KiwiSaver Balance Fund’s Strategic Asset Allocation (SAA) Analysis

A review of KiwiSaver Balanced Funds, which are soon to become the Default Option, highlights:

  • A heavy reliance on equities to drive return outcomes – there are few return engines outside of equities.
  • Limited portfolio diversification – likely resulting in higher levels of portfolio volatility across a full market cycle (which could be dampened down for the benefit of investors).
  • A high allocation to Fixed Income – which is a concern in the current market environment.

By comparison, Australian Super Funds with similar return objectives to a KiwiSaver Balance Fund have lower allocations to equities despite having higher “growth” asset allocations.  They achieve this by having higher weightings to alternative investment strategies such as Private Equity, Direct Property, Unlisted Infrastructure, Commodities, and Diversified Multi-asset Funds.

Consequently, the Australian Super Funds have lower weights to fixed income relative to their Kiwi peers. There are some nuances amongst asset class allocations of the KiwiSaver Balance Funds, these are similar to those identified from the KiwiSaver Conservative Fund analysis

I think it is fair to say that New Zealand KiwiSaver Funds need greater levels of diversification. 

Often liquidity is sighted as a reason for not investing into alternative investment strategies, to this point:

  • Portfolios often overestimate the level of liquidity they require (see here); and 
  • There are ways of increasing portfolio diversification with more liquid investment options.

Fees may also be playing a part.  Let us hope not, particularly in considering the best outcomes for customers.

The high allocation to fixed income is also a concern, particularly at this juncture in the economic and market cycles. 

Fixed Income was recently described as a “slow moving train wreck” at a recent industry event in New Zealand, Heathcote Investment Partners’ Meet the Manager series, see Toot, toot: what to do when bonds go off the rails | Investment News NZ

The traditional roles of Fixed Income are likely to be challenged in the years ahead:

  • Returns are highly likely to be lower than those delivered from fixed income over the last 10-20 years; and
  • The risk mitigation characteristics of fixed income are also likely to be lower in the years ahead.

Purely from a risk management perspective, Kiwi investors should be looking to increase the genuine level of diversification within their portfolios – by lessening the role of equities and exploring investment options to substitute/complement fixed income allocations.

Personally, I am not convinced of moving the KiwiSaver Default Fund to a Balanced Fund option is the right solution.  My views can be found here.  It is clearly ridiculous to have a 20- and 55-year-old Default KiwiSaver investor in the same investment strategy. 

My preference would be for Target Date / Life Cycle / Life Stage type funds as the Default Options – these align more with the financial planning theory.  The criticism of these type of Funds is often incorrectly positioned, I provide a defense of Target Date Funds here.

Analysis of KiwiSaver Balanced Funds

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

Most of these managers are currently Default KiwiSaver Providers.

Income Allocations
 CashNZ
Fixed Income
International
Bonds
Income
Allocations
Averages5.2%12.8%23.7%41.6%
Min1.0%6.0%18.0%39.0%
Max10.0%16.5%28.0%50.0%
Median4.5%14.0%25.3%40.0%
Growth Allocations
 NZ EquitiesInternational
Equities
Other
Equities
  AlternativesGrowth
Allocations
Averages19.1%32.8%5.0%3.2%58.4%
Min11.5%26.0%0.0%0.0%50.0%
Max29.0%40.0%8.0%6.0%61.0%
Median20.0%32.0%5.5%4.0%60.0%

Income Assets

From a top level, the managers are tightly grouped around 40% allocation to Income assets (Cash, NZ Fixed Income and International Bonds). 

A KiwiSaver Balanced Fund is very much the traditional 60/40 portfolio (60% Equities / 40% Fixed Income).

There is one Manager that is an outliner, a truly “Balanced” Fund of 50% Equities and 50% Fixed Income.  There is significant peer risk here and with no published return objective it is not possible to assess the appropriateness of its SAA.  Albeit they will likely be the best performing manager when global sharemarkets fall sharply.  However, over the longer term they are likely to struggle in keeping up with peers.

Within Income Assets

The variation within the Income Assets is consistent with analysis undertaken on the KiwiSaver Conservative Funds, see analysis here, which also includes a review of the risk drivers within Fixed Income, particularly likely variation in duration exposure. 

Growth assets

As would be expected, the Growth Allocation is reasonably tight around 40%, 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 are very little investments into Alternatives. See Tables below.

Of interest, on average Domestic Equities (New Zealand and Australia) make up around 36% of the core equities allocations within the KiwiSaver Funds e.g. domestic and international listed equities ex listed property and infrastructure combined.

Overall, core equities make up 52% of a Fund on average.  This is by far the dominant risk within these portfolios.  On a risk basis, the equities allocations contribute to over 90% of the risks within a “Balanced” portfolio.

