Going global


Chair: Stephen Miles, Head of Manager Research for EMEA, Towers Watson
Andy Barber, Investments Partner, Mercer
Richard Butcher, Managing Director, PTL
Chetan Ghosh, CIO, Centrica
Boris Jurczyk, Head of Equity Selection, Berenberg
Ciaran Mulligan, Global Head of Manager Research, Buck Global Investment Advisors
Jeff Munroe, Investment Leader, Global Equities, Newton
Noel O’Halloran, CIO, Kleinwort Benson Investors
Jamie Sandison, Managing Director, Artisan Partners
Phil True, Head of Equity Manager Research Team, Aon Hewitt

Chair: What is the general sentiment around global equities as an asset class in the current climate, and why?

O’Halloran: I would say the consensus right now is bullish and constructive towards equity markets, certainly from all the investor surveys out there. Despite the risks and headlines, I think people remain positive on equity markets. However I think people are schizophrenic at the same time. We are five years since the low in the markets and yet the risks are in the headlines every day. So I would say people are bullish on equities and especially relative to other assets such as fixed income. As to why, I would think they’re bullish because of where we are in the cycle. I think they see that we are five years from the bottom in terms of the last crisis, they see economic growth picking up, they see investor and corporate sentiment picking up, and they see earnings and dividends picking up, all of which makes them comfortable with equities.

Jurczyk: With regards to emerging markets, we recognise the big disappointments when you see the index developments of the last year, so you must really be a contrarian buyer at the moment and that all comes down to active management. There are opportunities but not in emerging markets as a whole. You must differentiate between the markets.

I think BRIC is no longer the story because Brazil, Russia, India and China are so different, and even within these countries you must look for single companies to add value for your customer.

Barber: Just picking up on the comment about earnings picking up, I’m not sure whether that’s completely true across the board. When you look at revisions they tend to be coming down at the moment across the globe. They’ve certainly been disappointing in emerging markets. It seems to be as much about re-rating as it does about earnings growth, and the earnings seem to me to be one of the risks to markets at the moment.

Munroe: We tend to agree. We have seen many big companies with record high margins, and we’ve seen tremendous re-rating for last year in global equity markets, excluding the emerging areas. There are still some distortions being created from some of the policies that were put in place in the aftermath of the crisis, and I think those distortions are being felt in the emerging world first. They took all the capital that they put to work, and there’s questions about how successfully they’ve employed that, whether it was just to create a consumer binge or whether they’ve actually invested it wisely, and I think that’s playing out. The distortions have affected a wide range of asset classes so I think the earnings are getting interesting to see. It doesn’t seem to be an environment where there’s a huge amount of economic growth around.

True: The big risk is that interest rates have to normalise at some point. Everyone’s expecting it, but we’re not quite sure when, or how aggressively, and the central banks will be walking that tightrope for the next three to five years at least. We’ve seen last year how slight nuances in guidance can upset markets, and given what markets have done in the last 12-18 months the sensitivity to central banks making policy errors is the big risk.

Munroe: The reality is that the alternatives to equities don’t look very good either, so you’re left in a position with equities where you have to be very selective. I think there should be big rewards for being selective.

Chair: By ‘selective’ were you thinking of certain parts of emerging markets or certain businesses that are more resilient and aren’t at peak margin?

Munroe: I think because it’s such a big catch-all, and it comes down to the individual company, it’s that specific opportunity that you’re looking for. There will be some businesses on high valuations today that ultimately are playing at some things and they probably work out OK, and there are some businesses today that are pretty steady and able to cope with this environment and will do fine over time too, so it depends on how you filter that. I still think there are opportunities in global equities but you have to be careful and clear with what you’re trying to achieve.

O’Halloran: Clearly there are risks to everything, but ultimately the biggest risk, post 2008, is still a deflationary risk to the global economy, so as long as global central banks are of the mindset that they’re fighting deflation, then the other risks are maybe lesser. From a central banker’s point of view they may say that perhaps earnings provisions are negative, perhaps equity valuations are expensive, but the biggest risk here is global deflation and we will keep liquidity in the system until we see growth resuming and that may cause more bubbles. With the central banks it looks like they’re fighting global macro deflation before they worry about asset classes. Arguably you could say that China is doing what America didn’t do, which is that they’re acting on their problems much earlier on. They’re letting trusts go bust first, while America didn’t let things go bust until too late.

