Dec 31

Random Thoughts on Cryptocurrencies at a Random time of the year

I’m writing this on Boxing Day and unlucky me is recovering from Covid for the second time in 2022 (Week 1 and Week 52) and during this first sentence I think I have sufficient energy to write a few thoughts on cryptocurrency…so here it goes…

Two or three years ago I was on stage at an investment conference and was asked about the viability of investing in Bitcoin. And I think its worth adding that this has been one of the most frequently asked questions of me over the last few years. I responded along the lines that it was an asset without cashflows, similar to gold, but unlike gold there is nothing tangible behind it, underneath it, or anywhere else … so basically you are buying a lot of nothing for what appears to me to be a fairly high and somewhat random price that makes little sense. Given my belief that Bitcoin is nothing, it didn’t appear an appropriate investment for portfolios … or at least not appropriate unless you are prepared to lose all of your money for the possible trade-off of continued irrational positive price momentum versus my perception that it is actually nothing. Of course, the value of cryptocurrencies skyrocketed after that making me look a little silly … even if I didn’t believe it did.

Since that conference, I have come to learn that cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, are not “nothing”. In fact, at their most basic, cryptos are potential currencies where various risk-taking individuals, companies, and even one country (that I’m aware of) do have trust in them and are prepared to accept cryptos as legitimate currency. But, as we have seen for a number of years now, cryptos are so price volatile that they are not particularly “good” currencies as a “good” currency should not be (too) volatile. Any currency that is too volatile means you have little idea what your true purchasing power is today let alone tomorrow and in some countries high currency volatility has often led to the collapse of their local currency (and they’re often, at least temporarily, replaced by the world’s reserve currency, US Dollar).

Whether a good currency or not, because they lack cashflows (or an associated interest rate) it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine a valuation of crypto. This is largely because assessing the value of any cryptocurrency is an exercise in valuing a purely intangible asset … which is similar to valuing currencies such as US Dollars, Euro, etc. except at least you can receive a known interest rate for holding different currencies. Either way, valuing an intangible asset may be absolutely fine except for one very major thing. That intangible value is probably not much more than trust …. and unfortunately for them, cryptos are not currently accepted as currencies by governments (particularly the big governments that matter …e.g. USA, China, Europe, et al.). So, their intrinsic value is significantly diminished by the lack of trust by governments. To me, this also results in an intrinsic value that should be valued less than government issued currencies. So if $1USD in Cash has the same purchasing power today of 1 crypto-dollar (whether bitcoin, dogecoin, or whatever), the crypto-dollar should actually be worth less than $1USD because of its higher price volatility (proxy for risk) and the existing lack of trust in crypto compared to $1USD.

OK … but what about the most powerful and probably most overlooked characteristic of cryptocurrency that to be fair, it has been a major selling point since the start … i.e. the value of decentralized transactions? That is, cutting out the fee gauging middleman … whether banks, lawyers, financial advisers, exchanges, et al. The blockchain, that cryptocurrencies are built on, allows “secure” (as far as I know) peer-to-peer transactions that bypass the banks (& other middlemen) and go direct to the payee’s account … meaning potentially fast, cheap transactions. Brilliant! … there has to be value in that. And it also means secret transactions as there is no reporting by the middleman to the tax department (or other government departments). However, as appealing as secret transactions are, this secrecy and decentralisation is likely part of the trust problem that cryptos have, because governments can’t see the transaction occurring…so it appears its major benefit (decentralized finance) actually adds to it’s major problem (lack of trust).

That said, decentralisation and “secret” transactions does mean crypto’s intrinsic value should always have some value as these characteristics are somewhat appealing to many (particularly the black market and/or criminals) where lack of transparency for governments is and always will be very attractive. So, whilst I suggested that cryptocurrencies were a whole lot of nothing … that’s not really true, as there is some intrinsic value or benefits for many.

Oh yeah … I’ll take this opportunity to clear up a potential misperception … this opaque, potentially cheap, peer-to-peer transaction is all due to the blockchain which is the “secure” technology making cryptocurrency possible … but it’s essential to understand that when you buy cryptocurrency, you are not buying the blockchain technology, you are merely a temporary passenger in the blockchain transport (or transaction) system and there is no ownership of blockchain. At the end of the day (or transaction), when you buy cryptocurrency, you are buying stuff that is not trusted by governments, has limited value, but provides the potential for cheap peer to peer transaction (and anecdotally I hear it’s not that cheap but I’ll leave that for others to decide).

