Money market funds, and their exchange-traded equivalents “ultra-short duration bond funds”, are an important, if unglamorous, tool in portfolio manager’s toolkit.
They can be used in place of a cash holding for additional yield, without compromising on risk, liquidity or cost.
Money market funds are intended to preserve capital and provide returns similar to those available on the wholesale money markets (e.g. the SONIA rate that replace LIBOR).
How risky is a money market fund?
Money market-type funds hold near-to maturity investment grade paper. Their weighted average term to maturity is <1 year. They therefore have very low effective duration (the sensitivity to changes in interest rates).
Compare gilts which are seen as a low-risk asset relative to equities. The 10-11 year duration on UK gilts (all maturities) means they carry a higher level volatility compared to cash (which has nil volatility). On the flip side, their longer term also means they have higher risk-return potential relative to cash and ultra-short bonds.
By contrast, money market type funds have some investment risk as they hold non-cash assets, but given their holdings’ investment grade status, short term to maturity and ultra-short effective duration, they exhibit near-nil volatility.
Platform cash, fixed term deposit or money market fund
From a flexibility perspective and a value for money perspective, there's a clear rationale to hold money market funds, rather than platform cash or a fixed term deposit.
Our Money Markets fund research paper that looks at 4 low cost money market funds sets out why
Why does the fund structure make sense? Find out more in our CPD Webinar on Introduction to Collective Investment Schemes
The illiquidity premium is the additional rewarded risk associated with holding an illiquid investment.
One of the attractions of private markets relative to public markets is the trade-off between enhanced returns and reduced liquidity, known as the “illiquidity premium”. Private market deals often require investors’ money to be “locked up” (i.e. non-realisable and cannot be withdrawn) for anything up to ten years. By way of compensation, investors’ should enjoy potentially much higher rates of return.
In the chart, we contrast the long-term expected returns, and range of returns, for US private equity vs a proxy for public equity and US private debt vs a proxy for US corporate bonds. Whilst the potential for returns is clearly higher, the range of potential outcomes is much higher too, reflecting the higher risk-reward trade off.
Contrasting public market and private market expected & variability of returns reflects their different characteristics, risks and opportunities.
Request our Access to Private Markets white paper
Register for our Introduction to Private Markets webinar
[3 min read]
Private markets exposure is growing in terms of both assets and popularity and offers potential for “true active” returns. We explore why and how advisers get access to this trend.
Why private markets are in demand
Private markets – incorporating private equity, private debt (direct lending), private real estate, unlisted infrastructure, unlisted natural resources – are characterised by attributes traditionally at odds with retail investing. Opacity, illiquidity, lengthy lock-up periods to name a few, and for that reason have largely been the domain of the institutional investor. But the growth in volume of private market strategies has become hard to ignore, as have the increasingly eye-watering returns enjoyed by private market managers.
Overall private market AUM has increased from US$2.7tr in 2010 to US$7.2tr in 2020 and is expected to grow to US$12.9tr by 2025, with the majority of this in private equity.
How can advisers access private market trends for their clients?
In our white paper, we explore:
Request our Access to Private Markets white paper
Register for our Introduction to Private Markets webinar
 Preqin estimates, 2021
[3 min read, open as pdf]
The active vs passive debate is nothing new: the first index fund was launched in 1976 to track the S&P 500.
In 1991, Nobel prize winner, William Sharpe (of Sharpe ratio fame), wrote a paper on “The Arithmetic of Active” setting out some of the clichés articulated by active managers, and why, in his view, it’s a zero sum game.
Definition terms is key
Whenever the active vs passive debate kicks off it’s always important to define terms. If referring to an asset allocation process, we prefer the terms static and dynamic and that’s got nothing to do with the subject of this paper or the claims by index investors that “active” is a zero sum game. Nor does the “activeness” or otherwise of hedge funds.
The zero-sum game allegation relates to security selection, typically in a long-only context and therefore most relevant to managers of portfolios of securities and/or retail funds.
What the Sharpe paper says
Broadly speaking the Sharpe paper argues that in a closed world of active managers (stock pickers within an asset class), where the opportunity set is the index, for every “star” manager buying and holding the best performing stocks, there is a “dog” manager to whom the worst performing stocks have been sold. In aggregate, over time, this means the combined performance of both managers is the same as the index less active fees. This makes it hard for active managers to persistently outperform the index over time, which is evidenced by the SPIVA study. On this basis, using a fund that delivers performance of the index less passive fees seems like a more efficient way to gain exposure to that opportunity set.
What are the implications for fund pickers
The SPIVA study shows that the ability of active managers to outperform an index persistently varies from market to market depending on the efficiency of that market. For example, US and Global Equity markets fewer managers manage to outperform. For UK and Emerging Markets, active managers achieve better results. The latest SPIVA scorecard can be found here.
We are not against “true active”, but the “arithmetic” is stacked against traditional long-only retail managers when it comes to persistency of alpha. Incorporating an index based approach where markets are highly efficient, and or where the availability of “true active” managers is rare.
How to identify “true active” is a topic for another day!
Last week, the US Senate passed a $1.2trillion infrastructure bill that now awaits a House vote as part of the "build back better" campaign, and another part of the "bazooka" post-COVID policy stimulus.
Whilst there are plenty of infrastructure equity funds like INFR (iShares Global Infrastructure UCITS ETF) and WUTI (SPDR® MSCI World Utilities UCITS ETF) that benefit from infrastructure spend, for those not wanting to uprisk portfolio, we like GIN (SPDR® Morningstar Multi-Asset Global Infrastructure UCITS ETF) which invests in infrastructure equity and debt securities.
