, and low volatility equities may also be option.

The current ultra-low interest rate environment presents a challenging environment for preserving portfolio capital, historically the role of Fixed Income.  Further discussion on this issue can be found in this Post, which includes a discussion on Tail Risk Hedging.

This article in smstrusteenews highlights the growing issue of capital preservation within the Australian Self-Managed Super Fund (SMSF) space given the current investment environment.

Meanwhile, this article from Forbes is on managing sequence of returns in retirement, and recommends amongst other things in having some flexibility around spending, maintaining reserve assets so you don’t have to sell assets after they fall in value, and the use of Annuities.

Many argue that sequencing risk can be managed by Product use alone. 

My preference is for a robust portfolio, truly diversified that is based on the principles of Goals-Based Investing.  Longevity annuities could be used to complement the Goals-Based approach, to manage longevity risk.

This is more aligned with a Robust Investment solution and the focus on generating retirement income as the essential investment goal.

Further Reading 

For a more technical read please see the following papers:

  1. Griffith University = The Retirement Risk Zone: A Baseline Study poorly-timed negative return event
  2. Retirement income and the sequence of-returns By: Moshe A. Milevsky, Ph.D., and Anna Abaimova, for MetLife

The case for a greater focus on generating retirement income is provided in this Post, summarising an article by Nobel Laureate Professor Robert Merton.  He argues strongly we should move away from the goal of amassing a lump sum at the time of retirement to one of achieving a retirement income for life.

The concepts in Merton’s article are consistent with the work by the EDHEC Risk Institute in building more robust retirement income solutions.

Lastly, a recent Kiwi Investor Blog Post, The Traditional Diversified Fund is outdated – greater customisation of the client’s investment solution is required, provides a framework for generating greater tailoring of investment solutions for clients.

Please read my Disclosure Statement

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

The Traditional Diversified Fund is outdated – greater customisation of the client’s investment solution is required

Although it has been evident for several years, the current investment environment highlights the shortcomings of the one size fits all multi-asset portfolio (commonly known as Diversified Funds such as Conservative, Balanced, and Growth Funds, which maintain static Strategic Asset Allocations, arising to the reference of the “Policy Portfolio”).

The mass-produced Diversified Funds downplay the importance of customisation by assuming investment problems can be portrayed within a simple risk and return framework.

However, saving for retirement is an individual experience requiring tailoring of the investment solution.   Different investors have different goals and circumstances.  This cannot be easily achieved within a one size fits all Diversified Fund.

Modern-day investment solutions involve greater customisation.  This is particularly true for those near or in retirement.

A massive step toward offering increased customisation of the Wealth Management investment solution is the framework of two distinctive “reference” portfolios: A Return Seeking Portfolio; and Liability-Hedging (Capital Protected) Portfolio.

Details and implementation of this framework are provided in the next section.  The benefits of the framework include:

  • A better assessment of the risks needed to be taken to reach a client’s essential goals and how much more risk is involved in potentially attaining aspirational goals;
  • An approach that will help facilitate more meaningful dialogue between the investor and his/her Advisor. Discussions can be had on how the individual’s portfolios are tracking relative to their retirement goals and if there are any expected shortfalls. If there are expected shortfalls, the framework helps in assessing what is the best course of action and trade-offs involved; and
  • A more efficient use of invested capital.  This is a very attractive attribute in the current low interest rate environment.  The framework will be more responsive to changing interest rates in the future.

These benefits cannot be efficiently and effectively achieved within the traditional Diversified Fund one size fits all framework; greater customisation of the investment solution is required.

With modern-day technology greater customisation of the investment solution can easily be achieved.

The technology solution is enhanced with an appropriate investment framework also in place.

Implementation of the Modern-Day Wealth Management Investment Solution

The reasons for the death of the Policy Portfolio (Diversified Fund) and rationale for the modern-day Wealth Management investment solution are provided below.

