All posts by Sellwood Consulting

2022 Economic & Market Review

2022 was a brutal year for markets, offering few places to hide to novice and professional investors alike. As we transition to 2023, the following questions are top of mind:

  1. How does 2022 market performance compare to history?
  2. What is the near-term outlook for a recession?
  3. How should recent economic data be interpreted?

2022 Investment Year in Review

Drawdowns in asset prices were widespread and severe in 2022. U.S. stocks fell 19%. Non-U.S. stocks fell 15%. Investment-grade “core” bonds, which typically protect against sudden declines in stock prices, declined 13%. Chart One below plots stock and bond returns by calendar year, dating back to 1926. There have only been three years in history (1931, 1969 and 2022) when stocks and bonds both declined in the same calendar year. 2022 was the sixth worst year for stocks since 1926 and the worst year for bonds in modern history, by a wide margin.

Chart One: U.S. Stock & U.S. Government Bond Returns: 1926-2022

Source: Morningstar, Sellwood Consulting.

Over the last two decades, stocks and bonds have reliably diversified one another. In 2008, for example, when stocks fell 42%, investment-grade bonds appreciated 5%. This relationship, however, has recently changed. Specifically, the correlation coefficient of stocks and bonds, which had been negative for 20 years, shot up rapidly in 2021-2022, turning positive. This represents a return to the correlation relationship between stocks and bonds that had prevailed in the 40 years before the year 2000.

Chart Two: Stock & Bond Correlations

Source: Morningstar, Sellwood Consulting.

This raises the question, “Is Diversification Dead?” According to Antti Ilmanen of quantitative asset manager AQR, “We have a nice story on why the sign flipped from positive to negative 20 years ago. Stocks and bonds tend to be driven by growth and inflation. When there is more growth uncertainty, stocks and bonds tend to move in opposite directions, so we’ve had negative stock/bond correlation for the last 20 years. Before that, there was, relatively speaking, more inflation uncertainty, and we tended to have positive stock/bond correlations. So, we are waiting to see if those relative uncertainties flip again.”

What should an investor expect going forward? Will bond and stock diversification resemble the last 20 years or the 40 years prior? In the past 20 years, bonds have diversified stocks due to economic growth uncertainty. In the current interest rate environment, however, it is likely that both growth uncertainty and inflation uncertainty will surface, potentially leading to less diversification benefit between stocks and bonds. Nonetheless, we still recommend that investors own bonds, as bonds should diversify in periods of extreme economic uncertainty, particularly during rapid stock market selloffs. It is impossible to know in advance whether there will be more growth or inflation uncertainty, strengthening the argument for a strategic allocation to bonds.

The Economy in 2023: Bending, Breaking, or Pivoting?

The 12-year period following the Global Financial Crisis (2009-2021), was characterized by steady Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”) growth, increasing corporate profits, and disinflation (when goods and services prices rise, but at progressively slower rates). Conditions were favorable for asset prices, leading investors to shift from traditional investments, such as government bonds, to higher-returning sectors of the market. With risk came reward, leading to the longest bull market in history. Investment speculation was encouraged. The real risk, in many investors’ eyes, was missing out.

This behavior was driven by the Federal Reserve’s aggressive monetary policies, which included lowering interest rates to zero, and purchasing trillions of dollars in bonds along with other central banks. These policies resulted in low borrowing costs across the economy, contributing to excess liquidity and market dislocations we are seeing today. This period (2009-2021) was marked by:

  • Rising stock prices
  • Low price volatility in financial assets
  • Low borrowing costs for risky borrowers
  • Low correlations
  • Rising home prices
  • A steep yield curve
  • Opportunities in less liquid markets

2022 has seen a reversal of these trends. Stocks fell, volatility rose, credit spreads climbed, correlations rose, the yield curve inverted, home prices fell, and areas of low liquidity (in public markets for now) declined more than similar areas with high liquidity.[1] But how bad are things economically? Data on U.S. production, inflation, and employment frame the economic environment.

U.S. Economic Production Outlook

U.S. real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is at its highest level in history, but the growth rate of GDP has been inconsistent and has slowed over the last several quarters. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a low point in annualized GDP growth (-8.4%), but GDP growth quickly rebounded, to 12.5%. Now, GDP growth rates are positive but have slowed down as consumers, companies, and governments adjust their spending habits to the current economic climate. This includes rising prices, increased unpredictability, and uncertainty about the value of assets.

