Investing has never been more like a trip to the theme park. Our Multi-Asset Solutions team look back at markets in 2019 – before looking ahead.

We recently reviewed the Neutral Asset Allocation (NAA) for the CFS Multi-Asset Real Return Fund; an exercise that is undertaken twice a year. This note summarises the key drivers of investment markets over the most recent six month period and outlines the changes made to the NAA following this most recent formal review. 

Financial markets provided plenty of thrills and spills over the past few months. At times, investing felt rather like a trip to a theme park. 

A helter skelter ride for bond yields

The experience for bond market investors was something like a ride on an old-fashioned helter skelter. Like an excited child heading up those long staircases, US Treasury yields climbed step by step throughout 2018; breaking through the 3.20% level  in the fourth quarter. What a view from the top. This was the highest Treasury yields had been since 2011 – surely, it was just a matter of time before they conquered 3.50% and beyond?

Figure 1: 10 year treasury yields 

Source: Bloomberg, 1 January 2018 to 20 May 2019.

In fact, they seemed to suffer from altitude sickness as yields spiralled rapidly downward, seemingly out of control. Like a hessian sack on a polished slide, this was a fast one-way ride to the bottom that left investors a little light headed. Anyone with a short duration bias in their bond portfolio might even have experienced a nasty bump when they hit the ground. By May 2019, Treasury yields had slid as far down as 2.12%, which is very close to lows of 2017. 

As we have seen so many times before, the direction of global bond markets set the tone for sentiment towards other asset classes. The recent sharp downturn in global bond yields was a reflection of the widespread deterioration we were seeing in economic data at the time. In most regions, a broad range of leading indicators suggested the pace of growth was likely to decelerate sharply. Manufacturing data was worsening in both Europe and Asia, for example, and various surveys implied the US economy may be coming off the boil following a period of stellar growth.

Equities: The big dipper

Similar wild rides were playing out in equity markets and the oil price. Both resembled big dippers over the past six months – at times, investors saw the whites of their knuckles as genuine fear took hold. Faced with the prospect of slowing economic growth, global stock markets plunged towards the end of 2018. The oil price plummeted as growth forecasts were slashed. By late December WTI Crude was around US$42 a barrel, having traded above US$75 less than three months earlier.

Figure 2: Equity and oil markets

Source: Bloomberg, 1 January 2018 to 20 May 2019.

There were some unexpected twists and turns to come on this particular rollercoaster. As well as the general deterioration in economic data, inflationary pressures were moderating globally and CPI remained below target in almost all major regions. In turn, investors started to suggest that monetary policy settings might not be tightened as much as had previously been anticipated. As recently as late 2018, consensus expectations suggested the Federal Reserve would raise US interest rates twice during 2019 and most investors expected policy settings to be tightened in Europe and potentially in Japan.

These opinions shifted considerably and also quite quickly. In early 2019, investors increasingly pared back their expectations for policy tightening globally, most notably in the US. Those earlier forecasts for two rate hikes were quickly downgraded to one, and then to none. In fact, some commentators suggested economic conditions were deteriorating so substantially that policy settings might even need to be eased. In March, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve confirmed what markets had been saying for several weeks; that US interest rates were unlikely to be raised this year.

This significant reversal in policy was the catalyst for a strong and sustained rally in equity markets in the first quarter of 2019. Investors welcomed the prospect of global interest rates remaining low as accommodative policy settings are generally perceived to be supportive of equities and other risk assets. Like a rollercoaster slowing as it approaches the station, equity investors have had a much smoother ride recently – by April, a renewed sense of calm had returned to stock markets globally. Oil regained its poise too, recovering almost all of its earlier lost ground. 

Political developments spooked investors at times 

After the high and lows of the big dipper we move to the next ride, the ghost train, resembling the political background which remained as dark and murky as ever. There were plenty of oohs and aahs to spook investors, not least the threat of an intensification in the global ‘trade war’ – specifically the likelihood of additional tariffs being introduced on goods imported into the US. Dialogue between US and Chinese officials continued and while updates on the discussions have been encouraging, no firm agreements have been made so far. The US President also threatened additional tariffs on European goods – quite a frightening prospect for auto makers and other large exporters in the region. The introduction of further import tariffs being introduced remains a key risk for markets; those already implemented have had a meaningful adverse influence on trade volumes in Asia, in particular, and have provided as a drag on growth.

At the same time, political tensions continued to bubble away just beneath the surface in Italy. Relations between the new government and European Union officials remain strained, particularly around Italy’s potential fiscal deficit that might contravene EU rules. The Italian economy has dipped into recession following two consecutive quarters of contraction. There has been a sharp slowdown in France too and political stability has been rocked by the emergence of the populist ‘yellow vest’ movement. In April, French President Macron was forced to offer tax cuts to dampen the unrest. This was another reminder of how unexpected developments can have serious implications for major economies and, potentially, financial markets.