Ratio of
Domestic Equities
Core
Listed Equities
Averages36.4%51.9%
Min26.0%42.0%
Max52.7%60.0%
Median35.4%51.8%

The remaining growth allocations are predominately made up of listed Property and listed Infrastructure, with smaller allocations to alternatives.  Direct Property dominates the alternative allocations, with smaller allocations to private equity and more liquid hedge fund type strategies.

Total Listed Equities
Allocation
Alternatives AllocationAlternatives share of
Growth Assets
Averages56.8%3.2%2.7%
Min50.0%0.0%0.0%
Max61.0%6.0%10.0%
Median56.0%4.0%0.0%

Below is the same Data for a broad selection of Australian “Balanced” Funds.

Ratio of
Domestic Equities
Core
Listed Equities
Averages39.8%48.5%
Min0.0%30.0%
Max51.0%62.0%
Median42.6%50.0%
Total Listed Equities
Allocation
Alternatives AllocationAlternatives share of
Growth Assets
Averages52.3%27.2%33.4%
Min30.0%8.0%9.5%
Max76.0%53.0%63.9%
Median50.0%25.0%33.3%

Australian “Balanced” Funds have an 80% allocation to Growth assets but a lower allocation to Core Equities (Australian and International Equities) than their New Zealand counterparts, 48.5% versus 51.9% on average for the Kiwi Funds.

This reflects that the Australian Funds have a higher allocation to Alternatives, which includes investment into Private Equity, Direct Property, Infrastructure, Commodities, and Diversified Multi-asset Funds.

Diversified Multi-Asset Funds

It should be noted that Diversified Multi-Asset Funds can have high allocations to listed equities, therefore some funds have a higher allocation to equities than appears based on sector allocations alone.

Diversified Multi-Asset funds offer “genuine diversification” relative to a traditional balanced fund and are more actively managed.  In addition to investing in the traditional asset classes of equities and fixed income, they also invest into an array of alternative assets, often in more specialised areas and situations.  These Funds seek breadth and depth across asset classes seeking to allocate to different return engines e.g. specialist areas of the health care industry, housing within property, renewable energy, and specialised credit opportunities.

Diversified Multi-Asset Funds offer an authentic option to increase diversification within a traditional portfolio, particularly for those investors who have constraints in relation to fees and liquidity. 

There are several well-resourced managers in Australia with long histories of adding value with these types of funds.

Is it Apples vs Apples?

There is a wide variation in the Growth/Income split between New Zealand and Australian “Balanced” Funds.

Across both risk categories of Conservative and Balanced Funds, although the Australian Funds have higher Growth allocations than the Kiwi Funds, they have a slightly lower allocation to equities.

The difference is a lower allocation to fixed income and a higher alternative allocation in Australia.  The portfolios are more diversified in Australia, this allows them to have a “higher” growth allocation.  They are also most likely better positioned for the years ahead given the current stage in the economic and fixed income market cycles.

Although there is a degree of uniformity amongst the Kiwi Funds, you cannot choose a Fund by its name alone.

A review of the return objectives for both the New Zealand and Australian reveals:

  • The Australian Funds have return objective of CPI + 3% on average, they range from 2.5% to 4%.
  • The New Zealand Funds by and large fail to publish return objectives, those that do range from 2.5% – 3%.

This indicates that the universe of Funds is not too dissimilar from a return objective perspective, and the analysis above provides some real insights for consideration and to ask why the difference?

Personally, I think all managers should publish their return objectives in a CPI+ format.  This is a valuable piece of information for the informed investor along with a Fund’s proposed risk category. 

Please read my Disclosure Statement

 

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

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 strategies for the year(s) ahead – how to add value to a portfolio

At this time of the year there are a plethora of economic and market forecasts for next year.  This Post is not one of them.

Outlined below are several investment strategies investors should consider in building more robust portfolios for the years ahead and to increase the odds of meeting their investment objectives.

These strategies directly address the current investment environment and the developing theme over 2020 that the traditional Balanced portfolio, of 60% equities and 40% fixed income, is facing several head winds, and likely to disappoint from a return perspective in the decade ahead.

A recent FT article captures this mood, titled: Investors wonder if the 60/40 portfolio has a future | Financial Times

In the article they make the following comment “The traditional 60/40 portfolio — the mix of equities and bonds that has been a mainstay of investment strategy for decades — is at risk of becoming obsolete as some investors predict years of underperformance by both its component parts.”

I first Posted about the potential demise of the Balanced Portfolio in 2019, see here, and again in early 2020, see here.   These Posts provide background as too why many investment professionals are questioning the likely robustness of the Balance Portfolio in the years ahead given the current investment environment.

In essence, there are two themes presented for the bleak outlook for the Balanced Portfolio.

The first is that fixed income and equities (mainly US equities) are expensive, so now may not be a great time to invest in these markets.