Infrastructure & Utilities forms a core part of our Liquid Real Assets Index, for the inflation-protective qualities (tariff formulae typically pass through inflation). The "hybrid" nature of infrastructure - with both equity and bond like components is why we place it firmly in the Alternative Assets category. Helpfully this can be accessed in a highly iquid and (relatively) low-cost format, compared to higher cost, less transparent and potentially less liquid infrastructure funds.
[10 min read, open as pdf]
[3 min read, open as pdf]
Traditional indices weight companies based on their size. The resulting concentration risk and “the big get bigger” theory is a criticism levelled by many active managers who are critical of index investing.
Leaving aside the flaw in that argument (company's valuations determine their size in an index, not the other way round), it is important to remember that using traditional indices is a choice, not an obligation.
One alternative weighting scheme is to weight each share within an index equally, regardless of the size of the company.
Sounds simple? In a way, it is. But what’s interesting is understanding what an equal weight approach means from a diversification perspective, risk perspective and underlying factor-bias.
The curious power of equal weight is why some equal weight strategies have seen significant inflows over the last 6-12 months.
Register for our CPD event exploring this topic in more detail on Wed 23 June at 10.30am
In this white paper, we revisit the core principles of inflation
[15 min read, open as pdf]
[ 5 min read, open as pdf]
Since an article published in 2019 pointed the historic lows in bond yields, many investment firms are starting to rethink the 60/40 portfolio. This came under even more scrutiny following the market turmoil of 2020.
While some affirm that the 60/40 will outlive us all, others argue against this notion.
We take a look at the main arguments for and against and key insights
What is a 60/40 portfolio?
A 60/40 equity/bond portfolio is a heuristic “rule of thumb” approach considered to be a proxy for the optimal allocation between equities and bonds. Conventionally equities were for growth and bonds were for ballast.
The composition of a 60/40 portfolio might vary depending on the base currency and opportunity set of the investor/manager. Defining terms is therefore key.
We summarise a range of potential definitions of terms:
Furthermore, whilst 60/40 seems simple in terms of asset weighting scheme, it is important to understand the inherent risk characteristics that this simple allocation creates.
For example, a UK Global 60/40 portfolio has 62% beta to Global Equities; equities contribute approximately 84% of total risk, and a 60/40 portfolio is approximately 98% correlated to Global Equities.
 Elston research, Bloomberg data. Risk Contribution based on Elston 60/40 GBP Index weighted average contribution to summed 1 Year Value At Risk 95% Confidence as at Dec-20. Beta Correlation to Global Equities based on 5 year correlation of Elston 60/40 GBP Index to global equity index as at Dec-20.
Why some think 60/40 will outlive us all.
The relevance of 60/40 portfolio lies in its established historic, mathematical and academic backup. Whilst past performances do not guarantee future returns, it nonetheless provides us with experience and guidance. (Martin,2019)
Research also suggests that straightforward heuristic or “rule-of-thumb” strategies work well because they aren’t likely to inspire greed or fear in investors. They become timeless. Thus, creating a ‘Mind-Gap’. (Martin,2019)
In the US, the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (Ticker: VBINX US) which combines US Total Market Index and 40% into US Aggregate bonds, plays a major role in showcasing the success of the 60/40 portfolio that has proved popular with US retail investors (Jaffe,2019). Similarly, in the UK the popularity of Vanguard LifeStrategy 60% (Ticker VGLS60A) showcases the merits of a straightforward 60/40 equity/bond approach.
In 2020, for US investors VBINX provided greater (peak-to-trough) downside protection owing to lower beta (-19.5% vs -30.3% for US equity) and delivered total return of +16.26% volatility of 20.79%, compared to +18.37% for an ETF tracking the S&P 500 with volatility of 33.91%, both funds are net of fees. In this respect, the strategy captured 89% of market returns, with 61% of market risk.
For GBP-based investors in 2020 the 60/40 approach had lower (peak-to-trough) drawdown levels (-15%, vs -21% for global equities) owing to lower beta. The 60% equity fund delivered total return of +7.84% with volatility of 15.12%, compared to +12.15% for an ETF tracking the FTSE All World Index with volatility of 24.29%. In this respect, the strategy captured 65% of market returns, with 62% of market risk.
Why some think 60/40 has neared its end
Since its inception the 60/40 portfolio, derived 90% of the risk from stocks. In simple terms, 60% of the asset allocation of the portfolio was therefore the main driver of the portfolio. Returns (Robertson,2021). This hardly a surprise given that equities have a 84% contribution to portfolio ris, on our analysis, but the challenge made by some researchers is that if a 60/40 portfolio mainly reflects equity risk, what role does the 40% bond allocation provide, other than beta reduction?
The bond allocation is under increasing scrutiny now is because global economic growth has slowed and traditionally safer asset classes like bonds have grown in popularity making bonds susceptible to sharp and sudden selloffs. (Matthews,2019)
Strategists such as for Woodard and Harris, for Bank of America and Bob Rice for Tangent Capital have stated in their analysis that the core premise of the 60/40 portfolio has declined as equity has provided income, and bonds total return, rather than the other way round.. (Browne,2020)
Another study shows that over the past 65 years bonds can no longer effectively hedge against inflation and risk reduction through diversification can be done more adequately by exploring alternatives such as private equity, venture capital etc. (Toschi, 2021). Left unconstrained, however, this can necessarily up-risk portfolios.