The political background in emerging markets remained somewhat unpredictable and perilous. In Brazil, for example, important economic reforms proposed by new leader Jair Bolsonaro struggled to pass through Congress. Elections have just been held in India, Turkey and South Africa and Argentineans will go to the polls later this year. Given crises in emerging regions have often been linked to political cycles, international investors will continue to scrutinise the policies and progress of newly-elected leaders.

In Australia, the key event was the unexpected outcome of the general election, with the Coalition claiming victory. Markets cheered the defeat of Labor’s wide-reaching tax and policy reforms, which were widely considered to be market unfriendly.

A bruising ride on the UK bumper cars

Of course, no trip to the theme park would be complete without a ride on the bumper cars. The ongoing Brexit debacle provided exactly that. The drivers of the cars – UK politicians and other key stakeholders in the process – continually changed direction, zig zagging around and banging into one another at every turn. The original target date for the UK to withdraw from the European Union in late March came and went without an agreement being reached, effectively forcing European leaders to agree to an extension of the deadline.

UK economic activity slowed in the last quarter of 2018 due to a big decline in investment spending. This was due to a drag on trade due to ongoing Brexit uncertainty and slowing global demand. Ongoing Brexit uncertainty will continue to weigh on the economy, even with a tight labour market pushing the unemployment rate to a 44 year low of 3.8%.

Keeping our feet on the ground

While volatile market conditions can be daunting for investors, fluctuating valuations present opportunities as well as risks. Managing these risks diligently and systematically is central to the Fund’s investment philosophy. As well as targeting returns that are consistently above inflation, the Fund seeks to minimise drawdowns and preserve investors’ capital. It’s important to keep our feet firmly on the ground, even as the sights and sounds of the fairground fill the air around us.

With more than two decades’ experience managing multi-asset portfolios, we know there’s no crystal ball. So you won’t find us in the clairvoyant’s tent. Instead, we will continue to implement the Fund’s established and  methodical NAA investment process and then amend positioning through the Dynamic Asset Allocation (DAA) process as and when opportunities present themselves. 

CFS Multi-Asset Real Return Fund: Neutral Asset Allocation as at May 2019

Equities
 

Exposure to equity markets increases by 5% following the most recent review – a mix of Australian and overseas shares continues to account for half of the Fund’s NAA. Both have performed well over the past six months, but conditions appear to remain supportive and we believe equity markets can make further progress in the months ahead. Global GDP forecasts have been revised a little lower, but global growth of more than 3.0 per cent this year should nonetheless help underpin investor sentiment. Listed companies continue to benefit from relatively low funding costs and it appears unlikely that interest rates will be increased in key regions. In turn, solid profitability  should enable companies to reward investors with reasonable dividends as well as the prospect of capital growth.

Credit

At 14%, allocation to investment grade credit remains unchanged. Encouragingly, corporate earnings are holding up well – in the US, for example, most results releases for the March quarter were ahead of, or at least in line with consensus expectations. Corporate bond issuers are comfortably able to meet their debt repayment obligations currently and default rates remain low. With inflation under control and bond yields under downward pressure in key regions, risk free rates are expected to remain subdued. The additional yield pickup from credit markets could therefore remain appealing. Income seeking investors have continued to allocate to the asset class since the beginning of 2019. Spreads have narrowed substantially in the past few months, but remain well below their lows from early 2018. The main risk is that economic data softens or that unexpected macro events cause a seismic shift in sentiment, which could put valuations under pressure again. 

Within emerging markets, the Fund’s investments in hard currency bonds have been reduced to 5%. Returns have been supported recently by the strength of emerging market currencies versus the US dollar, but we question the sustainability of the rally and have taken the opportunity to lock in the majority of the profits from this exposure. Sentiment towards emerging markets is notoriously fragile – this certainly appears to be the case currently, with trade-related concerns continuing to cloud the outlook for emerging economies that are typically reliant on export demand for growth. As mentioned earlier, changes to geopolitical sentiments are likely to hit emerging markets but the relatively higher carry, along with the diversification benefits warrants an allocation, therefore, a small allocation has been retained. 

Government bonds

The reduction to emerging market bonds has been reallocated into short-dated Australian government bonds. Following this move, Australian government bonds now account for more than a quarter of the Fund’s NAA. Inflationary pressures have moderated sharply, pushing CPI well below the RBA’s stated range of 2%-3%. Australian bond yields have fallen sharply against this background as investors have tempered their expectations for rates and in fact reflected multiple cuts in the official interest rates through 2019. With inflation in a downward trend and activity levels in the domestic economy continuing to be affected by softer consumer sentiment on the back of a softening housing market, we believe there is scope for yields to go lower still in the very near term. The NAA is currently targeting a zero allocation to overseas government bond markets, where expected returns remain low and relatively unappealing for a product of this type.

The NAA currently has moved to a zero allocation to commodities. The oil price has been particularly volatile over the past six months and gold has made positive progress. At times, the Fund has made dynamic allocations to the latter as a hedge against volatility in other asset classes and retains a qualitative allocation at the time of this piece going to print. The Fund maintains a strategic allocation to cash, which can be deployed when attractive  investment opportunities present themselves.

