The Traditional Diversified Fund is outdated – greater customisation of the client’s investment solution is required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

Understanding the Impact of Volatility on your Portfolio

A key investment concept is volatility drag. Volatility drag provides a framework for considering the trade-off between the “cost” and “benefit” of reducing portfolio volatility.

The volatility of your portfolio matters. Reducing portfolio volatility helps deliver higher compound returns over the longer-term. This leads to a greater accumulation of wealth over time.

When introducing volatility reduction strategies into a Portfolio a cost benefit analysis should be undertaken.

The cost of reducing portfolio volatility cannot be considered in isolation.

The importance of volatility and its impact on an investment portfolio is captured in a recent article by Aberdeen Standard Investment (ASI), The long-term benefits of finding the right hedging strategy.

The ASI article is summarised below.  Access to article via LinkedIn is here.

It is widely accept that avoiding large market losses and reducing portfolio volatility is vital in accumulating wealth and reaching your investment objectives, whether that is attaining a desired standard of living in retirement, an ongoing and uninterrupted endowment, or meeting Pension liabilities.

Understanding Volatility Drag

Volatility Drag is a key concept from the paper: if you lose 50% one year, and make 50% the next, your average return may be zero but you’re still down 25%. This is commonly referred to as the “volatility drag.”

The main disconnect some investors have is they look at returns over a discrete period, such as a year, or the simple average return over two years (zero in the case above).

Instead, investors should focus on the realised compound rate.  The compound annualised return in the above example is -13.97% versus simple average return of zero.

ASI make the following point: “The compound (geometric) rate of return will only equal the arithmetic average rate of return if volatility is zero. As soon as you introduce volatility to the return series, the geometric IRR will start falling, relative to the average return.”

This is a key concept to understand.  Volatility reduces compounded returns over time, therefore it impacts on accumulated wealth.  The focus should be on the actual return investors receive, rather than discrete period returns.  Most investment professionals understand this.

Cashflows, into and out of a Portfolio, also impact on actual returns and therefore accumulated wealth.  This is why a 100% equities portfolio is unlikely to be appropriate for the vast majority of investors. The short comings of a high equity allocations is outlined in one of my previous Posts: Could Buffett be wrong?

Thought Experiment

In the article ASI offers a thought experiment to make their point, a choice between two hypothetical investments:

  1. Investment A, has an average annual return of 1% with 5% volatility.
  2. Investment B, has twice the average return (2%) but with four times the volatility (20%).

An investor with a long term horizon might allocate to the higher expected return investment and not worry about the higher levels of volatility.  The view could be taken because you have a longer term investment horizon more risk can be taken to be rewarded with higher returns.

In the article ASI provides simulated track records of the two investments over 50 years (the graph is well worth looking at).

As would be expected, Investment B with the 20% volatility has a much wider range of possible paths than the lower-volatility Investment A.

What is most interesting “despite having double the average annual return, the more volatile strategy generally underperforms over the long term.”

This is evident in the Table below from the ASI article, based on simulated investment returns:

 Average Annual ReturnStandard Deviation of Annual ReturnsAverage total return after 50 yearsAverage realised internal rate of return (IRR)
A1%5%+53%0.88%
B2%20%-3.0%-0.07%

Note, how the IRR is lower than the average annual return e.g. Investment A, IRR is 0.88% versus average annual return of 1.0%.  As noted above, they are only the same if volatility is zero. 

The performance drag, or “cost”, is due to volatility.

Implications and recognising the importance of volatility

The concept of Volatility Drag provides a framework for considering the trade-off between the “cost” and benefit of reducing portfolio volatility.

The ASI article presents this specifically in relation to the benefits of portfolio hedges, as part of a risk mitigation strategy, and their costs with the following points:

  1. The annual cost can be considered in the context of the potential benefits that come from lowering volatility and more effectively compounding returns.
  2. Putting on exposures with flat or even negative expected returns can still increase your total portfolio return over time if they lower your volatility profile sufficiently.
  3. It is meaningless, therefore, to look at the costs of hedges in isolation.

These points are relevant when considering introducing any volatility reduction strategies into an Investment Portfolio i.e. not just in relation to tail risk hedging. A cost benefit analysis should be undertaken, investment costs cannot be considered in isolation.

As ASI note, investors need to consider the overall portfolio impact of introducing new investment strategies, specifically the impact on the downside volatility of a portfolio is critical.

There are a number of ways of reducing portfolios volatility as outlined below, including the risk mitigation strategies of the ASI article.

Modern Portfolios

The key point is that the volatility of your portfolio matters.  Reducing portfolio volatility helps in delivering better compound returns over the longer-term.

Therefore, exploring ways to reduce portfolio volatility is important.

ASI outline the expectation that volatility is likely to pick up in the years ahead, “especially considering the current extreme settings for fiscal and monetary policy combined with rising geopolitical tensions.”

They also make the following pertinent comment, “Uncertainty and volatility aren’t signals for investors to exit the market, but while they persist, we expect investors will benefit over the medium term from having strategies available to them that can help manage downside volatility.”

ASI also note that investors have access to a wide range of tools and strategies to manage volatility.  This is particularly relevant in relation to the risk mitigation hedging strategies that manage downside volatility and are the focus of the ASI article.

Therefore, a modern day portfolio will implement several strategies and approaches to reduce portfolio volatility, primarily as a means to generate higher compound returns over time. This is evident when looking at industry leading sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, superannuation funds, endowments, and foundations around the world.