Mulligan: What we have to try and get away from is that short term outlook. For instance if you look back at the 2002 to 2007 environment people had forgot the risks that were inherited anyway, and got a massive shock from the drawdowns we had in 2008. In the post-2008 environment we had a strong run in equities and again people can forget the actual risks that they are running. Equities have always had a place within pension fund portfolios, there will also be a need for growth, and I think more recently, with the diversification away from equities into multi-asset funds, in the last few years people have been disappointed with those returns when you look at the returns you could have got from an equity market, so there’s always going to be a risk. It’s cautious optimism for the equity markets going forward, but it’s managing investors’ risks as to what they’re actually getting into is paramount from a consultancy or client point view.

Jurczyk: We have these large inflows into equity funds that haven’t stopped. We have this high IPO volume and this high M&A activity and companies are cash-rich at the moment, so the question is what are they doing with their cash? If they cannot see any growth in their business and they put it as a dividend, it could be questionable for me as an investor. Don’t they believe in their business case? Don’t they see any growth in their business? On the other hand is the China story. The problems are recognised in my opinion, but the question is if you can afford as an asset manager not to be into these sometimes hot markets. In any case you have to be careful with risk.

Sandison: If we were just buying equities because it was the least bad thing out there, or because we have pools of cash coming into the market, then I would be concerned. But what reassures me is that we can find plenty of companies out there where the valuations are supported by the growth prospects. I also think there’s a reassuring amount of concern and just general worry out there so there is recognition of the risk in equities, be it political or economical.

Accessing equities

Chair: So how can European pension funds best access this asset class, what about active versus passive?

Ghosh: The first consideration is your governance budget. If you do not have the resource to dedicate to the research of active managers, then you should simply go down the route of trying to get cost efficient access, and that’s through passive or smart beta. Finding good active managers that are repeatable, where you can buy into their story, and who have competitive advantage, is a really tough gig. It’s very hard to find those managers, and then to emotionally behave in the right ways in terms of making sure that if you need to change them, you change them at the right time. If they’re going through periods of under performance you actually probably are better off sticking with them. There are so many variables that make it a really difficult challenge. I think without the luxury of having quite a lot of resource to throw at it, I would always push pension schemes down the route of trying to just get low cost access.

Butcher: That’s why we have consultants. The consultants are there to help us out. The one thing trustees can control is cost. We can’t really control the performance. We can’t control the performance of our fund managers. I’m not philosophically tied to passive funds, but I’m philosophically tied to trying to control my costs. So the default setting tends to be passive. The question is whether you can justify the extra spend, and it is a balance of your governance budget and how much time have you got to spend on this.

Mulligan: You need to invest in the research that is going to actually identify these managers. I think what you see is worth doing. We were talking to clients again on a case by case basis. If they have the budget, from a governance perspective it is worth doing. If you do it properly and you give the manager the right remit that suits them and they can actually produce those returns it’s definitely worth considering, but if you’re going to do it half heartedly…

Selecting managers

Chair: How easy is it to identify good managers in a very large universe such as global equities?

Barber: Clearly if you’ve got a reasonably large in-house resource devoted to looking at the whole universe it becomes a little bit more straightforward, but nonetheless there are 900 global equity strategies on our database, and we wouldn’t profess to know them all in depth, but we’ve looked at them and decided whether or not they’re worth pursuing further. You can do it, but you need quite a lot of resource to cover the universe properly. I think you will struggle if you try and use some sort of screening mechanism because I’ve yet to find a screening mechanism that is helpful in telling me about the future performance of managers.

Ghosh: I think the comparison point’s spot on. There’s no shoe-in that you’re going to just come across a great manager. It’s very much a clues game. You have to have had that experience of talking to many managers to understand what differentiates one great presentation from another great presentation, because they’ll all be great presentations as the marketing expense is enormous in this industry. From a pension scheme’s point of view, it’s really important that you’ve worked out that what you want to get from a manager, what your beliefs are, what strategically are the types of managers that fit with you, and then as and when you come across relevant managers, hire them. You don’t necessarily have to pursue the very best manager within the massive universe of over a thousand managers, as that is an impossible task.