So what has happened recently. Well, this latter half of 2022 we have started to see a few nefarious outcomes of this crypto craze. The cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, has gone bankrupt likely owing billions, with several of its executives likely to go to jail for many years due to alleged fraud. FTX’s problems have flowed into other crypto businesses that are likely to go bankrupt given FTX owed them money, not to mention the many crypto investors that used FTX and now have lost a lot of their assets. In Australia we have seen the closure of several crypto managed funds, including some who thought they could run a fund without a license (AFSL). And there’s a lot more blowing up in crypto land that I don’t have the energy to write down today. Anyway … I have to point out the obvious … all of these crypto disasters just mentioned are the middlemen!!! The very participants in the finance world that cryptocurrency was supposed to rid us from … i.e. exchanges, managed funds, advisers, et al. Instead of ridding us from middlemen, crypto has done the complete opposite and brought in more middlemen including quite a few dangerous ones. Why? This cryptocurrency bubble appears to have increased the crazy, unethical, immoral, middlemen because there is little to no regulation; Because cryptocurrency investors generally think the price always goes up; Because cryptocurrency was perceived to have so much value when the likely reality is that it is just an expensive, volatile peer-to-peer transaction system, built on a peer-to-peer blockchain system (except the high energy required bit) that not too many fully understand or yet trust.

Sadly, cryptocurrency has been mis-sold as a currency or asset that will always appreciate. It has little to no trust as a legitimate currency, has little intrinsic value as an asset, and from what I can tell and frequently hear (so happy to be wrong on this last part), requires way too much energy and risk to the planet to mine new coins. And now it looks like its appearance on the finance websites of the world is coming to an end. All of that said, there will be much to learn from the recent cryptocurrency experience as it has brought a number of finance problems to light (e.g. high middlemen costs, transaction costs, et al.) and has flirted with some solutions. For those out there looking to buy crypto because they perceive them as cheap, I believe it is best to avoid; and for those who are looking to sell, it may be best to cut your losses (or take the gains) and go. But then, what do I know … I certainly didn’t predict its ascendancy.

Disclaimer … I do not know your personal circumstances so this should not be accepted as financial advice and is simply an opinion that may or may not be appropriate for your personal circumstances (which I think I just mentioned that I did not know!)

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Jun 06

Investment Philosophy … a short primer

Everything I do in my day job is in one way or another a function of the investment committee. My roles vary from governance oversight as Chair, keeping consultants and portfolio managers on their toes as an investment specialist independent member, or perhaps I am the consultant who provides advice on portfolio design including asset allocation and investment selection. For each of these roles, my job is definitely easiest when the Investment Philosophy is well-defined.

Believe it nor not, each of the investment committees I work with have different investment philosophies, but not only that, some of these investment philosophies … well … aren’t really philosophies at all. I’d say they’re closer to secondary objectives … except without the measurement that makes a good objective. What a poor Investment Philosophy often results in are investment portfolios at increased risk of losing their way … because they don’t really stand for anything or anything that is well defined. Now over the short term, that may be ok as a portfolio may still produce strong performance, but if they don’t perform … well … there is likely some explaining to do, and I would prefer to rely on an evidence supported, well-defined investment philosophy, that the investor is in agreement with.

What is an Investment Philosophy?

In short, it is a set of investment beliefs about what type of investing works … and by “works”, I mean is likely meet stated objectives, whether those objectives are to outperform a particular market by z% or achieve x% pa over a minimum of Y years. According to Drew & Walk (2019), the investment beliefs are the “guiding principles for investing”.

Famous investment philosophies include “Value Investing” of Warren Buffet and Jeremy Grantham; “Index Investing” of John Bogle’s Vanguard, et al. The evidence supporting “Value investing” may include the numerous academic studies that show buying cheap stocks tend to outperform the market over long periods of time. Evidence behind “Index Investing” requires belief that markets are efficient or perhaps the frequently published surveys showing most investment strategies underperform their respective market after adjusting for the market risk and fees.

These examples are quite simple, but they do follow some fundamental steps as defined by Aswath Damodaran:

  1. There is a belief about how human’s learn
  2. There is a belief about how markets behave, and
  3. You devise strategies that reflect these beliefs

So if we return to Value investing, the market belief that cheap stocks outperform expensive ones (say on a PE Ratio basis), may be due to human error in overpaying for growth. So the strategy a Value investor employs to capture that is to buy low PE Ratio securities and avoid, underweight, or short expensive high PE Ratio securities. If the implemented strategy is anything but that … well, the strategy has some alignment issues which should raise a red flag.

So returning to my initial concern, which is the less than perfectly defined investment philosophy. The most common I see is a statement along the lines of, and let’s call it Exhibit A, “We believe that investors wish to maximise returns whilst minimising downside risk. As a result our portfolios are designed with benchmark unaware strategies that have the flexibility to allocate to cash or defensive securities to reduce loss potential in times of stress”.

You may be thinking that Exhibit A seems quite logical…and it is. But it is definitely not an investment philosophy. The first statement in Exhibit A about what investors want is not a belief but an unmeasured objective … “maximise returns whilst minimising downside risk”. Because it is not measured, that even makes it a poor objective. As an objective, perhaps it should be rewritten with words to the effect of, “Our portfolios aim to have risk-adjusted returns in excess of comparable appropriate benchmark over rolling x years”, or all of that plus a statement about “…lower drawdowns than the market”.

