Pension Fund Perils: Why Conventional Pairing of LDI with De-risking Glide Paths Produces Inferior Outcomes
Combined use of traditional Liability Driven Investment (LDI) and funded status responsive de-risking strategies should be decoupled or rebuilt. Embedded inconsistencies in the treatment of risks in these two elements of what has become a popular pension strategy cause irreconcilable conflicts in their execution and imperils the positive pension fund outcome.
This article provides a critique of the combined LDI / De-risking Glide Path strategy as currently implemented by many pension plan managers and also provides an example of an alternative solution that better improves pension plan outcomes.
Approaches to pension risk management have passed though many phases over the past 40+ years. Higher rate environments of the 1980s made liability immunization programs with treasuries very attractive, but traditional 60/40 or balanced fund strategies persisted as the dominant strategy for pensions. As rates began their secular decline, funding levels continued to deteriorate and while liability-driven investing became popular again in the beginning of the new millennium, significant levels of underfunding prevented most pensions from fully matching their assets and liabilities. A variety of partial risk mitigation solutions began to emerge as the lower rate environment of the past 20 years forced institutional investors to be exposed to higher levels of market risk. New asset classes were introduced into pension plan portfolios in order to achieve higher returns and higher levels of diversification. Adverse market volatility was further reduced through creative solutions that incorporated smart beta and risk allocation strategies that delivered lower-volatility at similar levels of long term return. Other strategies sold liquidity back to the market in order to generate additional return in a low yielding environment. Some risk-based approaches also introduced interest rate derivative overlay programs to extend interest rate duration of total assets along with equity risk reduction programs to reduce equity market risk. Finally, de-risking glide paths – and ultimately liability risk transfer to insurance companies – became in vogue as companies continued to struggle with their asset-liability risk and found it expedient to pay insurance companies to assume the problem for them.
In recent years, much has been written about whether pension funds have sufficient assets to support their liabilities, and clearly the source of much of this angst is that…many of them don’t. One thing that is clear is that after decades of chasing new and creative solutions, the problem of underfunded pension plans is still here and the debate about who should manage the assets, and how they should be managed, continues with ever-increasing urgency.
This article represents our contribution to this debate, with a special focus on the asset allocation requirements for cost effective pension plan de-risking.
Two Shortcomings of Traditional LDI and De-risking Strategies, as Combined
Type of risk
At this point it is important to differentiate the assets that function as liability hedges and those assets that better assist with the process of de-risking as the plan glides towards a fully hedged status. Long duration bonds function as the best hedge for the liabilities, and as the plan’s funded status improves and the de-risking process proceeds, the allocation to bonds increases. While bonds and bond-like derivatives are a core staple of liability-driven investing (LDI) strategies, for most underfunded plans that have a goal of full funding with some help from asset performance it is economically infeasible to allocate 100% of the assets to the liability-matching portfolio. A gradual increase in bond assets over time as funding status increases is part of the de-risking asset allocation process. This is an important distinction between LDI and the process of de-risking. If the liability-matching assets allow the plan to better lock in the current funded status level, then it is only the remaining assets that allow that plan to reach the next funded status threshold in order for the plan to de-risk further. Traditionally, these non-LDI assets are exposed to a significant amount of equity beta, as the long-term expected compensation from taking equity risk is positive. While it is thought to be true that, in the long term, equity beta risk is well compensated, the trouble is that in the shorter time horizon of de-risking process the equity beta is very much dependent on market valuations that are not related to the valuation of the pension liabilities. Therefore, it becomes a tactical rather than a strategic decision to hold equities for a de-risking plan.
While all pension models focus on longer-term horizons, pensions in a de-risking mode have a much lower risk tolerance in the short term. This has caused many pensions to allocate assets to a variety of alternative investments in order to diversify away from equity beta risk. However, this practice also introduces other risks to the plan, some of which are illiquidity, currency, and/or additional credit default risk. So there is an inconsistency: while pension funds are known for taking the very long view when it comes to illiquidity, if the sponsors are pursuing an LDI/de-risking strategy the additional illiquidity is counterintuitive, given the objective to be dynamic and nimble in the de-risking process.
But assuming that potential illiquidity is at least somewhat of a concern to a pension fund manager, then the Hobson’s choice between equity risk or illiquidity likely means that underfunded pension plans that are pursuing joint LDI/de-risking strategies are still carrying too much equity beta risk, or are slowing down the de-risking process while equity risk is mitigated through other less liquid investments, or both. Pension fund managers and their advisors sense this, but tend to reach a type of asset allocation compromise where pension returns may be less optimal and de-risking results are less effective.