Strategies and Approaches to reducing Portfolio Volatility

There are a number of strategies and approaches to reducing portfolio volatility, Kiwi Investor Blog has recently covered the following:

  1. Real Assets offer real diversification: this Post outlines the investment risk and return characteristics of the different types of Real Assets and the diversification benefits they can bring to a Portfolio under different economic scenarios, e.g. inflation, stagflation.  Thus reducing portfolio volatility and enhancing long-term accumulated returns.
  2. Sharemarket Crashes – what works best in minimising loses, market timing or diversification: This Post outlines the rationale for broad portfolio diversification to manage sharp sharemarket declines rather than trying to time markets.  The Post presents the reasoning and portfolio benefits of investing into Alternative Assets.
  3. Is it an outdated Investment Strategy? If so, what should you do? Tail Risk Hedging?: This Post outlines the case for Tail Risk Hedging.  A potential strategy is to maintain a higher allocation to equities and to protect the risk of large losses through implementing a tail risk hedge.
  4. Protecting your portfolio from different market environments – including tail risk hedging debate: This Post compares the approach of broad portfolio diversification and tail risk hedging, highlighting that not one strategy can be effective in all market environments.  Therefore, investors should diversify their diversifiers.
  5. What do investors need in the current environment? – Rethink the ‘40’ in the 60/40 Portfolios?: With extremely low interest rates and the likelihood fixed income will not provide the level of portfolio diversification as experienced historically this Post concludes Investors will need to rethink their fixed income allocations and to think more broadly in diversifying their investment portfolio.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

Image from CFA Institute Blog: When does Volatility Equal Risk?

What do Investors need in the current environment? – Rethink the ‘40’ in 60/40 Portfolios?

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.

Investing into a broader array of fixed income securities, dividend-paying equities, and alternatives such as real assets and private credit is likely required.

Investors will need to build more diversified portfolios.

These are key conclusions from a recent article written by Tony Rodriquez, of Nuveen, Rethinking the ‘40’ in 60/40 Portfolios, which appeared recently in thinkadvisor.com.

The 60/40 Portfolio being 60% equities and 40% fixed income, the Balanced Portfolio. The ‘40’ is the Balanced Portfolio’s 40% allocation to fixed income.

In my mind, the most value will be added in implementation of investment strategies and manager selection.

In addition, the opportunity for Investment Advisors and Consultants to add value to client investment outcomes over the coming years has probably never been more evident now than in recent history.

The value of good investment advice at this juncture will be invaluable.

Putting It All Together

The thinkadvisor.com article provides the following Table.

Source: Nuveen

This Table is useful in considering potential investment ideas.  Actions taken will depend on the individual’s circumstances, including investment objectives, and risk tolerance.

The Table provides a framework across three dimensions to consider how to tackle the current investment challenge of very low interest rates.

Those dimensions are:

  1. The trade-off between level of income generated and risk tolerance (measured by portfolio volatility), e.g. lower income and reduced equity risk
  2. “How to do it” in meeting the trade-off identified above e.g. increase credit and equity exposures to seek higher income
  3. “Where to find it”, types of investments to implement How to do it e.g. active core fixed income, real assets (e.g. infrastructure and real estate), higher yielding credit assets.

Current Investment Environment

These insights reflect the current investment environment of extremely low interest rates.

More specifically the article starts with the following comments: “For decades, the 40% in the traditional 60/40 portfolio construction model was supposed to provide stable income with reduced volatility. But these days, finding income in the usual areas is as hard for me as a professional investor as it is for our clients.”

Tony calls for action, “With yields at historic lows, we’re forced to choose between accepting lower income or expanding into higher risk asset classes. We need to work together to change the definition of the 40 in the 60/40 split. So what do we do?”

This would be a worthy discussion for Investment Advisers and Consultants to have with their clients.

Returns from fixed income are relatively predictable, unlike equity market returns.  Current fixed income yields are the best predictor of future returns.  With global government bond yields around zero and global investment grade credit providing not much more, a return of greater than 1% p.a. from traditional global bond markets over the next 10 years is unlikely.

Fixed income returns over the next 10 years are highly likely to be below the rate of inflation.  Therefore, the risk of the erosion of purchasing power from fixed income is very high.  This is a portfolio risk that needs to be managed. 

Although forecasted returns from equities are also low compared to history, they are higher than those expected from traditional fixed income markets.

What should Investors do?

The article provides some specific guidance in relation to fixed income investments and a view on the outlook for the global economy.

The key point from the article, in my mind, is that for investors to meet the current investment challenges over the next decade they are going to need a more broadly diversified portfolio than the traditional 60/40 portfolio.

I also think it is going to require greater levels of active management.

This will involve a rethink of the ‘40’ fixed income allocation.  Specifically, the focus will be on generating higher returns and that fixed income is likely to provide less protection to a Balanced Portfolio at times of sharemarket declines than has been experienced historically.

Ultimately, a broader view of the 60/40 Portfolio’s construction will need to be undertaken. 

This is likely to require thinking outside of the fixed income universe and implementing a more robust and truly diversified portfolio.

Implementation will be key, including strategy and manager selection.

There will still be a role for fixed income within a Portfolio, particularly duration.  Depending on individual circumstances, higher yielding securities, emerging market debt, and active management of the entire fixed income universe, including duration, is something to consider.  More of an absolute return focus may need to be contemplated.

Outside of fixed income, thought should be given to thinking broadly in implementing a more robust and truly diversified portfolio. 

Kiwi Investor Blog has highlighted the following areas in previous Posts as a means to diversify a portfolio and address the current investment challenge:

  1. Real Assets offer real diversification: this Post outlines the investment risk and return characteristics of the different types of Real Assets and the diversification benefits they can bring to a Portfolio under different economic scenarios, e.g. inflation, stagflation.
  2. Sharemarket Crashes – what works best in minimising loses, market timing or diversification: This Post outlines the rationale for broad portfolio diversification to manage sharp sharemarket declines rather than trying to time markets.  The Post presents the reasoning and benefits of investing into Alternative Assets.
  3. Is it an outdated Investment Strategy? If so, what should you do? Tail Risk Hedging: This Post outlines the case for Tail Risk Hedging.  A potential strategy is to maintain a higher allocation to equities and to protect the risk of large losses through implementing a tail risk hedge.
  4. Protecting your portfolio from different market environments – including tail risk hedging debate: This Post compares the approach of broad portfolio diversification and tail risk hedging.  Highlighting that that not one strategy can be effective in all market environments.  Therefore, investors should diversify their diversifiers.