Chart Three: Real GDP Level, Growth

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting.

The Federal Reserve is trying to slow down the economy gradually, but a recession seems likely. A survey by the Conference Board found that most CEOs, regardless of company size, expect a recession within the next 12 to 18 months. This survey reported the lowest levels of CEO confidence since the Great Recession. When asked about expectations for the next 12 to 18 months, 98% of CEOs said they were preparing for a recession in the United States, and 99% of CEOs reported preparing for a recession in Europe.

In response to economic uncertainty, relative U.S. economic strength, and higher cash rates, market participants have pushed the value of the U.S. dollar to multi-decade highs. The dollar is considered a safe haven compared to other currencies, and its strength is not surprising given higher economic growth and higher interest rates in the U.S., compared to the rest of the world. Many analysts predict that the dollar’s strength will decrease in 2023 due to lower expected growth in the U.S., improved growth prospects in other countries, and the Federal Reserve easing its monetary policies, which would reduce dollar support. A declining dollar would act as a tailwind for investments held by U.S. investors denominated in foreign currencies (e.g., international stocks).

Chart Four: Dollar Strength YTD

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting.

U.S. Inflation Outlook

“Low and stable inflation in many countries is an important accomplishment that will continue to bring significant benefits.”

-Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, 2006-2014, 2022 Nobel Prize in Economics

“Inflation is like toothpaste. Once it’s out, you can hardly get it back in again.”

-Karl Otto Pohl, President of the German Bundesbank, 1980-1991

As noted, the period from 2009-2020 was characterized by disinflation. In 2021 and 2022, inflation by every measure has accelerated. Inflation has trended well above the Federal Reserve’s intended target of 2%, independent of which inflation measure is used. We present Consumer Price Inflation Index (“CPI”), Producer Price Inflation Index (“PPI”), and wage inflation over data over the last ten years in Chart Five below.

Chart Five: Inflation Measures 2001-2021

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting.

Inflation – measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), Producer Price Index (PPI), or wages, began accelerating in early 2021. We note that each of these inflation measures is showing signs of moderating, suggesting that higher rates are reducing demand.

But why is inflation so high? Inflation at its core is caused by too much money chasing too few goods. Analyzing aggregate demand and supply can provide answers.

In the U.S., aggregate demand is a story of consumer confidence, as consumer spending accounts for approximately 60% of U.S. production. Monetary and fiscal policymakers flooded consumers and businesses with stimulus as COVID-19 lockdowns began.

Over $5 trillion in total stimulus was distributed with individuals and families ($1.8 trillion), and businesses ($1.7 trillion), as the largest beneficiaries. The largest prior fiscal stimulus, enacted by President Obama in 2009, was a paltry $831 billion by comparison. As can be seen in the table below, stimulus payments were approved even after the economy was recovering. The net effect of this was to raise consumer and business spending (demand) substantially.

Table Six: $5 Trillion in COVID Stimulus

Source: pandemicoversight.gov

On the supply side of the equation, the availability of both goods and services in the economy was impacted by COVID-19 around the globe. Further, as we transitioned to 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, providing additional inflationary pressures, particularly related to energy and grain prices. As seen in Chart Seven below, inflation was widespread, with categories influenced by commodity prices hit particularly hard over the last year.

Chart Seven: Consumer Price Index Categories in 2022

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting. Data reflects 11/30/2021-11/30/2022.

How has the Federal Reserve responded to high inflation? In 2021, the Federal Reserve believed that inflation was “transitory” and would ultimately trend downwards toward long-term policy targets. The Federal Reserve has two “mandates” that it tries to achieve through its monetary policy: maintain a stable level of inflation near 2% and promote maximum employment.

From 2009 to 2020, the Federal Reserve’s dual mandates of promoting low unemployment and maintaining stable prices were aligned due to disinflationary forces. In other words, flooding the market with money, through easing measures, supported both mandates in a disinflationary environment. However, in 2021 the situation changed, with high levels of employment coinciding with high levels of inflation. As a result, the Federal Reserve’s two mandates are no longer aligned, and future policy may require uncomfortable tradeoffs between the Fed’s dual mandates.

In 2021, after a decade of being below it, inflation was rising faster than the Federal Reserve’s 2% target. To try to address this, the Fed implemented a policy known as “tapering,” which reduced its purchases of bonds. At the same time, the Fed sought to avoid causing a recession by carefully balancing the reduction of stimulus with the health of the economy.