True: One of the difficulties within the industry itself is that even if you knew a manager was going to be good over the next five years, there might be times when the manager is not performing as well. It’s important to have a good relationship so that the poorer periods can be explained and you can almost rehearse that in advance so that everyone knows what to expect.

Chair: To avoid the risk of turnover with the decision-makers you should probably write down very clearly when you hire a manager why you hired them, what you liked about the manager, what would cause you to terminate potentially and what wouldn’t cause you, along with potential performance outcomes that aren’t to be expected given the manager’s approach.

Ghosh: Another dynamic that’s quite interesting is how the intermediaries work. They will tend to put managers into boxes and then say ‘you are an emerging market manager’, or ‘you are a global unconstrained manager’, but if there are managers that do something slightly different and don’t fit into those boxes you might never come across them. So we’ve allowed ourselves to meet any type of manager and if we think there is a reason to appoint them because they have skill, we will find a way to accommodate them from a bottom-up basis.

Barber: From a consultant perspective there is always a danger that we try and put people in boxes and if they don’t fit in a box then we walk away. What we try and do is have a box for people who don’t fit in boxes because I think you’re right, you would miss out on potentially skilled managers if you came across someone who just didn’t naturally fit into one of your five or six categories. To me the most important thing for a client is to make sure you don’t have too many managers in their line-up doing the same thing.

Chair: How important is the culture to that success? Are there certain cultures to avoid, certain cultures to be attracted to and how do you identify them?

Mulligan: I think more important than culture is actually ensuring that the people employed in a firm buy into that culture. There’s no right culture, but it’s ensuring that the people who are employed buy into that culture and actually are working in an environment that’s conducive to alpha generation within the fund.

True: There’s no one right answer to this, but what you tend to find with good managers is they tend to have some attributes that are common and one of them is a team that’s worked together quite a long time and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Their fortunes are linked to the fortunes of the client’s money as well, and they’re passionate about investing.

Sandison: You can quite easily categorise firms into whether they’re asset gatherers or asset managers.

I think you want to look for evidence that a firm is prepared to be disciplined about its growth and that there’s evidence of closed strategies before they get to the point that they can no longer deliver on the strategies. I think within teams I agree, you want to see cohesion and continuity. It’s a tough enough job repeating good performance from the past if you’ve got entirely different people doing it, so stability and continuity’s important. But I also think active management is partly about your ability to see things a bit differently from time to time, so if you’ve got a bunch of clones within a team, I personally struggle to see how that team is going to be as effective as a team that actually celebrates different points of view and encourages challenge.

O’Halloran: I’d summarise it into hard cultural issues and soft cultural issues. From my observation, the bulk of time is spent on hard issues like incentivisation. All the points that have been made, such as whether people enjoy working there, do they like coming into work every day, how employees work together, the differences between staff, I think they’re under-analysed and the other issues are over-analysed because there is no right answer. In terms of the hard issues, if you’ve a massively incentivised employee ownership driven boutique that’s successful, well then you can get into star managers and all of the problems that that can bring, so I’m not sure if there’s any right or wrong answer in terms of the hard cultural issues. I think the softer issues should be looked at much more closely and followed through.

Butcher: Can I just make a plea from the consumer. The investment industry is full of jargon and if you’re going to talk to the consumer, please just define what you mean by culture. Lots of people have listed different things that would fall under this, but please make it clear to the consumer what you’re defining under that as they may think of something else.

Chair: Next question, do pension fund trustees put as much effort into choosing a consultant as they do into manager selection?

Butcher: I’ve seen boards of trustees where they’ll spend three days selecting a fund manager at a beauty parade but they’ll spend 20 minutes on their asset allocation, so let’s get these things in the right order. The consultancy relationship is tremendously important. For smaller pension funds they are the gatekeeper. There’s a universe of thousands of funds, most trustee boards haven’t got the resources or the time or the knowledge to be able to filter that in any meaningful way, so if they haven’t got a good consultant on board it’s no different from sticking a pin into a list. You arguably need to know as much about the consultant as you do about the fund manager. Manager selection is also obviously tremendously important. Should they spend more time on one than the other? I don’t know.

