Hand flipping wooden blocks from 2023 to 2024, text on table.

The start of 2023 was marked by caution, largely influenced by the prior year’s market environment that witnessed several firsts. 2022 was the first time investors faced double-digit negative returns from both equity and traditional fixed income investments in a calendar year. Many defined benefit (DB) pension plans also experienced a rapid change in their financial health, moving from deficits to meaningful surpluses despite the challenging markets. Returns in 2023 have bounced back strongly, though not without many twists and turns. This article reflects on 2023 and offers insights for the year ahead.

Interest rate surprise

The rapid rise in interest rates surprised many investors and the impact varied among investor types. Investors with a total-return goal, such as endowments, foundations and Indigenous trusts, saw portfolio market values drop in 2022 due to negative returns in both equities and fixed income. In contrast, despite negative asset returns, many DB pension plans saw their deficits replaced by surpluses as the decrease in liabilities outpaced asset declines.

Higher yields implied more favourable longer-term returns for fixed income, and discussions in 2023 shifted from the past focus of reducing fixed income allocations towards assessing the merits of increasing allocations for all investor types.

Balancing act

For total return-oriented entities like endowments, foundations and Indigenous trusts, an improved fixed income outlook was welcome. However, historical data suggests that higher fixed income yields can indicate lower equity market returns (see “crystal ball challenge” below).

Registered charities are dealing with the added impact of an increase in the minimum annual distribution quota (DQ) requirement from 3.5% to 5.0% introduced in 2023. This change could lead charities to target higher returns or accept a lower margin of additional return to meet the higher DQ.

The prospect of higher fixed income returns and potentially lower equity returns provided an opportunity for investors to reassess their asset mix strategy to ensure alignment with their goals, particularly if their fixed income allocation has been historically low or well below target allocations.

Opportunity knocks

The start of 2023 brought significant improvement to the financial well-being of many DB plans, after decades of additional contributions to counteract the adverse effects of declining interest rates and subsequent stronger growth of the liabilities compared to the asset growth. The better financial position provided an opportunity to revisit long-term asset mix strategies and risk levels.

The specific actions of DB plans depend on the plan type (e.g., corporate, university or public), actuarial liability measures that drive risk assessments, and other factors such as whether the DB plan is open or closed to new members, and plan maturity (e.g., percentage of active members versus retiree and deferred members). At a minimum, for plans that found themselves in a healthier funded position, there was a strong case for discussing the merits and trade-offs of de-risking.

While it’s unclear to what extent DB plans took the opportunity to de-risk and shift towards higher fixed income allocations, there was an uptick in fixed income search activity in the latter part of 2023, possibly indicating a trend by committees towards reassessing their asset mix strategy. However, the market roller coaster ride in 2023 was evident in both fixed income and equities. Longer-term bond yields experienced further increases at the end of the third quarter and into the start of the fourth quarter, but then yields subsequently declined leading to longer-dated fixed income investments bouncing back very strongly and achieving returns higher than major equity markets. The higher fixed income returns are likely a reflection that liabilities over the fourth quarter increased more than the assets and reduced some of the previous improvement in DB plans’ funded position.

One form of risk management that has continued unabated is de-risking through annuity purchases, especially in corporate DB plans, where the transaction can reduce the impact of DB plans on a company’s balance sheets. Many companies that chose the annuity purchase route for de-risking did so when inflation was low. Depending on the extent of built-in inflation-related pension increases, these companies might face pressure from retirees for ad-hoc pension increases given the higher inflation environment. Under a buy-out annuity, the structure is such that post-transaction there’s no longer a dedicated pool of assets with the plan sponsor for members captured under the buy-out, implying the only source of funding for ad-hoc increases would be the company’s balance sheet.

Tech titans increase market concentration

In 2023, equity returns were dominated by U.S. mega-cap stocks, particularly in the information technology sector, which benefited from investor exuberance around artificial intelligence (AI) and added to the concentration challenges of the bellwether S&P 500 Index. As shown in Figure 1, the S&P 500 Index’s top-10 holdings represented almost a third of the Index at the end of 2023.

