The new multi-asset investing regime

Thomas Mucha, Geopolitical Strategist
Nick Samouilhan, PhD, CFA, FRM, Co-Head of Multi Asset Platform
2023-11-09T12:00:00-05:00  | S2:E17  | 27:56

The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.

Episode notes

Multi asset strategist Nick Samouilhan joins host Thomas Mucha to discuss managing multi-asset portfolios in today's increasingly complex economic and geopolitical environment, including highlighting his latest research on income generation.

  • 2:00 - Path to multi-asset investing: South Africa and economics
  • 4:15 – Allocators’ shifting challenges
  • 7:00 – New income-generation research
  • 9:45 – The income balancing act
  • 12:20 – Deep dive on multi-asset research
  • 15:30 – Recent research: Value versus growth and active management
  • 18:30 – Correlation between equities and bonds
  • 19:50 – Navigating change with frameworks: Inflation and regulatory risk
  • 22:25 – Effect of geopolitical risk


Nick Samouilhan: Those investors who push the boat out earning income and really trying to push it out as much as possible, when yields sold-off last year had a much worse time on the portfolios than those that were a bit more balanced.

Thomas Mucha:            As the lines between stocks, bonds, and alternatives blur, not so much in terms of form, but in function, allocators need to think broadly about their objectives. And as macro and geopolitical forces have a greater bearing on market outcomes, investors need to consider those as well, and it's certainly a tall order here.

                                    Fortunately, my guest today is an expert at parsing the challenges with the construction, management, and governance of multi-asset portfolios. I'm joined by Nick Samouilhan, head of multi-asset strategy in our Asia Pacific region. Now Nick is part of our investment strategy and solutions team, or iStrat, which includes factor-based, thematic, and multi-asset professionals. He joins us today from our office in Singapore. Nick, welcome to WellSaid.

Nick Samouilhan:          Thank you, Thomas. It's great to be here.

Thomas Mucha:            Nick, before we jump into your investment views, let's start this conversation with some personal elements. Now you grew up and completed your education in South Africa. So I'm curious, how did growing up in such a, let's say, volatile political, social, policy environment, how did that shape the way that you see the world?

Nick Samouilhan:          It's a good question. And I think volatile is the right word. It's a country where, as everyone knows, it’s had a very tough history. And is a good example, both of huge inequality in many different ways, but also, the best and worst that people can do to each other. So there’s all those lessons, but I think the one that’s probably most relevant to this is this idea that change is just normal and you don’t feel it every day. Sometimes it happens very quickly, but often it’s gradual. But over time, those tectonic plates have shifted a lot and you just need to get used to living in that world and spend your time accustomed to navigating change and really trying to work out, what’s going on beneath the surface? Where are we going? Right? What’s the long-term direction on these things? If you can get that right, which is not easy, I think you’re okay. 

Thomas Mucha:            Yeah, I agree with that. The change, particularly on the geopolitical side, I think of this in terms of tectonic shifts in the backdrop that move very slowly, but there are times when things move very quickly, and I do think we're in one of those periods where you know the forces at work, these structural forces as you mentioned them, are impacting the investment backdrop. Keeping it on the personal level for one more question, Nick, what drew you to structural multi-asset research? Or put another way, why is this what you do?

Nick Samouilhan:          Frankly, I do it because I really love it. I have somehow ended up in what I think is the world's greatest job. I can sit down and try and work out what's really going on beneath the surface, and Wellington's fortunate to give me some time to do that. I can work with some really smart colleagues, and together, we can say, "Well, this is all the noise that's going on. This is things that happen day to day. But if you look beyond that, here is really what's going on beneath the surface."

                                    And my background is in economics. And the toolkit of economics is that you can find the problem and then, you just throw different things at it, whether that is data, whether that is history, whether it's politics, whether there are stories. And by using those different toolkits, you can get the answer. 

Thomas Mucha:            Now Nick, you spoke about change, you spoke about the importance of continually looking at the world in new ways. So how are the challenges facing allocators changing, in your view, and what should we be doing about this from an investment perspective?