The second theme is that with interest rates at very low levels, there is doubt that fixed income can still effectively protect equity portfolios in a severe market decline in ways they have done historically.

For more on the low expected return environment, first Theme, see these Posts here and here.  This Post also outlines that although markets fell sharply in March 2020, forecast future returns remain disappointing.

The strategies discussed below address the second theme, the expected reduced effectiveness of fixed income to protect the Balance Portfolio at the time of severe sharemarket declines.

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

The strategies outlined below are “the more that can be done“, they aim to improve the risk and return outcomes for the Balance Portfolio in the years ahead.

For the record, I anticipate the global economy to continue to repair next year, experiencing above average growth fuelled by the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccines and underpinned by extraordinary low interest rates and generous government spending programs.  Global equities will continue to perform well in this environment, the US dollar will weaken further, commodity prices will move higher, value and emerging markets to outperform.

The Case for holding Government Bonds

Before looking at some of the strategies to improve on the Balance Portfolio, it goes without saying there is a role for equities in most portfolios.  The case for and against US equities are found here and here respectively.

There is also a role for holding Fixed Income securities, primarily government bonds.

This Post reviews some of the reasons why owning government bonds makes good sense in today’s investment and economic climate. It also brings some balance to present discussions around fixed income and the points within should be considered when determining portfolio allocations in the current market environment.

The central argument for holding government bonds within a portfolio: 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.

In a recent Financial Times article PIMCO argues the case for the 60/40 portfolio in equities and fixed income.   

In relation to fixed income they argue, that although “returns over the horizon may be harder to achieve, but bonds will still play a very important role in portfolios”.  The benefits being diversification and moderation of portfolio volatility.

However, they argue in relation to fixed income investors must target specific regions and parts of the yield curve (different maturity dates) to maximise return and diversification potential.

PIMCO see opportunities in high-quality assets such as mortgage-backed securities from US government agencies, areas of AA and AAA rated investment-grade corporate bonds, and emerging market debt that is currency hedged.

They conclude: “One answer for 60/40 portfolio investors is to divide fixed-income investments into two subcomponents — hedging and yield assets.”

Rethinking the “40” in the 60/40 Portfolio

This Post outlines a thinkadvisor.com article which provides a framework to consider potential investment ideas in the current extremely low interest rate environment, by examining the 40% fixed income allocation within the 60/40 Portfolio (Balanced Portfolio).

The basis of the article is that investors seeking to generate higher returns are going to have to look for new sources of income, allocate to new asset classes, and potentially take on more risk. This likely involves investing into a broader array of fixed income securities, dividend-paying equities, and alternatives, such as real assets and private credit.

The Role of Liquid Alternatives and Hedge Funds

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 next decade.

Not only will this help in increasing the odds of meeting investment objectives, but it will also help protect portfolios in periods of severe sharemarket declines, thus reducing portfolio volatility, a role traditionally played by fixed income within a multi-asset portfolio.

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.

AQR has evaluated the effectiveness of diversifying investments during market drawdowns.

They recommend adding investments that make money on average and have a low correlation to equities i.e. liquid alternatives and hedge fund type strategies. 

AQR argue diversification should be true in both normal times and when most needed: during tough periods for equities.  Although “hedges”, e.g. Gold, may make money at times of sharemarket crashes, there is a cost, they tend to do worse on average over the longer term.

Alternative investments are more compelling relative to the traditional asset classes in diversifying a portfolio, they provide the benefits of diversification and have higher returns.

Lastly, Portfolio diversification involves adding new “risks” to a portfolio, this can be hard to comprehend.  Diversification can be harder to achieve in practice than in theory.

This Post provides a full summary and access to the AQR article.

The case for Trend (momentum) Strategies

A sub-set of Alternatives and hedge funds is Trend/Momentum.

In this recent article MAN present the benefits of introducing Trend following strategies to the traditional Balanced Portfolio. Man note, “Another element that we believe can be of great help to bond-equity portfolios in the future is time-series momentum, or trend-following.”

Their analysis highlights that adding trend-following results in a significant improvement relation to the Balanced Portfolio, by improving returns, decreases volatility, and reducing the degree of losses when experienced (lower downside risk – drawdowns).

The case for Tail Risk Hedging

The expected reduced diversification benefits of fixed income in a Portfolio is a growing view among many investment professionals.

This presents a very important portfolio construction challenge to address, particularly for those portfolios with high allocations to fixed income.

There are many ways to approach this challenge,

This Post focuses on the case for Tail Risk Hedging.  It also outlines other approaches.

In my mind, investment strategies to address the current portfolio challenge need to be considered. The path taken is likely to be determined by individual circumstances.

