The case for multi-strategy investing

In a world where traditional asset classes aren’t offering particularly attractive prospective returns, many argue that investment in alternative assets – such as private equity, high-yield bonds, renewable energy and even cryptocurrencies – has become essential to ensure sufficient portfolio diversification. While some investors may wish to opt for a single-asset-class strategy, for others, a multi-strategy allocation may be more appropriate. What can a multi-strategy fund offer to a traditional balanced portfolio in terms of enhancing the risk-return outcome for investors?

Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008, the levels of economic intervention and support by authorities worldwide have been unprecedented, and the stimulus measures have driven bond yields lower and equity prices higher. Although these support measures have been welcomed, they do leave investors relying on a combination of traditional equities and bonds with a conundrum: where and how to allocate their funds. The challenge is greatest in the bond markets where, unlike equities that can grow their earnings over time, most interest payments are fixed.

To put this into perspective: since the start of the GFC, the 10-year government bond yields in the US, the UK and Germany have fallen from highs of 5.3%, 5.5% and 4.7% respectively to 0.67%, 0.19% and -0.49%. These moves have been driven by the responses to firstly the GFC and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. It is very difficult to make a case for owning a bond yielding less than 1% over any meaningful length of time, let alone a bond with a negative yield where a loss is all but guaranteed.

In this challenging environment there is certainly a strong case to be made for investing in alternative assets or strategies. The list of alternative investments available is as long as it is broad – it covers areas as diverse as private equity, high-yield bonds, hybrid capital bonds, equity and bond derivatives, structured products, property, renewable energy, infrastructure, volatility and even cryptocurrencies.

Some investors may choose to follow single-asset-class strategies, but for others, an allocation to a multi-strategy option will be more suitable. As an alternative investment to bonds, any solution chosen should be managed with an absolute-return objective and should seek to reduce the downside risk for investors.

Flexibility to adapt

One of the main attractions of a multi-strategy fund is the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions. This flexibility is a function of not having a set asset allocation benchmark, and allows the fund manager the freedom to defend when needed and to attack when opportunities present themselves.

For example, during the COVID-19 sell-off earlier this year, the Sanlam Multi-Strategy Fund reduced its equity exposure from 30% at the high to -10% at the low through active position management and the impact of equity index put options. This defensive stance allowed the fund to take advantage of prevailing market weakness by buying high-yield bonds and equity call options. The defensive action helped limit the drawdown at the peak of the sell-off, and set the stage for the attacking action that helped the fund to post a new all-time high as markets rallied back.

Unsurprisingly, selecting which fund to own is far from simple. The Morningstar database currently lists 687 funds in its alternative multi-strategy sector. Over the past year the average fund has returned -0.56%, with the best-performing fund rising 75% and the worst falling 63%. The top-performing fund was focused on distressed investments, while the worst was focused on fixed-income derivatives. To complicate things further, both funds, according to their Bloomberg data, had assets of less than US$1 million, which would have made them uninvestable for most people.

In a nutshell

The low interest rate environment looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. The need for portfolio diversification remains unchanged and with bonds offering little or no return, an allocation to a flexible, multi-strategy, absolute-return fund that can dynamically shift its asset allocation and has the freedom to seek opportunities in multiple asset classes makes a lot of sense. However, outcomes are not guaranteed and there can be huge deviations in returns. As always when selecting a fund, understanding a manager’s style and investment process is key.