Pension Funds Should Think Twice About Alternatives

High-performing alternative investments are great if you can find them, but pension plans shouldn’t count on it.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently published its latest report on the investment practices and performance of the 73 largest state public pension funds as of the 2016 fiscal year. The big development is that pension funds are moving their money from stocks to alternatives such as private assets and hedge funds. The average allocation to alternatives more than doubled to 26 percent in 2016 from 11 percent a decade earlier, with a roughly equal percentage leaving stocks.

In an accompanying blog post, Pew warned that the move to alternatives would result in more volatility and higher fees for pension funds. Writing for Bloomberg Opinion, investor Aaron Brown took the opposite view last week, arguing that alternatives dampen volatility and boost performance, even after accounting for fees.

Neither view is entirely right. And with an estimated $1 trillion in state and local public pension funds invested in alternatives, and the retirement of 19 million current and former state and local employees at stake, decision makers rushing into alternatives should be clear about what they’re buying.

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A Bull Market Quandary: Your Clients or Your Convictions

The U.S. stock market is dominating again this year, and money managers may soon face some unpalatable choices.  

It’s not even close. The S&P 500 Index is up 9.9 percent in the eight months through August, including dividends. Meanwhile, overseas stocks, as measuredby the MSCI ACWI ex-USA Index, are down 3.2 percent. U.S. bonds, as represented by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, are down 1 percent. And hedge funds, as tracked by the HFRI Fund Weighted Composite Index, are up a modest 1.7 percent.

It’s too soon to know how private assets, such as venture capital, private equity and real estate, have done because their results are generally reported on a multi-month lag. But it’s not likely to matter. Even the most ardent admirers of private assets, such as elite university endowments, allocate only a portion of their portfolios to them. So the results, however good, are unlikely to make up for the drag from other assets.

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Bring Harvard and Yale Investing to the People

Lots of people want to invest like elite university endowments, but securities laws don’t allow it. It’s time to remove those barriers.

But it’s worth asking whether investors should aspire to the so-called endowment model in the first place. According to numbers compiled by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, universities with the biggest endowments generated an average return of 9.7 percent annually over the last 30 years through June 2017 — the longest period for which annual returns are available — slightly edging out the S&P 500 Index’s return of 9.6 percent, including dividends.

Admirers of the endowment model are quick to point out that it’s less volatile than the stock market. The better comparison, they say, is a traditional 60/40 portfolio of stocks and bonds. That mix, as represented by the S&P 500 and the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, returned just 8.6 percent over those three decades, or 1.1 percentage points a year less than endowments.

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Welcome to the Alternative-Investment Party. You’re Late.

If you want to get rich, here’s one way to do it:

  1. Find an investment that few investors know about.
  2. Write a pitch book laying out why that investment is likely to work.
  3. Sell your idea to rich institutional investors.
  4. Charge absurd fees.
  5. Let everyone know that your investment made lots of money for lots of investors.
  6. When your investment becomes too crowded to produce outsized returns, sell it to unsuspecting individuals.

Steps one through five are a brief history of so-called alternative investments, such as hedge funds, private equity and real estate. And now, thanks to JPMorgan Chase & Co., step six is underway.

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Bitcoin Isn’t an Investment Until Buyers Sweat the Fees

If you want to know where cryptocurrencies are in their development, keep an eye on fees.

When a new “investment” comes along, investors are often too busy counting their anticipated bounty to care about cost. Shrewd purveyors predictably seize the opportunity to charge excessive fees. But reality inevitably falls short of investors’ expectations, and the focus eventually turns to how much they’re paying to invest.

That’s a short history of stock investing. Investors had little access to stock market data a century ago. They didn’t have the luxury of knowing, for example, that the S&P 500 Index would generate a real return of 7.1 percent annually from 1926 to 2017, including dividends. Or that the index’s real return would fall short of that long-term average 52 percent of the time over rolling 10-year periods.

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