With bond yields at an all-time low, nearing zero and the fact that they can no longer provide the protection in the up-and-coming markets many investors query the value provided by a bond allocation within a portfolio. (Robertson,2021)
While point of views might differ about 60/40 as an investment strategy, one aspect that is accepted is that the future of asset allocation looks very different when compared to the recent past. Rising correlations, low yields have led strategists and investors to incorporate smarter ways of risk management, explore new bond markets like China, create modified opportunities for bonds to hedge volatility through risk parity strategies, as well as using real asset exposure such as real estate and infrastructure. (Toschi, 2021)
Research conducted by The MAN Institute summarises that modifying from traditional to a more trend-following approach introduces the initial layer of active risk management. By adding an element of market timing investors further reduce the risk, when a market’s price declines.
While bonds have declined in yield, they still hold importance in asset allocation for beta reduction.
Further diversifying the portfolio with an allocation to real assets has potential to provide more yield and increased return than government bonds.
The 60/40 portfolio strategy has established itself over many decades, it has seen investors through four major wars, 14 recessions, 11 bear markets, and 113 rolling interest rate spikes.
It has proved resilience as a strategy and utility as a benchmark.
Our conclusion is that 60/40 is not dead: it is a useful multi-asset benchmark and remains a starting point for strategic asset allocation strategies.
But the detail of the bond allocation needs a rethink. Incorporating alternative assets or strategies so long as any increased risk can be constrained to ensure comparable portfolio risk characteristics.
Henry Cobbe & Aayushi Srivastava
Browne, E., 2021. The 60/40 Portfolio Is Alive and Well. [online] Pacific Investment Management Company LLC.
Available at: https://www.pimco.co.uk/en-gb/insights/blog/the-60-40-portfolio-is-alive-and-well
Jaffe, C., 2019. No sale: Don’t buy in to ‘the end’ of 60/40 investing. [online] Seattle Times.
Available at: https://www.seattletimes.com/business/no-sale-dont-buy-in-to-the-end-of-60-40-investing/
Martin, A., 2019. The 60/40 Portfolio Will Outlive Us All. [online] Advisorperspectives.com.
Matthews, C., 2021. Bank of America declares ‘the end of the 60-40’ standard portfolio. [online] MarketWatch.
Robertson, G., 2021. 60/40 in 2020 Vision | Man Institute. [online] www.man.com/maninstitute. Available at:https://www.man.com/maninstitute/60-40-in-2020-vision
Toschi, M., 2021. Why and how to re-think the 60:40 portfolio | J.P. Morgan Asset Management. [online] Am.jpmorgan.com.
Available at: https://am.jpmorgan.com/be/en/asset-management/adv/insights/market-insights/on-the-minds-of-investors/rethinking-the-60-40-portfolio/
[3 min read, open as pdf]
Inflation is on the rise
Easy central bank money, pent up demand after lockdowns and supply-chain constraints mean inflation is on the rise. Will Central Banks be able to keep the lid on inflation? The risk is that it could persistently overshoot target levels.
It matters more over time
Inflation erodes the real value of money: its “purchasing power”. If inflation was on target (2%), £100,000 in 10 year’s time would be worth only £82,035 in today’s money. But on current expectations, it could be worth a lot less than that.
Real assets can help
A bank note is only as valuable as the value printed on it. This is called its “nominal value”. Remember the days when a £5 note went a long way? When inflation rises, money loses its real value.
By contrast, real assets are things that have a real intrinsic value over time whose value is set by supply, demand and needs: like copper, timber, gold, oil, and wheat.
Real assets can also mean things that produce an regular income which goes up with inflation, like infrastructure companies (pipelines, toll roads, national grid etc) and commercial property with inflation-linked rents.
Rethinking portfolio construction
Including “real assets” into the mix can help diversify a portfolio, and protect it from inflation. Obviously there are no guarantees it will do so perfectly, but it can be done as a measured approach to help mitigate the effects of inflation. The challenge is how to do this without taking on too much risk.
Find out more about our Liquid Real Assets Index
[3 min read, open as pdf]
The combination of GBP/USD rollercoaster since Brexit, the critical home bias decision and the market stresses of 2020 mean that the differentiating factors amongst multi-asset strategies have boiled down to three things.
They are empirical and philosophical standpoints that portfolio designers must consider when developing a strategic asset allocation, and advisers should consider when looking under the bonnet of a multi-asset fund range.
Parameter decisions are key
Firms that use third-party asset allocation models that have a heavy UK equity allocation have been penalised. We have highlighted earlier the disconnect between UK’s market cap weighting at 4% of global equities, compared to its weighting in private investor benchmarks where it can be as higher as 50%. This is not rational and means UK-biased investors are penalised and missing out on world-changing trends of the broader global opportunity, set, this thing called “technology”, and demographic growth in Asia and Emerging Markets.
Firms that believe that all returns should be in an investor’s base currency have been penalised for being structurally overweight a weakening GBP. There is a “hedging to your liability” argument that resonates for some liability-driven pension fund managers, but we believe that is a function of time-horizon and makes sense more for the bond portfolio, than the equity part of the portfolio.
The inclusion of Alternative Assets, such as listed private equity and real assets has boosted risk-adjusted returns for some multi-asset funds but the biggest drivers remain home bias and GBP hedging policy.
We look at the universe of multi-asset funds in the IMA Mixed Asset and Unclassified Sectors. By looking at realised risk-return, we can see how different ranges have fared relative to the median.
The first thing to note is the dispersion of returns. There is very little consistency: the scattergram is more of a “splattergram” meaning selection of the right range of multi-asset funds is key.