Ultimately, the Fed’s efforts to “thread the needle” between controlling inflation and avoiding a recession were not successful, as inflation has remained above target and the economy has suffered. However, monetary policy operates at a significant lag, and as we transitioned to 2022, and interest rates were climbing, it was clear that the Federal Reserve needed to bring down rates. By March of 2022, Jerome Powell took a page out of the Paul Volcker playbook and began raising the federal funds rate rapidly. This is seen in Chart Eight below:

Chart Eight: Powell’s FED Takes a Page Out of the Volcker Playbook

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting.

How many additional rate hikes should we expect? History provides a guide (see above), as does economic theory. According to Greg Mankiw, Professor of Economics at Harvard, “The question is, how much monetary tightening is in order? This question is hard, and anyone who claims to know the answer for sure is not being honest either with you or with themselves…The Taylor rule[2] suggests one way to calibrate the problem. This rule of thumb says that the real interest rate needs to rise by 0.5 percentage points for each percentage point increase in inflation. The yield on the 5-year TIPS, which incorporates recent and near-term expected changes in monetary policy, has risen by 330 basis points over the past year[3]. According to the Taylor rule, that would be appropriate if inflation had risen by 6.6 percentage points.”

As noted previously, many inflationary measures have exceeded 6.6%, with only recent inflation data trending downward. These data points argue that the Fed has not tightened enough. Wage inflation, which tends to be stickier, follows a similar trend. Wage inflation peaked in August 2022 at 6.7%, and has now retreated to 6.4%. Continued strength in employment and wage growth contributes to inflationary pressures.

Finally, the market provides its own assessment about the future path of inflation. For this, we look to TIPS breakeven spreads.[4] Using this measure, Fed policy is close to anchoring longer-term inflation expectations at a 2% target. This should help reduce inflation and interest rate uncertainty in 2023. Further, the negative wealth effect from asset price declines in 2022 (stocks, bonds, real estate, and cryptocurrencies, to name a few) should further dampen consumer demand.

Chart Nine: Breakeven Inflation Rates

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood Consulting.

U.S. Employment

“Unemployment is a side effect of the cure for inflation.”

-Milton Friedman, American Economist, 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics

Chart Ten: U.S. at Full Employment, Average Earnings Strong

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Sellwood

U.S. employment was red hot in 2022 and it continues to look strong. The unemployment rate is low at 3.7%, while average hours and wages continue to increase. The number of current openings at 10.3 million is well above trend, as are voluntary quits at 4 million. These data points paint the picture of a healthy labor market as workers are more willing to quit when jobs are abundant.[5]

Making Sense of Recent Economic Data

Economic forecasts are difficult, and forecasting a recession is no different. On the one hand, most market participants are expecting a recession. On the other hand, the Federal Reserve believes that it can orchestrate a soft landing and avert a recession. The uncertainty surrounding the question has widespread influence across capital markets. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital captured market sentiment and fundamentals effectively in a recent memo:

Source: Oaktree Capital.

The abrupt rise in interest rates in 2022 took many investors off guard. Rapidly rising rates had a significant impact on markets and contributed to price declines across most asset classes. To avoid another surprise, market sentiment and fundamentals should be carefully evaluated by investors as they navigate the upcoming landscape.

Current economic data are mixed, with some indicators pointing toward positive conditions and others indicating potential challenges. The continued role of inflation, which could impact the effectiveness of bonds as a diversifying investment, remains a primary concern. In the coming months, we will likely see both economic growth uncertainty and inflation uncertainty. This would make it more difficult for bonds to diversify stocks compared to an environment where economic growth uncertainty dominates.

As we begin the year 2023, it is important for investors to consider the impact of changing economic conditions. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that much of the available economic data is focused on the short term and may not have a significant impact on long-term investment strategy. Despite all the economic and market uncertainty, one thing we know with certainty is that the future return of any investment depends on the price paid for it. Lower prices today compared to a year ago offer opportunity. In the second part of this report, we will discuss the implications of current market conditions on portfolio design, and evaluate several opportunities that the market is offering as the calendar turns to 2023.

 

 

[1] Private investment strategies are less liquid than public investment strategies but have largely not been repriced in the current economic environment. We expect that write-downs in private markets portfolios will lag drawdowns in public market indices.

[2] The Taylor Rule is a monetary policy guideline that is used by central banks to help determine the appropriate level of interest rates. It is named after economist John Taylor, who developed the rule in the early 1990s.