True: I like to think it’s all about manager selection, but the reality is that as a trustee they should be looking at all the skills that a consultant can offer and see what the best package is.

The role of equities

Chair: How do you make the case for this asset class and how do you get the most from it?

Munroe: Equities broadly versus the alternatives can stack up and look good. It really varies a lot in various parts of the world. In a world where the demographics are shifting quite a bit maybe you have to ask what role equities should play. You can own a sub-component of equities that bears very little relationship to the overall index, and it can give you a very different volatility outcome and at the other end of the spectrum are equities that can provide you with potentially much different risk. Sometimes I find that the passive approach to global equities is a bit odd, because presumably if you’re going to buy a bit of equities all over the world you want to have somebody who can make the decision about where it’s good to be at various times and what kind of assets, given that regional differences can play out from time to time.

Chair: There’s something very attractive about the asset class as a whole in terms of liquidity, sheer size, the evidence for an equity risk premium and fit with the long time horizon of many underlying beneficiaries. Does anyone feel strongly that equities should be something that should be part of pension scheme portfolios on this basis?

Butcher: As a trustee I don’t have to make the case for investing in equity, I think that’s incumbent on the equity manager. Global equities is a catch-all term for a diverse range of markets, so the case needs to be made in respect of each of those parts as opposed to just global equities, because that’s just too big a universe for me to consider. On the plus side, I would look at a packet of global equities because it gives me diversification and keeps away from Sterling, and because it gives me growth opportunities that may not exist in the UK. But on the other side we have to be mindful of costs and quite often global mandates can be more expensive.

Sandison: It might seem a bit odd to be making a case around inflation right now because we’re all more worried about deflating than inflating, but in the long run if you think that inflation will come back again, then equities tend to be a decent hedge against inflation over a longer period, so I would have thought they should always be part of the long term planning.

Barber: One of the few things that I feel fairly sure about is that there’s an equity risk premium, and I will be rewarded in the longer term for holding this asset class.


Chair: And that’s a key question. Which risks will be rewarded for over the long term, and what’s the level of conviction in these?

Ghosh: The only associated consideration there is the volatility that attaches to getting that equity risk premium. As pension schemes generally should have a reasonably medium- to long-term time horizon, they should be able to stomach the associated volatility, because it’s not that easy to source something that’s going to give you a 3-4 per cent above gilts over time elsewhere. The other thing I would mention about volatility is almost a mathematical trick about how you measure it. You take monthly returns and you extrapolate that over time, but if you look at the volatility of returns over a three or five year period, equities aren’t that volatile relative to other assets, so if that is genuinely your holding period, the volatility of equities might be overstated. The other thing that I think is beneficial is that existing pension scheme investors are comfortable with the asset class. They think they know what it does and it’s understandable to them. I’d argue that it’s probably a bit more complex than they think it is. If you actually dig under the bonnet and looked at the leverage of the companies in which you invest; one could argue that it is better to go higher up the capital structure of such companies and invest in some things that they think are complex (eg high yield or senior loans), but the familiarity with equities is quite a benefit when it comes to decision making.

Chair: That leads really helpfully onto the question of ‘what is risk’ and how should it be measured? And, related to this, to what extent are global equities viewed as risky or aggressive, perhaps incorrectly?

Jurczyk: We like numbers like maximum drawdown because that’s for our investors to decide whether they can bear the risk or whether they should de-allocate from the asset class. Now you can be a outstanding fund manager but if there are drawdowns of 30 per cent or more, then it is questionable whether an investor can really bear that risk. So for our investors looking at the drawdown figures or the bad volatility is of very high importance.

O’Halloran: I don’t feel that. In terms of the pension fund, the ultimate risk is the risk of not meeting your liabilities, so the consultant and the client will typically think about the liability side of the asset management. With two bad bear markets in the last decade, 2002 and 2008, asset managers are as a result far more involved in that asset liability thought process than they ever were before, so therefore things like downside capture versus upside capture are far more part of how an asset manager thinks. If you look at the volatility of equities over the last five years, I think the equity volatility figure ex post to something like 9 per cent, which to me is fool’s gold because if anybody was to plan based on 9 per cent volatility you’d be sorely disappointed, because as we know historically it’s been more like 20 per cent. To me that suggests that over the next five years equity volatility’s going to be twice what it’s been for the last five years. So ironically whilst everybody’s been talking about risks, if you look at the pure volatility figure of equities you could say ‘well what risks’? Equities have never been so bland, almost, in terms of volatility.