We look at the standard deviations around a regression line to get a handle on this dispersion. We also adjust these by risk “bucket”. Finally we link up the performance of each fund within a multi-asset fund range to look at the consistency of the “frontier”.
Those that dominate have nothing to do with active or passive or fund selection, and everything to do with parameter design, namely UK or global equity bias and GBP hedging policy.
Fig.1. Multi-asset fund universe risk-return scattergram
Multi-asset funds are a convenient one-stop shop for a ready-made portfolio. But evaluating their design parameters is key to ensure it resonates with your own philosophy. Home bias, hedging policy and alternative asset policy are three due diligence questions to ask. There are many more.
To see where your chosen multi-asset fund range appears in our analysis, or if you would like help reviewing your multi-asset fund choices, please contact us.
[5min read, open as pdf]
We agree it’s time to rethink the 60/40 portfolio. It’s a useful benchmark, but a problematic strategy.
What is the 60/40 portfolio, and why does it matter?
What it represents?
Trying to find the very first mention of a 60/40 portfolio is proving a challenge, but it links back to Markowitz Modern Portfolio Theory and was for many years seen as close to the optimal allocation between [US] equities and [US] bonds. Harry Markowitz himself when considering a “heuristic” rule of thumb talked of a 50/50 portfolio. But the notional 60/40 equity/bond portfolio has been a long-standing proxy for a balanced mandate, combining higher-risk return growth assets with lower-risk-return, income generating assets.
What’s in a 60/40?
Obviously the nature of the equity and the nature of the bonds depends on the investor. US investor look at 60% US equities/40% US treasuries. Global investors might look at 60% Global Equities/40% Global Bonds. For UK investors – and our Elston 60/40 GBP Index – we look at 60% predominantly Global Equities and 40% predominantly UK bonds
Why does it matter?
In the same way as a Global Equities index is a useful benchmark for a “do-nothing” stock picker, the 60/40 portfolio is a useful benchmark for a “do-nothing” multi-asset investor.
Multi-asset investors, with all their detailed decision making around asset allocation, risk management, hedging overlays and implementation options either do better than, or worse than this straightforward “do-nothing” approach of a regularly rebalanced 60/40 portfolio.
Indeed – its simplicity is part of its appeal that enables investors to access a simple multi-asset strategy at low cost.
The problem with Bonds in a 60/40 framework
In October 2019, Bank of America Merrill Lynch published a research paper “The End of 60/40” which argues that “the relationship between asset classes has changed so much that many investors now buy equities not for future growth but for current income, and buy bonds to participate in price rallies”.
This has prompted a flurry of opinions on whether or not 60/40 is still a valid strategy
The key challenges with a 60/40 portfolio approach is more on the bond side:
So is 60/40 really dead?
In short, as a benchmark no. As a strategy – we would argue that for serious investors, it never was one.
We therefore think it’s important to distinguish between 60/40 as an investment strategy and 60/40 as a benchmark.
We think that a vanilla 60/40 equity/bond portfolio remains useful as a benchmark to represent the “do nothing” multi-asset approach.
However, we would concur that a vanilla 60/40 equity/bond portfolio, as a strategy offered by some low cost providers does – at this time – face the significant challenges identified in the 2019 report, that have been vindicated in 2020 and 2021.
For example, during the peak of the COVID market crisis in March 2020, correlations between equities and bonds spiked upwards meaning there was “no place to hide”. The growing inflation risk has put additional pressure on nominal bonds. Real yields are negative. Interest rates won’t go lower.
But outside of some low-cost retail products, very few portfolio managers, would offer a vanilla equity/bond portfolio as a client strategy. The inclusion of alternatives have always had an important role to play as diversifiers.
Rethinking the 40%: What are the alternatives?
When it comes to rethinking the 60/40 portfolio, investors will have a certain level of risk budget. So if that risk budget is to be maintained, there is little change to the “60% equity” part of a 60/40 portfolio.
What about the 40%?
We see opportunity for rethinking the 40% bond allocation by:
We nonetheless think it is important to:
1. Rethinking the bond portfolio
Whilst more extreme advocates of the death of 60/40 would push for removing bonds entirely, we would not concur.
Bonds have a role to play for portfolio resilience in terms of their portfolio function (liquidity, volatility dampener), so would instead focus on a more nuanced approach between yield & duration.
We would concur that long-dated nominal bonds look problematic, so would suggest a more “barbell” approach between shorter-dated bonds (as volatility dampener), and targeted, diversified bond exposures: emerging markets, high yield, inflation-linked (for diversification and real yield pick-up).
2. Incorporating sensible alternative assets
Allocating a portfolio of the bond portfolio to alternatives makes sense, but we also need to consider what kind of alternatives.
Whilst some managers are making the case for hedge funds or private markets as an alternative to bonds, we think there are sensible cost-efficient and liquid alternatives that can be considered for inclusion that either have bond-like characteristics (regular stable income streams), or provide inflation protection (real assets).
For regular diversified income and inflation protection, we would consider: asset-backed securities, infrastructure, utilities and property. The challenge, however, is how to incorporate these asset classes without materially up-risking the overall portfolio.
For inflation protection, we would consider real assets: property, diversified, commodities, gold and inflation-protected bonds.
Properly incorporated these can fulfil a portfolio function that bonds traditionally provided (liquidity, income, ballast and diversification).
3. Consider risk-based diversification as an alternative strategy
One of the key reasons for including bonds in a multi-asset portfolio is for diversification purposes from equities on the basis that one zigs when the other zags.