Figure 1: Weight of top-10 holdings in the S&P 500 Index

Source: Connor, Clark & Lunn Financial Group and S&P Global Market Intelligence.

U.S. equities typically represent the largest individual component of many investors’ portfolios. Upcoming committee meetings should include discussions on the increasing concentration in the U.S. equity market. This isn’t to say the U.S. technology sector won’t continue to perform well over the next decade. However, it’s prudent to consider the benefits of diversifying the portfolio and to evaluate options for managing potential downside risks should negative outcomes unfold.

While diversification within equity markets is one option, such as leveraging the lower correlation merits of emerging markets compared to developed markets or pairing a value investment style with a growth portfolio, diversifying through fixed income and private market investments may be more advantageous. Therefore, any diversification strategy should include a broad set of investment opportunities and extend beyond equities.

Mixed experience from private markets

Over the past 10 years or so, private markets have experienced significant inflows from institutional investors. In 2023, the returns across various private markets have been mixed. Commercial real estate made most of the headlines for two reasons. First, there was the lingering impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on the office sector, leading to decreased market valuations. Secondly, some commercial real estate managers had liquidity issues, delaying divestiture requests. Other real estate sectors performed well, helping to offset office sector declines in diversified portfolios and contributing to a more optimistic market outlook for 2024 and longer term.

Private equity markets were also challenged in 2022/2023, but the forecast for 2024 and beyond is much more positive. In contrast, the infrastructure market was a standout performer in 2023 and appears well-positioned for the future. Infrastructure is increasingly seen as crucial for supporting clean energy projects and reducing reliance on carbon-intensive assets as part of global efforts to address climate risk. A successful energy transition will require extensive new infrastructure globally, focused on renewable energy sources.

The crystal ball challenge

Forecasting returns is no easy task. For example, a Horizon Actuarial Services survey of U.S. investment managers and consultants found that they significantly underestimated the strength of the U.S. equity market for the 10-year period ending December 31, 2022, and overestimated the weaker returns of emerging markets. The average annualized U.S. equity return projection was 5.9%, compared to the actual return of 12.6%. Emerging market equities were expected to return 7.5% but delivered just 1.8% (all returns in U.S. dollars).

There is, however, a historical correlation between yield levels and the outlook for equity market returns. Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of 10-year historical returns for the S&P 500. The green bars represent periods where U.S. government 10-year bond yields at the start of the 10-year period were below 3.5%, while the gold bars show returns when starting yields were between 3.5% to 5%. For example, when the yields were below 3.5%, around 20% of returns were around 17.5%. The overall average annualized S&P 500 return when yields were below 3.5% was 10.8%. Conversely, when yields were higher, such as the end of 2023, the average annualized Index return was 6.7%.

Figure 2: U.S. equity returns depending on the level of fixed income yields

Source: Connor, Clark & Lunn Financial Group.

Despite the recent decline in yields, longer-term return expectations for fixed income remain higher than what we’ve seen in a while. The level of yield at the time of writing also indicates the potential for lower long-term equity returns compared to previous strong performance.

For private markets, it is difficult to generalize since the outlook is heavily influenced by the specific strategy in which you’re invested. It’s therefore important to engage with your private market managers to understand their return expectations and assess the risk of liquidity constraints, like those recently seen in some commercial real estate strategies.

In other private markets, such as private debt, the current environment has likely enhanced its relative return potential, possibly attracting increased interest from all investor types. As noted earlier, the emphasis on energy transition to address climate risk will likely boost interest in specialized energy infrastructure strategies. Present conditions also provide an opportunity to consider more liquid, higher-yielding assets, such as commercial mortgages, that can take advantage of current higher rates.

2024: Steering through uncertainty

As your committee reviews 2023 performance, there should be welcome relief from strong positive total portfolio returns. For DB plans considering a de-risking strategy, the fourth quarter was a reminder that the opportunity to take advantage of a healthier financial position was not timeless and that there are scenarios where lower yields (and subsequent increases in liabilities) could prevail.