There have been a number of articles over recent months calling into question the robustness of the Balanced Portfolio of 60% Equities / 40% Fixed Income going forward.  I have covered this issue in previous Posts, here and here.

Why the Balanced Portfolio is expected to underperform is outlined in this Post.

Lastly, also relevant to the above discussion, please see this Post on preparing Portfolios for higher levels of inflation.

Call to Action

In appealing to Tony’s call for action, there has probably never been a more important time in realising the value of good investment advice and honest conversations of investment objectives and portfolio allocations. 

Perhaps it is time to push against some outdated conventions, seek new investments and asset classes.

The opportunity for Investment Advisors and Consultants to add value to client investment outcomes over the coming years has probably never been more evident now than in recent history.

The value of good investment advice at this juncture will be invaluable.

Addendum

For a perspective on the current market environment this podcast by Goldman Sachs may be of interest.

In the podcast, Goldman Sachs discuss their asset allocation strategy in the current environment, noting both fixed income and equities look expensive, this points to lower returns and higher risks for a Balanced Portfolio.  They anticipate an environment of below average returns and above average volatility.

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.

Endowments, Foundations, and Charities – learning from the best

The achievements of the Yale Endowment are significant and well documented. 

Their achievements can largely be attributed to the successful and bold management of their Endowment Funds.

They have been pioneers in Investment Management.  Many US Universities and global institutions have followed suit or implemented a variation of the Yale’s “Endowment Model”.

Without a shadow of a doubt, those involved with Endowments, Foundations, Charities, and saving for retirement can learn some valuable investment lessons by reviewing the investment approach undertaken by Yale.

I think these learnings are particularly relevant given where we are currently in the economic cycle and the outlook for returns from the traditional asset classes of cash, fixed income, and selected equity markets.

A growing Endowment

In fiscal 2019 the Yale Endowment provided $1.4 billion, or 32%, of the University’s $4.2 billion operating income.

To put this into context, the Yale Endowment 2019 Annual Report notes that the other major sources of revenues for the University were medical services of $1.1 billion (26%); grants and contracts of $824 million (20%); net tuition, room and board of $392 million (9%); gifts of $162 million (4%); and other income and transfers of $368 million (9%).

Spending from the Endowment has grown during the last decade from $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion, an annual growth rate of 1.5%.

The Endowment Fund’s payments have gone far and wide, including scholarships, Professorships, maintenance, and books.

Yale’s spending and investment policies provide substantial levels of cash flow to the operating budget for current scholars, while preserving Endowment purchasing power for future generations.

What a wonderful contribution to society, just think of the social good the Yale Endowment has delivered.

Yale’s Investment Policy

As highlighted in their 2019 Annual Report:

  • Over the past ten years the Endowment grew from $16.3 billion to $30.3 billion;
  • The Fund has generated annual returns of 11.1% during the ten-year period; and
  • The Endowment’s performance exceeded its benchmark and outpaced institutional fund indices.

In relation to Investment Objectives the Endowment Funds seek to provide resources for current operations and preserving purchasing power (generating returns greater than the rate of inflation).

This dictates the Endowment has a bias toward equity like investments.  Yale note: 

“The University’s vulnerability to inflation further directs the Endowment away from fixed income and toward equity instruments. Hence, more than 90% of the Endowment is targeted for investment in assets expected to produce equity-like returns, through holdings of domestic and international equities, absolute return strategies, real estate, natural resources, leveraged buyouts and venture capital.”

Accordingly, Yale seeks to allocate over the longer term approximately one-half of the portfolio to illiquid asset classes of leverage buyouts, venture capital, real estate, and natural resources.

This is very evident in the Table below, which presents Yale’s asset allocation as at 30 June 2019 and the US Educational Institutional Mean allocation.

This Table appeared in the 2019 Yale Annual Report, I added the last column Yale vs the Educational Institutional Mean.

 Yale UniversityEducational Institution MeanYale vs Mean
Absolute Return23.2%20.6%2.6%
Domestic Equity2.7%20.8%-18.1%
Foreign Equity13.7%21.9%-8.2%
Leverage Buyouts15.9%7.1%8.8%
Natural Resources4.9%7.7%-2.8%
Real Estate10.1%3.4%6.7%
Venture Capital21.1%6.6%14.5%
Cash and Fixed Income8.4%11.9%-3.5%
 100%100% 
    
Non-Traditional Assets75.2%45.4%29.8%
Traditional Assets24.8%54.6% 

The Annual Report provides a comment on each asset class and their expected risk and return profile, an overview of how Yale manage the asset classes, historical performance, and future longer-term risk and return outlook.

High Allocation to Non-Traditional Assets

As can be seen in the Table above Yale has a very low allocation to traditional asset classes (domestic equities, foreign equities, cash and fixed income), and a very high allocation to non-traditional assets classes, absolute returns, leverage buyouts, venture capital, real estate, and natural resources.

This is true not only in an absolute sense, but also relative to other US Educational Institutions.  Who in their own right have a high allocation to non-traditional asset classes, 45.4%, but almost 30% lower than Yale.

“Over the last 30 years Yale has reduced their dependence on domestic markable securities by relocating assets to non-traditional assets classes.  In 1989 65% of investments were in US equities and fixed income, this compares to 9.8% today.”

By way of comparison, NZ Kiwi Saver Funds on average have less than 5% of their assets invested in non-traditional asset classes.

A cursory view of NZ university’s endowments also highlights a very low allocations to non-traditional asset classes.

There can be good reasons why other investment portfolios may not have such high allocations to non-traditional asset classes, including liquidity requirements (which are less of an issue for an Endowment, Charity, or Foundation) and investment objectives.

Rationale for High Allocation to Non-Traditional Assets

Although it is well known that Yale has high allocations to non-traditional assets, the rationale for this approach is less well known.

The 2019 Yale Annual Report provides insights as to the rationale of the investment approach.

