To Bolster Returns Large Investors Will Have to Come Up the Risk Curve

Gone are the days when a conservative bond portfolio will provide a decent return. Low interest rates and a sluggish economy are forcing investors to accept higher risk to get the same returns they would have twenty years ago (by buying and holding investment-grade bonds). The Wall Street Journal recently reported that research conducted by Callan Associates, Inc. (which advises large investors)  shows that in order to make a 7.5% return today, a portfolio’s bond component would have to shrink to roughly 12% and private equity and stocks would have to account for nearly three-quarters of the investment pool. Jay Kloepfer, Callan’s head of capital markets research, says that with the riskier bets comes heftier management fees, adding further strain on returns.

In a recent letter to shareholders, BlackRock Inc. CEO Larry Fink wrote, “Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the toll these low rates—and now negative rates—are taking on the ability to save and plan for the future.” Retirement plans such as The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (known as Calpers), the nation’s largest public pension fund, are suffering mightily from this shift. With 53.1% of its assets in stocks, it posted a 2015 return of only 2.4%, well below its target of 7.5%. These lower returns means workers and cities face higher contributions and taxes.

For insurers, lower returns mean policyholders pay more for coverage. Tim Gerard, who leads New York Life’s fixed-income team, said that the company now has to look for assets it would never before consider in an effort to bolster returns. “I can’t just reach out and grab a high-quality bond that’s yielding 6% or 7%,” he said. “They don’t exist.”

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