The top-performing market in 2023 was the U.S. equity large-cap market that was a beneficiary from the enthusiasm around AI. While the positive impact of technological innovation may persist, it’s up against a challenging economic, social and political backdrop, along with associated uncertainties. Geopolitical risks, including the U.S. election, conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, and the U.S.-China rivalry could significantly affect shorter-term market outlooks in 2024.

Given the various dynamics highlighted, ensure that committee meeting discussions focus on confirming whether your risk-return profile aligns with your objectives.

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Blocks showing transition from year 2022 to 2023

The market turbulence experienced over the last several years culminated with a major downturn for both public equities and fixed income in 2022. However, the journey along the way did provide useful insights and lessons, particularly from the experiences during the height of the pandemic in 2020. This article considers the extent to which investors heeded the warning signs, or whether they were desensitized to the ensuing risks.

The international risk consultant, David Hillson, defines risk as “uncertainties that matter”. In other words, when reviewing various investment uncertainties, the key is to understand how material the consequences could be if things do not go as expected. The assessment and acceptance of risk varies among investors. This is because different investors have varying levels of risk appetite and risk tolerance.

The practical implications for investors from Hillson’s definition is to prioritize risks when deciding how to respond to them. For example, if a particular risk has a minimal impact and low probability, then you may choose to accept the risk. However, for risks identified as material and with a higher probability of occurring, you will want to act. This may include controlling the risk exposure through better portfolio diversification, or avoiding the risk altogether, if possible.

Insights from the global pandemic

In the recent market environment, the global pandemic surfaced insights and warning signs, including:

  • Further concentration of equity markets, particularly towards technology companies;
  • Increased risk of rising interest rates and potential for negative fixed income returns;
  • Governments around the world working together to manage important global issues.

Equity market concentration

There was no surprise when equity markets declined in reaction to the spread of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020 as investors responded to the implications for the economy and the fate of individual companies, particularly those in the travel and tourism industry as the world entered various stages of lockdown. However, the speed of recovery was a surprise to most.

Aided by extensive quantitative easing, equity markets bounced back robustly, with several delivering double-digit positive returns for calendar year 2020. Some of the strongest performing stocks globally in 2020 were technology companies that benefitted from the increased reliance on e-commerce during the pandemic. However, the strong performance also led to further concentration in the major equity indices. For example, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet Inc. comprised over 20% of the S&P 500 Index at the end of 2020. The impressive performance also desensitized investors to concentration risk.

US equities are typically the largest equity component in most investors’ portfolios, so the increased concentration suggested a review of overall equity portfolio construction was appropriate. For those with a bias to global large capitalization developed equity markets, where the US dominates the overall market capitalization, potential considerations included the introduction of global small cap and emerging market equity allocations.

However, diversifying the overall equity allocation to reduce US stock specific risk did not address the information technology bias, since technology stocks globally benefitted hugely from the reliance on e-commerce during the pandemic. Therefore, an assessment of the overall equity style bias was also in order. For example, value style managers are less inclined to invest in technology stocks, thereby offering a source of sector diversification.

Reducing any bias to technology and growth stocks in general would have been a benefit in 2022, since technology stocks suffered the most for the calendar year. The ups and downs of specific stocks and sectors highlights the importance of having a formal risk assessment process to discuss and address uncertainties that arise, such as concentration risk.

Risk from rising interest rates

Fixed income yields have been in decline for decades, during which time governments and companies took the opportunity to significantly lengthen their bond maturities when issuing new debt. In doing so they contributed to an increased sensitivity to changes in interest rates (duration) for fixed income indices, such as the FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index, and the associated risk of low yields combined with high duration in a rising rate environment. For years “experts” predicted rising interest rates that did not unfold, leading to investors dropping their guard with respect to the ensuing risk.