[3] Since this quote was published (10/19/2022) the yield on 5-year TIPS has declined to 232 basis points, implying that rate hikes are lowering forward real interest rate expectations.

[4] The difference in yields between Treasuries and TIPS of the same maturity. This spread is a measure of expected inflation (i.e., inflation that is priced into the market) over the life of the bond.

[5] Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/29/opinion/columnists/federal-reserve-inflation.html

Fourth Quarter 2022 Market Snapshot

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Fourth Quarter 2022: What’s Next?

A tepid fourth-quarter rally in both stocks and bonds helped cut losses to close out a frustrating year for investors. For the full year, both global stock and investment-grade bond market indices suffered double-digit losses, as stock/bond diversification failed to meaningfully protect portfolios. A traditionally diversified portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds suffered the fourth worst drawdown in the last century, measured in both real and nominal terms.

After battering markets during much of the calendar year, inflation showed signs that it may in fact have peaked in the fourth quarter. Cooler inflation readings, consumer spending resilience, as well as better-than-expected corporate earnings helped rally shares in the first two months of the quarter before a more worrisome narrative took hold in December to depress the market. Investors, who have now seen the post-COVID enthusiasm fully fade from the markets, have returned their focus to the Federal Reserve, the expected path of future interest rates, and the economic and market implications thereof. The uncertainty surrounding these complex questions has kept markets depressed.

The higher expected returns created by this uncertainty offer opportunity. Just one year ago, with interest rates near their all-time lows and valuation ratios near their highs, investors were left with a menu of unattractive opportunities. Investment options now are much more normalized. Interest rates sit near their 25-year averages, and stocks are priced by various metrics near their 25-year medians. With both stocks and bonds again offering reasonable future returns, we believe that the “T.I.N.A.” (there is no alternative) market that helped create SPAC, meme stock, and cryptocurrency mania has ended. While nobody knows what comes next, we are comforted that valuations offer more compensation for the uncertainty today.

Happy Holidays

In the spirit of the Holiday Season, Sellwood has made a financial contribution to the Community Transitional School, a non-profit organization that provides homeless and transient children with a stable educational environment that promotes their academic and personal growth.

Our company also recently volunteered at the Children’s Book Bank, preparing children’s books to be delivered to kids in the community.

We wish you a wonderful holiday season and look forward to seeing you in the new year.

Third Quarter 2022 Market Snapshot

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Third Quarter 2022: Wake Me Up When September Ends

Hotter-than-expected inflation downed hopes of a sustained market rally during the third quarter, as equity and fixed income markets sold off in tandem. Global stocks began the quarter with a modest rise, as financial conditions loosened on the promise of an economic soft landing whereby inflation could cool while economic activity only slightly slowed. Those hopes were dashed as broad-based inflation readings remained high, and a subsequent uncharacteristically succinct speech from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell suggested “some pain” would be necessary if inflation is to be tamed. The reaction from the market was significant; the stock market fell precipitously in September to close at a new low for the year. Even with the stock market entering bear market territory, the real story thus far this year has been fixed income markets, which have suffered the worst losses in a century as yields have risen. The Bloomberg US Aggregate’s current drawdown is now its worst, and longest, on record.

Rising rates, which have slowed the previously red-hot housing US market, are now starting to have knock-on effects abroad. The relative strength of the US economy, a dour outlook for Europe, and higher yields stateside have increased the attractiveness of the US dollar, pushing it to parity with the euro. The strong dollar impact has been felt sharply in the United Kingdom where an ill-received, and quickly scrapped, economic policy proposed by new Prime Minister Liz Truss’s government led to a sharp sell-off in sterling and UK government bonds. The large market moves forced the Bank of England to pivot away from plans for continued tightening and instead purchase long-dated government debt to stave off potential solvency issues for several large UK pension plans. A full-scale financial crisis was held off, for the time being, but the issue highlights the tightrope that global central bankers are walking on: leaning too far into tighter policy increases the possibility of a hard landing. But leaning too far in the other direction risks that inflation becomes sticky and inflation expectations become entrenched, requiring even greater pain down the road. Markets, meanwhile, reflect higher uncertainty while this high-wire act plays out.

Celebrating a Decade of Small Batch Portfolios

Ten years ago, Sellwood’s four founders opened the firm’s doors in a little office in Portland. At the time, we had no clients, no track record, and no assets to advise. But what we lacked in resources, we made up for in a strong vision for a different type of institutional advisory firm.