Comparing a diversified approach versus Tail Risk Hedging

On this note, the complexity, and different approaches to providing portfolio protection, was highlighted by a twitter spat between Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Tail Risk Hedging) and Cliff Asness (broad Portfolio Diversification) from earlier in the year.

I provide a summary of this debate in Table format accessed in this Post, based on a Bloomberg article. 

Several learnings can be gained from their “discussion”.

Also covered the Post was an article by PIMCO on Hedging for Different Market Scenarios. This provides another perspective and a summary of different strategies and their trade-offs in different market environments.

Not every type of risk-mitigating strategy can be expected to work in every type of market environment.

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

Hedge Funds vs Liquid Alternatives – both bring diversification benefits to a traditional portfolio say Vanguard

Vanguard recently concluded that investors should carefully consider liquid alternatives and hedge funds.

This is a very good article presenting the benefits Alternatives would bring to a Balanced Portfolio.

Their research highlighted that Hedge Funds and Liquid Alternatives both bring portfolio diversification benefits to a traditional portfolio of equities and fixed income.

They suggest that liquid alternatives are often viable options for investors compared to hedge funds.

Although hedge funds and liquid alternatives deliver valuable portfolio diversification benefits, “it is crucial that investors assess funds on a standalone basis, as the benefits from any alternative investment allocation will be dictated by the specific strategy of the manager(s).”

The most important feature in gaining the benefits of hedge funds and liquid alternatives is manager selection.  Implementation is key.

Access to this research can be found here.

Private Equity Characteristics and benefits to a Portfolio

For those investors that can invest into illiquid investments, Private Equity (PE) is an option.

Portfolio analysis, also undertaken by Vanguard, demonstrates that PE can play a significant role in strategic, long-term, diversified portfolios.

PE is illiquid and so must be actively managed, introducing both illiquidity and manager specific risk to a multi-asset portfolio. Conventional asset allocation approaches often omit illiquidity and active risk dimensions from the risk-return trade-off. Therefore, these models do not reflect the unique aspects of PE and tend to over allocate to PE.

Vanguard addresses these issues: outlining four key reasons why the economic returns of private equity are different to those of public equities; highlighting the key risks that need to be accounted for when undertaking portfolio modelling including illiquid assets such as PE; and presenting the adjustments they make to portfolio modelling to address the illiquid features of PE and smoothed nature of historical returns.

This results in more realistic characteristics for PE that can be used for portfolio modelling purposes, reflected in the portfolio allocations generated in the article and the conclusion that PE can play a significant role in strategic, long-term, diversified portfolios.

A review of Vanguard’s analysis and their results can be found in this Post.

Real Assets Offer Real diversification benefits

Real assets such as Farmland, Timberland, Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Real Estate, Inflation-linked Bonds, Commodities, and Foreign Currencies offer real diversification benefits to a portfolio of just equities and fixed income.

The benefits of Real Assets are noticeable in different economic environments, like stagflation and stagnation, and particularly for those investment portfolios where objectives are linked to inflation.

These are the conclusions of a recent study by PGIM.

PGIM provide a brief outline of the investment characteristics for several real assets. They then look at the sensitivity of the real assets to economic growth, inflation, equity markets, and fixed income.

They note there is wide diversity in real assets’ sensitivities to inflation and growth, and stocks and bonds. These sensitivities vary over time and are best mitigated by holding a portfolio of real assets.

Therefore, PGIM construct and analyse three real asset strategy portfolios – Diversification, Inflation-Protection and Stagnation-Protection to reach their conclusions.

I provide a detailed summary of the PGIM Report in this Post.

Portfolio Tilts

Adding Emerging Markets and Value tilts to a Portfolio are potential areas to boost future investment returns in what is likely to be a low return environment over the next decade.

Value of Emerging Markets

Emerging markets bring the benefits of diversification into different geographies and asset classes for investors, including both public and private markets.

The case for investing into emerging markets is well documented: a growing share of global economic activity in the years ahead and current attractive valuations underpin the case for considering a higher weighting to emerging markets within portfolios. Particularly considering the low interest rate environment and stretched valuation of the US sharemarket. This is evident in market return forecasts.

Is a Value bias part of the answer in navigating today’s low interest rate environment

Value offers the potential for additional returns relative to the broader sharemarket in the years ahead.

Value is exceptionally cheap, probably the cheapest it has ever been in history, based on several valuation measures and after making adjustments to market indices to try and prove otherwise, such as excluding all Technology, Media, and Telecom Stocks, excluding the largest stocks, and the most expensive stocks.

There is also little evidence to support the common criticisms of value, such as increased share repurchase activity, low interest rates, and rise of intangible assets.

This is not a popular view, and quite likely minority view, given the underperformance of value over the last ten years.

However, the longer-term odds are in favour of maintaining a value tilt and thereby providing a boost to future investment returns in what is likely to be a low return environment over the next decade.

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.