The second part of Exhibit A simply states the investment strategy, which is an active non-benchmark aware approach. A strategy is also not an investment philosophy as it is not a belief, but is an articulation as to how it may achieve the objective. But why do we believe this strategy will achieve the objective? We don’t because this is where the Investment Philosophy comes in. With all of that said, and despite these statements not articulating an investment philosophy, there does appear to be one lurking beneath the surface.

Firstly, the fact the objective and strategy are looking to outperform a market or benchmark, means there is the belief that markets are inefficient and it is possible to produce positive alpha. To minimise downside risks or have a lower drawdown than the market, suggests that active market timing, whereby cash allocations could be increased before a downturn, or superior security selection that does not expose the portfolio to the same downturn as the market, can achieve this.

So, without going into what type of investment management, it appears the investment philosophy should be along the lines of … Exhibit B … “We believe that markets are inefficient and our portfolio managers have the skill to take advantage of these inefficiencies, outperform markets using their market timing and/or security selection skill, and protect on the downside”. The evidence supporting this is the next issue that requires addressing … perhaps it could be a track record, or a style of investing with a track record that reflects this, but either way, if you have an investment belief, make sure the portfolio reflects that belief, and if not, its either a problem with the belief or the strategy, but rest assured it is a problem that will be uncovered one day.


Damodaran, Aswath. Investment Philosophies, – extracted 6 Jun 2022

Drew, ME and Walk, AN (2019), Investment Governance for Fiduciaries, CFA Institute Research Foundation

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Jun 28

A Few ESG Investment Thoughts

ES Investing

Possibly the biggest trend in investing today is the shift towards ES investing. No, that’s not a typo because it is the E (Environmental) and S (Social) factors of ESG investing that are experiencing the greatest focus as humankind faces existential threat from climate change (i.e. E) and numerous social issues, whether racism, sexism, corporate culture, et al, are getting the attention they deserve because, let’s face it, there is some bad behaviour that has persisted for way too long that needs to change. We’ll come back to the G (Governance) a little later.

Right now, Investors around the world are leading the thinking and action about climate change, whilst many governments are lagging (and we Australians don’t have to look very far). Whilst governments around the world fight about what year they want to reach net zero emissions and hang onto the fossil fuel industry in order to salvage some votes for the next election (and I promise I’m not just thinking locally), investors are allocating their dollars to companies which are already positioned for the future (think Tesla) and sending strong messages making it difficult to fund potential “dirty” companies (think Adani).

Dual Objective

When we construct investment portfolios, one of the first questions we ask is around the objective. This is generally in terms of return (e.g. CPI plus x% or to exceed a benchmark) but for the ES investor, the investment objective is a dual objective which is part quantitative and, somewhat unusally, part qualitative.

The quantitative objective remains the same or similar to always, and that is to achieve optimal investment return given defined constraints (For the ES investor these constraints include redefining the investment universe based on various defined ESG requirements). However the qualitative objective is about “the greater good” where there is hope and intention of changing the behaviour of individuals, corporations, and governments. Changing global behavour for the greater good is the ultimate goal of ES investing. Please note, this article doesn’t intend to go into the detail of what these behaviours should be but they are obviously about changing the current path of climate change, increasing diversity in the workplace, improving human rights in a range of scenarios, et al.

So what are the potential consequences of this dual objective?

Changing Global Behaviour

Capital markets are particularly good at changing bad or unwanted behaviour. It does this by simply increasing the cost of capital. If a company wants to raise capital for an unpopular purpose (e.g. Adani raising capital for its Queensland operations where many believe it could be damaging to the Great Barrier reef), investors will simply refuse to invest such that the company in question will have to increase its cost of capital (whether by increasing promised interest rates if raising debt or reducing its share price on offer if raising equity), until enough investors feel the additional return is attractive enough to provide the required funding. For some ES investors, this may seem hypocritical (i.e. owning a badly behaving company) so sometimes ES-focused investors will hope to change behaviour via direct engagement with management and the board. One limitation to direct engagement is that it generally requires massive investment to be effective however this does appear to be where companies like BlackRock, PIMCO, and other large fund managers are looking to make a difference.

Expected Return Dilemma

You may have already worked out that by increasing the cost of capital of a badly behaving company, by definition, means it now has a higher return expectation compared to a well behaving company (assuming all else equal). This may also mean, and perhaps naively, that badly behaving companies have lower valuations than well behaved companies. This return expectation difference creates a dillemma as it may compromise the return objective of the ES investor and for advisers who are speaking to their clients about ESG investing this must be part of the conversation. That is, the likelihood of underperformance by investing for the greater good may be higher than investing in the alternative … so ideally, the “greater good” should be the higher priority objective.