Moreover, the fixed income market experience during the pandemic simply fueled investor desensitization. In times of equity market stress, a quality fixed income portfolio with high duration can provide an important source of diversification due to an increased demand for safe-haven assets and declining rates, which has seen fixed income markets deliver positive returns when equity markets experience significant declines. The defensive nature of fixed income came through in 2020 with the FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index returning 8.7% for the year, despite the low prevailing yield.

However, the risk associated with low yields and high duration in a rising rate environment reared its ugly head in full force in 2022 with the FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index declining over 11% and the FTSE Canada Long Term Overall Bond Index declining over 21% for the calendar year.

Actions taken by investors with an absolute return goal that heeded the low yield and high duration warning signs included:

  • Adopting fixed income strategies with a capital preservation focus and less sensitivity to interest rates;
  • Relaxing the constraints on fixed income managers with the goal of generating higher added value versus traditional fixed income strategies;
  • Increasing the yield through other fixed income assets, such as commercial mortgages;
  • Investing in higher yielding non-fixed income assets, including direct infrastructure and commercial real estate.

It is a different story for investors with liability-related goals, such as defined benefit (DB) pension plans, where in many cases, despite negative returns from the pension plan assets in 2022, the decline in the liabilities was greater, resulting in an improved funded position. However, for plans using leverage within their fixed income portfolio to increase the liability hedge, the market experience in 2022 may have worsened the funded position.

Due to the asset and liability dynamics of DB pension plans, upcoming risk assessments and related discussions will likely be focused on whether the experience in 2022 has created an opportunity to take advantage of an improved funded position. For example, where the goal is to manage the volatility associated with the funded position, increasing the allocation to fixed income assets could be one risk management consideration.

Governments working together

The global pandemic showed that governments around the world can work together to manage important global issues and created expectations for greater coordination on responsible investing in general, and specifically climate risk.

The current war in the Ukraine and associated impact to the energy supply and prices, saw resource-heavy markets, such as Canada, benefit from their higher energy allocation, which helped limit the extent of market declines in 2022 compared to markets with lower resource exposure. It also highlighted the challenges of adopting a position of no fossil fuel investments within a portfolio during a period when energy was the best performing equity sector.

However, it is crucial for governments and asset owners not to be desensitized to the importance and urgency of transitioning to renewable, cleaner energy, simply based on the recent investment return experience. While the world is still heavily reliant on traditional energy sources and there is still a long way to go to reducing our carbon footprint, a continued and orderly transition to cleaner energy is essential to manage the impact of climate risk.

Looking forward

Market turbulence of the last several years has contributed to desensitizing investors to ensuing risks. Risk management does not only have to rely on sophisticated modelling; it can take different forms including a simple discussion among trustees or committee members, drawing on the insights of investment managers and consultants, and fine tuning the asset strategy and portfolio diversification. In early 2023, take time to formally review your portfolio to identify any uncertainties which may elevate the risk of not delivering on your goals.

Stressed businessman feeling desperate on crisis stock market, investment concept.

Investors with a total return objective have historically been served well by the fixed income component of portfolios, such as a portfolio benchmarked to the FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index (the Universe Bond Index), which has delivered a reliable return experience and valuable diversification to more volatile equity investments.

The experience today for investors such asendowments, foundations, target benefit plans and capital accumulation investors has been vastly different with double-digit negative fixed income returns year-to-date to May 20, 2022. This has been the result of the combination of high duration (sensitivity to changes in interest rates) and significant increase in interest rates.

This article investigates how investors found themselves in this duration trap and what options are available to limit future downside experience.

Increased Interest Rate Sensitivity

With the multi-decade decline in fixed income yields investors had become accustomed to the implications for lower longer-term fixed income returns. However, as yields declined, governments and companies took the opportunity to significantly lengthen their bond maturities when issuing new debt. In doing so, they have contributed to the increase in the Universe Bond Index duration and associated increased sensitivity to changes in interest rates.

While it made sense for borrowers to seize the opportunity to reduce their borrowing costs and lock in certainty by extending the lending period, there were few compelling benefits for investors with a total return objective to own these securities, especially in a lower yield environment.