So if equity beta isn’t desirable as unrelated to the liability, and illiquidity of many other alternatives make them less-desirable for dynamic rebalancing into LDI assets, what is the most effective way to replace the equity beta for a de-risking plan? What other forms of beta and/or alpha are appropriate in aiding in the process of de-risking? From the standpoint of Markowitz efficient frontier generation, risk is a function of return variance and the covariance of the returns of the eligible portfolio elements. Beyond that, to the optimization routine risk is risk. That is, it doesn’t matter whether the risk comes from beta or from alpha. From the standpoint of the de-risking process, when it comes to the non-LDI assets or return generating assets, alpha is preferred to most beta since alpha is more process-dependent as opposed to market-dependent. In the shorter-term horizon of de-risking, non-LDI beta introduces more risk. So our only choice seems to be some combination of liquid alpha and/or well compensated liquid beta that has some correlation to liabilities. This particular beta may be different from how the liability matching or LDI assets are invested and doesn’t need to match the performance of the liabilities, but should have a positive correlation with liability performance. That’s a tall order.
Some of the more publicized alpha alternatives are hedge funds, private investments in equity or debt of corporations, or real estate. We don’t intend to dive into the merits and disadvantages of these or other alternative investments on a stand-alone basis but will only superficially observe their fit in a de-risking framework. Many hedge funds return as much beta as alpha – indeed, the fact that there are successful hedge-fund replication techniques is virtual proof that many hedge funds are actually beta masquerading as alpha. The obvious visual correlation between hedge fund returns and equity returns, too, should make one suspicious that hedge funds are a pure source of alpha (see Chart, source Bloomberg, comparing the HFRI Fund of Funds Composite Index to the S&P 500).
While those hedge funds or private investments that have a higher correlation to fixed income beta may benefit plans with a long time horizon, they suffer from varying degrees of illiquidity, which impedes the de-rising process as previously discussed.
While there may be other examples for a better alternative, we can provide one strategic example that better fits the combined LDI / de-risking criteria we have discussed in this article.
The Better Alternative
We have addressed above the type of risk that pension funds do not want to have. But it behooves us as well to point out one type of risk that pension funds really ought to have, and yet tend to be underinvested in: inflation exposure, or more accurately real interest rates.
There is a competent literature about the importance of inflation-linked assets to the pension plan. Importantly, inflation-linked assets are relevant even if the pension benefits are not themselves inflation-linked, since for most pension plans the formula which links the work history of active participants to their future retirement benefits implicitly means that pension benefit accruals for a particular employee are higher the more that employee earns. Since wages generally rise at least partly because of inflation, this implies that any pension fund with active participants still accruing benefits does in fact have some inflation exposure.
But the importance of inflation to the pension plan goes beyond that liability-side insight. Additionally, pension assets are exposed to inflation – and, especially, large changes in inflation – because on the asset side the majority of the assets of most plans are invested in equities and nominal fixed-income. Both of these asset classes are terribly exposed to increases in inflation, especially when inflation rises above 3-4%.
We can go still further. While the effects just mentioned are well-established in the literature, one additional benefit from owning inflation-linked assets has not been discussed as far as we can tell, and that is this: the relative value of inflation-linked bonds, compared to nominal bonds, is related to the business cycle and/or level of interest rates level in the same way that corporate spreads are – but without default risk. The chart below (source: Bloomberg data) highlights the connection between credit spreads and 10-year breakevens. This is important because for most pension funds, the relevant interest rate for discounting liabilities is not the risk-free Treasury rate, but a risky corporate rate; therefore, the liability has credit spread risk and an asset that co-moves with credit spreads – especially without actually having credit risk – is valuable.
In our opinion, given a choice between equity beta and inflation/real rate beta, there is no choice: inflation-linked assets are clearly the more valuable risk for a pension fund to own.
Now, pension plans that are pursuing de-risking along with LDI are typically loathe to replace equity risk, given its advantage (over a full cycle, although not necessarily at any given point) in expected return, with real interest rate risk. But inflation-linked markets have an additional benefit, at least in 2017 – they are inefficient, and produce myriad opportunities to generate alpha along with their useful beta. Indeed, we have designed an investment strategy that addresses all of these requirements:
- Historical return commensurate with equity returns, with slightly lower total risk
- Beta from inflation-linked bond markets, which is relevant to pension fund liabilities
- Risk sourced from useful beta, as well as alpha
- Implied credit spread exposure, without actual credit risks, which is relevant to pension fund liabilities
- Superior liquidity to “alts” such as real estate, private equity, or hedge funds – which is more consistent with the de-risking mandate
We call this strategy “Enhanced Systematic Real Return.” In a nutshell, this strategy holds the combination of inflation-linked bonds and breakevens that most efficiently adds inflation protection for a given level of interest rates, and adjusts these proportions based on the richness or cheapness of inflation-linked bonds to capture additional alpha.