Modern-day investment solutions have two specific investment portfolios:  

  • Return seeking Portfolio that is a truly diversified growth portfolio, owning a wide array of different return seeking investment strategies; and
  • Capital Protected (Liability) Portfolio, is more complex, particularly in the current investment environment.  See comments below.

The allocations between the Return Seeking portfolio and Capital Protected portfolio would be different depending on the client’s individual circumstances.  Importantly, consideration is given to a greater array of client specific factors than just risk appetite and risk and return outcomes e.g. other sources of income, assets outside super.

Although the return seeking portfolio can be the same for all clients, the Capital Protected (Liability) portfolio should be tailored to the client’s needs and objectives, being very responsive to their future cashflow/income needs, it needs to be more “custom-made”.

The solution also involves a dynamic approach to allocate between the two portfolios depending on market conditions and the client’s situation in relation to the likelihood of them meeting their investment objectives.  This is a more practical and customer centric approach relative to undertaking tactical allocations in relation to a Policy Portfolio.

The framework easily allows for the inclusion of a diverse range of individual investment strategies.  Ideally a menu offering an array of investment strategies can be accessed allowing the customisation of the investment solution for the client by the investment adviser.

Implementation is key, which involves identifying and combining different investment strategies to build customised robust investment solutions for clients.

The death of the Policy Portfolio

Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), the bedrock of most current portfolios, including the Policy Portfolio, was developed in the 1950s.

Although key learnings can be taken from MPT, particularly the benefits of diversification, enhancements have been made based on the ongoing academic and practitioner research into building more robust investment solutions.  See here for a background discussion.

The Policy Portfolio is the strategic asset allocation (SAA) of a portfolio to several different asset classes deemed to be most appropriate for the investor e.g. Diversified Funds

It is a single Portfolio solution.

A key industry development, and the main driver of the move away from the old paradigm, is the realisation that investment solutions should not be framed in terms of one all-encompassing Policy Portfolio but instead should be framed in terms of two distinct reference Portfolios.

A very good example of the two portfolios framework is provided by EDHEC-Risk Institute and is explained in the context of a Wealth Management solution.  They describe the two reference portfolios framework involving:

  1. Liability-hedging portfolio, this is a portfolio that seeks to match future income requirements of the individual in retirement, and
  2. Performance Seeking Portfolio, this is a portfolio that seeks growth in asset value.

The concept of two separate portfolios is not new, it dates to finance studies from the 1950s on fund separation theorems (which is an area of research separate to the MPT).

The concept of two portfolios has also been endorsed by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize-winning behavioural economist, a “regret-proof” investment solution would involve having two portfolios: a risky portfolio and a safer portfolio.  Kahneman discusses the idea of a “regret-proof policy” here.

The death of the Policy Portfolio was first raised by Peter Bernstein in 2003.

Reasons for the death of Policy Portfolio include:

  • there is no such thing as a meaningful Policy Portfolio. Individual circumstances are different.
  • Investors should be dynamic; they need to react to changing market conditions and the likelihood of meeting their investment goals – a portfolio should not be held constant for a long period of time.

Many institutional investors have moved toward liability driven investment (LDI) solutions, separating out the hedging of future liabilities and building another portfolio component that is return seeking.  More can be found on LDI here.

These “institutional” investment approaches, LDI, portfolio separation, and being more dynamic are finding their way into Wealth Management solutions around the world.

Evolution of Wealth Management – Implementation of the new Paradigm

In relation to Wealth Management, the new paradigm has led to Goal-Based investing (GBI) for individuals. GBI focuses is on meeting investor’s goals along similar lines that LDI does for institutional investors.

As explained by EDHEC Risk Goal-Based Investing involves:

  1. Disaggregation of investor preferences into a hierarchical list of goals, with a key distinction between essential and aspirational goals, and the mapping of these groups to hedging portfolios possessing corresponding risk characteristics (Liability Hedging Portfolio).
  2. On the other hand, it involves an efficient dynamic allocation to these dedicated hedging portfolios and a common performance seeking portfolio.

