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What are “Real Assets”?
Real Assets can be defined as “physical assets that have an intrinsic worth due to their substance and property”. Real assets can be taken to include precious metals, commodities, real estate, infrastructure, land, equipment and natural resources. Because of the “inflation-protection” objective of investing in real assets (the rent increases in property, the tariff increases in infrastructure), real asset funds also include exposure to inflation-linked government bonds as a financial proxy for a real asset.
Why own Real Assets?
There are a number of rationales for investing in Real Assets. The primary ones are to:
Accessing Real Assets
Institutional investors can access Real Assets directly and indirectly. They can acquired direct property and participate in the equity or debt financing of infrastructure projects. Directly. For example, the Pensions Infrastructure Platform, established in 2021 has enabled direct investment by pension schemes into UK ferry operators, motorways and hospital construction projects. This provides funding for government-backed project and real asset income and returns for institutional investors. Institutional investors can also access Real Assets indirectly using specialist funds as well as mainstream listed funds such as property securities funds and commodities funds.
Retail investors can access Real Assets mostly indirectly through funds. There is a wide range of property funds, infrastructure funds, commodity funds and natural resources funds to choose from. But investors have to decide on an appropriate fund structure.
The rise of real asset funds
The first UK diversified real asset fund was launched in 2014, with competitor launches in 2018. There is now approximately £750m invested across the three largest real asset funds available to financial advisers and their clients, with fund OCFs ranging from 0.97% to 1.46%.
Following the gating of an Equity fund (Woodford), a bond fund (GAM) and several property funds for liquidity reasons, there has – rightly – been increased focus by the regulator and fund providers (Authorised Corporate Directors or “ACDs”) on the liquidity profile of underlying assets.
As a result, given their increased scale, real asset fund managers are increasingly turning to mainstream funds and indeed liquid ETFs to gain access to specific asset classes.
Indeed, on our analysis, one real assets funds has the bulk of its assets invested in mainstream funds and ETFs that are available to advisers directly. Now there’s no shame in that – part of the rationale for using a Real Assets fund is to select and combine funds and manage the overall risk of the fund. But what it does mean is that discretionary managers and advisers have the option of creating diversified real asset exposure, using the same or similar underlying holdings, for a fraction of the cost to clients.
Creating a liquid real asset index portfolio
We have created the Elston Liquid Real Asset index portfolio of ETFs in order to:
We have built the index portfolio using the following building blocks
As regards asset allocation, we are targeting a look-through ~50/50 balance between equity-like securities and bond-like securities to ensure that the strategy provides beta reduction as well as diversification when included in a portfolio. For the index portfolio simulation, we have used an equal weighted approach.
Fig.1. Performance of the Liquid Real Asset Index Portfolio (.ELRA)
Source: Elston research, Bloomberg data. Total returns from end December 2018 to end September 2020 for selected real asset funds.
Since December 2018, the Sanlam Real Assets fund has returned 19.99%, the Elston Real Asset Index Portfolio has returned +19.76%. This compares to +5.86% for the Architas Diversified Real Asset fund and +0.16% for the Waverton Real Assets Fund.
What about Beta
Our Real Asset Index Portfolio has a Beta of 0.75 to the Elston 60/40 GBP index so represents a greater risk reduction than Waverton (0.86) and Sanlam (0.84), which are all higher beta than Architas (0.53).
Fig.2. Real Asset strategies’ beta to a 60/40 GBP Index
Source: Elston research, Bloomberg data. Weekly data relative to Elston 60/40 GBP Index, GBP terms Dec-18 to Sep-20.
Finally, by accessing the real asset ETFs directly, there is no cost for the overall fund structure, hence the implementation cost for an index portfolio of ETFs is substantially lower.
Fig.3. Cost comparison of Real Asset funds vs index portfolio of ETFs
Source: Elston research, Bloomberg data
Fund or ETF Portfolio?
The advantage of a funds-based approach is convenience (single-line holding), as well as having a a manager allocate dynamically between the different real asset exposures within the fund.
The advantage of an index portfolio is simplicity, transparency and cost. Creating a managed ETF portfolio strategy that dynamically allocates to the different real asset classes over the market cycle is achievable and can be implemented on demand.
The purpose of this analysis was to note that:
 Source: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/realasset.asp