Three specific comments capture Yale’s rationale:

“The higher allocation to non-traditional asset classes stems from their return potential and diversifying power”

Yale is active in the management of their portfolios and they allocate to those asset classes they believe offer the best long-term value.  Yale determine the mix to asset class based on their expected return outcomes and diversification benefits to the Endowment Funds.

“Alternative assets, by their very nature, tend to be less efficiently priced than traditional marketable securities, providing an opportunity to exploit market inefficiencies through active management.”

Yale invest in asset classes they see offering greater opportunities to add value. For example, they see greater opportunity to add value in the alternative asset classes rather than in Cash and Fixed Income.

“The Endowment’s long time horizon is well suited to exploit illiquid and the less efficient markets such as real estate, natural resources, leveraged buyouts, and venture capital.”

This is often cited as the reason for their higher allocation to non-traditional assets.  As an endowment, with a longer-term investment horizon, they can undertake greater allocations to less liquid asset classes. 

Sovereign wealth Funds, such as the New Zealand Super Fund, often highlight the benefit of their endowment characteristics and how this is critical in shaping their investment policy. 

Given their longer-term nature Endowments are able to invest in less liquid investment opportunities. They will likely benefit from these allocations over the longer-term.

Nevertheless, other investment funds, such as the Australian Superannuation Funds, have material allocations to less liquid asset classes.

Therefore, an endowment is not a necessary condition to invest in non-traditional and less liquid asset classes, the acknowledgement of the return potential and diversification benefits are sufficient reasons to allocate to alternatives and less liquid asset classes.

In relation to the return outlook, the Yale 2019 Annual report commented the “Today’s actual and target portfolios have significantly higher expected returns than the 1989 portfolio with similar volatility.”

Smaller Endowments and Foundations are following Yale

In the US smaller Endowments and Foundations are adopting the investment strategies of the Yale Endowment model.

They have adopted an investment strategy that is more align with an endowment more than twice their size.

Portfolio size should not be an impediment to investing in more advanced and diversified investment strategies.

There is the opportunity to capture the key benefits of the Endowment model, including less risk being taken, by implementing a more diversified investment strategy. Thus, delivering a more stable return profile.

This is attractive to donors.

The adoption of a more diversified portfolio not only makes sense on a longer-term basis, but also given where we are in the economic and market cycle.

The value is in implementation and sourcing appropriate investment strategies.

In this Post, I outline how The Orange County Community Foundation (OCCF) runs its $400m investments portfolio like a multi-billion-dollar Endowment.

Diversification and Its Long-Term Benefits

For those interested, the annual report has an in-depth section on portfolio diversification.

This section makes the following key following points while discussing the benefits of diversification in a historical context:

  • “Portfolio diversification can be painful in the midst of a bull market. When investing in a single asset class produces great returns, market observers wonder about the benefits of creating a well-structured portfolio.”
  • “The fact that diversification among a variety of equity-oriented alternative investments sometimes fails to protect portfolios in the short run does not negate the value of diversification in the long run.”
  • “The University’s discipline of sticking with a diversified portfolio has contributed to the Endowment’s market leading long-term record. For the thirty years ending June 30, 2019, Yale’s portfolio generated an annualized return of 12.6% with a standard deviation of 6.8%. Over the same period, the undiversified institutional standard of 60% stocks and 40% bonds produced an annualized return of 8.7% with a standard deviation of 9.0%. “
  • “Yale’s diversified portfolio produced significantly higher returns with lower risk.”

There are also sections on Spending Policy and Investment Performance.

Lastly, I have previously discussed the “Endowment Model” in relation to the fee debate, for those interested please see this Post: Investment Fees and Investing like an Endowment – Part 2

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

Where Investment Managers Who Consistently Outperform can be found

Likely poor performing investment managers are relatively easy to identify.  Great fund managers much more difficult to identify.

Good performing managers who can consistently add value over time can be identified.  Albeit, a well-developed and disciplined investment research process is required.

Those managers that consistently add value are likely to be found regularly in the second quartile of peer analysis.  They are neither the best nor the worst performing manager but over time consistently add value over a market index or passive investment.  They are not an average manager.

These are key insights I have developed from just under 30 years of researching and collaborating with high calibre and talented investment professionals. 

More importantly, modern day academic research is supportive of this view.  The conventional wisdom of active management is being challenged, as highlighted in a previous Post.

Analyzing Consistency of Manager Performance

A recent relevant study is a submission to the Australian Productivity Commission in respect of the Draft Report on ‘How to Assess the Competitiveness and Efficiency of the Superannuation System’. The analysis was undertaken by Peterson Research Institute in 2016.

The author, John Paterson, of this analysis was interviewed in a i3 article.

The key points of Peterson’s analysis and emphasized in the i3 article:

  • Many of the studies into the ability of active managers to consistently outperform are inherently flawed. 
  • Most of these studies merely confirm that financial markets are not static, therefore they do not say anything about manager performance.

“The failure to find repeated top quartile performance in these ‘tests of manager consistency’ simply reflects the reality that markets are not Static, and says nothing about the existence, or otherwise, of manager consistency.”

  • The key flaw is that many of the studies on active management focus on the performance of only the top performing managers: whether top quartile performers are able to repeat their efforts from one period to the next.
  • A wider view of manager performance should be considered, all quartiles should be assessed to determine whether manager performance is random or not.
  • Those managers that that consistently achieved above average returns are more likely to be found in the second or third quartiles.

In the i3 interview, Paterson discusses more about the results of their research:

“Someone who consistently outperforms doesn’t necessarily look like a top quartile manager. They are more likely to be found in the second quartile,”.

The following comment is also made:

“Most asset managers intuitively know this, because markets are cyclical and if you do something that shoots the lights out in one period, it is likely to do the complete opposite in another period.”

The Australian Experience

Paterson’s analysis also found “Across the studies analysed, it was found that there is very strong evidence that investment managers available to Australian superannuation funds do perform consistently.”

Lastly Paterson comments “And experience tells us that super funds with more active managers have done better than those with largely passive mandates, and often at a lower level of volatility.”

