Investing in Retirement: Risk and Diversification

Think diversifing your investment portfolio reduces risk? It is not always that simple, says Dan Kemp - especially if you are in retirement

Dan Kemp 30 May, 2018 | 1:14PM

Investing in retirement is especially challenging. Investors are typically operating within an uncertain timeframe and battling the return drag caused by regular withdrawals to fund expenses. While such challenges require all of the tools at the disposal of the investment manager, for the majority saving for retirement, the use of fixed income is the most important consideration, as these assets typically provide greater certainty in the short term together with a useful income stream.

Traditionally, a simple retirement proposition may have comprised fixed income and equities to achieve a ‘safe withdrawal rate’ as an income stream. However, as the investment universe has expanded and interest rates pushed lower, this ‘safe withdrawal rate’ has seemingly declined.

While this causes a significant amount of confusion for everyday investors, it is worthwhile stepping through the benefits of diversification and the ways one can think about improving total portfolio outcomes.

The Equity/Bond Split

The equity to fixed income portfolio split still remains the single biggest contributor to returns and risk in the vast majority of instances. The reason for this isn’t necessarily due to correlations, but rather due to sizing.

In general, a retiree yearns for low correlations between their key investments as it diversifies the drivers of performance and can smooth returns. While the equity/bond split has historically offered protection in most scenarios, many are starting to question the diversification benefits in a world where interest rates are rising.

For example, the correlations to property, private equity, commodities and hedge funds also offer diversification benefits against bonds. This has opened up a new wave of “alternative” investing that many retirees have embraced in a low-yielding world.

Thinking in a Valuation-Driven Context

Correlations are very useful in understanding relationships, however can be grossly misleading in understanding the total portfolio impact. The problem here is that correlations only explain the way the assets move together on average. It fails to tell you that these relationships can break down for considerable periods in stress. It also fails to tell you anything about valuations and the contributions to risk or return.

The correlation between U.S equities and U.S. long-term bonds on a rolling 10-year basis varies over time and may be a misleading tool if used incorrectly

A better way to think about diversification is to assess ‘valuation-conditional drawdowns’. Specifically, assets with lower valuations typically deliver higher returns and suffer lower drawdowns. The deeper the drawdowns, the more capital the retired investor will have to sell to generate sufficient income. Furthermore, the more capital they sell the less they will have to deliver future returns. This spiral effect can cause the ‘safe withdrawal rate’ to decline.

Considering the current investment environment, there is no point comparing bonds at a 2% yield and expecting it to act the same way to when they offered a 10% yield. Similarly, one shouldn’t compare an equity market trading at an all-time high and expect it to behave the same way as an equity market that has already fallen 50%.

Valuations Matter

The complexity of interpreting such information in a total portfolio context should not be underestimated, with at least two problems in comprehensively assessing this. First, an investor needs to have a means of understanding how expensive or cheap an asset is relative to ‘fair’ value. Second, they then need to understand the way an expensive bond may move relative to an expensive/fair/cheap asset. We devote a lot of time to analysing these as critical inputs to a valuation-driven risk assessment.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there either. Inherent within all of these assessments are data reliability issues and historical objectivity. Obtaining sufficient long-term track records can be practically impossible in an asset class such as the emerging markets. It is especially difficult to compare apples with apples when one asset such as U.S. equities has a historical record back to 1871 and another such as emerging market debt only back to 1996.

The other element is related to experience. For example, assessing valuations for the technology sector relative to the utilities sector can be difficult due to varied drawdown histories. Utilities simply haven’t experienced the equivalent to a ‘tech wreck’, even though they tend to carry debt levels that wouldn’t rule out such a disaster. The same can be said for shifting markets. While emerging markets are the obvious candidate, even global fixed income has seen dramatic shifts over time as Japan raised more and more debt via government bond issuance.

So, is it possible to assess ‘valuation-condition drawdowns’ relative to the valuation-implied returns? Absolutely. The solution is to consider both historical and simulated outcomes. While the historical analysis is useful in checking how a portfolio would have reacted in a financial crisis, the simulated outcomes also allow one to consider the unknown. It is backward-looking meets forward-looking – and while there are issues in the design, it is all about reducing the ignorance one carries and to improve the total portfolio outcome. 

Also Contemplating ‘Contribution to Risk’

A further test that helps increase the awareness of possible outcomes is to recognise the contribution to risk. Said simply, it is not good enough to blend emerging market debt, high yield debt, commodities and the energy sector just because it ‘looks’ diversified. This is true even if it offers a strong return outlook.

Let’s take a hypothetical retiree portfolio that achieves an overall split of 60% fixed income, 20% equities, 10% cash and 10% alternatives. Which asset offers the biggest contribution to risk? Equities, fixed income or alternatives? Are there any ‘factors’ influencing this contribution to risk? Risk analytics tools are very powerful at answering these questions and can offer far more insight than a simple correlation matrix.

Bringing this Back to the Goal of Investing

Portfolio construction is an underrated element of the investment process. Using risk analytics tools are a great way of reducing any ignorance while building robust solutions – however they are not a silver bullet.

Ultimately, a portfolio is designed to achieve outcomes, but the future cannot be predicted with precision. This reinforces the need for a total portfolio viewpoint. Therefore, portfolio construction should start with sound limits and an understanding of how behavioral biases can upset returns. Investors can then diversify in a manner appropriate to the universe they are playing in.

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

About Author

Dan Kemp

Dan Kemp  is Chief Investment Officer, Morningstar Investment Management EMEA