Where can asset allocators find ballast when both volatility and correlations are rising?

Volatility is back. One of our key themes at the start of this year was that we would be moving from an unusually subdued volatility environment to something more normal for this stage in the cycle. Through the whole of 2017, the S&P 500 Index moved by 1% or more only 10 times. Since the start of February, it has done so 17 times.

The volatility in early February was triggered by unexpectedly high U.S. hourly earnings growth. We had another jolt last week, and this time you could pick your catalyst. Flash Purchasing Managers Index reports were softer than expected. Technology stocks were under attack because of concerns about data security. President Trump upped the ante on trade on Thursday with his tariff plans for Chinese imports. And the day before, markets were unsure what to make of a less-hawkish-than-expected debut by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell.

Whichever catalyst you pick, the more important point to recognize is really the same as the one in February: Volatility has returned to markets, so what can investors do to buffer their portfolios from it?

Usually, the answer involves balancing equity risks with a good dose of interest rate risk from core government bonds on the assumption that these two risks are negatively correlated. Our new environment may be characterized not only by higher interest rates, higher inflation and higher volatility, however, but also by higher correlations between equities and bonds.

Correlations Are Cyclical

Since the financial crisis, investors have benefitted from low to negative correlations between the two largest asset classes. They have enjoyed the free lunch of being able to diversify the downside risk in their equity portfolios with developed market government bonds.

Over the longer term, however, stock-bond correlations have been modestly positive, with cyclical characteristics. Correlations tend to be negative during periods of low growth and low inflation, and positive during periods of higher economic growth and inflation. That positive correlation has tended to hit its highest levels toward the end of the business cycle, when central banks attempt to cool down the economy by tightening monetary policy.

If our view is correct, and we are entering a period of somewhat faster rising prices and tighter policy, history suggests that asset allocators may not stand to benefit as much from the low-correlation free lunch. An early taste of this came during February, when the S&P 500 Index fell by 3.7% and the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Long Treasury Index was down by 3%. In our new environment, government bonds may no longer provide a strong buffer during a bout of volatility.

As Correlations Rise, Diversification Becomes a Challenge

We now need a more thoughtful approach to managing risk and achieving portfolio diversification. There are various ways to go about this, but we see three straightforward approaches.

The simplest is to reduce overall risk levels across portfolios. A keynote of our recent thinking has been the readiness to adopt less volatile and less market-sensitive positions in traditional asset classes. That might involve moving into higher-quality companies in equities and credit, or exchanging some straight equity exposure for the lower-volatility alternative of put option writing.

The second approach is to seek out other markets that diversify away from equities but do not carry the same risks as bonds. In the later stages of the business cycle, inflation-sensitive assets such as TIPS, global inflation-linked bonds and commodities have tended to perform well. Floating-rate investments such as loans may also provide a shelter.

The third approach is to seek out investments that are not correlated to traditional market risks at all. Examples might include uncorrelated, low-volatility hedged strategies or strategies that seek to harvest multi-asset class risk premia.

A sensible course might be to blend some aspects of all three approaches. When government bonds are no longer an effective anchor to windward, investors are challenged to find ballast for their portfolios to keep them upright without weighing them down.

Erik Knutzen, CFA, CAIA and Managing Director, is Co-Head of the Neuberger Berman Quantitative and Multi-Asset Class investment team and Multi-Asset Class Chief Investment Officer. Erik joined in 2014 and is responsible for leading the management of multi-asset portfolios, driving the asset allocation process on a firm-wide level, as well as engaging with clients on strategic partnerships and multi-asset class and quantitative solutions. To learn more, see Mr. Knutzen’s bio or visit www.nb.com.

In Case You Missed It

  • U.S. Existing Home Sales:  +3.0% to SAAR of 5.54 million units in February
  • FOMC Meeting:  The Fed unanimously voted to lift the federal-funds rate by 0.25% to a range of 1.5% – 1.75%. The median number of hikes for 2018 stayed at 3, but the 2019 median increased to 3 additional hikes, and the 2020 median increased to 2 hikes. New FOMC forecasts also show the unemployment rate falling to 3.8% by the end of 2018 and 3.6% by the end of 2019
  • Japan Consumer Price Index:  0.0% in February month-over-month and +1.5% year-over-year
  • U.S. Durable Goods Orders:  +3.1% in February (excluding transportation, durable goods orders increased 1.2%)
  • U.S. New Home Sales:  -0.6% to SAAR of 618,000 units in February

What to Watch For

  • Tuesday, 3/27:
    • U.S. Consumer Confidence
    • Case-Shiller Home Prices
  • Wednesday, 3/28:
    • U.S. 4Q17 GPD (final)
  • Thursday, 3/29:
    • U.S. Personal Income and Outlays

– Andrew White, Investment Strategy Group

Statistics on the Current State of the Market – as of March 23, 2018

Market Index WTD MTD YTD
S&P 500 Index -5.9% -4.5% -2.8%
Russell 1000 Index -5.8% -4.2% -2.6%
Russell 1000 Growth Index -6.2% -4.2% -0.1%
Russell 1000 Value Index -5.4% -4.1% -5.2%
Russell 2000 Index -4.8% -0.1% -1.4%
MSCI World Index -4.5% -3.7% -2.7%
MSCI EAFE Index -2.6% -2.8% -2.5%
MSCI Emerging Markets Index -3.4% -1.8% 1.5%
STOXX Europe 600 -2.4% -2.1% -2.7%
FTSE 100 Index -3.3% -4.0% -9.0%
TOPIX -4.1% -5.8% -8.4%
CSI 300 Index -3.7% -3.0% -3.1%
Fixed Income & Currency      
Citigroup 2-Year Treasury Index 0.1% 0.1% -0.2%
Citigroup 10-Year Treasury Index 0.3% 0.5% -3.1%
Bloomberg Barclays Municipal Bond Index 0.0% 0.1% -1.4%
Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index 0.0% 0.1% -2.0%
Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index 0.6% 1.2% 1.5%
S&P/LSTA U.S. Leveraged Loan 100 Index 0.0% 0.2% 1.4%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Index -0.4% -0.7% -1.0%
ICE BofA Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index -0.2% -0.3% -0.2%
JP Morgan EMBI Global Diversified Index -0.6% -0.6% -2.6%
JP Morgan GBI-EM Global Diversified Index 0.6% 0.4% 3.8%
U.S. Dollar per British Pounds 1.7% 2.7% 4.6%
U.S. Dollar per Euro 0.7% 1.3% 2.9%
U.S. Dollar per Japanese Yen 1.2% 1.7% 7.4%
Real & Alternative Assets      
Alerian MLP Index -5.5% -7.4% -11.6%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT North America Index -4.0% -0.2% -11.0%
FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Global Index -2.7% 0.1% -5.5%
Bloomberg Commodity Index 0.1% -0.7% -0.5%
Gold (NYM $/ozt) Continuous Future 2.9% 2.4% 3.1%
Crude Oil (NYM $/bbl) Continuous Future 5.7% 6.9% 9.0%

Source: FactSet, Neuberger Berman.