In the short-term, and particularly at times of market stress, correlations between asset classes can increase, this reduces the diversification effect if bonds zag when equities zag.
We would argue risk-based diversification strategies have a role to play to here, on the basis that rather than relying on long-run theoretical correlation, they systematically focus on short-run actual correlation between asset classes and adapt their asset allocation accordingly.
Traditional portfolios means choosing asset weights which then drive portfolio risk and correlation metrics.
Risk-based diversification strategies do this in reverse: they use short-run portfolio risk and correlation metrics to drive asset weights.
If the ambition is to diversify and decorrelate, using a strategy that has this as its objective makes more sense.
So 60/40 is not dead. It will remain a useful benchmark for mult-asset investors.
As an investment strategy, vanilla 60/40 equity/bond products will continue to attract assets for their inherent simplicity. But we do believe a careful rethink of the “40” is required.
[5 min read, open as pdf]
Commodity indices, and the ETPs that track them provide a convenient way of accessing a broad commodity basket exposure with a single trade.
What’s inside the basket?
Commodity indices represent baskets of commodities constructed using futures prices. The Bloomberg Commodity Index which was launched in 1998 as the Dow Jones-AIG Commodity Index has a weighting scheme is based on target weights for each commodity exposure.
These weights are subject to the index methodology rules that incorporate both liquidity (relative amount of trading activity of a particular commodity) and production data (actual production data in USD terms of a particular commodity) to reflect economic significance.
The index subdivides commodities into “Groups”, such as: Energy (WTI Crude Oil, Natural Gas etc), Grains (Corn, Soybeans etc), Industrial Metals (Copper, Aluminium etc), Precious Metals (Gold, Silver), Softs (Sugar, Coffee, Cotton) and Livestock (Live Cattle, Lean Hogs).
The index rules include diversification requirements such that no commodity group constitutes more than 33% weight in the index; no single commodity (together with its derivatives) may constitute over 25% weight); and no single commodity may constitute over 15% weight.
The target weights for 2021 at Group and Commodity level is presented below:
Owing to changes in production and or liquidity, annual target weights can vary. For example the material change in weight in the 2021 target weights vs the 2020 target weights was a +1.6ppt increase in Precious Metals (to 19.0%) and a -1.9pp decrease in Industrial Metals to 15.6%.
Traditional vs “Smart” weighting schemes
One of the drawbacks of the traditional production- and liquidity-based weighting scheme is that they are constructed with short-dated futures contracts. This creates a risk when futures contracts are rolled because for commodities where the forward curve is upward sloping (“contango”), the futures price of a commodity is higher than the spot price. Each time a futures contract is rolled, investors are forced to “buy high and sell low”. This is known as “negative roll yield”.
A “smart” weighting scheme looks at the commodity basket from a constant maturity perspective, rather than focusing solely on short-dated futures contracts. This approach aims to mitigate the impact of negative roll yield as well as potential for reduced volatility, relative to traditional indices.
This Constant Maturity Commodity Index methodology was pioneered by UBS in 2007 and underpins the UBS Bloomberg BCOM Constant Maturity Commodity Index and products that track it.
Illustration of futures rolling for markets in contango
An Equal Weighted approach
Whilst the traditional index construction considers economic significance in terms of production and liquidity, investors may seek alternative forms of diversified commodities exposure, such as Equal Weighted approach.
There are two ways of achieving this, equal weighting each commodity, or equal weighting each commodity group.
The Refinitiv Equal Weight Commodity Index equally weights each if 17 individual commodity components, such that each commodity has a 5.88% (1/17th) weight in the index. This results in an 18% allocation to the Energy Group, 47% allocation to the Agriculture group, 12% allocation to the Livestock group and 23% allocation to Precious & Industrial Metals.
An alternative approach is to equally weight each commodity group. This is the approach we take in the Elston Equal Weight Commodity Portfolio, which has a 25% allocation to Energy, a 25% allocation to Precious Metals, a 25% Allocation to Industrial Metals and a 25% Allocation to Agricultural commodities. This is on the basis that commodities components within each group will behave more similarly than commodity components across groups.
These two contrasting approaches are summarised below:
In 2020, the Equal Weight component strategy performed best +6.28%. The Constant Maturity strategy delivered +0.69%. The Equal Weight Group strategy was flat at -0.05% and the traditional index was -5.88%, all expressed in GBP terms.
Informed product selection
This summarises four different ways of accessing a diversified commodity exposure: traditional weight, constant maturity weighting, equal component weighting and equal group weighting. Understanding the respective strengths and weaknesses of each approach is an important factor for product selection.
[3 min read, open as pdf]
Focus on inflation
In our recent Focus on Inflation webinar we cited the study by Briere & Signori (2011) looking at the long run correlations between asset returns and inflation over time.
We highlighted the “layered” effect of different inflation protection strategies (1973-1990) with cash (assuming interest rate rises), and commodities providing best near-term protection, inflation linked bonds and real estate providing medium-term protection, and equities providing long-term protections. Nominal bonds were impacted most negatively by inflation.
Source: Briere & Signori (2011), BIS Research Papers
Given the growing fears of inflation breaking out, we plotted the YTD returns of those “inflation-hedge” asset classes, in GBP terms for UK investors, with reference to the US and UK 5 Year Breakeven Inflation Rates (BEIR).