A summary of the changes outlined above and confirmation of the Fund’s updated NAA is provided below.

Forecasting returns from the various asset classes continues to suggest that NAA alone is unlikely to deliver the Fund’s performance objectives. As such, DAA will continue to play a key part in the risk we take in the portfolio, and as a driver of total returns going forward. Taking into account shorter-term market dynamics and valuations, the DAA process complements the Fund’s longer-term, strategic NAA. DAA positioning can deliver additional returns and help mitigate portfolio risks, such as tail events. By adding this return source (alpha), we increase the likelihood of achieving the Fund’s long-term objectives.

How do we determine the right mix of NAA (beta) and DAA (alpha)?

Based on our assumptions for the economic climate, and our expected returns, we can determine the likelihood of meeting the portfolio’s investment objective over the investment horizon. It is becoming increasingly likely that relying solely on the NAA in a constrained longonly, unlevered environment will not be sufficient to meet the return objectives. This is where we use our DAA process to take into account shorter-term market dynamics to deliver additional returns and abate portfolio risks, such as tail events. By adding an uncorrelated return source (alpha) we can improve the portfolio’s likelihood of meeting the investment objective.

The combination of NAA and DAA requires the consideration of the current allocations; as the extent to which active management may be used is managed through the portfolio’s risk budget to avoid unwanted additional risks. We consider both the tracking error (as well as other risk metrics) and the expected return, in assessing the portfolio’s ability to meet its investment objective. The ability to add scalable alpha to portfolios provides flexibility to deliver on the investment objective; even in a lower return environment. In this lower return environment, by allowing the blending of alpha and beta strategies to be more dynamic within the framework described above, we still have the potential to deliver on our client’s investment objectives.

In the current low return environment it is critical to have the flexibility to blend beta and alpha to deliver a real return of 4.5% for the Fund over five year rolling periods before fees and taxes. Our investment process and philosophy provides our clients the highest possibility of obtaining a real return, with the current outlook making our DAA paramount.

Why Colonial First State Global Asset Management?

Our investment strategy blends the qualitative views and experience of the team with the discipline and rigor of quantitative analysis resulting in a flexible approach to design and implementation of investment portfolios. Investment decisions are taken with respect to the overall portfolio objective, unconstrained by conventional benchmarks or fixed asset allocation.

Our flexibility to blend alpha and beta strategies is a key differentiator and essential to deliver on the investment objective over time. Risk management is integral to our investment process. We continually seek to balance the trade-off between upside potential (meeting our investment objectives) and downside risk (capital loss), which we believe can generate consistent results.

Important Information

This material has been prepared and issued by First Sentier Investors (Australia) Limited (ABN 89 114 194 311, AFSL 289017) (Author). The Author forms part of First Sentier Investors, a global asset management business. First Sentier Investors is ultimately owned by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc (MUFG), a global financial group. A copy of the Financial Services Guide for the Author is available from First Sentier Investors on its website.

This material contains general information only. It is not intended to provide you with financial product advice and does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before making an investment decision you should consider, with a financial advisor, whether this information is appropriate in light of your investment needs, objectives and financial situation. Any opinions expressed in this material are the opinions of the Author only and are subject to change without notice. Such opinions are not a recommendation to hold, purchase or sell a particular financial product and may not include all of the information needed to make an investment decision in relation to such a financial product.

CFSIL is a subsidiary of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Bank). First Sentier Investors was acquired by MUFG on 2 August 2019 and is now financially and legally independent from the Bank. The Author, MUFG, the Bank and their respective affiliates do not guarantee the performance of the Fund(s) or the repayment of capital by the Fund(s). Investments in the Fund(s) are not deposits or other liabilities of MUFG, the Bank nor their respective affiliates and investment-type products are subject to investment risk including loss of income and capital invested.

To the extent permitted by law, no liability is accepted by MUFG, the Author, the Bank nor their affiliates for any loss or damage as a result of any reliance on this material. This material contains, or is based upon, information that the Author believes to be accurate and reliable, however neither the Author, MUFG, the Bank nor their respective affiliates offer any warranty that it contains no factual errors. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Author.

In Australia, ‘Colonial’, ‘CFS’ and ‘Colonial First State’ are trade marks of Colonial Holding Company Limited and ‘Colonial First State Investments’ is a trade mark of the Bank and all of these trade marks are used by First Sentier Investors under licence.

The product disclosure statement (PDS) and Information Memorandum (IM) for the Multi-Asset Real Return Fund - Class A, ARSN 161 207 165 (Fund), issued by Colonial First State Investments Limited (ABN 98 002 348 352, AFSL 232468) (CFSIL), should be considered before deciding whether to acquire or hold units in the fund. The PDS or IM are available from Colonial First State Global Asset Management which is the trading name for Colonial First State Asset (Management) Australia Limited ABN 89 114 194 311, AFSL 289017) (CFSAMA). CFSAMA is the investment manager of the Fund as at the date of issue of this material.