Magnitude of risk
After determining a different, if not more efficient risk vehicle for the non-LDI assets we now turn to the discussion of how much of this risk should be taken at every point of the glide path. Should the risk allocation to return generating risk assets (i.e non-LDI assets) only depend on the dollars allocated to these investments or should the risk allocation be independent of dollars allocated and vary based on the level of leverage and/or asset composition?
Not All Risk is Bad
As we have already alluded, prudent risk has some place in the management of a pension fund on a glide path. Yet, as with the villain in the black hat, we have been conditioned to look at the word “risk” and recoil. But not all risk is bad. Certainly, with LDI approaches risk is a negative – after all, the goal of LDI is to maximize the funded status (difference between assets and liabilities), subject to a limit on the maximum volatility (risk) of the funded status. In that construction, there is no doubt that risk is bad, or anyway that less risk is better. But risk is not necessarily bad for de-risking.
This seems counter-intuitive. If we are trying to remove risk, doesn’t that imply that risk is bad? Yes – as we just said, risk is bad for the LDI-driven mandate. But the plan that takes less risk has fewer opportunities to reach de-risking thresholds. That is, the more that you de-risk the longer the next increment of de-risking takes. In this context, it is actually helpful to retain more rather than less risk in the non-LDI assets at each de-risking step.
Here is an analogy from basketball: consider the player who constantly heaves up three-point shots. He shoots a lower percentage from beyond the arc, and so the variance of his scoring is quite a bit higher than his variance shooting short jumpers or layups. Let us suppose that on average, he scores the same amount per game whether he shoots three-pointers or short jumpers. In an asset management context, we would say that this is a “non-optimized” shooter. He should aim for the same average scoring with lower volatility, right?
Now let us suppose that in a particular game, this player’s team is down by 18 points in the final quarter. The coach sends the player onto the court. If this coach is from the pension industry, he instructs his shooter to take only safe shots, because that is how he maximizes his Sharpe Ratio. But if this is actually a basketball coach, he orders his player to take as many three-pointers as he can. Why? He does this because in this situation, risk is good. A strategy of only taking safe shots is guaranteed to lose in this context; only a highly-volatile strategy has a chance of working.
In the same way, prudent addition of volatility as the plan is de-risking helps to de-risk a plan that is under water. So we can see that there is a tension here, and one that is routinely ignored in most LDI/de-risking plans: more volatility is helpful for de-risking, but hurtful inasmuch as it departs from the LDI mandate to maximize the return/risk tradeoff for the funded status. This leads to the phenomenon that is common today, of “hurry up and wait.” As we noted previously: the more that a fund has been de-risked, the longer the next increment of de-risking takes. Each reduction of the proportion of return generating assets to total assets significantly increases the average time until the next de-risking point is reached, as the table below, illustrates:
This is problematic. By de-risking, this plan is becoming too conservative as it approaches being fully funded. We can show that the plan reaches a fully-funded status more quickly when it prudently avoids full de-risking. What happens when we allow leverage, and maintain the total portfolio risk even as the bond allocation increases at each trigger? The following table shows the significant result:
Combining the Right Type, and the Right Magnitude, of Risk
When the pension plan pursues a strategy that focuses on risks sourced from alpha and the “right kinds” of beta sources that will tend to match the liability, and de-risks in a way that recognizes that some risk helps the de-risking task, then the combined result can be powerful. The chart below (Source: Enduring Intellectual Properties, Inc) compares this new approach with the “classic” LDI plus de-risking approach. The dashed lines represent the “classic” approach, while the solid lines represent an approach that uses our “Enhanced Systematic Real Return” strategy as a substitute for the equity risk of the traditional strategy. In each case, this imaginary pension fund starts year zero at 60% funded, and liabilities grow with the Bloomberg/Barclays/Lehman U.S. Long Government/Credit Index. Also in each case, the top line represents the 90th percentile outcome of the Monte Carlo simulation; the bottom line represents the 10th percentile, and the middle line represents the median outcome.
There are several facets of this chart worth noting.
Importantly, observe how the median outcome line is linear with our approach, but flattens out with the traditional de-risking approach. This phenomenon is the visual counterpart to Tables 1 and 2; it illustrates how the closer one gets to being fully funded with a traditional glide path, the slower the funded status converges. Our approach, as highlighted in Table 2, is designed to remove that effect. The benefits of that approach aren’t only felt on the median outcome, but are apparent on every path as the funded status moves above 75%.
Also, observe that the superior “good” outcomes aren’t “paid for” by much worse “bad” outcomes. After all, we could have had even better “good” outcomes if we took lots of extra risk. But in that case, the benefit would have come at a price, and we would see it manifesting in much worse “bad” outcomes. The outcomes here are actually skewed to the positive side.