It is a different situation for investors with liability-related objectives, such as defined benefit pension plans. The resulting dynamics significantly increased the risk of negative returns in a rising interest rate environment. The math is simple: if a fixed income portfolio has a yield of 2% and the duration is 8 years, and interest rates across the yield curve rise 1%, then the portfolio value would be expected decline by 6% (not considering the merits of active management).


The initial response to lower yields was characterized by a “hunt for yield,” which included the consideration of a core plus fixed income component that incorporated an allocation to strategies such as high yield and emerging market debt, and in some cases dedicated allocations to higher yielding assets.

Lower yields also triggered the decision by investors to look beyond fixed income and introduce allocations to less-liquid private markets, such as commercial real estate and infrastructure. Taken together, while this has witnessed a general reduction to domestic fixed income, in many cases fixed income still represents a sizable portion of total assets.

Investors have also had to deal with the desensitization to rising interest rates. For many years “experts” have predicted a rising interest rate environment that did not unfold. The volume of such predictions has led to many investors dropping their guard with respect to the ensuing risk.

Investors are currently experiencing some of the toughest fixed income markets in history, which combined with challenging equity markets, has seen the value of total portfolio assets significantly reduce from recent highs following the strong post-pandemic returns.

Avoiding the Duration Trap

There is still uncertainty with respect to interest rates, so what can be done to limit further downside performance from fixed income?

There are several potential considerations:

  1. Absolute Return Focus. Fixed income strategies with an absolute return focus, where the investment manager has greater flexibility. The manager is afforded greater flexibility with respect to the duration range, the ability to adopt both long and short positions in securities, incorporate higher yielding below investment grade securities, or a combination of these. Some of these strategies have managed to broadly maintain a fixed portfolio’s capital value while the Universe Bond Index has experienced double-digit declines.
  2. Total Return Objective. An alternative to 1) above is to work with your fixed income investment manager to determine a target return considering current yield opportunities. Under this approach, the extent to which there is a willingness to experience some level of downside risk will influence the longer-term total return potential.

    For smaller-sized investors, the total return objective could be achieved by allowing the fixed income manager to invest opportunistically across a range of pooled funds, such as short-term, universe, and higher yielding funds.
  3. Higher Yielding Strategies. The addition of higher yielding strategies (or increase to existing allocations) will by their nature have a lower duration compared to the Universe Bond Index, thereby reducing interest rate sensitivity. However, many of these strategies are still susceptible to negative returns as experienced year-to-date to May 20, 2022, with high yield and emerging market debt indices both declining significantly.

    Careful review of potential strategies will be required to appreciate the extent of the downside protection and diversification qualities. For example, Canadian commercial mortgage strategies in general have declined much less than universe bonds so far in 2022, although consideration would also need to be given to the less-liquid nature of these strategies.
  4. Private Market Strategies. The addition of private market strategies (or increase to existing allocations) such as commercial real estate and infrastructure offer alternative and stable sources of income, as well as providing diversification to equities and fixed income. However, investors need to be comfortable with the less-liquid nature of these assets, since they are valued on a much less frequent basis compared to public market investments.

Start the Conversation

The increased duration of the Universe Bond Index has created an environment where investors are experiencing some of the toughest fixed income markets ever witnessed. Uncertainty remains with respect to interest rates, but there are several considerations for investors to help manage the downside risk from fixed income investments. Start the conversation with your consultant or investment manager to see how your assets can be better protected.

The last forty years have delivered strong returns for bonds and now, “the times they are a-changin’.” The strong returns of the past now come at the price of low returns in the future, so low that we expect bonds won’t keep pace with inflation. This is the result of a long term decline in bond yields and the fact that these ultra-low yields today influence future return.  The chart below illustrates the relationship between bond yield and total return. As yields fell so followed the total return.  

Four decades of falling yield and return

Compounding the issue, when bond yields inevitably rise, we expect bonds to experience periods of negative returns. We experienced such a decline in the first quarter of 2021 when the Canadian core bond index, made up of investment grade bonds, fell 5.0%**. More recently we have seen negative returns as inflation rises and central banks begin to reduce the level of stimulus. 