Concluding Remarks

As I have previously Posted, there are a wide range of reasons for choosing an alternative to passive investing over and above the traditional industry debate that focuses on whether active management can outperform.

Other reasons for considering an alternatives to a passive index include no readily replicable market index exists, imbedded inefficiency within the Index, and available indices are unsuitable in meeting an investor’s objectives (e.g. Defined Pension Plans).

The decision to choose an alternative to passive investing varies across asset classes and investors.

Therefore, the traditional active versus passive debate needs to be broadened.

The article by Warren and Ezra, covered in a previous Post, When Should Investors Consider an Alternative to Passive Investing?, seeks to reconfigure and broaden the active versus passive debate.

They provide five reasons why investors might consider alternatives to passive management.

In doing so they provide examples of circumstances under which an alternative to passive management might be preferred and appreciably widen the debate. 

The identification of managers that consistently add value is one reason to consider an alternative to passive management.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

Asset Allocations decisions for the conundrum of inflation or deflation?

One of the key questions facing investors at the moment is whether inflation or deflation represents the bigger risk in the coming years.

Now more than ever, given the likely economic environment in the years ahead, investors need to consider all their options when building a portfolio for their future.  This may mean a number of things, including: increasing diversification, investing in new or different markets, being active, and flexible to take advantage of unique opportunities as they arise.

Those portfolios overly reliant on traditional markets, such as equities and fixed income in particular, run the risk of failing to meet to their investment objectives over the next ten years.

Conundrum Facing Investors

A recent article by Alan Dunne, Managing Director, Abbey Capital, The Inflation-Deflation debate and its Implications for Asset Allocation, which recently appeared in AllAboutAlpha.com, clearly outlines the conundrum currently facing investors.

As the article highlights, one of the “key questions facing investors at the moment is whether inflation or deflation represents the bigger risk for the coming years. Economists are split on this….”

Following a detailed analysis of the current and likely future economic environment and potential influences on inflation or deflation (which is well worth reading) the article covers the Implications for Asset Allocations.

Inflation or Deflation: Implications for Asset Allocations

The article makes the following observations as far as asset class performance in different inflation environments, based on historical observations:

  • Deflation like in the 1930s, is negative for equities but positive for Bonds.
  • If inflation picks ups, or even stagflation, that would be negative for real returns on financial assets and real assets may be favoured.

They conclude: “the current uncertainty highlights the importance of holding diversified portfolios, with exposure to a range of traditional and alternative assets and strategies with the potential to deliver returns in different market environments.”

Current Environment

Abbey Capital anticipate greater co-ordination of policy between governments (fiscal policy) and central banks (monetary policy). 

As they note, “many economists draw a parallel between the current scenario and the substantial increase in government debt during World War II. One of the consequences of higher debt levels is that we may see pressure on central banks to maintain interest rates at low levels and maintain asset purchases to ensure higher bond issuance is not disruptive for bond markets i.e. coordination of monetary and fiscal policies.”

I think this will be the case.  The Bank of Japan has maintained a direct yield curve control policy for some time and the Reserve Bank of Australia has implemented a similar policy recently.  Direct yield curve control is where the central bank will target an interest rate level for the likes of the 3-year government bond.

In the environment after World War II debt levels were brought back to more manageable levels by keeping interest rates low (a process known as financial repression).

From a government policy perspective, financial repression reduces the real value of debt over time.  It is the most palatable of a number of options.

Financial repression is potentially negative for government bonds

With interest rates so low, and likely to remain low for some time given policies of financial repression the real return (after inflation) on many fixed income instruments and cash could be negative.

A higher level of inflation not only reduces the real return on bonds but potentially also reduces the diversification benefits of holding bonds in a portfolio with equities.

The diversification benefits of bonds in the traditional 60 / 40 equity-bond portfolio (Balanced Portfolio) has been a strong tail wind over the last 20 years.

The more recent low correlation between bonds and equities is evident in the Chart below, which was presented in the article.

The Chart also highlights that the relation of low correlation between equities and bonds, which benefits a Balanced Portfolio, has not always been present.

As can be seen in the Chart, in the 1980s, when inflation was a greater concern, inflation surprises were negative for both bonds and equities, they became positively correlated.

What should investors do?

“Investors are therefore left with the challenge of finding alternatives for government bonds, ideally with a low or negative correlation to equities and protection against possible inflation.”

The article runs through some possible investment solutions and approaches to meet the likely challenges ahead.  I have outlined some of them below.

I think duration (interest rate risk) and credit can still play a role within a broad and truly diversified portfolio.  Within credit this would likely involve expanding the universe to include the likes of high yield, securitised loans, private debt, inflation protections securities, and emerging market debt as examples.

The key and most important point is that a robust portfolio will be less reliant on tradition asset classes, traditional asset class betas, to drive investment return outcomes.  This is likely to be vitally important in the years ahead.

Accordingly, investors will need to be more active, opportunistic, and maintain very broad and truly diversified portfolios.  Not only within asset classes, such as the fixed income example provided above, but across the portfolio to include the likes of real assets and liquid alternatives.

Real assets

Abbey Capital comment that “Real assets such as property and infrastructure should provide protection against higher inflation for long-term investors but may not be attractive for investors valuing liquidity.”

Although the maintenance of portfolio liquidity is important, Real assets can play an important role within a robust portfolio.

For the different types of real assets, their investment characteristics, and likely performance and sensitivity to different economic environments, including economic growth, inflation, inflation protection, stagflation, and stagnation please see the Kiwi Investor Blog Post, Real Assets Offer Real Diversification.  The extensive analysis has been undertake by PGIM.  

Liquid Alternatives

Abbey Capital provide a brief discussion on liquid alternatives with a focus on managed futures.  Not surprisingly given their pedigree.

They provide the following Table which highlights the benefit of liquid alternatives and hedge funds at time of significant sharemarket declines (drawdowns).