Finally, although you cannot tell this from the illustration, you should know that this simulation assumes that stocks and bonds have expected returns that are somewhere near their historical mean returns. Unfortunately, presently this seems a generous assumption for the traditional approach. It seems more likely that, going forward, pension plans which are invested heavily in equities will be drawing from a distribution with worse-than-average characteristics due to the high starting valuations. Ditto, of course, for fixed-income…but at least bonds affect both sides of the LDI equation.
LDI and de-risking glide paths can be combined under certain conditions, but current implementation practices create inconsistencies in how risks are treated and do not facilitate achievement of strategic goals.
Asset beta risks that do not match liability beta risks are useful only in a tactical setting, and then only if they are associated with exceptional returns (that is, the market is cheap tactically).
More effort is required to search out new sources of liquid alpha and beta that facilitate the de-risking process. We have produced one that we believe is useful in this context.
As the plan de-risks along the glide path, the level of risk in the non-LDI assets should be adjusted to preserve a quantum of variance that is useful in the de-risking process, as opposed to just mechanically adjusting allocation dollars in a simple glide path.
 Milla Krasnopolsky is an investment strategist and investment manager. Milla held previous positions as a Managing Director of Fixed Income Markets and Strategic Solutions at General Motors Asset Management and as a Principal and Senior Investment Consultant at Mercer Investments. Michael Ashton is the Managing Principal of Enduring Investments and CEO of Enduring Intellectual Properties, Inc.
 For the iconic example, see Siegel and Waring, “TIPS, the Dual Duration, and the Pension Plan” (Financial Analysts Journal, September/October 2004).
 Remarkably, the myth that common stocks confer some inflation protection has survived decades of contrary experience, both before and after Zvi Bodie’s classic “Common Stocks as a Hedge Against Inflation” (Journal of Finance, Vol. 31, No. 2, May 1976), in which he concluded forcefully “The regression results…leads to the surprising and somewhat disturbing conclusion that to use common stocks as a hedge against inflation one must sell them short.”
 The 10-year simple “breakeven” is merely the yield difference between the 10-year nominal Treasury yield and the 10-year TIPS real yield; it represents roughly the amount of future inflation at which an investor would be indifferent between the two types of bonds.
 It would be inappropriate to discuss the fine details of this strategy in a thought piece such as this. However, we thought it important to point out that demand for a solution with these characteristics is not hopeless or uninformed. There does exist at least one such solution, and probably others!
 This idea isn’t exactly alien in finance: if you own an out-of-the-money option, a higher implied volatility increases your delta while if you own an in-the-money option, a higher implied volatility decreases your delta. It’s just alien in pension fund management.
 Both Table 1 and Table 2 represent simplified examples where LDI hedging assets and pension liabilities are proxied by the same long-duration bonds, and future pension contributions are excluded from the analysis.
 Table is based on a Monte Carlo simulation of a pension fund that begins with the indicated funding status and allocated as shown until it reaches the next de-risking trigger. Returns for stocks and bonds are simulated; the correlation from the last five years is used. The importance of the table isn’t derived from the precision of the assumptions, but from the illustration of the increased difficulty in reaching the next de-risking increment when the fund is already de-risked substantially.
One of the problems that inflation folks have is that the historical data series for many of the assets we use in our craft are fairly short, low-quality, or difficult to obtain. Anything in real estate is difficult: farmland, timber, commercial real estate. Even many commodities futures only go back to the early 1980s. But the really frustrating absence is the lack of a good history of real interest rates (interest rates on inflation-linked bonds). The UK has had inflation-linked bonds since the early 1980s, but the US didn’t launch TIPS until 1997 and most other issuers of ILBs started well after that.
This isn’t just a problem for asset-allocation studies, although it is that. The lack of a good history of real interest rates is problematic to economists and financial theoreticians as well. These practitioners have been forced to use sub-optimal “solutions” instead. One popular method of creating a past history of “real interest rates” is to use a nominal interest rate and adjust it by current inflation. This is obvious nonsense. A 10-year nominal interest rate consists of 10-year real interest rates and 10-year forward inflation expectations. The assumption – usually explicit in studies of this kind – is that “investors assume the next ten years of inflation will be the same as the most-recent year’s inflation.”
We now have plenty of data to prove that isn’t how expectations work – and, not to mention, a complete curve of real interest rates given by TIPS yields – but it is still a popular way for lazy economists to talk about real rates. Here is what the historical record looks like if you take 10-year Treasury rates and deflate them by trailing 1-year inflation:
This is ridiculously implausible volatility for 10-year real rates, and a range that is unreasonable. Sure, nominal rates were very high in the early 1980s, but 10%? And can it be that real rates – the cost of 10-year money, adjusted for forward inflation expectations – were -4.6% in 1980 and +9.6% in 1984? This hypothetical history is clearly so unlikely as to be useless.