Think of bonds as insurance

The purpose of holding core bonds in a portfolio has been to generate income and provide stability. With today’s low levels of income, the reason to hold bonds is for the protection they provide during periods of significant equity decline. This protection from bonds is similar to buying insurance on a home. We expect to pay for home insurance and only benefit if there is unforeseen damage. Now investors are paying more for the protection of bonds in the form of lower portfolio returns. 

An active approach is critical

At CC&L Private Capital, we are focused on positioning client portfolios for success. This includes uncovering opportunities in the capital market that generate better outcomes. Over the last ten years we have moved away from traditional sources of return and reduced allocations to core bonds. In their place we have added private market direct investments in:

  • Real estate
  • Infrastructure
  • Private loans

We have also added public market strategies to our investment platform including:

  • High yield bonds
  • Market neutral hedge

Overall these strategies improve portfolio income and expected return. They also more broadly diversify portfolio risk, which allows us to reduce the protection that comes with core bonds while not meaningfully increasing overall risk.  As such, these strategies are a good solution for many investor portfolios.

For those that hold core bonds, active management has never been more important. It’s vital to have a manager that incorporates macro-economic views and deep credit research. Both are essential if you are going to generate above-market returns while managing risk. Using their broad set of tools, our experienced team of portfolio managers and analysts are able to uncover opportunities despite the ultra-low yield environment. 

Consider your objectives

Changes to a portfolios asset allocation should not be made lightly. It’s important to consider how changes to a portfolio’s asset allocation may affect its ability to meet one’s desired objectives. We work closely with our clients to develop a plan that incorporates historical risk and forecasts for asset class returns, and marries these inputs with clients’ financial situations. This process allows clients to pre-experience their wealth under different allocation scenarios and ensure the strategy is best suited to meet their desired outcome. For some, reducing core bonds is warranted. Others may choose to maintain their asset mix because they have enough capital to meet their future goals. Of course another option is to make lifestyle decisions like save more or spend less over time. Whatever the preference, we can quantify the long-term outcome to wealth and likelihood of meeting specific objectives. We have dedicated significant resources to this planning so that our clients can feel confident they are well positioned to meet their personal version of financial success. 

This post is for information only and not intended as investment advice. The views expressed are subject to change at any time.

** FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index.

US Treasury yields have risen sharply since Fed Chair Powell’s signal last week of a likely tapering decision at the November or December FOMC meeting. The move higher mainly reflects an increase in real yields, with inflation break-evens range-bound – see chart 1.

Chart 1

The reaction recalls a surge in nominal and real yields when former Chair Bernanke signalled that the Fed was considering tapering in Congressional testimony on 21 May 2013. Inflation breakevens, which had been falling into the announcement, declined further before recovering – chart 2.

Chart 2

Bernanke’s signal was a catalyst for real yields – which had reached negative levels similar to recently – to return to positive territory. The yield surge triggered a short-lived “risk-off” move in markets, focused on emerging markets and credit (the “taper tantrum”).

The market response spooked the Fed, causing the taper decision to be delayed until December 2013. When tapering finally started in January 2014, nominal and real yields embarked on a sustained decline. Inflation breakevens moved sideways but also fell later in 2014.

Cyclical sectors of equity markets outperformed defensive sectors between Bernanke’s May announcement and the start of tapering in January.

The view here, though, is that investors should be cautious about drawing parallels between 2013-14 and now.

The economic backdrop is a key difference. The global manufacturing PMI new orders index was about to embark on a significant rise as Bernanke gave his taper signal in May 2013 – chart 3. So it is difficult to disentangle the taper effect on yields from the usual correlation with cyclical momentum.

Chart 3

Economic momentum is slowing currently, with money trends suggesting a further PMI decline into early 2022.