Many may argue that higher valuations for strong ESG rated companies means they have greater growth potential, as opposed to the lower rated companies, and this is definitely a reasonable possibility. Secondly, many existing ES investors would be currently exposed to the momentum of strong capital flows and would have seen strong investment returns that are supporting their investment thesis.

Possibly the company that encapsulates this momentum and high return experience is Tesla which has provided 5-year investors an average annual return of over 75%pa. Of fundamental concern may be that Tesla is yet to generate strong or consistent profits, and currently trades on a PE ratio of around 670. To justify this valuation requires massive revenue and earnings growth in the face of increasing competition and many must be wondering how much share price growth is truly available for a company’s whose market capitalisation is already around 650billion US dollars. On the flipside to the clean energy focused Tesla, we have fossill fuel dominant companies trading on low PE Ratios. So whilst Tesla has a PE Ratio of over 600 with revenues around 35billion USD, Toyota, Honda, and the recently ESG-challenged Volkswagen trade on PE Ratios that average around 10 to 12 with combined revenues of over 600 Billion USD at ~70% of Tesla’s market capitalisation (~460 Billion USD). This momentum and return potential for Tesla may continue, but there are clearly some future share price growth risks and also relative to some fossill fuel dominant car companies.

ES Investing will be G

So looking ahead there is little doubt that ES investing will continue … because it is the right thing to do and the consequences of doing nothing may be catastrophic. It is the right thing for the planet, and equality is the right thing for all people. This will ultimately mean that governments will get on board the ES train in a much bigger way than they have so far. As Governments observe this trend towards ES investing and the movements that go with it, they will increasingly shift their policies towards favourable ES outcomes. If they don’t, over time the people currently in power will lose their jobs and they certainly won’t want that. These shifts in policies mean that governments will ultimately change laws to stop or reduce bad E and S behaviours and also adding to badly behaving companies’ cost of capital with higher taxes, tariffs, et al. It may take a few more years yet but the E and S of ESG will likely fold into law such that ESG investing may morph int G investing as bad E and S practices will disappear under law.

Summary Thoughts

ES investing is the biggest trend in investing today and will continue for many many years to come until the governments around the world are in a position or forced to make stronger laws that radically change their behaviour and those of many corporations of today. Either way, investors will continue to lead the charge by increasing the cost of capital of the badly behaving corporations but this may come at the cost of lower relative returns over the long run as expected returns for badly behaving corporations may increase from higher cost of capital. Changing the cost of capital is how real change occurs on a massive scale, and this means investors must be prepared to alter their objectives such that the “greater good” becomes the primary objective over “expected return”. Of course, this may not happen but it is an important part of understanding the risks of ESG investing.

Of course, this leads to expectations of superannuation fund performance and particularly given the new mandated performance tests … but perhaps another day.

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May 22

Approaching the Zero bound

I’m always fascinated by the various changes in financial market behaviour and this economic lockdown has created some new behaviours in the cash or money markets not seen before (or that I’m aware of).

The chart below shows the performance of 3 cash benchmarks:

  1. RBA Cash Rate Target … currently 25bps (Green)
  2. RBA Cash Overnight Rate … currently 13bps (White), and
  3. 1 month Bank Bill… currently 9bps (Yellow)
Source: Bloomberg

Since the RBA announced its last 25bps cash rate decrease on 20 March, the RBA’s overnight rate has been trading at a much lower rate, whereas before, it traded at exactly the same level as the Cash target … at 13bps and almost half the target rate, this is a statement that 0% cash has a very strong chance … and negative rates are not out of the question at all.

An even stronger statement comes from the current price of 1 month bank bills that are trading at a record low 9bps…that’s 0.09%! With the exception of some very short term anticipation of the RBA lowering its cash rates, the 1-month bank bill rate has always traded at a premium to the RBA Cash (as far as I’m aware considering my 5 minute long term history chart check didn’t yield anything). The fact the RBA Cash Target is a premium to bank bills is another strong statement that zero rates are strong chance … and potentially negative … and bank bills are clearly not as strong a credit as the government.

So for those who think bond yields are too low and no longer offer protection, hopefully the recent pricing on these cash instruments provides some food for thought as this current record low interest rate environment may well be lower than you think and may well get lower than you think.

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Apr 24

Worry about Valuations??? … yeah, a bit …

The biggest market in the world, often represented by the S&P 500 index, crashed pretty quickly from 24 February reaching its bottom on 23 March. This fall, in US Dollars, was around 34%. Since then, it has bounced back by around 25% after almost 5 weeks … not a bad turnaround, but obviously not back to the pre-coronavirus crisis highs yet.

