The value of your investments and the income from them may go down as well as up, and you could get back less than you invested.

Why pay the government for lending them money?

3 min read
Matthew Yeates, Head of Alternatives and Quantitative Strategy01 Oct 2020

Instead, look for alternatives.

As we all know, March saw equity markets tumble globally in a matter of weeks. Not too surprising. Unfortunately, every now and again equity markets fall sharply. The astonishing thing for me was that:

  1. I was watching markets move from screens perched on my dining table in Clapham
  2. At the peak of the equity drawdown, government bonds were falling in value at the same time
Our alternatives selection process is focussed on identifying assets that provide the sort of diversification bonds historically offered portfolios, without the downsides listed.

The first of those was not too much of a problem; I’d bought a posh coffee machine shortly before lockdown and technology made working from home relatively seamless. On the other hand, the second of those is a big problem for the “free lunch” that multi asset portfolios are built upon – diversification. Traditional balanced portfolios usually aim to deliver diversification by mixing equities for growth and bonds for their defensive properties.

When bonds fell at the peak of the equity selloff, it was hardly the defence many would have hoped for. However, as well as being expected to rise when equities fall, investors in bonds historically could have relied on a yield income as an extra layer of defence. Given market movements over the last few months and years, investors in most UK government bonds (gilts) now receive hardly any income at all. Even worse, the yield on some gilts has joined those in Europe and Japan by hitting negative territory. In some cases, you now have to pay the UK government for the honour of lending them money.

Now, unless you really went big on eating out in August and are feeling guilty about all those half price dinners and want to give something back to the government, many bonds now look like a fairly unattractive investment. 2020 has provided the proof that investors must now, surely, look further afield for diversification.

So where to look? At 7IM we have long been believers that alternative assets are part of the answer. However, this category of investments is vast and some come complete with all the characteristics you should definitely look to avoid where possible; high fees, illiquidity and complexity.

Our alternatives selection process is focussed on identifying assets that provide the sort of diversification bonds historically offered portfolios, without the downsides listed above. In practice that means avoiding things like direct property, fine art and wine, and instead focussing on strategies in more liquid markets (no pun intended).

At 7IM, our “other” basket is composed of global real estate investment trusts (REITs) and a mix of liquid alternative strategies. The REITs offer diversification, liquidity and growth through exposure to the global property cycle. The liquid alternative strategies allocation that we have constructed brings defensive characteristics to portfolios, whilst still providing returns above inflation.

Our liquid alternative strategies also include assets such as a commodity “long short” strategy which buys and sells commodity contracts for delivery for different time periods in the future. It does this by looking for the contracts that are cheapest to hold. Contracts for delivery in the coming few months tend to be both the most expensive and the most volatile – this is also where factors such as storage disruptions can impact prices the most.

In April this year this asset did very well with short-term contracts even turning negative. Companies literally had to pay others to take oil off their hands - they had nowhere left to store it! For the first three months of 2020, this commodity “long short” strategy made almost 30% through selling those contracts that were falling most.

This type of strategy is invested in liquid markets meaning it is low cost to implement, and is an example of the assets we like to hold within our alternatives allocation.

Investing in alternatives isn’t easy, but for us it is another way of making sure our portfolios are as truly diversified as possible. With bond yields having hit negative territory, investors globally face the prospect of materially lower investment returns unless they take action. For those using our model portfolios and funds, our alternative strategy is another part of our expertise you gain access to.

Unless you’re one of the guilt-ridden August eat-outers, carefully considered alternatives offer a more sensible way to invest, rather than continuing to rely solely on bonds for your diversification.

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