GBI is consistent with the two portfolios approach, fund separation, LDI, and undertaking a dynamic investment approach.

The first portfolio is the Liability Hedging Portfolio to meet future income requirements, encompassing all essential goals.

The objective of this Portfolio is to secure with some certainty future retirement income requirements. It is typically dominated by longer dated high quality fixed income securities, including inflation linked securities.  It does not have a high exposure to cash. In the context of meeting future cashflow requirements in retirement Cash is the riskiest asset, unless the cashflows need are to be met in the immediate future.  For further discussion on the riskiness of cash in the context of retirement portfolios see here.

The second portfolio is the return seeking portfolio or growth portfolio. This is used to attain aspirational goals, objectives above essential goals. It is also required if the investor needs to take on more risk to achieve their essential goals in retirement i.e. a younger investor would have a higher allocation to the Return Seeking Portfolio.

The Growth Portfolio would be exposed to a diversified array of risk exposures, including equities, developed and emerging markets, factor exposures, and unlisted assets e.g. unlisted infrastructure, direct property, and Private Equity.

Allocations between the Hedging Portfolio and the Growth Portfolio would depend on an individual’s circumstances e.g. how far away they are from reaching their desired standard of living in retirement.

This provides a fantastic framework for determining the level of risk to take in meeting essential goals and how much risk is involved in potentially attaining aspirational goals.

This will will lead to a more efficient use of invested capital and a better assessment of the investment risks involved.

Importantly, the framework will help facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between the investor and his/her Advisor. Discussions can be had on how the individual’s portfolios are tracking relative to their retirement goals and if there are any expected shortfalls. If there are expected shortfalls, the framework also helps in assessing what is the best course of action and trade-offs involved.

For those wanting a greater appreciation of EDHEC’s framework please see their short paper: Mass Customization versus Mass Production – How An Industrial Revolution is about to Take Place in Money Management and Why it Involves a Shift from Investment Products to Investment Solutions  (see: EDHEC-Whitepaper-JOIM)

A more technical review of these issues has also been undertaken by EDHEC.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

The Case for holding Government Bonds and fixed income

The case for holding Government Bonds is all about certainty.  The question isn’t why would you own bonds but, in the current environment, why wouldn’t you own bonds to deliver certainty in such uncertain times?

This is the central argument for holding government bonds within a portfolio.  The case for holding government bonds is well presented in a recent article by Darren Langer, from Nikko Asset Management, Why you can’t afford not to own government bonds.

As he argues, government bonds are the only asset where you know with absolute certainty the amount of income you will get over its life and how much it will be worth on maturity. For most other assets, you will only ever know the true return in arrears.

The article examines some of the reasons why owning government bonds makes good sense in today’s investment and economic climate. It is well worth reading.

Why you can’t afford not to own government bonds

The argument against holding government bonds are based on expectations of higher interest rates, higher inflation, and current extremely low yields.

As argued in the article, although these are all very valid reasons for not holding government bonds, they all require a world economy that is growing strongly.  This is far from the case currently.

They key point being made here, in my opinion, is that the future is unknown, and there are numerous likely economic and market outcomes.

Therefore, investors need to consider an array of likely scenarios and test their assumptions of what is “likely” to happen.  For example, what is the ‘normal’ level of interest rates? Are they likely to return to normal levels when the experience since the Global Financial Crisis has been a slow grind to zero?

Personally, although inflation is not an issue now, I do think we should be preparing portfolios for a period of higher inflation, as I outline here.  Albeit, this does not negate the role of fixed income in a portfolio.

The article argues that current conditions appear to be different and given this it is not unrealistic to expect that inflation and interest rates are likely to remain low for many years and significantly lower than the past 30 years.

In an uncertain world, government bonds provide certainty. Given multiple economic and market scenarios to consider, maintaining an allocation to government bonds in a genuinely diverse and robust portfolio does not appear unreasonable on this basis.