Sellwood was based on just a few, simple, straightforward founding values. We wanted to work:

  • In a stable firm,
  • With people we like and respect,
  • Serving clients we can impact
  • Expertly and thoughtfully,
  • Without any conflicts of interest,
  • Profitably.

We believed that institutional investment advice did not need to come out of an “institution.” We believed that clients would benefit from stable, long-term relationships with highly experienced professionals who knew them best, rather than the industry’s prevailing model of a rotating cast of advisory characters and a huge support staff behind the scenes. We rejected the concept of model portfolios, believing instead that the best way we can celebrate what makes every client unique is by creating their own unique portfolio for them, tailored to their own needs, risks, and objectives. We believed that scale was the enemy, not the goal. High-quality customized advice does not scale.

It is rewarding that our firm has grown in every single year of the last ten. It is satisfying to know that the $8 billion of client assets we advise places us among the largest investment advisors in the country, measured that way. Developing our professional team, with minimal turnover, has been incredibly gratifying. It means a lot to us that we did it all while remaining 100% independent and employee owned.

But looking back over the last decade, what we are proudest of is that those founding values remain true today. This founding philosophy worked for ten years, and it is our sincere belief it will work for the next ten.

Some things get better with age. Sellwood’s four founders remain actively employed here, and Sellwood enjoys stability – both in employees and in our roster of clients – that is the envy of our industry. For long-term investments to succeed, long-term relationships need to be there first.

Today, our four founders are fortunate to be part of a 15-person professional team that includes seven employee shareholders. All of these people have adopted Sellwood’s founding values as their own. We are also incredibly grateful to our clients, who have placed their longstanding trust in Sellwood’s different advisory approach.

As we mark this milestone for Sellwood, we raise our glasses to those clients, our employees, and everyone in the community who has helped us in one way or another. Thank you, sincerely.

With pride but even more gratitude:

To the next decade. Cheers.

Charlie, Kevin, Ashlee, Ryan, Nick, Ruthie, & Ryan

Sellwood’s Employee Shareholders

Second Quarter 2022 Market Snapshot

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Second Quarter 2022: Nowhere to Run – Nowhere to Hide

Major U.S. and global equity indices have shed almost a fifth of their value in the first half of 2022, the third-worst start to the year in the last century for U.S. stocks. Bonds, which have typically acted as a ballast in past selloffs, are off to their worst start to the year on record, with investment-grade debt down 11% over the first six months, as measured by the Bloomberg Aggregate.

Those looking for a culprit for the significant selloff in both stocks and bonds do not need to look much further than inflation. Inflation, which is running at its highest level in 40 years, has been much less “transitory” than forecasted. Pent-up demand from the pandemic fueled by record monetary & fiscal stimulus collided with supply-chain issues, and a surge in domestic energy prices that has now been sustained by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Resolution of the supply side of the mismatch depends on the return of normal supply chains, with semi-conductor and oil production of particular importance.

Absent the ability to fix the supply side of the equation, inflation’s persistence has forced a hawkish shift from the Federal Reserve to constrain demand. The FOMC is now projecting raising the federal funds rate above 3.4% in 2022, a far cry from the singular 0.25% hike the FOMC had foreseen as necessary to curtail inflation in their September 2021 projection materials. The swift shift in policy tightening has directly impacted the real estate market as mortgage rates have nearly doubled from 3% to almost 6% over the last year. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell noted that homebuyers “need a bit of reset” until supply can catch up to demand.

The big question in the second half of the year is if the central bank can engineer a “soft landing” for the U.S. economy where inflation comes down without provoking a recession. Powell himself has said there are no guarantees, but he remains upbeat given the relative health of businesses and the strength of the labor market.

Good and Bad Benchmarks

On the Governance Functions of Proper Benchmarking

A portfolio’s benchmark is a tool that helps a client (asset owner) perform the essential governance function of monitoring the management of its portfolio. While a good benchmark will make this governance function easier, a bad benchmark will make it more difficult.

This paper explains what a “good benchmark” is. Like portfolios, benchmarks are highly personal, and one size rarely fits all. When every portfolio implementation and governance structure is different, a “good benchmark” for one client may be a “bad” one for another. Understanding what makes a “good benchmark” is essential for asset owners – especially those who delegate the implementation of their investment policy.

There are many different ways of constructing benchmarks, and they all purport to answer slightly different questions. We suggest that when a client has delegated implementation of its investment policy to another party like an advisor, the most important question a benchmark can answer is how well the client’s investment policy is being implemented. In that scenario, only one benchmark design accomplishes the task.