Nick Samouilhan:          Investing, in many ways, it sits on the bedrock of economics and policy and politics and regulatory, as you said, and all of that's constantly changing.     For a long time, maybe 10 years, maybe more, the underlying economics, policy, regulation cycles all over the world were converging. That integration meant economies started moving together and with capital being more freely flowing, market started to move together, and policy cycles started to move together, and regulatory cycles started to become harmonized.

                                    And that underlying, growing synchronicity, the uniformity beneath the surface, meant that, from the top level, things got hard because the whole thing about investing is to find diversification and if everything starts to move together, you have a problem. So the problem for many years now has been how do you find diversification when everything is moving together? It ultimately deduced to this idea of risk on risk off. And there's a small, small sign that that's changing.

                                    Supply chains are being pulled up, economies are being pulled apart to some extent, policy cycles are moving apart, capital is not flowing as freely as it was beforehand. So you've now got this idea that things are moving in different ways, and that poses a benefit at the top level. You've now got diversification, but it poses a problem we've never had for a long time, which is what do you do about currencies? Because if things start to move in different directions, currencies start to become much more important. And just anecdotally, I've not spoken to any of my peers or clients about currency hedging for about 10 years and now many, many want to talk about it. So the problems change all the time.

Thomas Mucha:            Yeah, Nick, I think you said something just now that's extremely important from an investment perspective, it's this idea about differentiation. And I've been struck over the years that I've been watching this, just how much national security issues have risen to the forefront of policymaker concerns, right? That is a seminal shift in the globalization backdrop. In fact, you know, US foreign policy was to promote integration for decades, right? It was the belief among policymakers that this convergence, as you put it, would be good for US foreign policy, it would be good for business, it would be good for national security.

                                    That game has changed, and policymakers are valuing national security over economic efficiency. And that is a fundamental shift in the geopolitical backdrop. But as you say, that creates differentiation.

                                    And that brings me, Nick, to your most recent research subject, which is income. Now, generating income from an investment portfolio, it's obviously something that almost every investor thinks about. The topic is particularly top of mind today, amid large, structural shifts in the world's demographic backdrop. So Nick, what were you looking to discover about income generation and what are some of the key findings that you can share with the WellSaid audience?

Nick Samouilhan:          So it started because we think income, just given where yields are, is now very much top of mind for many investors. And we thought that's what we start doing is that there'll be certain portfolios, certain clients, certain times we want to earn income. Let's look at this.

                                    And the first thing we found is that even for portfolios that are not trying to generate an income, those purely focused on growing money over time, over, say, five years, the majority of their return is driven by income as well. So even for portfolios where you don't want to focus on income, you just want to focus on growing your capital, income is really important. That was kind of a big breakthrough for us. Income is incredibly important.

                                    And then, the next questions come, which is, well, if income is so important, why not just earn as much income as you possibly can? And then, we bumped into three other things. The first is that if you think about total return, growing money over time, regardless of where it comes from, at some point, if you start pushing the boat out and earning too much income, you will lose on the other side in capital. You start lending out money to speculative credit, some of them default and you lose. So there's a limit on the side, you must be balanced.

                                    The second thing we found is that income between different asset classes tends to vary a lot over time. And there'll be plenty of time when it makes more sense to get income from, say, equity dividends and not fixed income coupons, and vice versa. So you need to be more dynamic than you think about this over time.

                                    And the third and final one is the foundational idea of multi-asset investing is that you've got equities and bonds and things moving in different directions and they're low-correlated, they're diversified. And the problem is that particularly on the fixed income side, if you take too much income, you start to lose the diversification. On the fixed income side, as you try and get more and more income, you go into more and more speculative parts of credit because they pay high yields, they will correlate more and more with equities. So you lose the diversification effect.

                                    So those are the three things we found. And we put it all together, it means we should be much more serious about generating income in our portfolio, but much more thoughtful about how we do that.

Thomas Mucha:            So it's a balancing act?

Nick Samouilhan:          It is a balancing act.

Thomas Mucha:            How do you decide when income becomes the driving force here in the portfolio?

