The past decade was a great one for investors. During the 2010s, the MSCI All Country World index rallied nearly 146% and the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond index climbed by more than 49%. And while it was an unusually strong decade for nominal returns, it was an even better one for real returns as inflation was exceptionally low.
Further to this positive backdrop, Morningstar research shows Australian investors have outperformed global peers, with mandatory and systematic superannuation investing attributable for overall higher investor returns relative to other markets where investors tended to be more exposed to market timing risks. While this may have helped to yield stronger outcomes for investors in Australia over the past several years, with the next decade looking different, they too need to adjust to a lower yield landscape.
Relatively modest returns and, at some point, a recession should be expected. This is neither to suggest that the bull market will end in 2020 nor that a recession is imminent. However, it is to suggest that investors should start taking actions in preparation for potential far‑reaching changes.
I believe investors, here and around the world, face three main challenges over the next decade:
HOW TO GENERATE RETURNS IN A LOW‑RETURN ENVIRONMENT
Valuations matter: History shows us that, in normal circumstances, higher prices today mean lower returns tomorrow. During the 2020s, returns from both equity and bond markets are likely to fall short of those of the 2010s, during which they delivered annualised returns of 9.4% and 4.1%, respectively.
When asset prices rise, passive investment strategies tend to perform well; during periods of lower and negative returns, passive strategies are less successful. We believe investors therefore may have three choices: (1) to calibrate return objectives downward with likely more modest future returns; (2) to change portfolio composition to lower quality and higher risk; and/or (3) to deploy active investment strategies, making their money work as hard as possible. For many investors, accepting lower returns or taking on lower‑quality/higher‑risk assets to maintain existing returns is not a realistic option. Such investors may need to seek alternative, creative approaches.
- Active management: As monetary stimulus fades, volatility is likely to rise unless ample liquidity persists, keeping it subdued. Volatility means security prices are prone to diverge from valuations, and the dispersion among returns of securities and asset classes is expected to widen. We believe an environment of heightened variability and wide dispersion of returns should be supportive for skilled active managers who can differentiate between winners and losers, identify mispriced investments, and add value through security selection and dynamic asset allocation.
- Investments offering a growth premium: In a low‑growth world, assets offering above‑average growth rates warrant a premium. Growth stocks in the US are one example. While growth has outperformed value during the 2010s—US large‑cap growth stocks returned 15.2% per annum and US large‑cap value stocks returned 11.8% per annum—this trend could continue into the 2020s. Another example is emerging market assets, both equities and bonds, which offer higher potential growth, albeit with additional risks. As we enter the 2020s, current interest rates in many emerging markets are at the level where the developed market rates started in 2010. Should emerging market bond yields follow the developed market downward path, the next decade could support emerging market asset prices, as the liquidity boost did for developed market asset prices in the 2010s.
- Alternatives: When traditional sources of market returns—equity, duration (term), and credit risks—are modest, investors may seek alternative sources of returns. Some alternative investments could offer such sources, not only through passive exposure to alternative risk premia, but also through proven active management, generating active alpha. Alternatives with low correlation to equity and bond markets can add diversification as well as unique return streams, mitigating risks and potentially enhancing performance.
HOW TO DIVERSIFY EQUITY RISK
The main risk, and driver, of returns in most portfolios is equity risk. Even in a ‘balanced’ portfolio of 60% equity and 40% bonds, over 90% of risk could come from equity market exposure—in other words, the portfolio is not really balanced after all.
Equity market downturns are not a major problem for investors with very long time horizons and nerves of steel—they could remain invested and ride through the storm. For everybody else, however, diversifying equity risk is likely to be beneficial—and may even be necessary for survival. To diversify equity market risk, investors used to buy long‑term government bonds— which tend to be negatively correlated with equities—and received yields of 4% and above for doing so. However, those days are long gone and are unlikely to return for the foreseeable future. Government bond yields have fallen and in many cases are negative. Investors no longer get paid for diversification; often, they need to pay for it.
- Government bonds: As we believe yields are unlikely to fall much below current levels, government bonds do not offer significant return potential. However, we think they can still provide useful diversification against equity risk during drawdowns. Long‑duration bonds—whose values rise more than those of short‑duration bonds when yields decline—are one of the most effective diversifiers against equity risk. Holding unhedged US Treasuries could be a sensible way to include high‑quality duration risk as well as the US dollar—two safe‑haven assets in a single go.
- Currencies: Investors may seek other ways to diversify equity risk beyond government bonds. Currencies are another venue to explore, offering in some cases low correlation with equities. In particular, the US dollar and the Japanese yen are two traditional safe‑haven currencies that tend to perform well when equity markets perform poorly.
- Idiosyncratic alpha: Active alpha generated through bottom‑up security selection and top‑down tactical asset allocation is often lowly correlated with equity, as well as bond, markets—as long as the alpha is not just running an excess beta risk. Alpha could be a diversifier of equity market risk, achieving two goals at the same time: reducing risk and enhancing performance. In other words, viewing alpha not only as a source of return but also as a diversifier of risk.
HOW TO REMAIN INVESTED WHILE PREPARING FOR THE END OF THE CYCLE
There is no way of knowing how bad a recession will be until it happens. When the next recession occurs, it may either be a shallow one or a deep one. Investors should be humble, hoping for a shallow recession but preparing for a deep one. If it turns out to be the latter, it could destroy profits that took years of investing to generate.
Tail‑risk mitigation strategies: Remaining invested while mitigating downside risk, and not paying too much for defensive assets, is one of the main challenges for investors. A diversified basket of derivative overlay strategies could be attached to portfolios, aiming to cut tail events and offset some losses that might occur when equity markets drop. Examples include buying stocks with low volatility or defensive risk premia strategies while removing the market exposure, buying protective put options while hedging them by using futures contracts, buying 10‑year US Treasury futures, and using a systematic strategy that dynamically alters equity exposure based on predicted equity risk.
Multi‑asset investing: Security selection in a single asset class could add value. So could security selection across many asset classes. And there are other sources of returns—tactical asset allocation, risk factor investing, and so on. So, why not dynamically blend all the available sources of returns—both alpha and beta—to potentially benefit from all the available returns out there? This is the gist of multi‑asset investing. When most asset classes rise—as they did in the 2010s—multi‑asset investing is not as important as during times when different investments’ performance diverge. When the future is uncertain, we believe the best approach is to maintain a dynamic, diverse exposure to independent sources of return, adapting it to current market conditions to keep it relevant.
ESG: One aspect of the green revolution is that investors are likely to increasingly seek companies that acknowledge shareholders are not their only stakeholders. ESG—environmental, social, and governance—factors may be compensated over the long-term as they increasingly fit the global desire for sustainability and for tackling the challenges humanity faces. Securities of ESG‑compliant companies could enjoy a premium for helping the world overcome some of its ESG‑related challenges.
The challenges highlighted here are long term in nature. In the near term, however, even though we do not expect the bull market to end or a recession to start in the next 12 months—or perhaps longer—we will be closely monitoring economic data. for any indications to the contrary.
Yoram Lustig is head of multi-asset solutions, EMEA at T. Rowe Price.