Munroe: You have got to keep history on your mind. We have had central bank action being very supportive to asset values. If you go back to the ‘87 crash, since then it’s been a standard recipe. A drop in interest rates, so flood the system with liquidity and as an investor you’ve been paid to take advantage of that cheaper money, invest into that downturn, and you have been rewarded handsomely at every stage coming out of that. Except the problem today is we don’t really have the interest rates left, so that’s played out and we’ve gone through some pretty unusual stuff to do with central bank policy. I think that we are, you know, in a very unusual place in history. That doesn’t mean that equities aren’t attractive, but you’ve just got to be really aware that it’s very rare. We also know that deflationary periods of history, you know, and inflationary periods of history tend to sometimes come quite close together, so what you need at one point and what you ultimately might need next could be very different.

Butcher: One of the reasons I think there’s a perception that global equities are risky is because of a disjoint of language. It’s not about analysis of returns and absolute levels of risk, it’s just because a lot of trustees don’t understand overseas equities, they can’t understand as much about overseas equities because it’s not their local market, so it’s risky for them because they’re taking a punt on something they don’t understand and they don’t know. It’s the equivalent to me getting a copy of the Racing Post and not knowing anything about the horses and picking number 7 in the 3:30. I know nothing about it, and it’s clearly a risky investment. It doesn’t mean to say that it’s necessarily a bad investment.

Sandison: Risk is one part of our business that we really do get tied up in jargon instead of getting back to what the client understands risk to be. We think of risk most fundamentally as being about the risk of investing in the wrong businesses or a bad business, or investing in a good business but at the wrong price, so we don’t get hung up on ‘Northfield’ or ‘Barra’ or any of those risk systems. It’s really about focusing our energy on trying to understand what it is we are getting exposure to, and what could go wrong as well as what could go right. Then also trying to get a firm handle on the valuation, not just who could we sell this to, but actually what’s it intrinsically and fundamentally worth given its growth, given the assets, given the opportunity?

Chair: Any other views on how do fund managers think about risk and manage risk within their global equity fund?

O’Halloran: The industry has got much more specialist over the last five, six, seven years, as 10 years ago it as all about the debate over equities relative to either a peer group or an index. It was that kind of the single measure of how you were judged. Today it’s far more specific and tailored, and client and consultant specific. It’s about defining what your style is and what you’re trying to achieve and talking to your client about that. I guess the issue is as you move down to smaller pension schemes whether they have the budget or the professional trustee structure to deliver that. I’d say it would be reasonable to assume that’s not the case at the lower end, so they are perhaps are where we were 10 years ago, which is unhealthy.

Munroe: I’ve looked at a lot of risk systems over time and have used a few of them, but one thing that they all seem to do is measure risk based on historical correlations. The tracking errors are just excessive, for example, the emerging markets is showing to be really risky. The thing is they had diverged significantly over the previous three to five years from world equities, and so because they had diverged they look to be risky. In fact they were a lot cheaper and were exactly the right place to be, and so in the fullness of time there was no difference in the risks between the Brazilian equity and the US equities.

Short-term views

Chair: Is the industry too short term? Should all global active mandates be appointed on a minimum five year horizon?

Barber: I think you could argue that certain parts of the industry are very short term, but when you look at it from a point of view of an investor such as a pension fund, I don’t know that they’re necessarily being short term. When constructing a manager line-up they’re not doing it with a view that they’re going to change it in three years time, they’re putting something in place which they hope will be robust for quite a prolonged period, and I think they’re taking a genuinely long term view. Now within that the types of managers they might put together there’ll be some who genuinely might have a five year time horizon, might be longer, but they might be appointing managers who have a shorter term time horizon and are exploiting different things in the market. Now that doesn’t mean the investor was taking a short term view.