Nick Samouilhan:          It's a good question. I'll answer it in two ways. When should you lean into income more generally? And I think the answer there is when you expect markets to largely go sideways. If you think markets go sideways, you should pick up the coupon, earn the dividend, then you will grow, as a general rule.

                                    The second one is, if you're constantly looking across markets, there'll be times when the income you can get from a certain source is very high, given the risk that you need to take. And there'll be other times, to get the same level of income, you must take much more risk. For instance, in equities, you may be forced to own very few stocks. So it's not just a view on where markets are going, but it's also a view across the income sources.

Thomas Mucha:            Now, you mentioned the trade-offs in this equation, let's dig into that a little bit more, the importance of balancing this pursuit of income in a multi-asset portfolio. So what are the main issues that you as an allocator think about? And then, what if other allocators are tempted to, let's say, swing for the fences and generate as much income as possible? How do you get this balance right?

Nick Samouilhan:          So we always start off with what we're trying to achieve on these things. And if we are trying to, in general, just grow the money over time, which is what most people want to do with their portfolio, there'll be some times where it makes lots of sense to earn lots of income and particularly when, say, markets go sideways or when bonds sell-off and the yields are just very high given the risk that you bear. But there'll be other times, and we've just lived through a decade perhaps of this, where yields are very low and in order to earn a decent income, you had to go into more concentrated parts of the equity markets or take more and more duration risk. And that works for some time, but you are taking more risk. And those investors who push the boat out earning income and really trying to push it out as much as possible when yields sold-off last year had a much worse time on the portfolios than those that were a bit more balanced.

Thomas Mucha:            Yeah, the boat started to sink.

Nick Samouilhan:          Absolutely.

Thomas Mucha:            So of course, Nick, you and others on the iStrat team here at Wellington research many topics, not just income. So how do you decide on a subject to research in depth? And second, where do your ideas generally start from?

Nick Samouilhan:          So how we come up with the ideas is it's ultimately a function of the very unique role. And what the role is we are tasked with doing three things at the same time. We need to run multi-asset portfolios, making decisions around allocation and so on. We need to conduct research into that. And the third part is we need to speak to our peers on the industry from the clients and so on. So we'll spend our time looking at portfolios, trying to understand what makes them work and talking to our peers all over the world.

                                    And the real magic happens when we all come together because I sit here in Singapore, I look after the Asia Pacific region, I have a peer in Europe, but then, there are also others in North America who do it by channel. And when we all come together, what's really fascinating is although we might be talking to an insurance client in Japan or a sovereign wealth fund in the Middle East or a financial advisor in Chicago or a public scheme in California, we may use different language, but it turns out we'd often be talking about the same problem and that's the topic we want to tackle.

                                    So if I think about the ones we've tackled in recent years, we started talking about inflation in 2020 and that led to a research project. We started talking about China not soon after that, we've been talking about yields and climate. And these topics emerge, ultimately, about us facing the same problems that our clients do, which is around multi-asset investing in some way. So that's how they emerge. We try and find topics which are important, which are impactful and which are common to many.

Thomas Mucha:            That's interesting. There are a lot of echoes with what you just said in terms of how I look at the world and how I manage my role here at Wellington. I always find there's an interesting Venn diagram between what I'm discussing with clients and what I'm discussing with policymakers. And whenever I have an intersection of those two things, that's generally where I spend the most amount of my brain power.

                                    Now, I'm curious, Nick, are you ever surprised by your findings? You did say earlier that there were a couple of things that jumped out, but I'm really interested in digging into this process a little bit more. I mean, from your perspective, is this more about starting with the base theory that you're pretty confident that is correct, and then, explaining the nuances and details of that data for clients?

Nick Samouilhan:          I think, to be honest, we all start with a salient memory about things, a muscle memory on how to approach a particular problem, what the answer is on those things. But we do spend as much time on diagnosing the problem as we do trying to treat it. And there are times when we approach a particular problem with some preconceived idea and it turns out to be wrong. And we probably then try and look at the data and say, "Well, is the data wrong? This must be right. We all believe this."