Return expectations

Investors should be prepared for lower rates of returns across all assets classes, not just fixed income.

A likely scenario is that governments and central banks will target an environment of stable and low interest rates for a prolonged period.

In this type of environment, government bonds have the potential to provide a reasonable return with some certainty. The article argues, the benefits to owning bonds under these conditions are two-fold:

  1. A positively sloped yield curve in a market where yields are at or near their ceiling levels. Investors can move out the curve (i.e. by buying longer maturity bonds) to pick up higher coupon income without taking on more risk.
  2. Investors can, over time, ride a position down the positively-sloped yield curve (i.e. over time the bond will gain in value from the passing of time because shorter rates are lower than longer rates). This is often described as roll-down return.

The article concludes, that although fixed income may lose money during times of strong economic growth, rising interest rates, and higher inflation, these losses can be offset by the gains on riskier assets in a portfolio.  Losses on fixed income are small compared to potential losses on other asset classes and are generally recovered more quickly.

No one would suggest a 100% allocation to government bonds is a balanced investment strategy; likewise, not having an allocation to bonds should also be considered unbalanced. 

“But a known return in an uncertain world, where returns on all asset classes are likely to be lower than the past, might just be a good thing to have in a portfolio.”

The future role of fixed income in a robust portfolio has been covered regularly by Kiwi Investor Blog, the latest Post can be found here: What do Investors need in the current environment? – Rethink the 40 in 60/40 Portfolios?

The article on the case for government bonds helps bring some balance to the discussion around fixed income and the points within should be considered when determining portfolio investment strategies in the current environment.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

Is it an outdated Investment Strategy? If so, what should you do? Tail Risk Hedging?

Those saving for retirement face the reality that fixed income may no longer serve as an effective portfolio diversifier and source of meaningful returns.

In future fixed income is unlikely to provide the same level of offset in a portfolio as has transpired historically when the inevitable sharp decline in sharemarkets occur – which tend to happen more often than anticipated.

The expected reduced diversification benefit of fixed income is a growing view among many investment professionals.  In addition, forecast returns from fixed income, and cash, are extremely low.  Both are likely to deliver returns around, if not below, the rate of inflation over the next 5 – 10 years.

Notwithstanding this, there is still a role for fixed income within a portfolio.

However, there is still a very important portfolio construction issue to address.  It is a major challenge for retirement savings portfolios, particularly those portfolios with high allocations to cash and fixed income. 

In effect, this challenge is about exploring alternatives to traditional portfolio diversification, as expressed by the Balanced Portfolio of 60% Equities / 40% Fixed Income. I have covered this issue in previous Posts, here and here.

Outdated Investment Strategy

There are many ways to approach the current challenge, which investment committees, Trustees, and Plan Sponsors world-wide must surely be considering, at the very least analysing and reviewing, and hopefully addressing.

One way to approach this issue, and the focus of this Post, is Tail Risk Hedging. (I comment on other approaches below.)

The case for Tail Risk Hedging is well presented in this opinion piece, Investors Are Clinging to an Outdated Strategy At the Worst Possible Time, which appeared in Institutional Investor.com

The article is written by Ron Lagnado, who is a director at Universa Investments.  Universa Investments is an investment management firm that specialises in risk mitigation e.g. tail risk hedging.

The article makes several interesting observations and lays out the case for Tail Risk Hedging in the context of the underfunding of US Pension Plans.  Albeit, there are other situations in which the consideration of Tail Risk Hedging would also be applicable.

The framework for Equity Tail Risk Hedging, recognises “that management of portfolio risk and equity tail risk, in particular, was the key driver of long-term compound returns.”

By way of positioning, the article argues that a reduction in Portfolio volatility leads to better investment outcomes overtime, as measured by the Compound Annual Growth Return (CAGR).  There is validity to this argument, the reduction in portfolio volatility is paramount to successful investment outcomes over the longer-term.