Figure 2: Inflation-hedge asset class performance (GBP, YTD) vs US & UK 5Y BEIR
Source: Elston research, Bloomberg data, as at 5th March 2021
Winners and Losers so far
We looked at the YTD performance in GBP of the following broad “inflation hedge” asset classes, each represented by a selected ETF: Gilts, Inflation Linked Gilts, Commodities, Gold, Industrial Metals, Global Property, Multi-Asset Infrastructure and Equity Income.
Looking at price performance year to date in GBP terms:
So Inflation-Linked Gilts don’t provide inflation protection?
Not in the short run, no.
UK inflation linked gilts have an effective duration of 22 years, so are highly interest rate sensitive. Fears that inflation pick up could lead to a rise in interest rates therefore reduces the capital value of those bond (offset by greater level of income payments, if held to maturity).
So whilst they provide medium- to long-term inflation protection, they are poor protection against a near-term inflation shock.
In conclusion, we observe:
[7 min read, open as pdf for full report]
[See CPD webinar on risk-weighted diversification]
A 60/40 portfolio delivers asset-based diversification: it represents a mix between equities and bonds.
However although a 60/40 portfolio reduces market beta, it does not provide “true” (risk-based) diversification: for example, a 60/40 portfolio, as represented by the Elston 60/40 GBP Index remains 97% correlated with Global Equities.
This problem only increases in stressed markets where correlations between assets increase, as we saw in 2020.
Risk-weighted strategies for “true” diversification
Risk-weighted stratetgies, which represent multi-asset portfolios constructed towards a specific portfolio risk outcome, enable an alternative, differentiated approach to investing and for incorporating "true“diversification”. We look at the following risk-based strategies in our analysis: Risk Parity, Max Deconcentration, and Min Variance. These are summarised in more detail in the report.
Comparing asset-weighted vs risk-weighted strategies
How can we compare the efficacy of traditional asset-weighted strategies (e.g. 20%, 40%, and 60% equity/bond strategies), vs these risk-weighted strategies?
One approach would be to compare the efficacy of risk-based strategies vs asset-based strategies from the perspective of 1) capturing equity returns, whilst 2) providing “true” diversification as measured by decorrelation impact (the reduction in correlation relative to global equities).
In summary, the findings are that a Risk Parity strategy captured a similar level of equity returns as a 40% equity strategy, but with almost twice the level of decorrelation, meaning it delivers far greater “true” diversification relative to an asset-weighted strategy with similar return profile.
Over the 5 years to December 2020, a 40% Equity strategy captured 44.3% of global equities annualised returns and delivered a correlation reduction of -22.3%. By contrast, a Risk Parity strategy captured 48.5% of global equity reutrns, and delivered a decorrelation of -44.8%, relative to global equities.
So for portfolio constructors looking to deliver “true” risk-based diversification, whilst maintaining exposure to risk assets for the potential for returns, incorporating a risk-based strategy such as Risk Parity, Max Deconcentration, or Min Variance could make sense depending on portfolio risk budgets and preferences.
For full quarterly performance update, open as pdf
[5 min read, open as pdf]
Tech performance is skewing cap-weighted indices
The run up in technology stocks and the inclusion of Tesla into the S&P500 has increased both sector concentration and security concentration. The Top 10 has typically represented approximately 20% of the index, it now represents 27.4%.
The chart below shows the Top 10 holdings weight over time.
Rather than looking just at Risk vs Return, we also look at Beta vs Correlation to see to what extent each strategy has 1) not only reduced Beta relative to the market, but also 2) reduced Correlation (an indication of true diversification). Strategies with lower Correlation have greater diversification effect from a portfolio construction perspective.
Ironically, the last time the index was anything close to being this concentrated was back in 1980 when IBM, AT&T and the big oil majors ruled the roost.
From a sector perspective, as at end December 2020, Information Technology now makes up 27.6% of the index.
Increased concentration reduces diversification
This level of concentration is indeed skewing indices that rely on a traditional market capitalisation-weighted (cap-weighted) methodology, and does therefore reduce diversification.
But the issue of the best performing stocks getting a larger weighting in the index, is not an accident of traditional index design. It’s its very core. Cap-weighted indices reflect the value placed on securities by investors, not the other way round.
We should not therefore conflate the debate around “active vs passive” investment approaches, with the debate around index methodology.
If portfolio managers are concerned about over-exposure to particular company or sector within a cap-weighted index, they can either chose an active, non-index fund, that is not a closet-tracker. Or they can access the target asset class through an alternatively weighted index, which uses a security weighting scheme other than market capitalisation.
Using cap-weighted indices is an active choice
The decision to use a fund that tracks an cap-weighted index is an active choice. And for those seeking differentiated exposure, there is a vast range of options available.
We categorise these into 3 sub-groups: Style, Factor-based and Risk-based.
How have US equity risk-based strategies fared?
Risk-based strategies have been in existence for some time, so we are able now to consider 10 year data (to December 2020, in USD terms). In terms of risk-adjusted performance, Managed Risk index strategies have fared best, whilst Min Variance has delivered higher returns for similar levels of risk of a Max Diversification strategy. Meanwhile Equal Weight has actually exhibited greater risk than traditional cap-weighted approach.
In this respect, Equal Weight (Max Deconcentration), also disappoints delivering higher beta and >95% correlation. Likewise Min Variance, whilst delivering on Beta reduction, does not deliver on decorrelation. Max Diversification delivers somewhat on decorrelating the strategy from the S&P500, but only modestly, whilst Managed Risk achieves similar decorrelation, reduced beta and better returns. Finally Risk Parity 10% Volatility cap has delivered most decorrelation as well as beta reduction.
For more information about the indices and funds used to represent these different strategies, please contact us.
