Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bond portfolio risk and reward equilibrium

Most bond investors want income to be high and stable. We think a bond portfolio can be built to strike a balance between both—provided investors are willing to take some risk to do it.

Risk, of course, is the price everyone must pay to achieve returns. But one of the more surprising findings in a study, which surveyed more than 2,000 investors and advisors around the world, was the number of people who seemed to be looking for the investment holy grail: high returns and growth with little or no risk.

When one asks investors about their income expectations, one is told investors want to earn at least 6% per year. But when asked about their priorities, three-quarters of investors surveyed put “growth opportunities” and “principal protection” at the top of their lists. “Amount of income,” cited by 71% of investors as a high priority, was a close third.

There’s nothing remarkable about people wanting the highest possible returns from their portfolios—especially when low interest rates have left investors around the world starved for income. We also understand why those who survived recent crises and gut-wrenching market swings want to minimize risk and preserve the wealth they already have.

But it’s hard to achieve both of these objectives consistently. That’s especially true in the current low-interest-rate environment. Allocations to low-risk assets, such as government bonds and cash, aren’t likely to deliver the level of income investors told us they expect from their portfolios. To generate a sizable income distribution from their portfolios, investors have to take risk.

Diversify with a Multi-Sector Approach

Of course, that doesn’t mean investors should blindly reach for the highest-yielding bonds available. In recent years, we’ve seen investors charge into high-yield securities where the compensation wasn’t always commensurate with the risk—think some CCC-rated junk bonds and parts of the leveraged-loan market.

What’s more, following the crowd into the same credit sectors is dangerous. As we’ve seen, yield-hungry investors have been crowding into—and out of—certain sectors with alarming frequency.

A better approach, in our view, is to embrace a multi-sector strategy that diversifies across sectors, geographies and credit quality. Investors who avoid concentrating their allocations in single-sector funds—high-yield, emerging markets, and so on—can instead allocate to high-income asset classes based on where they or their managers see specific opportunities. This makes it possible to capitalize on undervalued bonds no matter what sector they’re in—and it keeps investors from getting trampled by the crowds when they decide to sell.

Broadening the opportunity set in this way can reduce overall risk and potentially increase risk-adjusted returns. Of course, even a highly-diversified strategy won’t erase risk altogether. The reality is that in today’s low-rate environment, investors must take some calculated risks to earn income from their portfolios that’s as high and stable as possible.

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