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Now is the time for truly bold asset allocation
Chimp readers may be aware that I have been warning for the last five or so years (see note 1) about funds that employ conventional asset allocation i.e. ones that follow some global balanced (equity/bond) or multi-asset (equity/bond/alternatives) index, whether strictly (passive asset allocation funds) or closely (most actively-managed asset allocation funds). If you have a large portion of your retirement portfolio in these funds, or your DIY asset allocation is 'conventional', you are risking your comfortable retirement.
Real returns from asset classes that comprise a large portion of balanced/multi asset indices such as developed market bonds and equities could be poor (negative) for the next decade or two. The reason for this is that I believe inflation will remain high for a number of years, as indeed it has done on occasions throughout history, most recently from the mid-60s to early-80s.
My concerns of the last few years related to what was clearly a bubble in developed market safe haven bonds, a bubble that appeared close to bursting. While I may have been a bit early with my warnings, the bubble began to burst in mid-2020 and has continued to deflate since. Moreover, the rising/high inflation that is the cause of the bubble's deflation has over the last year also impacted equities - funds employing conventional asset allocation are now down in real terms over most periods to date going back several years (Fig 1).
Fig 1: The global balanced fund is the investment industry's flagship retirement product...and it's sinking
Source: Yahoo! Finance, Federal Reserve Economic Data, Office of National Statistics
(Note: the reason why a GBP investor has done better in a global balanced fund than a USD investor is that since Brexit fears began to spread in 2015, sterling has been very weak. For GBP investors who were currency hedged, either with respect to only their overseas bond exposure or to both bonds and equities, performance would have been closer to that of the USD investor).
Although it was right to have been concerned the last few years, this of course does not mean that my current grim predictions about the future performance of developed market bonds and equities will prove correct. However, I do think it should give them more credibility (the poor performance, particularly of bonds, will be the result of inflation remaining high, the reasons for which I most recently set out in this post).
So, where, and how, should you invest instead?
The 'how' question is important as it is about freeing oneself from a constrained mindset in relation to risk. In investing, there are times when it is risky to diverge from the crowd and times when it is risky to be part of it. By 'crowd' I mean 'convention' which, in relation to investing, means conventional asset allocation, as described above.
The last four decades have seen both global equities and bonds produce annual real returns in the high single digits, driven by the persistently disinflationary environment. Combining them in a (conventional) 50/50 balanced fund has thus worked very nicely for those saving for retirement (there have also been diversification benefits as a result of the two asset classes often being negatively correlated). In other words, it would have been risky to step away from the crowd.
If inflation stays high, however, this will change, and employing a conventional asset allocation (i.e. being part of the crowd) will not work. In order to produce decent returns, and thus to protect that comfortable retirement, one must employ an unconventional asset allocation. One must step away from the crowd. One must be bold.
What might this 'boldness' look like in terms of where one should invest?
Fig 2 below is for illustrative purposes only but should provide an idea of what an unconventional asset allocation (one designed for a high inflation environment for the next decade or two) might look like. I should also mention that it is pretty close to where my own retirement portfolio is invested (not putting your money where your mouth is in this business considered very poor form).
Fig 2: An unconventional asset allocation in relation to a (conventional) 50/50 balanced fund
Incidentally, I was cited in this recent Citywire article in which BlackRock attempted to explain how its MyMap asset allocation funds were different to passive balanced funds such as those in Vanguard's LifeStrategy range that I had criticised. It may be true that BlackRock has an advantage because, unlike passive balanced funds, its MyMap funds employ active asset allocation, and invest in alternatives (interestingly, BlackRock didn't mention its strictly passive Consensus fund range which is almost identical to the Vanguard range).
That said, in the case of the MyMap 5 fund, investment in alternatives is minimal (less than 3%) and asset allocation has hardly changed over the last year or so (equities 65% versus 69%, bonds 31% versus 28% i.e. hardly what I would call active). Also, geographic/sector exposures within equities and bonds appear fairly conventional.
In response to my criticism of balanced funds (those that have significant exposure to bonds) BlackRock’s head of wealth for multi-asset strategies and solutions for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Andrew Keegan insisted that investors were not able to escape from the market environment in 2022. According to Keegan, "Generally, the main asset classes are down. Unless you have a very complex hedging strategy, or you play markets perfectly, it’s difficult to be positive year-to-date."
It's true that it was difficult to produce a positive return in 2022, particularly in real terms. However, I never suggested it should have been easy, possible even. My concern has been and continues to be that if inflation stays high for the next decade or two as I think it might, funds that employ conventional asset allocation, whether strictly passive like LifeStrategy and Consensus, or slightly active like MyMap, are going to struggle. Also, if I am right that inflation will remain high, you do not need to employ a very complex hedging strategy or play markets perfectly to do well. You just need a bold - unconventional - asset allocation.
With respect to the unconventional asset allocation set out in Fig 2, if your first instinct is to think that it is too risky, I would urge you to re-read the 'how to invest' paragraphs above. Also, remember that volatility, whether in absolute terms or relative to an index (the latter is also known as tracking error) is a very poor measure of risk. As a hypothetical example, an investment that falls 1% each and every month for ten years has volatility of zero but, over the ten years, a total return of -70%. In other words, volatility gives a very poor indication as to important risk, that of loss of capital.
If you think the example cited is too extreme/hypothetical, you are mistaken. From 1940 to 1981, US government bonds were low volatility (annual volatility of 6.9% versus 14.1% for US equities). However, their total real return over the forty or so years was -67%. The reason? Rising/high inflation.
Note 1: In this post in 2017, I wrote: "Are there ‘suitability’ issues in relation to putting clients into passive multi-asset funds that have massive bond risk? Back in 2008, the real 10-year Gilt yield was around 1%. Although this was low – 10 years earlier real yields were 4% - one could still justify buying Gilts on the basis that the real yield was positive. Fast forward to today and real 10-year interest rates in the UK are close to -2%. This means that if you buy them and hold them to maturity, your real return will be -2% per annum (-1.79% to be precise)1. To make money in real terms, real yields would have to fall further and you’d have to sell the bonds before maturity. But yields are already at -2%! Expecting them to fall to, say, -3% is, in my humble opinion, not investing but speculation. In the previous section, I mentioned four providers of the more popular passive multi-asset funds. If you consider their offerings that sit in the IA Mixed Investment 20-60% Shares sector, they generally have around 40% in equities. Where is the other 60%? All or mostly in bonds, where one has to be lucky to win. In other words, are these funds really suitable for your clients?"
The views expressed in this communication are those of Peter Elston at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. They do not constitute investment advice and whilst all reasonable efforts have been used to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this communication, the reliability, completeness or accuracy of the content cannot be guaranteed. This communication provides information for professional use only and should not be relied upon by retail investors as the sole basis for investment.
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