Mulligan: The one thing I don’t like is managers having a ‘get out of jail free’ card because we need to be ‘locked in’. I think if a manager under performs six months or a year after appointment for unjustifiable reasons it is inexcusable. If they under perform for two or three years for justifiable reasons, that’s a different situation. So just having a blanket ‘t should be a long term five to seven year market cycle and then come back and see me in seven years’, as a fund manager, I don’t think that’s appropriate.

Jurczyk: For me the most important question is does the fund manager deliver? When we go to the investor we have a concept and we explain the concept, and if we fit one-to-one, the investor should have understood what we are doing. We also should explain to the investors in what times our concept doesn’t work. The problem is it shouldn’t come down to performance figures solely; it should come down to whether it is explainable.

Chair: By explainable, what if the explanation was “I’ve stuck to my process, I’ve done what I believe in, but over this particular period the outcome has largely been driven by randomness or luck. I couldn’t have predicted that a certain group of companies was going to go one way or the other”. Is that acceptable or is that not acceptable?

Jurczyk: That’s a super question. I like this because to differentiate between luck and skill, that’s one of the major points in the investment industry. It comes all down to the process. One of the most important questions is: how reliable and replicable are your results? Can you clearly define a market where the process works well and where it doesn’t work?

Smart beta

Chair: So, the rise of smart beta – is this a good thing? And within conventional active management what about fundamental versus quantitative approaches?

True: It actually links back to what we’ve been talking about, trying to identify the difference between luck and skill in some ways. A lot of the smart beta approaches are looking at factors within markets and how they affect performance. I think in itself that’s probably a good thing, but obviously it is an industry in itself so just the amount of research and comment that’s coming out on it is maybe taking away from the benefits. I think it’s worthwhile having a debate around how an index should be constructed. A market cap index is orientated to large cap growth effectively. It’s very cheap, it’s transparent and all those good things, but maybe looking at the smart beta index can help a bit.

Jurczyk: It’s nothing new to deviate from market cap, so smart beta is mainly a big marketing machine in my eyes. The positive aspect is that tailor-made solutions are more and more in the focus of the investors. They’re not buying blind the well known indices, especially with regards to risk because the smart beta indices often offer better risk figures. But the concept itself is nothing new. The point of smart beta is why not going the next step:, apply these concepts to an active stock selection process and not just invest in smart beta indices. Do smart beta in combination with a stock selection process. That’s the case for active management.

Ghosh: While I agree it’s nothing new, differentiating from the market index as to how you construct a port-folio, I think what smart beta conversation has allowed is for people to access certain styles or methods of portfolio construction far cheaper than they ever used to be able to, and I think that is a move forward.

Barber: I agree with Chetan (Ghosh). With a lot of these smart beta indices the one thing they are is not dependent on price, so they all end up having value and small cap influences, which are the two betas that in the past have been shown to outperform. If you’ve got a market where you’re able to access those betas much more cheaply than you used to, that’s got to be a good thing. It helps to understand where returns for active management comes from. Anything that adds to that and tells you that a lot of this alpha has in fact been beta is I think a good thing in terms of visibility. The bad thing is the complicated way in which it gets presented.

Sandison: I like the saying, “don’t confuse brains with a bull market”. If all your fund manager is doing is outperforming when the market’s going up, then you are smart to buy smart beta, but it’s not really that smart as a concept. By that I mean it’s just another form of passive with a little bit more thought about it.

Chair: We have long been supportive of smart beta, but are cognisant that there has recently been a big step up in industry marketing and huge product proliferation in this area. We spend much of our time making sure that it’s been used in the right way, for the right reasons and with realistic expectations. It’s a ‘buyer beware’ discussion.

O’Halloran: There may be a sense to which these are packaged as products rather than applying solutions. Maybe in lots of cases as off the shelf products. They may work, they may not work, but I’d just say be careful of that. Then on the quantitative side, that’s more down to style and whether somebody is comfortable with a more quantitative based product or whether people like more fundamental. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer in quantitative versus fundamental. It’s almost blending and diversification. The only true free lunch in everything we’ve discussed today is diversification. It’s not about one product and whether it’s quantitative or fundamental and whether it’s active or passive or whether it’s smart beta or active, it’s how you blend all those together.

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