Works well but the downside needs to be managed
There is lots of client interest in alternative asset classes, mainly because bonds no longer provide enough income and because they are structurally vulnerable to inflation. This week, we demonstrate this it is possible to generate superior long-term returns by adding REITs to an actively managed portfolio of equities and bonds. The key messages are (1) that the combined portfolio needs to be actively and systematically traded and (2) that exposure to REITs must be properly constrained in order to avoid the savage drawdowns that are characteristic of this asset class. We also note that US REITs have performed very strongly this year, so now may not be the time to start this strategy.
Even the strong dollar is not as important as you think
Clients often ask whether they should incorporate a currency view into their asset allocation process, to which the short answer is No. Although we don’t normally publish it, we have a model which prioritises currency selection over asset class selection. There are times when it outperforms our standard model (and now is one of them), but over the long run it produces lower returns, with higher volatility and deeper and longer drawdowns. Two conditions are required for the Currency-First model to outperform – a global bull market in risk assets and easy monetary policy in the US. Neither one, on its own, is sufficient. If you believe the latest FOMC minutes, our standard asset class model should start to outperform again, sometime in the first half of 2022.
End of summer lull makes us cautious about big calls
We are always wary of making big calls on the basis of thin summer markets, so here are three quick ideas. First, Japan produced an important technical buy signal just before Prime Minister Suga announced his resignation. It is very similar to the one at the start of the Abenomics rally in 2012. Second, the recommended weight of US equities to the rest of the world is at a 10-year high and it does not normally hold this level for more than a month. Third, we think European industrials are out of line with US Industrials and potentially vulnerable.
Exposure to some sectors may be justified but timing is critical
Our recommended exposure to Chinese equities is effectively zero, but EM Equities (of which China is by far the largest part) are critical to the success of any global balanced portfolio. So, we have looked at individual Chinese sectors to see which ones have been the most successful diversifiers compared to their US counterpart. The good news is that it is easy to identify those which fail the test badly: Financials, Industrials, Telecom and Small Caps. The bad news is that only Technology has offered successful diversification over the whole of our test period, but now is not a good entry point. There may also be opportunities in Consumer Staples and Healthcare, but, again, we prefer to wait for a better entry point.
EM ex China has begun an interesting rally
We think it is time to take China out of the main EM equity indices. Some of the arguments made for its inclusion are no longer valid. It doesn’t make sense to have separate benchmarks for companies listed in China and Hong Kong. Separate indices for China plus Hong Kong and the rest of Emerging Markets would increase flexibility for all investors, not just those who no longer wish to have passive exposure to the current regime in China. Once we make the split, we can see that EM ex China has already begun an interesting rally.
Multi-asset diversification works, but hasn’t done so recently
Successful diversification using publicly-traded alternative asset classes, like commodities, REITs and TIPS is possible. We can select from a family of systematically-managed portfolios, which allow us to capture the upside of diversification and avoid most of the downside. However, the big takeaway from this process is that multi-asset diversification itself has been largely redundant since the end of the financial crisis, thanks to the actions of the Federal Reserve. Since that time there have been two false dawns, when it looked as though the concept was about to make a comeback and we may be on the verge of another one now. If it turns out to a real dawn, we have the regime management skills to exploit it. If not, we should be able to get out without too much harm.
We have a process. All we need is the upswing.
We know how to incorporate commodities into our asset allocation process. Over the last 25 years as a whole, our process would have generated significant outperformance on an absolute and risk-adjusted basis. This is achieved by systematically managing exposure to a limited number of commodities: oil, gold and copper only, and by actively managing a small number of other assets, spread across equities and fixed income. Passive exposures don’t work as well and too many assets create unnecessary and counter-productive complexity. The problem with including commodities is that US exceptionalism in equities, currencies and fixed income has made this strategy unattractive since 2010. If you think that this regime may be ending, it may be time to take another look at commodities.
US investors have few diversification opportunities in Europe
Eurozone equities may be cheap when compared to the US, but that’s not really important. Over the last10 years, US investors have never been able to generate a superior risk-adjusted return by diversifying into the Eurozone index, no matter what tactical allocation strategy they follow. The picture is marginally better if we look individual sectors over a shorter time-frame, but Japan and Asia ex Japan, do much better on this test.
Not with government bonds
Bonds don’t always go up when equities go down. In 2003, holding long-dated government bonds offset 50% of average local currency losses in developed equity markets. That ratio has fallen steadily in each of the following major sell-offs, 2009, 2016 and 2020. This year, it was effectively zero on average for the seven largest developed markets. For some countries, it was negative – i.e. bonds went down just when you needed them most.
And why does nobody like Japan?
Two weeks ago, we had the lowest number of net buying opportunities for individual countries since May 2000. It’s hard to be bullish about global equities as an asset class when there are so few leaders. Japan is one of just three countries which look attractive on our system, but nobody seems to care.