The following chart shows the current PE Ratio of the S&P 500 but going back to early 2008 which was near the start of the GFC recession.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I thought at the start of the year that unemployment in the US was heading towards 20%, China would produce a real GDP first quarter result of negative 10%, and the global economy would effectively be shut down and likely for a fairly unknown period, I wouldn’t have thought the current PE Ratio of the S&P 500 would be above its long-term average going back to the start of 2008. (Please ntoe, this is an arbitrary start date as opposed to a data-mined start date).

The current PE Ratio of the S&P 500 represents an earnings yield of 5.4% … I’m not sure that’s particularly appealing considering the enormous expected decline in some very unknown future earnings as well as the enormous market volatility we are still likely to experience (the Vix hasn’t been below 35 since this began!) … let’s face it, the risk is high and the earnings yield isn’t that flash.

Now, of course there has been a lot of US Government stimulus (let’s be super positive for the economy and expect $3 trillion this year) and the Federal Reserve has reduced rates and is undertaking some quantitative easing. But considering this stimulus probably equates to around 10% of the valuation in the S&P 500 at the start of this crisis … its doesn’t quite add up to justify an above average PE Ratio.

So, my guess is that the market doesn’t care about valuations very much any more and/or believes there is a V-shaped recovery coming, we’ll be back to normal, and back to good growth in no time. The market appears to shrug off the prospects of a 20% unemployment figure and its long term effects and we’ll be fine in no time.

Now I know this is all probably over-simplified analysis but then I do always to reduce my error by reducing the number of variables in my calculations … but I digress!

So what should we expect from sharemarkets? I have no idea but the risks appear quite high and the rewards appear … not so high … and it doesn’t make too much sense to me.

We all get things wrong all of the time and I certainly know I am no different. The old saying that the more I know, the more I don’t know has never been truer for me than now … and it kind of sucks. There are many variables that go into these markets and market behaviour appears to be getting more complex and nuanced all of the time. So should I back this view that markets are expensive and don’t justify their current valuations? … to a degree, but I have to keep an eye on the log term, know that markets can stay irrational longer than I can stay solvent, markets are smarter than me, and …

price momentum with news that is the opposite of my expectations is a powerful force and why I diversify.

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Mar 19

The decline of the Aussie … almost halved in value since July 2011

The above interactive chart shows what the latest crisis events have invoked on the Aussie dollar. At the time of writing trading around $0.57US which is down from a high in July 2011 around $1.10US … so almost half.

Unfortunately for our currency this is what happens when crises occur … investors run to the safe havens of the US Dollar, which is still the global reserve currency.

That said, considering Iron Ore is still high at around $100USD, there is strengthening potential … just our near zero interest rates serves as a brake.

Chart 2 – Iron Ore Prices in USD – since 2012 and to 19 Mar 2020 – 4pm AEST

Iron Ore - 19 Mar 2020

Source: Bloomberg

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Mar 19

RBA announces 3yr target of 0.25% and drops cash to 0.25% … & a very strange yield curve

Reaction to 3 year bond price in the first chart below … that’s still a 0.5% yield to maturity. So the RBA are saying they want 0.25% yield to maturity which is a high bond price but only  little bit of interest in the first 5 minutes or so off the bat.

3yr bond yield - Rba announcementSource: Bloomberg

A little bit later the following chart shows what the Australian Government Yield curve looks like. To me, this is bizarre (or an inefficient market).

It confirms what I believe is a complete mis-pricing at the longer end of the curve (see last post) … 10 year bond yields are now trading at 1.7% which appears way too high given the recession we are currently in … and the shorter end of the curve is heading towards the RBA’s 0.25% target where buying commences tomorrow on the 3-year bond. Currently (3.11pm ADST) the 3 year bond is yielding 0.34% so is on the way down from the initial 0.5% … as you’d expect.

Aust Gov Yield Curve - 19 March 2020Source: Delta Research & Advisory, Bloomberg

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Mar 19

Most markets are mostly efficient most of the time … maybe not so much now

Its clearly been a long time since I updated this blog and perhaps this current crisis makes most sense to make a comeback; particularly given I started this blog not long after the worst of the GFC (Jan 2009 to be precise).

Anyway, the current crisis has clearly required a global response to slow down the spread of COVID-19 because rapid global spread means the global health system collapses and many more people die, whether COVID-19 or anything else, than necessary. If the spread of COVID-19 continues to spread exponentially its only a matter of weeks before Australian hospitals will be unable to cope so here’s hoping we all take notice of our medical leaders and the spread slows sufficiently.

In terms of financial markets, the volatility across all markets is incredible, its horrible and includes some unexpected outcomes of which I’ll outline a few here:

  1. Gold hasn’t been the hedge to risk everyone expected … its down more than 7% in US Dollars and has performed worst in the wort of the equity markets

Gold USD - 19 Mar 2020
Source: Bloomberg

2. The 10 year Australian government bond (& other longer term Aussie bonds), is often an indicator of economic strength or weakness and has risen strongly over the last week or so … so much for its expected hedge to equity risk. Given Australia is facing its first economic recession since 1991 and given interest rates may be heading to zero, this is unusual and can only be explained by lots of foreign selling as the Australian dollar moves well below $0.60US.