Defining Roles

Every client and portfolio has two essential elements or roles: an owner of the investment policy, and an implementer of the investment policy. The party that has responsibility for these two roles can be different, depending on the investment oversight and governance structure chosen by the asset owner:

  1. The Non-Discretionary Model. An asset owner (client) can retain responsibility for both investment policy and implementation of the policy. This is the case when the client manages its own portfolio – implements its own policy – or hires an advisor to help it do so in a non-discretionary capacity. As an advisor, we call this the “Non-Discretionary Model,” but its logic applies equally to clients who do not employ an advisor at all. Responsibility for both investment policy and implementation of the policy reside with the client.
  1. The Discretionary Model. The client can retain responsibility for policy, and delegate responsibility for the implementation of policy. This is the case when the client hires a discretionary investment advisor or Outsourced Chief Investment Officer (OCIO) to manage the portfolio. In this model, it is the client’s responsibility to articulate investment policy, and the advisor’s responsibility to implement that policy with a portfolio.
  1. The Hybrid Model. The client can retain responsibility for policy, and partially delegate responsibility for implementation of policy. This is the case for a client who delegates, for example, responsibility for trading and rebalancing but not manager selection to its advisor.
  1. The Pooled Model. The client can outsource both policy and implementation of the policy. This is the case when the client joins a “pooled” investment structure alongside other similar investors, like a community foundation. This is the only scenario where the client outsources its investment policy to a third party; the only element of policy that the client retains is the selection of the pooled investment.

Every institutional portfolio we have seen follows one of these governance and oversight structures. The choice of an optimal benchmark depends on what question the benchmark purports to answer – and the answer may be different based on each of these models.

What Different Types of Benchmarks Exist?

A portfolio’s benchmark consists of two essential elements: the indexes represented, and the weights applied to those indexes. We have seen several styles of benchmarks that vary based on these two variables.

So-called “Actual Allocation” benchmarks typically combine the benchmarks of each of the underlying investment managers in the portfolio, at weightings that float based on each manager’s actual moving proportion of the portfolio. This type of benchmark can be calculated entirely without reference to investment policy or the Investment Policy Statement (IPS) – the only inputs to its calculation are from the actual portfolio itself.

This type of benchmark does a great job of helping a client evaluate the implementer’s manager selection decisions, at the exclusion of all other variables that would determine the portfolio’s return. Especially for clients who have adopted the Non-Discretionary Model, this can be a question worth answering. But because it does not reference the Investment Policy, an Actual Allocation benchmark does a poor job answering the main question of how well the client’s Policy was implemented, in total. Constructing a total portfolio’s benchmark using the underlying benchmarks of the funds or managers in the portfolio implies that the total portfolio’s benchmark will change when the underlying funds do. This only makes sense to the extent that manager selection is thought of as “policy,” not “implementation of policy” – as it sometimes can be, in the Non-Discretionary model, where these decisions are not delegated.

“Target Allocation” benchmarks combine benchmarks representing the asset classes represented in the client’s Investment Policy Statement, weighted by fixed weightings expressed in that document’s strategic target asset allocation. This method measures the translation of Investment Policy to the implementation of the actual portfolio in its totality. It captures asset allocation differences relative to the strategic target, rebalancing decisions, manager selection, implementation frictions, and everything else. Unlike an Actual Allocation benchmark, it is not possible to calculate this type of benchmark without the Investment Policy (Statement).

What Question is the Benchmark Answering?

As a client outsources more responsibilities to a third party, we suggest both that benchmarking becomes more important, and that the range of acceptable benchmark methodologies narrows considerably. Let us consider the Non-Discretionary and Discretionary models above, as bookends of the discretion spectrum, in terms of what benchmarks are appropriate:

  1. The Non-Discretionary Model. In this governance structure, nothing is delegated, and the client is benchmarking itself. The client may be interested in its manager selection ability, to the exclusion of its asset allocation decisions. It may be interested in evaluating implementation except for the “frictions” (e.g., time out of market) that can arise from implementing illiquid investments. Or it may be interested in how well it has implemented its own investment policy, in totality. A variety of appropriate benchmarking approaches exist here, depending on what questions clients seek to answer with them. Both benchmarks that reference the Investment Policy and those that do not may be appropriate in this context.
  2. The Discretionary Model. In this structure, the client has hired a third party to implement its investment policy. In a Discretionary Model process, there is a “handoff” of responsibilities from the client (owner of investment policy) to the implementer of the portfolio (the advisor) – the benchmark’s job is to continuously examine the efficacy of that handoff. We suggest that how well the investment policy has been implemented, in its totality, is the most essential and relevant question that a benchmark can answer for the client. Only benchmarks that reference the Investment Policy are appropriate in this context.