In 2000, Jay Shanken and S.P. Kothari wrote a paper called “Asset Allocation with Conventional and Indexed Bonds.” To make this paper possible, they had to back-fill returns from hypothetical inflation-linked bonds. Their method was better than the method mentioned above, but still produced an unreasonably volatile stream. The chart below shows a series, in red, that is derived from their series of hypothetical annual real returns on 5-year inflation-indexed bonds, and backing into the real yields implied by those returns. I have narrowed the historical range to focus better on the range of dates in the Shanken/Kothari paper.
You can see the volatility of the real yield series is much more reasonable, but still produces a very high spike in the early 1980s.
The key to deriving a smarter real yield series lies in this spike in the early 1980s. We need to understand that what drives very high nominal yields, such as we had at that time in the world, is not real yields. Since the real yield is essentially the real cost of money it should not ever be much higher than real potential economic growth. Very high nominal yields are, rather, driven by high inflation expectations. If we look at the UK experience, we can see from bona fide inflation-linked bonds that in the early 1980s real yields were not 10%, but actually under 5% despite those very high nominal yields. Conversely, very low interest rates tend to be caused by very pessimistic real growth outcomes, while inflation expectations behave as if there is some kind of floor.
We at Enduring Investments developed some time ago a model that describes realistically how real yields evolve given nominal yields. We discovered that this model fits not only the UK experience, but every developed country that has inflation-linked bonds. Moreover, it accurately predicted how real yields would behave when nominal yields fell below 2% as they did in 2012…even though yields like that were entirely out-of-sample when we developed the model. I can’t describe the model in great detail because the method is proprietary and is used in some of our investment approaches. But here is a chart of the Enduring Investments real yield series, with the “classic” series in blue and the “Shanken/Kothari” series in red:
This series has a much more reasonable relationship to the interest rate cycle and to nominal interest rates specifically. Incidentally, when I sat down to write this article I hadn’t ever looked at our series calculated that far back before, and hadn’t noticed that it actually fits a sine curve very well. Here is the same series, with a sine wave overlaid. (The wave has a frequency of 38 years and an amplitude of 2.9% – I mention this for the cycle theorists.)
This briefly excited me, but I stress briefly. It’s interesting but merely coincidental. When we extend this back to 1871 (using Shiller data) there is still a cycle but the amplitude is different.
So what is the implication of this chart? There is nothing predictive here; about all that we can (reasonably) say is what we already knew: real yields are not just low, but historically low. (Current 10-year TIPS yields are higher than our model expects them to be, but not by as much as they were earlier this year thanks to a furious rally in breakevens.) Money is historically cheap – again, we knew this – in a way it hasn’t been since the War effort when nominal interest rates were fixed by the Fed even though wartime inflation caused expectations to rise. With real yields that low, how did the war effort get funded? Who in the world lent money at negative real interest rates like banks awash in cash do today?
So much has happened since the Presidential election – and almost none of it very obvious.
The plunge in equities on Donald Trump’s victory was foreseeable. The bounce was also foreseeable. The fact that the bounce completely reversed the selloff and took the market to within a whisker of new all-time highs was not, in my mind, an easy prediction. I understand that Mr. Trump intends to lower corporate tax rates (and he should, since it is human beings – owners, customers, and employees – that end up paying those taxes; taxing a company is just a way to hide the fact that more taxes are being layered on those human beings). And I understand that lowering the corporate tax rate, if it happens, is generally positive for corporate entities and the people who own them. I’m even willing to concede that, since Mr. Trump is – no matter what his faults – certainly more capitalism-friendly than his opponent, his election might be generally positive for equity values.
But the problem is that equities are already, to put it generously, “fully valued” for very good outcomes with Shiller multiples that are near the highest ever recorded.
I think that investors tend to misunderstand the role that valuation plays when investing in public equities. Consider what has happened to the economy over the last eight years under President Obama: if you had known in 2008 that growth would be anemic, debt would balloon, government regulation would increase dramatically, taxes would increase, and a new universal medical entitlement would be lashed to the backs of the American taxpayer/consumer/investor, would you have invested heavily in equities? Yet all stocks did was triple. The reason they did so was that they started from fairly low multiples and went to extremely high multiples. This was not unrelated to the fact that the Fed took trillions of dollars of safe securities out of the market, forcing investors (through the “Portfolio Balance Channel”) into risky securities. By analogy, might stocks decline over the next four years even if the business climate is more agreeable? You betcha – and, starting from these levels, that’s not terribly unlikely.
I am less surprised with the selloff in global bond markets, and not really surprised much at all with the rally in inflation breakevens. As I’ve said for a long time, fixed-income is so horribly mispriced that you should only hold bonds if you must hold bonds, and then you should only hold TIPS given how cheap they were. Because of their sharp outperformance, 10-year TIPS are now only about 40-50bps cheap compared to nominal bonds (as opposed to 110 or so earlier this year), and so it’s a much closer call. They are not relatively as cheap as they were, but they are absolutely less expensive as real rates have risen. 10-year real rates at 0.37% aren’t anything to write home about, but that is the highest yield since March.