There are a broad range of alternatives to cap-weighted index exposures. But consideration of style-, factor- or risk-based objectives will necessarily inform portfolio construction.
Find out more
For more insights and information on research, portfolios and indices, visit:
www.elstonsolutions.co.uk or NH ETF<Go>
[3 min read, open as pdf]
Growth shock is short and sharp
The medium-term outlook for growth points more to a “short sharp shock” rather than a protracted downturn that followed the Global Financial Crisis. However vigilance around economic growth, and ongoing dependency on vaccine rollout, fiscal and monetary policy support remains key.
Even lower for even longer interest rates
Even lower for even longer interest rates underpins an accommodative strategy to support recovery: but also has created frothiness in some asset classes.
Low nominal and negative real yields is forcing investors into refocusing income exposures, but should not lose sight of quality.
Inflation in a bottle: for now
Inflation caught between growths scare on the downside and supportive policy on the upside. Should inflation outlook increase, nominal bond yields will be under greater pressure and inflation-protective asset class – such as equities, gold infrastructure, and inflation-linked bonds can provide a partial hedge.
Trade deal with EU should reduce GBP/USD volatility
The 11th hour trade deal concluded in December between the UK and the EU should dampen the polarised behaviour of GBP exchange rate, with scope for moderate appreciation, absent a more severe UK growth shock.
Market Indicators: recovery extended
Market indicators suggest equities are heading into overbought territory and whilst supported by low rates and bottled inflation, are looking more vulnerable to any deterioration in outlook. Incorporating risk-based diversification that adapts to changing asset class correlations can provide ballast in this respect.
With respect to 2021 outlook
Compared to traditional retail funds, ETFs offer transparency, liquidity and efficiency
[7 min read, Open as pdf]
In this series of articles, I look at some of the key topics explored in my book “How to Invest With Exchange Traded Funds” that also underpin the portfolio design work Elston does for discretionary managers and financial advisers.
Indexes: the DNA of an ETF
An Exchange Traded Fund is an index-tracking investment fund that aims to track (perform exactly in line) with the benchmark index in the fund’s name. The index defines an ETF’s “DNA”.
An index is a collective measure of value for a defined group of securities, where criteria for inclusion and weighting within that group are defined by a systematic set of rules. Indices can represent a basket of equities like the FTSE 100 Index (the “Footsie”) or a basket of bonds like the FTSE Actuaries UK Conventional Gilts All Stocks Index (the “gilts” index). Indices can be used as benchmarks to represent the performance of an asset class or exposure. ETFs aim to track these benchmark indices by holding the same securities in the same weights as the index.
Whilst ETFs can be an equity fund or bond fund (amongst others) with respect to its underlying holdings and the index it tracks, the shares in those ETFs trade on an exchange like an equity.
This means ETFs combine the diversification advantages of a collective investment scheme, with the accessibility advantages of a share, all at a management fee that is substantially lower than traditional active funds. These features make ETFs easy to buy, easy to switch and easy to own, revolutionising the investment process as well as reducing investment costs.
Indices enable transparency
ETFs are regulated collective investment schemes (often UCITS schemes) that can be traded on a recognised exchange, such as the London Stock Exchange.
Whereas the manager of a traditional active fund aims to outperform an index such as the FTSE 100 by overweighting or underweighting particular securities within that index or holding non-index securities, an ETF aims to deliver the same returns as the index by holding within the fund the same securities as the index in the same proportion as the index.
If the index represents a basket of securities weighted by their respective size, it is a “Capitalisation-weighted index”: this is the traditional index approach.
If the index represents a basket of securities weighted by a criteria other than their respective size, it is an “Alternatively-weighted” index. For example, an equal weighted index means all the securities in an index are given an equal weight.
 UCITS: Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (the European regulatory framework for retail investment funds)
ETFs track indices, and indices have rules. Index rules are publicly available and set out how an index selects and weights securities and how frequently that process is refreshed. Indices therefore represent a range of investment ideas and strategies, but codified using a rules-based approach. This makes ETFs’ investment approach transparent, systematic and predictable, even if the performance of securities within the index is not.
Furthermore, ETFs publish their full holdings every day so investors can be sure of what they own. This makes ETFs’ investment risks transparent.
The investment risk-return profile of an ETF is directly link to the risk-return profile of the index that it tracks. Hence ETFs tracking emerging market equity indices are more volatile than those tracking developed market indices, which in turn are more volatile than those tracking shorter-duration bond indices.
As with direct shares, traditional active mutual funds and index-tracking funds, when investing in ETFs, capital is at risk, hence the value of investments will vary and the initial investment amount is not guaranteed.
ETFs vs traditional funds
An ETF is different to other types of investment fund in the following ways:
The primary advantage of ETFs is the additional liquidity that a “secondary market” creates in the shares of that ETF (meaning the ability for investors to buy or sell existing shares of that ETF amongst themselves via a recognised exchange). However it is important to note that ultimately the liquidity of any ETF is only as good as its underlying assets.
Traditional mutual funds can be traded once a day and investors transact with the fund issuer who must buy or sell the same amount of underlying securities. Fund issuers have the right to “gate” funds and refuse to process redemptions to protect the interests of the broader unitholders of the fund. If this happens, there is no secondary market for shares/units in the fund. Recent examples of “gating” include UK property funds after the Brexit vote and strategic bond funds as interest rates expectations rose.