Because clients have a greater need to oversee (benchmark) third-party implementers of their investment policies than themselves, the rest of this paper will explore optimal benchmarking for the Discretionary Model. – e.g., when clients have retained responsibility for investment policy, but delegated the implementation of that policy to a third-party advisor or OCIO.

What a Benchmark Measures, and Doesn’t Measure, in the Discretionary (OCIO) Model

When clients entrust Sellwood with the responsibility of managing their portfolios, it is generally under the “Discretionary Model” outlined above, where the client retains responsibility for investment policy but delegates implementation of that policy to Sellwood. We implement portfolios for clients using the following framework:

  1. We first assess the client’s unique objectives and constraints. We want to understand what the client is trying to accomplish with their investment portfolio, and what specific relevant risks they face in doing so. We document these objectives and constraints in the client’s uniquely personalized Investment Policy Statement.
  2. We work with the client to design a customized strategic policy portfolio that best addresses the client’s unique needs, objectives, risk tolerance, and constraints. We help the client document this strategic policy (target) portfolio in the Investment Policy Statement. While we help the client with this document, proper governance dictates that the client always must be in full control of it. The advisor should never have permission to modify the client’s Investment Policy Statement. It documents essential direction from the client to the advisor.
  3. Then we implement a portfolio for the client, consistent with their Investment Policy Statement.

The process flows from the client’s real-world circumstances, to Investment Policy, to portfolio. From a broader governance perspective, the process flows from “things the client is responsible for” to “things the advisor is responsible for”:

The client is responsible for investment policy; the advisor is responsible for implementing investment policy. A properly constructed benchmark critically examines the link between client responsibility and advisor responsibility – it evaluates, and measures the ongoing efficacy of, the handoff of responsibility from client to advisor, or the translation of “investment policy” to “implementation of investment policy.”

In simpler terms, when a client has delegated implementation of its investment policy, the purpose of a portfolio’s benchmark is to measure how well the client’s Investment Policy has been implemented.

Knowing the benchmark’s purpose, we can then construct the benchmark to suit that purpose.

A “Good Benchmark” for a Discretionary Advisor

While there are many ways to construct a total portfolio’s benchmark, only one method truly measures how well investment policy has been implemented – a total portfolio benchmark that implements the strategic target portfolio articulated in the Investment Policy Statement, in the most straightforward and lowest-cost way possible. This benchmark will be calculated using fixed, strategic target portfolio weights, and reasonable, investable index proxies for each asset category in the strategic target. There should be an intimate, unbroken link between the client’s investment policy and the advisor’s benchmark. The benchmark should flow directly from the policy. It should not be possible to calculate this benchmark without reference to the policy.

A sample benchmark that fits this framework would be as follows:

Strategic Policy Target in Client’s Investment Policy Statement

Benchmark Calculation

40% US Equity 40% Russell 3000 Index
20% International Equity 20% MSCI ACWI ex US Index
30% Investment-Grade Fixed Income 30% Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index
10% Public Real Estate 10% NAREIT Equity Index

Note that the benchmark’s calculation percentages match the Investment Policy Statement’s strategic target weights, and the benchmarks are good representatives of each broad asset class being strategically allocated to. The intimate link between the client’s IPS and the portfolio’s benchmark is preserved with this calculation methodology. The benchmark represents the policy and therefore the client’s objectives.

We have sometimes seen more granular strategic benchmarks, both in the Strategic Policy Target documented in the IPS and the benchmark that flows from it (for example, 30% large-cap US equity and 10% small-cap US equity, rather than 40% US equity). We suggest that the proper framing for this decision is whether the allocation is truly a “policy” allocation. If the policy decision is to have 40% of the portfolio in US equity, then the benchmark should represent that decision. If the policy decision is to have a 30%/10% mix of large- and small-cap US equities, then both the IPS policy target and the benchmark should reflect that objective. On the other hand, if the large/small-cap portfolio mix is an implementation decision rather than a policy, then it should not be captured in the benchmark. It should be expressed instead as performance differences between the portfolio and the policy benchmark.