Concluding Remarks

Being a managed futures manager, it is natural to be cautious of Abbey Capitals concluding remarks, being reminded of the Warren Buffet quote, “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.”

Nevertheless, the Abbey Capital’s economic analysis and investment recommendations are consistent with a growing chorus, all singing from a similar song sheet. (Perhaps we could call this a “Barbers Quartet”!)

Without having an axe to grind, and in all seriousness, I have covered similar analysis and comments in previous Posts, the conclusions of which have a high degree of validity and should be considered, if not a purely from portfolio risk management perspective so as to understand any gaps in current portfolios for a number of likely economic environments.

The key and most important point is that robust portfolios will be less reliant on traditional asset classes, traditional asset class betas, to drive investment return outcomes.

Accordingly, investors will need to be more active, opportunistic, and maintain very broad and truly diversified portfolios

Therefore, it is hard to disagree with one of the concluding remarks by Abbey Capital “To account for the competing requirements in a portfolio of returns, low correlation to equities, liquidity and possible inflation protection, investors may need to build robust portfolios with a broader mix of assets and strategies.”

Other Reading

For those interested, previous Kiwi Investor Blog posts of relevance to the Abbey Capital article include:

Preparing your Portfolio for a period of Higher Inflation, this is the Post of most relevance to the current Post, and covers a recent Man article which undertook an analysis of the current economic environment and historical episodes of inflation and deflation.

Man conclude that although inflation is not an immediate threat, the likelihood of a period of higher inflation is likely in the future, and the time to prepare for this is now.  Man recommends several investment strategies they think will outperform in a higher inflation environment.

Protecting your portfolio from different market environments – including tail risk hedging debate, compares the contrasting approaches of broad portfolio diversification and tail risk hedging to manage through difficult market environments. 

It also includes analysis by PIMCO, where it is suggested to “diversify your diversifiers”.

Lastly, Sharemarket crashes – what works best in minimising losses, market timing or diversification, covers a research article by AQR, which concludes the best way to manage periods of severe sharemarket decline is to have a diversified portfolio, it is impossible to time these episodes.  AQR evaluates the effectiveness of diversifying investments during sharemarket drawdowns using nearly 100 years of market data.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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

When Alternatives to Passive Index Investing are Appropriate

There are a wide range of reasons for choosing an alternative to passive investing over and above the traditional industry debate that focuses on whether active management can outperform an index.

Reasons for considering alternatives include no readily replicable market index exists, available indices are unsuitable in meeting an investor’s objectives, and/or there are some imbedded inefficiency within the Index.

Under these circumstances a passive approach no longer becomes optimal nor appropriate.

Or quite simply, an active manager with skill can be identified, this alone is sufficient to consider an alternative to passive indexing.

Importantly, the decision to choose an alternative to passive investing is likely to vary across asset classes, investors, and time.

Also, the active versus passive debate needs to be broadened, which to date seems too narrowly focused on comparing passive investments with the average returns from active equity managers.

Framework for choosing an Alternative to Passive Investing

This article by Warren and Ezra, When Should Investors Consider an Alternative to Passive Investing?, seeks to reconfigure and broaden the active versus passive debate.

They do this by presenting a framework for a more comprehensive consideration of alternatives to passively replicating a standard capitalisation-weighted index in any particular asset class.  

In doing so they provide examples of circumstances under which a particular alternative to passive management might be preferred.

They offer no conclusions as to whether any specific approach is intrinsically superior. “Indeed, the overarching message is that best choices can vary across asset classes, investor circumstances, and perhaps even time.”

Warren and Ezra provide the following Framework for choosing an Alternative to Passive Investing:

Their framework appreciably widens the range of reasons for choosing an alternative to passive investing.

As can be seen in the Table above, they have identify five potential reasons investors should seek an alternative to passive index.

The first three reflect situations where a passive index is either unavailable or unsuitable, and two relate to investor expectations that active management can outperform passive benchmarks.

Below I have provided a description of the five reasons investors should seek an alternative to passive index.

Back ground Comments

Warren and Ezra provide some general comments on the state of the industry debate:

  • They think it is unreasonable to base broad conclusions about the relative efficacy of passive indexing on active managers’ average results in a single asset class or subclass, such as U.S. equities. They note, “What holds true in one market segment may not hold in another.”
  • They also object to the “implicit assumption that in the absence of demonstrable stock-selection skills among managers, passive index replication provides optimal exposure for investors.” This assumption does not take into account differences in investor objectives and circumstances. This is one of the core points of their article.

They maintain, what is missing in the industry debate is “recognition that appropriate structuring and management of investments may well depend on investors’ relative situations.”

Some Context

The default position for passive investing is a capitalisation-weighted (cap-weighting) index, such as the New Zealand NZSX 50 Index and US S&P 500.

Although somewhat technical, the application of a cap-weighting index rests on the three assumptions outlined below.

A breach in any of the following assumptions could justify giving consideration to an alternative approach to passive indexing.

Market efficiency.

Cap-weighting should be chosen under an assumption of perfectly efficient markets, where prices are always correct. Investors may consider alternatives if they believe markets are not fully efficient and that the repercussions of any inefficiencies can be either avoided or exploited.

Cap-weighting is aligned with investor objectives.

It is assumed that cap-weighting indices are aligned with investor objectives. However, this is not always the case. As we see below, a Defined Benefit plan most likely has different objectives relative to a cap-weighted fixed income index.

The same is true for an endowment, insurance company, or foundation.

Index efficacy.

The view of passive indexing as the default assumes that an index is available for the intended purpose. The theoretical view calls for indexes that effectively embody the market portfolio. The industry view requires indexes that deliver the desired type of asset class exposure. In practice, it is possible that for a given asset class no market index exists, or that available indexes have shortcomings in their construction.

The five reasons below for when investors might prefer an alternative to a passive approach are in situations where these three critical assumptions for passive indexing are broken. In such situations passive index is likely to be inappropriate.

The reasons below, also highlight the point that the active versus passive debate often fails to take into account differences in investor objectives and circumstances. The debate needs to be broadened.