                                    And I can give you one very recent example of that, which is our colleagues looked at this idea of when to tilt your portfolio towards value versus growth, very important topic for many allocators. And the muscle memory is, well, you should do that as you come out of a recession, as you come out and the economy starts to boom, you go into value. And we looked at the data, and it just wasn't there. There were sometimes, absolutely, but as a universal rule, it was not true.

                                    And then, they started to look beneath the surface, and it turned out that there were clear drivers of when value started to outperform: interest rates, nominal GDP, growth, inflation and so on. And sometimes, they coalesced around as you come out of recessions, but not always.

                                    So it's really trying to work out, we may have this easy answer, but that answer may well have only occurred certain times. Can we really understand the framework? If we can really understand how it works, then we know when it will work.

                                    The other one, while we're talking about findings and surprising things, we did some work looking at different active equity managers across different sectors. So equity managers in, say, the US, Japan, and so on. This was part of a project we did on the team about where should we allocate risk. And my colleague, Alex King, found something really interesting, which is that there's clearly certain markets where active managers add lots of alpha quite consistently and other markets where they struggle. Now that was a surprising, but quite a robust finding.

                                    And then we linked it to work that was done by our sister team, the Fundamental Factor Platform, which didn't look at active managers, it looked at the markets themselves and it tried to score these markets by how efficient they were. And if you did that, if you scored markets by how efficient they are, and you looked at the work we did about where active managers can add more value and you superimpose them on each other, they're almost one for one. So we found something here, which the answer was what most people would feel is true that certain markets, there's more ability to add alpha, but we found out why as well, in that it's not because certain active managers are better than others, it's that the market structure itself leads to a higher chance of outperforming.

Thomas Mucha:            That's interesting. So you're infusing data onto trends that you're seeing and then coming up with investible actions that reflect that. I find in my research that one of the most difficult hurdles to get over, and you mentioned this before, is recency bias. Everyone has this view on what has recently happened and that tends to play a more predominant role in thinking. But in times of great structural change, I think we have to look back farther and farther to find these patterns because nothing is new under the sun here. So I do feel like we're in a very interesting moment for the investment backdrop, given these big structural changes that we've been speaking about.

Nick Samouilhan:          I always think people approach history as, we'll find the number from history, we'll find the data point, whereas, history is a story, it's there to tell you how things have changed over time.

                                    And I always roll my eyes, sometimes quietly, sometimes not, when people use this word correlation, and they'll often say, "Well, the correlation between these two things is X," and a given number, sometimes they may even give decimal points. And this is not Newtonian physics. It's not like there's some underlying reason why these two things have this relationship, that is, it doesn't change, that is the relationship. That's not true because you're dealing with, as you mentioned earlier, beneath the surface, these relationships will change because the economics change, the policies change.

                                    And the perfect example of that is this idea that equities and bonds are negatively correlated, which was almost a universal truth. And we looked at the data, and over history, that's not always true. And then, we try to work out why. And the reason is that both equities and bonds, at times, are driven by economics and policy. And it turns out that if you go into recession, the equities will fall, but central banks will cut interest rates, so bonds will go up. So you get this negative correlation, usually, but not when the equities fall because of inflation going up, because in that situation, equities will fall, but central banks will hike interest rates and bonds will also fall. So it's understanding really the relationships behind the numbers and from there, trying to work out when they work and when they don't work.

Thomas Mucha:            Anything else you'd like to add to this fascinating conversation, Nick?

Nick Samouilhan:          One of the things I keep trying to get my head around is this idea of change, which we've been talking about the whole time. And that makes it hard to get answers. And whenever we are doing the research, we tend to start always in long-form. We tend to write things down and it means that we can spend time on different sentences to work out this is actually true. And then, we distill them down.

                                    But at the end of all of that, there's always the question asked of, "Well, what's the answer?" And we usually don't have an answer, but we do have, which we think are much more useful, are frameworks. And it's the frameworks that have allowed us to sort of navigate the change and work at, well, if this happened, then we should do this, or this could happen, therefore, we should go the other way. So I think one of the things about our research is a focus really not on answers, but on frameworks and analysis. And that, I think, has been very helpful for us.

Thomas Mucha:            So what does that mean from an investment perspective, Nick?