By contrast, Exchange Traded Funds can be traded throughout the day and investors generally transact with each other via the exchange. If necessary the fund issuer must create (or redeem) more units to meet demand and then buy (or sell) the same amount of underlying securities. Whilst, the liquidity of the fund is ultimately only as good as the underlying assets, there is, however, additional liquidity in the secondary market for shares in the fund which can be bought or sold amongst investors. For example, there have been circumstances when some markets have closed, and the underlying shares aren’t traded, the ETF continues to trade (albeit a premium or discount to Net Asset Value (NAV) may appear owing to the inability of the ETF to create/redeem units when there is no access to the underlying shares) and indeed becomes a vehicle of price discovery for when the market eventually reopens.
As regards fees, whereas funds have different fee scales for different types of investor based on share classes available, the fees on ETFs are the same for all investors meaning that the smallest investors benefit from the economies of scale that the largest investors bring.
Whilst the active/passive (we prefer the terms non-index/index) debate grabs the headlines, it is this targeted acces to specific asset classes, fee fairness and secondary market liquidity that makes ETFs so appealing to investors of any size.
A summary of similarities and differences of ETFs to other types of fund is presented in the table below:
From the table above, we see how, ETFs offer the combined functionality of a collective investment scheme with the flexibility and access of an exchange traded instrument.
Ways to use ETFs
We see three key applications for ETFs in portfolio construction: “core”, “blended” and “pure”.
Using ETFs for a core portfolio means creating and managing a core asset allocation constructed using ETFs, with satellite “true active” fund holdings for each of the same exposures in an attempt to capture some manager alpha at a fund level. This enables a portfolio manager to reduce partially the overall client costs without forsaking their hope of higher expected returns from “true active” non-index fund holdings for each exposure.
Using ETFs for a blended portfolio means creating and managing an asset allocation constructed using ETFs for efficient markets or markets where a portfolio managers may lack sufficient research or experience; and active funds for asset class exposures where the manager has high conviction in their ability to deliver alpha from active fund or security selection. For example, a UK portfolio manager with high conviction in UK stock picking may prefer to access US equity exposure using an ETF that tracks the S&P500 rather than attempting to pick stocks in the US.
Use of ETFs for a pure ETF Portfolio means creating and managing an asset allocation constructed using ETFs entirely. For example, a portfolio manager looking to substantially reduce overall client costs without compromising on diversification is able to design a portfolio using ETFs for each asset class and risk exposure.
Fig.3. Illustration representing core, blended and pure approaches to ETF adoptio
Who uses ETFs and why?
ETFs are used by investors large and small to build and manage their portfolios. As well as providing low cost, diversified and transparent access to a market or asset class, the liquidity of ETFs namely that 1) they only invest in liquid securities that index-eligible and 2) the ETF can itself be bought or sold between market participants means that investors can adapt their portfolio in a timely basis, if required.
Put differently traditional funds are one of the few things in the world that you can only sell back to the person you bought it from (the fund issuer), and that fund issuer has the right to say no.
Furthermore, the dealing cycles for traditional funds are long. If you want to sell one to buy another, it could take 4-5 days to sell and 4-5 days to buy. An 8-10 day round trip is hardly timely. In the meantime you may be out of the market, which could dramatically impact performance, particularly in periods of extreme volatility.
By contrast, ETFs are designed to be tradable on a secondary market via an exchange, and can be bought and sold between market participants on the same day without the fund manager’s involvement. This means that if investors want to alter their risk posture to respond to changing events, they can do so instantly and effectively if required.
ETFs have therefore grown in popularity as a core part of institutional and retail investor’s toolkit for portfolio and risk management.
[2 min read, open as pdf]
A Factor-based approach to investing
Factor-based investing means choosing securities for an inclusion in an index based on what characteristics or factors drive their risk-return behaviour, rather than a particular geography or sector.
Just like food can be categorised simply by ingredients, it can also be analysed more scientifically by nutrients. Factors are like the nutrients in an investment portfolio.
What are the main factors?
There is a realm of academic and empirical study behind the key investment factors, but they can be summarised as follows
The different factors can be summarised as follows:
Which has been the strongest performing factor?
Momentum has been the best performing factor over the last 5 years. Value has been the worst performing factor.
Fig.1. World equity factor performance
Source: Elston research, Bloomberg data
A crowded trade?
Data points to Momentum being a “crowded trade”, because of the number of people oerweighting stocks with momentum characteristics. This level of crowdedness can be an indicator of potential drawdowns to come.
Fig.2. Momentum Factor is looking increasingly crowded
Source: MSCI Factor Crowding Model
The best time to buy into a Momentum strategy has been when it is uncrowded – like in 2001 and 2009, which is also true of markets more generally. MSCI’s research suggests that with crowding scores greater than 1 were historically more likely to experience significant drawdowns in performance over subsequent months than factors with lower crowding scores.
Fig.3. Factors with higher crowding score can be an indicator of greater potential drawdowns, relative to less crowded factors
Source: MSCI Factor Crowding Model
Rotation to Value
The value-based approach to investing has delivered lack lustre performance in recent times, hence strategists’ calls that there may be a potential “rotation” into Value-oriented strategies in coming months as the post-COVID world normalises. But can factors be timed?
Marketing timing, factor timing?
Market timing is notoriously difficult. Factor timing is no different. To get round this, a lot of fund providers have offered multi-factor strategies, which allocate to factors either statically or dynamically. Whilst convenient as a catch-all solution, unless factor exposures are dynamically and actively managed, the exposure to all factors in aggregate will be similar to overall market exposure. This has led to a loss of confidence and conviction in statically weighted multi-factor funds.
Factors help break down and isolate the core drivers of risk and return.
For more on Factor investing, see