Aust 10yr Bond - 19 Mar 2020Source: Bloomberg

3. If there is one industry where you would expect an increase in price during this horrible virus it is Healthcare. The following chart shows the MSCI World Health Care Index and its decline over the last month, whilst not as big as the MSCI World index, is still big at over 21% … this is possible some supporting evidence that diversification during stressed times can mean little within the asset class.

MSCI World Healthcare - 19 Mar 2020Source: Bloomberg

So the lesson from this is that just when you think your portfolio is diversified or you think you have picked the right bets at the right time, they still may move against your logic (or perhaps mine!). Many of us, thought bond yields would decline as equities decline, and perhaps gold would go up, and that a bet in the most in demand sector would be a sure thing … well it maybe not. Diversification across securities, sectors, industries, sectors, asset classes, currencies will be very important in these times but be very careful when it comes to making specific bets and ensure you stay within your risk budget.


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May 31

A Few Investment Selection Faux Pas

Over the years having worked in consulting and research I have been sent countless portfolios for opinion. Virtually all portfolios have followed a pre-defined asset allocation aligned to a specific risk profile but occasionally that is where the alignment ends. This is because the investments selected bear little to no relationship with their desired characteristics or asset class and the final portfolio ends up with risks and/or inefficiencies that may present more downside than expected or intended. This article touches on some of the more common and extreme examples that will hopefully be helpful in assessing your own portfolios.

Faux Pas 1 – Using Geared funds in Balanced Portfolios

This faux pas doesn’t just apply to “balanced” funds and applies to all portfolios where there is a significant defensive allocation to bonds and cash. The one exception is where cash is used for liquidity purposes as opposed to its otherwise defensive income characteristics.

From an asset allocation perspective, holding geared equity funds is the equivalent of holding an equity position of more than 100%, may be potentially 200%, plus a bond allocation that is negative such that it brings the net equity position back to 100%.

Having a negative bond allocation from gearing alongside the usual positive allocation of a balanced fund, not only may reduce the bond allocation to less than desired, it is also inefficient as the cost of borrowing is likely to be higher than the return on the bond allocation which is often dominated by low risk government bonds. If the bond allocation is cancelled by the geared allocation, the expected return on the net zero bond allocation may be negative!

For example, let’s say a 50% growth Asset Allocation portfolio has an allocation of investments that are 20% Cash, 30% Bonds, 20% Geared Equity Fund, 30% Equities. If the Geared Equity fund borrows $1 at 3.5%pa for every $1 invested (i.e. Loan to Value ratio of 50%), then the resulting asset allocation becomes:

  • Cash +20%
  • Bonds +30%
  • Cash/Bond allocation from Geared Equity Fund -20%
  • Total Cash/Bonds +30%
  • Equity allocation in Geared Equity Fund +40% (Two times 20%)
  • Equities +30%
  • Total Equities +70%

This results in a 70% growth asset portfolio and not the desired 50% hence creating greater risk than intended.

In terms of expected returns, if we assume a 2.5% long run expected return on Cash and 3% on Bonds, the expected return on the Cash/Bond allocation becomes:

(20%*2.5% + 30%*3% + -20%*3.5%)/30% = 2.3% … less than the expected return of Cash and Bonds!

Faux Pas 2 – Allocating High Yield Bond Funds to Defensive Bonds

We don’t often refer to high yield bonds as junk bonds nowadays but either way, below investment grade bonds, by definition, are not defensive. Chart 1 shows the comparison of default rates between investment grade and speculative Grade (non-investment grade), and whilst investment grade bonds have very few defaults, Speculative Grade bonds frequently have defaults of more than 1% to 2%, including almost 10% default rate as a result of the GFC in 2009.

Chart 1

From a performance perspective, the Bloomberg Barclays Global High Yield index, which broadly represents Global non-investment grade bonds, can often show equity like characteristics…usually in a down market. For example, during the worst performing calendar year of the GFC, this High Yield index (hedged to Australian dollars) returned negative 27.6% which was lower than the MSCI World which returned a negative 24.9%.
Given the dominance of equity risk on multi-asset class portfolios, one of the roles of the defensive asset class should be to cushion equity market risk. Unfortunately, during stressed equity markets, and not just the GFC, high yield bonds generally become highly correlated with equity markets and perform the complete opposite of what you would hope from a defensive investment. As Chart 1 shows, the worst years since 1981 for of Speculative Grade defaults were 1991, 2001, 2002, and 2009 … all associated with recessions and poor or stressed equity markets (Recession, Tech Wreck, and GFC).

