In 2017, we wrote about the importance of positioning a corporate defined benefit (DB) plan’s return-seeking portfolios for changing market conditions. We could not, of course, have foreseen the events of the ensuing years, from a global pandemic to a war in continental Europe, or the resulting macro and market shifts — from disinflation to inflation, from recession to growth to potential stagflation, from bull market highs to bear market lows. Changing conditions indeed.
With this backdrop, we felt it was an opportune time to reflect on our return-seeking approach, test its merits, reaffirm our confidence where earned, and update where appropriate. This takes on additional relevance given changes in funded status in recent years. Strong equity markets in 2021 and rising interest rates in 2022 have lifted many plans close to or beyond fully funded status, but with a wide distribution of results. As of 16 September 2022, the aggregate funded ratio for plans in the Russell 3000 Index was 101%, just shy of the 102% peak from earlier in the year, which was the highest level since the global financial crisis. However, the bottom 25th percentile was only 82% funded, while the top 25th percentile was 108% funded.1
In our view, return-seeking portfolio construction is an important consideration for plans at all stages of their glidepath — whether the focus is preserving funded status as portfolios approach their end state or seeking further funded-ratio improvement. In this paper, we will:
- Discuss our return-seeking philosophy and the need to balance upside equity market participation with the mitigation of funded-ratio drawdowns
- Examine the role of defensive and diversifying strategies as complements to core equities in a return-seeking portfolio
- Analyze the impact these allocations can potentially have on risk-adjusted returns, as well as upside/downside and stress capture