This suggests that 1) the yield increase won’t mirror 2013 because the taper announcement effect is offset by a weakening cyclical backdrop, and 2) any rise in real yields could be dangerous for cyclical assets because – in contrast to 2013 – a higher discount rate is unlikely to be balanced by positive economic / earnings news.

The biggest investment challenge today is that bond yields are near all-time lows. This means lower bond returns in the future. Equities will continue to be a source of long-term return but developed market valuations are above average. Further, the integrated global supply chain means developed market equities are more interconnected today and don’t always provide the desired level of diversification. This is where the search for alternative sources of return and increased diversification begins.

Evolution of our investment platform

Part of our job is to find sources of differentiated return and evolve our investment platform to include new strategies when appropriate. This happens when the opportunity is significant and we can find the right talent. Two years ago, we found just such an opportunity and brought on an experienced team to manage frontier equity investments. We are now making this strategy available in client portfolios.

The opportunity in frontier markets

Let’s start with a definition. Frontier markets are made up of some of the fastest growing countries in the world that are not yet considered emerging markets. These countries are located in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa and are largely overlooked by global investors. We focus on buying companies in countries with large populations and rising incomes. As incomes rise, large segments of the population move out of poverty and begin to increase their spending significantly on goods and services that weren’t affordable before. Our investment team finds companies that benefit from this growth in consumption.  The companies we choose to own are very different to businesses in the developed world because they are meeting local consumption demand rather than being another supplier to global markets.

We also invest in companies that are exposed to other long-term trends exhibited by countries experiencing significant economic change. These include the benefits from urbanization, improvements in technology and access to healthcare, to name a few. These trends present investors with long-term growth opportunities. Along the way, investors are also providing much needed capital to companies that are under invested, which also has an impact on the development of these countries.

What about risk?

Managing risk in our portfolio is as much about what we don’t own as what we do own. For example, our investment universe has 8,000 companies of which we only expect to own 20-40. We start by avoiding higher risk industries and buy those companies with strong growth trends. We also focus on industries and companies with favorable environmental, social and governance (ESG) characteristics. This is an important part of our risk management process. We reward companies with strong ESG factors and engage those companies who need to improve. Once we have screened out the industries and types of companies we don’t want to own, we identify high quality companies with strong brands in large markets. Finally, we only invest in companies with experienced leadership teams and companies that we see as underappreciated by the market. Together, this helps us screen out risk in our portfolio and focus on the investments with the highest probability of success. 

The nature of investing in frontier markets is that these are developing countries which often lack a truly democratic process and strong regulations. This can’t be ignored and our research process identifies these risk exposures and adjusts our targets and ultimately the exposure to the companies in that country. For some countries, the risk is too high and we avoid them altogether. 

Adding frontier markets to a portfolio

Adding frontier markets will increase portfolio expected return and diversification. The added diversification is important because it means we can add a modest allocation to this volatile asset class without meaningfully increasing risk. This is possible because frontier markets experience volatility for different reasons and often at different times. In the chart below we show the degree to which frontier markets and other asset class returns move in relation to global equities. The lower the asset class is on the chart, the more different the returns are and the greater the benefit of diversification. 

Diversification benefit of frontier

Despite frontier markets’ low correlation to other parts of a portfolio, we recommend a modest allocation that varies depending on the portfolios’ mix of stocks and bonds. At modest allocation levels, investors can increase expected portfolio return and improve the relationship between the portfolio return and the risk required to generate that return.

Is adding frontier markets right for you?

As a firm we want to provide our clients with differentiated sources of return that will benefit their portfolios as long-term market outlooks change and new opportunities become compelling. We believe adding a modest allocation of frontier markets to a portfolio is a good option for many investors. However, the decision to change the portfolio asset mix should be made in conjunction with a fulsome discussion about the risk and return tradeoffs. We are here to help clients navigate a more challenging market environment and position their portfolio to meet their objectives while considering any unique circumstances. We can help you determine if adding frontier markets is right for you.

This post is for information only and is not intended as investment advice. The views expressed are those of the author at the time of publication and are subject to change at any time.