Some analysis I have seen attributes the large increase in market-based measures of inflation expectations on Mr. Trump’s victory. For example, 10-year breakevens have risen 20bps, from about 1.70% to about 1.90%, since Mr. Trump sealed the win (see chart, source Bloomberg).
I think we have to be careful about blaming/crediting Mr. Trump for everything. While breakevens rose in the aftermath of the election, you can see that they were rising steadily before the election as well, when everyone thought Hillary Clinton was a sure thing. Moreover, breakevens didn’t just rise in the US, but globally. That’s a very strange reaction if it is simply due to the victory of one political party in the US over another. It is not unreasonable to think that some rise in global inflation might happen, if Trump is bad for global trade…but that’s a pretty big reach, and something that wouldn’t happen for some time in any event.
In my view, the rise in global inflation markets is easy to explain without resorting to Trump. As the previous chart illustrates, it has been happening for a while already. And it has been happening because global inflation itself is rising (although a lot of that at the moment is optics, since the prior collapse of energy prices is starting to fall out of the year-over-year figures).
The bond market and the inflation market are acting, actually, like the Great Unwind was kicked off by the election of Donald Trump. We all know what the Great Unwind is, right? It’s when the imbalances created and nurtured by global central banks and fiscal authorities over the last couple of decades – but especially in the last eight years – are unwound and conditions return to normal. But if pushing those imbalances had a soothing, narcotic effect on markets, we all suspect that removing them will be the opposite. Higher rates and inflation and more volatility are the obvious outcomes.
Equity investors don’t seem to fear the Great Unwind, even though stock multiples are one of the clearest beneficiaries of government largesse over the last eight years. As mentioned above, I can see the argument for better business conditions, even though margins are still very wide. But I’m skeptical that better business conditions can overcome the headwinds posed by higher rates and inflation. Still, that’s what equity investors are believing at the moment.
A couple of administrative announcements about upcoming (free!) webinars:
On Thursday, November 17th (aka CPI Day), I will be doing a live webinar at 9:00ET talking about the CPI report and putting it in context. You can register for that webinar, and the ensuing Q&A session, here. After the presentation, a recording will be available on TalkMarkets.
On consecutive Mondays spanning November 28, December 5, and December 12, at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.
Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.
As the evening developed, and it began to dawn on Americans – and the world – that Donald Trump might actually win, markets plunged. The S&P was down 100 points before midnight; the dollar index was off 2%. Gold rose about $70; 10-year yields rose 15bps. Nothing about that was surprising. Lots of people predicted that if Trump somehow won, markets would gyrate and move in something close to this way. If Clinton won, the ‘status quo’ election would mean much calmer markets.
So, we got the upset. Despite the hyperbole, it was hardly a “stunning” upset. Going into yesterday, the “No Toss Ups” maps had Trump down about 8 electoral votes. Polls in all of the “battleground” states were within 1-2 points, many with Trump in the lead. Yes, the “road to victory” was narrow, requiring Trump to win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and a few other hotly-contested battlegrounds, but no step along that road was a long shot (and it wasn’t like winning 6 coin flips, because these are correlated events). Trump’s victory odds were probably 20%-25% at worst: long odds, but not ridiculous odds. (And I believe the following wind to Trump from the timing of Obamacare letters was underappreciated; I wrote about this effect on October 27th).
And yet, stock markets in the two days prior to the election rose aggressively, pricing in a near-certainty of a Clinton victory. Again, recall that pundits thought that a Clinton victory would see little market reaction, but a violent reaction could obtain if Trump won. Markets, in other words, were offering tremendous odds on an event that was unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. The market was offering nearly-free options. The same thing happened with Brexit: although the vote was close to a coin-flip, the market was offering massive odds on the less-likely event. Here is an important point as well – in both cases, the error bars had to be much wider than normal, because there were dynamics that were not fully understood. Therefore, the “out of the money” outcome was not nearly as far out of the money as it seemed. And yet, the market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before the Brexit vote. The market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before yesterday’s election results were reported. And, patting myself on the back, I said so.
This is not a political blog, but an investing blog. And my point here about investing is simple: any competent investor cannot afford to ignore free, or nearly-free, options. Whatever you thought the outcome of the Presidential election was likely to be, it was an investing imperative to lighten up longs (at least) going into the results. If the status-quo happened, you would not have lost much, but if the status quo was upset, you would have gained much. As I’ve been writing recently about inflation breakevens (which was also a hard-to-lose trade, though less dramatic), the tail risks were really underpriced. Investing, like poker, is not about winning every hand. It is about betting correctly when the hand is played.
