Summer 2014

PIONEER CONFERENCE: Be long, be careful

Giordano LombardoStimulus measures and recovering economies support investment in risk assets like equities. Pioneer Investments advocates risk – but says diversification is more urgent. A slowdown in the China economy is one of the biggest risks facing investors across asset classes. Yet Chinese equities, with lower valuations and lower risks compared to a range of other emerging markets, are also one of the best opportunities in the emerging equities sector, says Pioneer Investments, which broadly advocates allocation to risk assets. Investing long in risk assets over the past year had been the correct choice, with small-caps outperforming large-caps and high yield bonds outperforming investment grade bonds, Pioneer Investments told clients at its annual investment conference held in April.
In the audience at the event held in Boston, US, were 120 fund selectors from 20 countries, including countries in Asia. However, Giordano Lombardo, chief investment officer, said that though long positions on risky assets still make sense, record highs in stock markets, coupled with other factors, such as interest-rate risk, meant the time had now come to seek sophisticated diversification. EMERGING MARKETS
Already the projected extra return coming from risk assets is lower compared to the recent past, said Lombardo. “In some areas of equities like European equities and pockets of emerging markets there is good value, but investors need to broaden the range of asset classes by adding alternatives and illiquid asset classes, though with some caveats,” he said. Risk assets are still affected by uncertainty stemming from central bank policy in the US and other parts of the world and it is this uncertainty that leads to a need for diversification.  Specifically, Pioneer is advocating diversification through multi-asset funds or funds such as absolute return bonds, which invest in single asset classes but are able to employ multiple strategies with lower correlation to market direction. The theme of Pioneer’s investment conference was Evolution progress accelerated, conveying the need to employ flexible portfolios at a time of anticipated lower returns, higher volatility and rising-interest-rate risk, while still being able to chase income or capital appreciation to meet specific investment goals. Pioneer last year advocated shifting to risk assets at its investment conference, which was held in Dublin. At this year’s conference, Lombardo told the Boston audience that Pioneer’s long stance on risk had continued through 2013 but that building more balanced and diversified portfolios would be a better strategic choice. One delegate questioned why the emphasis given by many investment houses on risk assets in 2013 had not triggered a large-scale shift out of bonds and into equities. Tanguy Le Saout, head of European fixed income at Pioneer, said there were various explanations, such as the challenging decision-making process that many investors have to go through to make such large bets, and also their propensity to “find a good excuse” to stay in fixed income. “It will take another leg of a bear market for people to move their money,” Le Saout said, referring to the bearish period for bonds that followed the tapering announcement by then-Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in June last year. ALPHA AND BETA
Pioneer, a global investment house owned by Italy’s UniCredit bank, advocates the separation of alpha and beta drivers for a sophisticated pursuit of return, at a controlled level of risk. This separation means that a beta return can be combined with non-correlated alpha sources, whether in multi-asset strategies, or single strategies. Pioneer boxEssentially, this approach starts with the careful selection of a beta source, which might also include an alternative beta to boost the return; and then finally seeks to add sources of non-correlated alpha. Examples of non-correlated alpha in Pioneer’s fixed income portfolio between December 31, 2008, and December 31, 2013, include the combination of interest rates in Asia with Scandinavian interest rates, which gave a return of 8%. Combining Asian rates with a relative value strategy gave a 7% return. Moving further from home, however, an investor could have seen a return of 28% by combining US and eurozone interest rates. The examples are taken from the Pioneer Euro Aggregate Fixed Income portfolio. Matteo Germano, global head of multi-asset investments, says it is important that investors do not lose sight of their investment objectives, such as funding liabilities. He acknowledged that a lot of conservative and defensive investors did not want to take on too much risk in the current climate. But for Pioneer this is why investors ideally need portfolios that can adapt to change by shifting between return sources – allowing them to be long, but be careful. Investors’ concern about risk was reflected in an audience poll. Nearly half of the 120 fund selectors at Pioneer’s conference said they expected asset price bubbles to be the main effect of quantitative easing (QE), rather than more positive outcomes such as a return to growth. QE, which has seen America’s Federal Reserve and the Bank of England purchase a large amount of bonds to stimulate economic growth, has kept rates low and given investors little choice but to chase higher yields in riskier assets. The “taper talk” is primarily responsible for the retreat from risk over the past months, with many large investors exiting emerging markets. Funds Global Asia was the media partner at Pioneer Investment’s annual investment conference. ©2014 funds global asia

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