The traditional Balance Portfolio, 60/40 mix of equities and fixed income, is supposed to mitigate the effects of extreme market volatility and deliver on return expectations.

Nevertheless, it is argued in the article that the Balanced Portfolio “limits portfolio volatility in benign market environments over the short term while making huge sacrifices in long-run performance.”

In other words, “It offers scant protection against tail risk and, at the same time, achieves an under-allocation to riskier assets with higher returns in long periods of economic expansion, such as the past decade.”

The article provides some evidence of this, highlighting that “large allocation to bonds still failed to provide enough protection to add value over the cycle — reducing the CAGR by 170 basis points.” 

Essentially, the argument is made that the Balanced Portfolio has not delivered on its promise historically and is an outdated strategy, particularly considering the current market environment and the outlook for investment returns.

Meeting the Challenge – Tail Risk Hedging

The article calls for the consideration of different approaches to the traditional Balance Portfolio.  Naturally, they call for Tail Risk Hedging.

In effect, the strategy is to maintain a higher allocation to equities and to protect the risk of large losses through implementing a tail risk hedge (protection of large equity loses).

It is argued that this will result in a higher CAGR over the longer term given a higher allocation to equities and without the drag on performance from fixed income.

The Tail Risk Hedge strategy is implemented via an options strategy.

As they note, there is no free lunch with this strategy, an “options strategies trade small losses over extended periods when equities are rising for extremely large gains during the less frequent but devastating drawdowns.”

This is the inverse to some investment strategies, which provide incremental gains over extended periods and then short sharp losses.  There is indeed no free lunch.

My View

The article concludes, “diversification for its own sake is not a strategy for success.”

I would have to disagree.  True portfolio diversification is the closest thing to a free lunch in Portfolio Management. 

However, this does not discount the use of Tail Risk Hedging.

The implementation of any investment strategy needs to be consistent with client’s investment philosophy, objectives, fee budgets, ability to implement, and risk appetite, including the level of comfort with strategies employed. 

Broad portfolio diversification versus Tail Risk Hedging has been an area of hot debate recently.  It is good to take in and consider a wide range of views.

The debate between providing portfolio protection (Tail Risk Hedging vs greater Portfolio Diversification) hit colossal proportions earlier in the year with a twitter spat between Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan and involved in Universa Investments, and Cliff Asness, a pioneer in quant investing and founder of AQR.

I provide a summary of their contrasting perspectives to portfolio protection as outlined in a Bloomberg article in this Post.  There are certainly some important learnings and insights in contrasting their different approaches.

The Post also covered a PIMCO article, Hedging for Different Market Environments.

A key point from the PIMCO article is that not one strategy can be effective in all market environments.  This is an important observation.

Therefore, maintaining an array of diversification strategies is preferred, PIMCO suggest “investors should diversify their diversifiers”.

They provide the following Table, which outlines an array of “Portfolio Protection” strategies.

In Short, and in general, Asness is supportive of correlation based like hedging strategies (Trend and Alternative Risk Premia) and Taleb the Direct Hedging approach.

From the Table above we can see in what type of market environment each “hedging” strategy is Most Effective and Least Effective.

For balance, more on the AQR perspective can be found here.

You could say I have a foot in both camps and are pleased I do not have a twitter account, as I would likely be in the firing line from both Asness and Taleb!

To conclude

I think we can all agree that fixed income is going to be less of a portfolio diversifier in future and produce lower returns in the future relative to the last 10-20 years. 

This is an investment portfolio challenge that must be addressed.

We should also agree that avoiding large market losses is vital in accumulating wealth and reaching your investment objectives, whether that is attaining a desired standard of living in retirement, ongoing and uninterrupted endowment, or meeting future Pension liabilities.

In my mind, staying still is not going to work over the next 5-10 years and the issues raised by the Institutional Investor.com article do need to be addressed. The path taken is likely to be determined by individual circumstances.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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