At this hour, stock markets are bouncing and bond markets are selling off. These next moves are the difficult ones, of course, because now we all have the same information. I suspect stocks will recover some, at least temporarily, because investors will price a Federal Reserve that is less likely to tighten and the knee-jerk response is to buy stocks in that circumstance. But it is interesting that at the moment, while stocks remain lower the bond market gains have completely reversed and are turning into a rout. 10-year inflation breakevens are wider by about 9-10bps, which is a huge move. But there will be lots of gyrations from here. The easy trade was the first one.
 And certainly not “the greatest upset in American political history.” Dewey Defeats Truman, anyone?
So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?
As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.
Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.
But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.
Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.
As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.
These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.
A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.
Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.
Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!
Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.
One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.
We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.
In recent years, equities have been carried higher by several compounding effects: the growth of the economy, expanding profit margins, and expanding multiples.
These three things, by definition, determine equity prices (if we assume that gross sales are tied to economic growth):
Price = Price/Earnings x Earnings/Sales x Sales
When all three are rising, as they have been, it is a strong elixir for stock prices. Now, this explains why stock prices are so high, but the devil lies in predicting these components of course – no mean feat.
Yet, we can make some observations. It has been the case for a while that P/E ratios have been extremely high by historical measures, with the Shiller Cyclically-Adjusted P/E ratio (CAPE) roughly doubling since the bottom in 2009. With the exception of the equity bubble in 1999-2000, the CAPE has never been very much higher than it is now, at 26.4 (see chart, source Gurufocus). This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows markets regularly.
Somewhat less obviously, recently sales have been declining. However, on a rolling-10-year basis, the rise has been reasonably steady as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) illustrates. Over the last 10 years, sales per share have risen about 2.85% per year.
Finally, profit margins have recently been elevated. In fact, they have been elevated for a long time; the 10-year average profit margin for the S&P 500 (see chart, source Bloomberg) has risen to 8% from 6% only a few years ago. Recently, however, profit margins have been receding.
Both the rise in profit margins and the current drop in them make some sense. Value creation at the company level must be divided between the factors of production: land, labor, and capital. When there is substantial unemployment, labor has little bargaining power and capital tends to claim a higher share. Moreover, labor’s share is relatively sticky, so that speculative capital absorbs much of the business-cycle volatility in the short run. This is ever the tradeoff between the sellers of labor and the buyers of labor.
I used 10-year averages for all of these so that we can use CAPE; other measures of P/E are fraught. So, if we take 26.4 (CAPE) times 7.84% (10-year average profit margin) times 1005.55 (10-year average sales), we get an S&P index value of 2081, which is reasonably close to the end-of-May value of 2097. That’s not surprising – as I said, these three things make up the price, mathematically.
So let’s look forward. Recently, as the Unemployment Rate has fallen – and yes, I’m well aware that there is more slack in the jobs picture than is captured in the Unemployment Rate, but the recent direction is clear – wages have accelerated as I have documented in previous columns. It is unreasonable to expect that profit margins could stay permanently elevated at levels above all but a few historical episodes. Let’s say that over the next two years, the average drops from 7.84% to 7.25%. And let’s suppose that sales continue to grow at roughly 2.85% per year (which means no recession), so that sales for the S&P are at 1292 and the 10-year average at 1064.15. Then, if the long-term P/E remains at its current level, the S&P would need to decline to 2037. If the CAPE were to decline from 26.4 to, say, 22.5 (the average since 1990, excluding 1997-2002), the S&P would be at 1736.
None of this should be regarded as a prediction, except in one sense. If stock prices are going to continue to rise, then at least one of these things must be true: either multiples must expand further, or sales growth must not only become positive again but actually accelerate, or profit margins must stop regressing to the mean. None of these things seems like a sure thing to me. In fact, several of them seem downright unlikely.
The most malleable of these is the multiple…but it is also the most ephemeral, and most vulnerable to an acceleration in inflation. We remain negative on equities over the medium term, even though I recently advanced a hypothesis about why these overvalued conditions have been so durable.
If you are an investor of the Ben Graham school, you’ve lived your life looking for “value” investments with a “margin of safety.” Periodically, if you are a pure value investor, then you go through long periods of pulling your hair out when momentum rules the day, even if you believe – as GMO’s Ben Inker eloquently stated in last month’s letter – that in the long run, no factor is as important to investment returns as valuation.