Nick Samouilhan:          Two things immediately pop out to me. So the first is we've just lived through an extraordinary period where inflation is just very, very low. I know it sounds extraordinary now, but there were genuine worries that we couldn't get inflation above target. And the reason for that is governments all over the world were focused on trying to bring down borders and just be more efficient. If it made sense to have something produced overseas, we should do that. That's changed, to your point.

                                    And I think the first thing that pops out is the relationship between growth and inflation has to change, and we're not ready for that. Portfolios need to readjust for a world where inflation's a little bit higher and maybe more volatile. 

                                    The second thing that pops out is this idea of regulatory risk that you can wake up and this company you've done lots of research on suddenly can't get its supply anymore because it goes through a particular supply chain that's been turned off by regulatory risk. So this idea of thinking long and hard about companies, where they source things, where they sell things into, how does their business work, becomes much more important in that world you described, Thomas.

Thomas Mucha:            Nick, one other aspect of this that pops into my mind is the geopolitical backdrop is a far more complex, uncertain and frankly, dangerous environment than most investors are used to thinking about. The policymakers that I talked to, granted they're on the national security side, many of them, but the idea of war, great power conflict is a real one from the policymaker's perspective, how does that influence the way you think about market outcomes going forward?

Nick Samouilhan:          It's something we spent some time thinking on to the points you've just gone through, but it's one of these things that the more you think about that the less certain you are of the answer. Because you can say, "Well, if there was going to be a war over here, we can put money outside of that." And then, you realize that many of the other things sell into that market or maybe require some input from that. And then, you realize that supply chains are real and that, actually, it's very hard to carve out part of the world from the rest of the world that's been integrating for a long time.

                                    So it's something we need to spend some time on. It's something that's incredibly hard to hedge against. It's incredibly hard to build a portfolio that's insulated from it. But we should think long and hard about what war would do to the supply chains and particularly how that would feed through into inflation, and on that, onto revenues.

Thomas Mucha:            I get a lot of policymakers talking to me about how this moment resembles 1913, where you had great powers aligning against each other in multiple spheres, economic spheres, trade spheres, policy spheres, military spheres. And so, I think we have to keep that in mind here given the fact that policymakers are putting so much emphasis on these potential outcomes.

Nick Samouilhan:          Can I ask you a question of you, Thomas, which is geopolitics is one of these things where lots of people almost view it as secondary to valuations, to profits, to the economy. From my side, it seems that that's changed, I'm just wondering if you are thinking the same thing and hearing the same thing where it's now viewed as this is something we need to bear in mind as one of the primary determinants of what we make in terms of investment decisions?

Thomas Mucha:            Yeah, I think that's a great question, Nick. I don't think it's primary, but I think it's more important today than it has been for let's say 40 or 50 years. And the way that I tend to think about this, is this focus on strategic industries, these sectors that are on the front lines of great power competition, and importantly, where the policymakers think are so important going forward.

                                    I tend to focus on those areas because those areas, semiconductors, next gen communications, robotics, automation, of course, AI and quantum, these industries of the current moment and of the future, those are the ones that are likely to get most protection and promotion by government policies. And we're already seeing this happen, of course, the Chips Act, we're seeing export controls all over the place with semiconductors, we're seeing outbound investment restrictions into certain areas.

                                    So I do think, from an investment perspective, an astute investor now has to consider these geopolitical drivers as part of the broader mosaic here. It doesn't mean inflation doesn't matter, it doesn't mean growth doesn't matter, it doesn't mean all of these other issues that we think about. But it does mean that geopolitical risk needs to be a higher consideration as you think about what the future looks like.

Nick Samouilhan:          In many ways, a repeat of after World War II where oil became such an important input into many economies that impacted how people viewed geography, for instance, and from that the politics and the new oil as it were, the chips and so on, you've mentioned, I can see a similar thing happening.

Thomas Mucha:            Wise words, indeed. Once again, Nick Samouilhan, head of multi-asset strategy in our Asia Pacific region. Thanks for being with us on WellSaid. It was a great conversation.

Nick Samouilhan:          Thank you, Thomas.


Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For  professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced November 2023.

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