Reason #1: No Readily Replicable Index is Available

Passive investing assumes an effective index exists that can be easily and readily replicated.

In some instances, an appropriate index to replicate is simply not available, for example:

  • Unlisted assets such as Private Equity, unlisted infrastructure and direct property
  • Within listed markets were a lack of liquidity exists it becomes difficult to replicate the index, such as small caps, emerging market equities, and high-yield debt.

In these incidences, although a passive product may be available, they “might not deliver a faithful replication of the asset class at low cost.” Accordingly passive investing is not appropriate.

Reason #2: The Passive Index Is at Odds with the Investor’s Objectives

Often a passive index is badly aligned with an investor’s objectives. In such cases an alternative approach may better meet these objectives, often requiring active management to deliver a more tailored investment solution.

By way of example:

Defined Benefit Pension Plan and tailored fixed-income mandates.

Best practice for a Defined Benefit (DB) plan is to implement a tailored fixed income mandate that closely matches expected liabilities.

In such a case a passive index approach is not appropriate given the duration and cashflows of the DB plan are unique and highly unlikely to be replicated by an investment into a passive index based on market capitalisation weights.

DB plan managers may also likely prefer more control over other exposures, such as credit quality relative to a passive index.

Such situations also exits for insurance companies, endowments, and foundations.

Notably, an individual investor has a unique set of future liabilities, represented by their own cashflows and duration. Accordingly, investing into a passive market index product may not be appropriate relative to their investment objectives. A more active decision should be made to meet cashflow, interest rate risk, and credit exposure objectives.

Listed infrastructure provides another example where the passive index may be at odds with the investor’s goals. Some investors may want to target certain sectors of the universe that provides greater inflation protection, thus requiring a different portfolio relative to that provided by a passive market index exposure.

The article also provides example in relation to Sustainable and ethical investing and Tax effectiveness.

Reason #3: The Standard Passive Index is Inefficiently Constructed

Where alternatives are available, it makes no sense to invest in an inefficient index. This represents a suboptimal approach, particularly if an alternative can deliver a better outcome.

The article presents two potential reasons an index might be inefficient and proves three examples.

They comment that an index might be inefficient for the following reasons:

  • the index is built on a narrow or unrepresentative universe; and
  • the index is constructed in a way that builds in some inefficiency.

As they highlight, these issues are best outlined through the discussion of examples. I briefly cover two.

Equities

Alternative indexing/passive approaches such as factor investing and fundamental investing are “active” decision relative to a market-capitalised index.

The basis for these alternative approaches is that equity capital market indices are flawed (Fundamental Investing) and inefficient (e.g. factor investing such as value and small caps outperform the broader market over time).

Fixed income

There are many shortcomings of fixed-income indices, the article focuses on two:

  • Fixed income indices do not fully represent the asset class. Therefore, more efficient portfolios may be built by including off-benchmark securities.
  • The largest issuers dominate fixed income indices and it can be argued these are the less attractive governments/companies to invest in, because they are most in need of funding (and hence of lower quality), or are issuing debt to take advantage of low interest rates, which are unattractive to the investor.

Reasons #4 and #5 The final two reasons are more aligned with the traditional question of whether investors can access managers that can be expected to outperform the index.

Reason #4 features that could lead to active investment managers outperforming the passive alternative in aggregate.

Active management is often defined as a zero-sum game before transaction costs, and a negative-sum game after transaction costs. Therefore, active management as a whole cannot outperform.

However, this dynamic need not apply to all investors and it is quite likely that there is a subsector of investors that can consistently outperform the index.

Therefore, a review of the environment in which managers operate might establish if they are able to maintain a competitive advantage.

The following features are outlined in the article to support such a situation:

Market inefficiency situations

Market inefficiencies offer the potential for active managers to outperform the index, nevertheless managers need to be appropriately placed to capture any excess rewards of these inefficiencies.

The following situations may provide a manager with a competitive advantage:

  • Information advantage: An active manager could have an advantage where the market is “widely populated by less-informed investors” e.g. emerging markets and small caps.
  • Preferential access to desirable assets: e.g. where active managers have better access to initial public offerings and sourcing lines of stock. In unlisted markets private equity manager has well established relationships and ability to provide capital and/or appropriate skills.
  • Economic value-add: e.g. in unlisted assets active management can add value to the underlying asset.

Opportunities arising from differing investor objectives

Opportunities for active management to benefit may exist when:

  • Some investors are comfortable with earning below-market returns e.g. investors who place greater weight on liquidity or are not willing to accept certain risk exposures
  • Investors have differing time horizons e.g. value investors exploit short-term focus of markets

Index fails to cover the opportunity set

The article makes the following points under this heading:

  • There is the potential to outperform by investing outside the index whenever the index does not provide a comprehensive coverage of the available market
  • The intensity of competition is also a factor in success or otherwise of an active manager. For example, the results on manager skill of the highly institutionalise US market may not translate into other markets and asset class where competition is less fierce.
  • Cyclicality of markets needs to be considered, with managers likely to perform in different market environments i.e. they tend to underperform when cross-sectional volatility is low, or markets are driven more by thematic forces. As they note, this has limited relevance in the long run, but may add a “timing element to any evaluation of active versus passive investment.”

Reason #5: Skilled Managers Can Be Identified

Where a skilled manager can be identified, this is a sufficient condition to adopt an alternative to passive management alone.

Nevertheless, the ability and capacity to identify a skilled manager is necessary where an alternative to passive management is to be contemplated.

The discussion makes the following points:

  • At the very least bad managers should be avoided
  • Markets can never be perfectly efficient, therefore some room exists for outperformance through skill
  • Not all fund managers are created equal, some are good and some are bad
  • The research capability and skill to identify and select a manager is an important consideration.

Implementation and Costs

It is important to note, the framework aims first to work out whether there is a case for rejecting a passive index default. The next step is then to ask how much an investor is willing to pay and how the alternative can be accessed.