Faux Pas 3 – Market Neutral Funds in Equity Asset Class

In terms of the effect on the portfolio’s asset allocation, this Faux Pas is the complete opposite of using Geared funds. That said, Market Neutral funds are a type of Geared Share fund, except instead of borrowing cash to invest, the market neutral fund borrows stock, but the same amount that it buys. This results is a net allocation to equities that equals zero. The fact that a market neutral fund, may implement their strategy in the Australian equities market (or US, or Asia, et al.) doesn’t make it representative of the Australian equities asset class. The asset allocation decision is expected to be a “long” market allocation decision (sometimes know as a beta decision).

Because the market neutral fund generally has a net allocation to its underlying asset class of zero, the return characteristics are more likely to resemble Cash plus Alpha, where Alpha represents the excess return of the fund’s long positions minus it’s short positions. If Alpha is greater than the fees charged then the return is likely to be Cash plus Alpha minus fees, otherwise the return will be less than Cash minus fees.

Charts 2 and 3 breaks up the risk of an Australian Equities focused market neutral fund and popular traditional active Australian equities fund show the proportion of total portfolio risk due to the Australian Market. As can be seen the Market Neutral fund bears has little to no Australian equities market (as defined by MSCI Australia) risk compared to the highly active long only Australian equities fund.

Chart 2 – Australian Equities Market Neutral Fund

Chart 3 – Popular Highly Active Australian Equities Fund

Because of this lack of relationship between the Market Neutral fund and the Australian equities market (or any market), the Market Neutral fund should generally be classified as an “Alternative”, as its Cash and Alpha performance outcome should be uncorrelated to Australian equities.

Final Thoughts

Having investments that don’t completely reflect their respective asset class is not always a problem. They may be playing specific roles to mitigate or capture desired risks. A high yield bond fund as part of the bond portfolio may be absolutely fine, as long as that bond portfolio does not play a purely defensive role to the equities portfolio and is positioned more as a higher income generator. A geared equities fund may be fine for a client, particularly for a high growth investor who has no long term defensive allocation in their recommended portfolio, or perhaps where the bond allocation is appropriately of the higher return/risk variety and therefore potentially earning more than the cost of gearing.

The key point to all of this is …. we are aware of the requirement to “know your product” but some of the riskier or more complex products will typically require a lot more analysis and understanding than the asset class source of their returns.

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Apr 27

From Asset Allocation to Risk Allocation


After capital market forecasts and assessing investor objectives, the current method for portfolio construction starts with the asset allocation decision followed by investment selection. In the Australian financial planning industry, it widely accepted that the asset allocation decision is responsible for most of the portfolio performance variability, and it is, rightly or wrongly, regarded as the most important investment decision. Asset classes are then populated with investments and the portfolio is recommended to a client.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem with this two-step approach. The investments chosen often do not reflect the required asset allocation and the asset allocation decision becomes compromised. This is because Asset Allocation is a “Market Beta” decision whilst the Investment Selection may introduce an “Alpha” component which can change the exposure to the desired asset classes. An investment manager looks to add value, loosely defined as “Alpha”, by designing portfolios that differ from the market. The size of these non-market bets may capture certain risks that are positively rewarded but it may also introduce unintended risks so that the final portfolio not only doesn’t represent the asset allocation, it might increase risks that result in a worse than market outcome in stressed times.

This portfolio construction problem can be summarised by the following equation:

Asset Allocation ≠ Investment Selection because Beta Alpha + Beta.

This problem can be solved in two ways:

  1. Remove the Alpha component of Investment Selection. This means the chosen investments are simply index funds that represent their respective asset classes. Many financial planners already do this, as they may believe markets are efficient and/or that active management does not add value amongst other reasons. This transforms the above equation to: Asset Allocation = Investment Selection because Beta = Beta
  2. Introduce a formal Alpha Allocation component to the process, changing the equation to be Alpha + Beta = Alpha + Beta. The goal is then to choose investments that specifically reflect the asset class and alpha allocation decisions.

This article discusses the introduction of the additional step of Alpha allocation and proposes one simple framework for its implementation. Considering today’ markets, whether bonds or equities, may be regarded as expensive with future (“Beta”) returns looking increasingly low, efficient purposeful Alpha allocation may become an essential component for adding that little bit of extra return.

Equity Risk matters most

The largest component of risk for all multi-asset portfolios comes from equity markets. It generally doesn’t matter whether a portfolio is 25% growth assets or 80% growth assets, most of the portfolio’s performance variability will come from equities. Therefore, active asset allocation approaches, must have greatest focus on the Equity Market allocation (or equity market Beta).

It’s often said when markets are running strongly, investors don’t really care whether they’re invested in index funds, benchmark-huggers, or highly active strategies. As long as they are receiving high returns they are likely to be happy. In strong markets, Alpha (or outperforming the market) matters less and it’s all about capturing the market (or “beta”).