This is one of those times. Stocks have been egregiously overvalued (using the Shiller CAPE, or Tobin’s Q, or any of a dozen other traditional value metrics) for a very long time now. Ten-year Treasuries are at 1.80% in an environment where median inflation is at 2.5% and rising, and where the Fed’s target for inflation is above the long-term nominal yield. TIPS yields are significantly better, but 10-year real yields at 0.23% won’t make you rich. Commodities are very cheap, but that’s just a bubble in the other direction. The bottom line is that the last few years have not been a great time to be purely a value investor. The value investor laments “why?”, and tries to incorporate some momentum metrics into his or her approach, to at least avoid the value traps.
Well, here is one reason why: the US is the destination currency in the global carry trade.
A “carry trade” is one in which regular returns can be earned simply on the difference in yields between different instruments. If I can borrow at LIBOR flat and lend at LIBOR+2%, I am in a carry trade. Carry trades that are riskless and result from one’s market position (e.g., if I am a bank and I can borrow from 5-year CD customers at 0.5% and invest in 5-year Treasuries at 1.35%) are usually more like accrual trades, and are not what we are talking about here. We are talking about positions that imply some risk, even if it is believed to be small. For example, because we are pretty sure that the Fed will not tighten aggressively any time soon, we could simply buy 2-year Treasuries at 0.88% and borrow the money in overnight repo markets at 0.40% and earn 48bps per year for two years. This will work unless overnight interest rates rise appreciably above 88bps.
We all know that carry trades can be terribly dangerous. Carry trades are implicit short-option bets where you make a little money a lot of the time, and then get run over with some (unknown) frequency and lose a lot of money occasionally. But they are seductive bets since we all like to think we will see the train coming and leap free just in time. There’s a reason these bets exist – someone wants the other side, after all.
Carry trades in currency-land are some of the most common and most curious of all. If I borrow money for three years in Japan and lend it in Brazil, then I expect to make a huge interest spread. Of course, though, this is entirely reflected in the 3-year forward rate between yen and real, which is set precisely in this way (covered-interest arbitrage, it is called). So, to make money on the Yen/Real carry bet, you need to carry the trade and reverse the exchange rate bet at the end. If the Real has appreciated, or has been stable, or has declined only a little, then you “won” the carry trade. But all you really did was bet against the forward exchange rate. Still, lots and lots of investors make precisely this sort of bet: borrowing money is low-interest rate currencies, investing in high-interest-rate currencies, and betting that the latter currency will at least not decline very much.
How does this get back to the value question?
Over the last several years, the US interest rate advantage relative to Europe and Japan has grown. This should mean that the dollar is expected to weaken going forward, so that someone who borrows in Euro to invest in the US ought to expect to lose on the future exchange rate when they cash out their dollars. And indeed, as the interest rate advantage has widened so has the steepness of the forward points curve that expresses this relationship. But, because investors like to go to higher-yielding currencies, the dollar in fact has strengthened.
This flow is a lot like what happens to people on a ship that has foundered on rocks. Someone lowers a lifeboat, which looks like a great deal. So people begin to pour into the lifeboat, and they keep doing so until it ceases, suddenly, to be a good deal. Then all of those people start to wish they had stayed on the ship and waited for help.
In any event, back to value: the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the difference between the 10-year US$ Libor swap rate minus the 10-year Euribor swap rate, in white and plotted in percentage terms on the right-hand scale. The yellow line is the S&P 500, and is plotted on the left-hand scale. Notice anything interesting?
The next chart shows a longer time scale. You can see that this is not a phenomenon unique to the last few years.
Yes, the correlation isn’t perfect but to me, it’s striking. And we can probably do better. After all, the chart above is just showing the level of equity prices, not whether they are overvalued or undervalued, and my thesis is that the fact that the US is the high-yielding currency in the carry trade causes the angst for value investors. We can show this by looking at the interest rate spread as above, but this time against a measure of valuation. I’ve chosen, for simplicity, the Shiller Cyclically-Adjusted P/E (CAPE) (Source: http://www.econ.yale.edu/~shiller/data.htm)
Now, I should take pains to point out that I have not proven any causality here. It may turn out, in fact, that the causality runs the other way: overheated markets lead to tight US monetary policy that causes the interest rate spread to widen. I am skeptical of that, because I can’t recall many episodes in the last couple of decades where frothy markets led to tight monetary policy, but the point is that this chart is only suggestive of a relationship, not indicative of it. Still, it is highly suggestive!
The implication, if there is a causal relationship here, is interesting. It suggests that we need not fear these levels of valuation, as long as interest rates continue to suggest that the US is a good place to keep your money (that is, as long as you aren’t afraid of the dollar weakening). That, in turn, suggests that we ought to keep an eye on rates of change: if the ECB tightens more, or eases less, than is priced into European markets (which seems unlikely), or the Fed tightens less, or eases more, than is priced into US markets (which seems more likely, but not super likely since not much is presently priced in), or the dollar trend changes clearly. When one of those things happens, it will be a sign that not only are the future returns to equities looking unrewarding, but the more immediate returns as well.