“In most cases this alternative will be what is traditionally known as “actively managed investing.” In other circumstances this need not be the case, or the skills-based component may be minor.”

The cost versus the benefit and accessing the preferred alternative approach to passive index are key implementation issues.

Concluding Comments

Warren and Ezra make the point that too much of the debate on active versus Passive relies on the analysis of US equities, they think it is unreasonable to base broad conclusions about the efficiency of passive indexing on a single asset class or subclass.

They are not alone on this, as outlined on this previous Kiwi Investor Blog Post, there are many studies that challenge the conventional wisdom of active management.

For the record, please see this Post, Kiwi Wealth caught in an active storm, on my thoughts on the active vs passive debate, we really need to move on and broaden the discussion. The debate is not black vs White, as highlighted in this article, there are large grey areas.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

 

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

Preparing your Portfolio for a period of higher inflation

Although inflation is not a threat currently the case for a period of higher than average inflation can be easily made.

From an investment perspective:

  1. A period of high inflation is the most challenging period for traditional assets e.g. equities and Fixed Income;
  2. Before the inflation period, as we move from the current period of deflation there is a period of reflation, during which things will feel okay for a while; and
  3. During the higher inflation period the leadership of investment returns are likely to change.

These are some of the key insights from a recent Man article, Inflation Regime Roadmap.

Following an extensive review of previous inflation/deflationary episodes Man clearly articulate the case for a period of higher inflation is ahead.

As Man note the timing of moving to a higher inflation environment is uncertain.

As outlined below, they provide a check list of factors to monitor in anticipation of higher inflation.

Nevertheless, although the timing of a higher inflation environment is uncertain, Man argue the need for preparation is not and should commence now.

Investors need to be assessing the robust of their portfolios for a higher than average inflation environment now.

Man identify several strategies they expect will outperform during a period of higher inflation.

Investment Implications

The level and direction of inflation is important.

This is evident in the diagram below, which Man refer to as the Fire and Ice Framework.

The performance of investment strategies differs depending on the inflation environment.

As can be seen in the diagram, the traditional assets of equities and bonds (fixed income securities) have on average performed poorly in the inflation periods (Fire).

Also, of note is that the benefits of Bonds in providing portfolio diversification benefits are diminished during these periods, as signified by the positive stock-bond correlation relationship.

As Man note, and evident in the diagram above, the path to inflation is via reflation, so things will feel good for a while.

Importantly, there will be a regime change, those investment strategies that have flourished over the last 10 years are likely to struggle in the decade ahead.

The expected new winners in a higher inflation environment are succinctly captured in the following diagram.

As can been seen in the Table above, Man argue new investment strategies are needed within portfolios.

These include:

  • Alternative risk premia and long-short (L/S) type strategies, rather than traditional market exposures (long only, L/O) of equities and fixed income which are likely to generate real negative returns (See Fire and Ice Framework).
  • Real Assets, such inflation-linked bonds, precious metals, commodities, and real estate.

Man also expect leadership within equity markets to change toward value and away from growth and quality. Those companies with Pricing Power are also expected to benefit.

Several pitfalls to introducing the new strategies to a portfolio are outlined in the article.

Time for Preparation is now

As mentioned the timing of a transition to a higher inflation environment is uncertain. Certainly markets are not pricing one in now.

Nevertheless, the preparation for such an environment is now. Man highlight:

  • the likelihood of an inflationary regime is much higher than it has been in recent times;
  • the investment implications of this new regime would be so large that all the things that have worked are at risk of stopping to work; and
  • given that markets are not priced for higher inflation at all, the market inflationary regime may well start well before inflation actually kicks in, given the starting point.

Man believe investors have some time to prepare for the regime shift. Nevertheless, those preparations should start now.

In addition, Man provide a check list to monitor to determine progress toward a higher than average inflation environment.

Inflation Check List to Monitor

The paper undertakes a thorough review of different inflation regimes and the drivers of them. The review and analysis on inflation makes up a large share of the report and is well worth reviewing.

Man identify five significant regime changes to support their analysis:

  1. Hoover’s Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal (Deflation to Reflation)
  2. WW2-1951 Debt Work-down (Inflation to Disinflation).
  3. The Twin Oil Shocks of the 1970s (Inflation).
  4. Paul Volcker (Disinflation).
  5. The Global Financial Crisis (Deflation to Reflation and back again).

As noted in the list above, we are currently in a deflationary environment (again) – Thanks to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Man expect the deflationary forces over the last decade are likely to fade in the years ahead. As a result inflation is likely to pick up. Central banks are also likely to allow an overshoot relative to inflation targets. Their independence could also be at risk.

They argue the current deflationary status quo is unsustainable, high debt levels leading to underinvestment in product assets resulting in lower levels of spare capacity and rising levels of inequality around the world will lead to policy responses by both governments and central banks that will result in a period of higher than average inflation.

They provide a checklist of factors to monitor, which includes:

  1. Inflation Momentum, which is broadly neutral currently
  2. Measures of inflation in the pipeline, which are currently deflationary
  3. Economic slack, which is large and heavily deflationary at present
  4. Labour market tightness, which is loose and heavily deflationary presently
  5. Wage inflation, currently neutral to inflationary
  6. Inflation Expectations, sending mixed signals at this time

Man conclude their dashboard is more deflationary than inflationary. They also believe this could change quite rapidly if demand picks up faster than expected.

Concluding Remarks

Man’s view on the outlook for inflation are not alone, a number of other organisations hold similar views.

Although inflation is not a problem now, it is highly likely to become of a greater concern to investors than recent history.

This will likely lead to a change in investment return leadership. Those investment strategies that have worked well over the last 10 years are unlikely to work so well in the decade ahead. Man propose some they think will perform better in such an environment, there are likely others.

A review of current portfolio holdings should be undertaken to determine the robustness to a different inflation regime. This is a key point.

The performance of real assets in different economic environments was covered in a previous Post, Real Assets offer real diversification benefits, this Post covered analysis undertaken by PGIM.

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

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