Of course, when markets perform badly … investors don’t want “beta”, they want to be protected. They want uncorrelated assets, they want diversification away from equities risk, and they still want positive returns, and some clients may be more accepting than others, irrespective of their risk profile!

If equity markets are cheap, say based on simple, perhaps naïve metrics like Price/Book or PE Ratio measures, capturing equity market risk (or Beta) is desirable. On the other hand, if equity markets are expensive, well, it’s a lot more challenging.

But what if all asset classes have a weak return outlook and there appears little place to hide? This leads to an Alpha allocation (or non-market or specific risk allocation) decision.

Example Portfolio Construction Framework

Figure 1 shows one framework that can be used for allocating between Alpha and Beta which hopefully improves process around investment selection and their alignment to a formal view. In this context, Smart Beta (which are cheap systematic risks) are separated from pure “Skill” based Alpha allocation.

Figure 1 – Active Allocation Framework

Source: Delta Research & Advisory

It should be noted up front that this framework is no guarantee of success and is an attempt at putting probabilities in the investor’s favour. Active management success will always rely on good timing and assumptions coming true, and unfortunately there are never guarantees in investing.

This framework proposes the following deeper dive within each asset class with considerations of allocation to various alpha-driving risks:

  • Increased allocation to Alpha-focused strategies when equity markets are expensive
    • By definition the Alpha component of a strategy’s return is uncorrelated to the market (Beta) return so increasing Alpha potential when markets are expensive may be a simple, effective risk management strategy
  • Increased allocation to Beta-focused strategies (i.e. index or benchmark-hugging strategies) when equity markets are cheap
    • When markets are cheap, expected returns are high so diversification to markets matter less and capturing index returns can be best
  • Smart Beta (or Style/Factor biases have the potential for outperformance in all markets but it should be noted that factor timing is considered very difficult and different factors will perform better at different parts of the cycle.
  • If there are concerns about equity markets becoming stressed, some of the recent Risk Allocations that have provided some downside protection include:
    • Pure “Alpha” strategies focused on “market timing” and/or “security selection”. This may include Alternatives such as Hedge funds; or more specifically uncorrelated Alpha strategies such as Market Neutral or some Managed Futures strategies
    • US Dollars – this may be a currency hedging decision or could be a direct cash allocation using some ETFs. Often during stressed global equity markets, funds are flowing from the riskiness of equities to the safety of US Government bonds and cash. This increases the value of the US Dollar versus the Australian dollar. An unhedged Global equity position (which has a high proportion of US Dollars) can also be cushioned somewhat by this rising US Dollar.
    • Volatility – Volatility strategies do exist and are typically available via complex hedge funds, but equity market volatility increases during stressed times
    • Momentum – This is the “factor” that Managed Futures strategies generally capture and is largely about capturing the current trend. So for a downturn, like during the GFC in 2008, momentum capturing strategies can produce positive returns
    • Duration – This is interest rate risk. When equity markets are under stress, interest rates will sometimes decrease as equity markets are seen as a leading indicator to the economy. Declining interest rates means higher bond prices, but this applies to only the most secure or conservative bonds such as AAA-rated government bonds. Whilst Corporate bonds may have some duration risk, a stressed equity market often results in a declining corporate bond price as credit risk and equity market risk are generally highly correlated when you don’t want it to be.
    • Cash – This is the only asset class that can provide a buffer for a stressed equity market. Whilst Alternatives and Bonds can, it is only specific sub-classes of investment that may diversify the stressed equity market.

This simple framework provides a deeper dive beyond asset allocation, beyond market expectations, and towards some of the more specific risks that may be uncorrelated at certain times with the most important risk of all, equity market risk. Allocating to risks that provide greater diversification to an existing asset allocation, whilst no guarantee of superior return, hopefully provides for more efficient investment selection and fills a gap that has frequently created problems in the portfolio construction process … the asset allocation and investment selection mismatch.

Final Thoughts

Many pundits today see interest rates rising, decreasing bond prices, which may ultimately lead to decreasing equity valuations. All-in-all a recipe for lower asset class returns in the future. Many portfolios were not prepared for the GFC as they were chasing returns and had exposures that were considered defensive but ended up correlated with the equity market risk of 2007 to 2009. The GFC showed that asset allocation can fail, particularly if the investment selection is not aligned appropriately. This paper proposes an additional step that allocates to risks (non-market risks) depending upon equity market valuations. It proposes a step that provides a clearer recipe for investment selection. Whilst this does not provide guarantees of superior returns, it will hopefully provide greater diversification and improved ability to withstand volatility when its most needed and capture market returns efficiently.

Side note – It should be noted this framework requires the measurement of risks for investment and advisers frequently comment in various discussion forums of the inability to measure these portfolio risks. This is not true, and there are increasingly many more tools available for measuring and understanding the risks of investments available in Australia and they can definitely aid in building these more robust portfolios. And I’ll leave my conflict of interest at this point.

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