If the goal is to assess a discretionary advisor’s implementation of a client’s investment policy, a portfolio’s benchmark should match the simplest-possible implementation of the Investment Policy’s strategic target. It is possible to make a benchmark more complicated than this, but not possible to make it better.

Benchmarking Cannot Be Delegated

It is important that the construction of the benchmark not be delegated to the advisor. While a good advisor will always assist the client in drafting the client’s Investment Policy Statement, it is essential that the client retain control of the document. A well-constructed Investment Policy Statement will give the advisor clear direction on what tools it can use to design the portfolio, and in what proportions. It will also express a clear benchmark, which is an important yardstick for measuring the advisor’s performance in implementing the Policy.

We have seen many Investment Policy Statements that do not state what the portfolio’s benchmark is, but instead offer a loose description of what types of benchmarks may be acceptable. This invites bad benchmarking, not to mention sloppy governance. Asking the advisor (implementer of investment policy) to design their own benchmark is like asking a student to write and grade their own spelling test. This is why we insist that the Investment Policy Statement, which is always controlled by the client, clearly articulate the portfolio’s benchmark. This is not to say that a good advisor shouldn’t assist a client with drafting their IPS; only to say that control over – responsibility for – the document should always rest with the client.

Benchmarks should err on the side of simplicity in their construction. They need to be well understood by both the client and the implementer of their portfolio. A good benchmark is so clearly articulated in the Investment Policy that a reader could calculate the benchmark return by hand (with available index data).

What Does Success Look Like?

With a good benchmark in place, the portfolio’s results have a reference point for comparison. Then a framework for evaluating the portfolio, and the implementer of the portfolio, can be introduced.

To be clear: a target-weighted, strategic policy benchmark constructed as outlined above will represent a very good portfolio — a portfolio that will satisfy the client’s objectives all by itself. It should be a very difficult benchmark to beat, but beating it should not necessarily be the objective.

If the purpose of the portfolio is to meet the client’s objectives, then a portfolio that matches the return of the (properly constructed) benchmark, net of investment fees, is a success. Evaluating a customized portfolio is a different exercise from evaluating an active manager. Unlike the case of an active investment manager, where we are seeking a higher return than a benchmark in exchange for a higher-than-benchmark fee, a good advisor or OCIO should be designing a portfolio that prioritizes reliable delivery of the client’s specific objectives. While delivering a higher return than the objectives (expressed in the benchmark) can be rewarding, doing so isn’t typically the point, and pursuit of higher return introduces perverse incentives for a portfolio that strays from its intended purpose and introduces unwelcome risks to the portfolio. When we sit down with clients and help them frame their goals for the portfolio, excess return is rarely one of those goals. Delivery of their unique objectives always is.

It is also important to align evaluation horizon with the investment horizon. We typically design long-term portfolios for long-term investors. Judging a portfolio’s return versus a benchmark on anything less than a multi-year horizon, ideally on a rolling basis, is likely to be counterproductive.

Best Practices

Every client, portfolio, IPS, and governance structure are a little different – but the principles of benchmark design apply equally to all. We see the following as best practices:

  • The client (asset owner), not the implementer of policy, must control the benchmark. Having the total portfolio’s benchmark calculation methodology very clearly articulated in the IPS accomplishes this. The calculation methodology should be so clear that any third party should be able to calculate the benchmark return using nothing more than the IPS, independent index return information, and a hand calculator.
  • When a client has chosen to hire a third party to implement their Investment Policy (e.g., an advisor with investment discretion), then it is essential to construct the total portfolio benchmark using the indexes and fixed policy weights articulated in the client’s Investment Policy Statement. The purpose of the portfolio benchmark should be to help the client evaluate implementation of their Investment Policy, not just the performance of a portfolio in the abstract. Insisting on this methodology best preserves the essential link between Investment Policy and implementation of that Policy.
  • If other benchmark methods are used, the client should have a clear understanding of specifically what those benchmarks are capturing, and what they are leaving out – and ideally select benchmarks that most appropriately answer their essential questions. For example, an “Actual Allocation” index, based on actual manager benchmarks at their actual, real-time weightings, will measure only the aggregated performance of those managers, and never the effects of asset allocation differences relative to a target, gaps left in structure due to manager selection, the overall design of manager structures within each asset class, the benefits or costs of rebalancing, implementation frictions, etc.
  • When in doubt, a “Target Allocation” benchmark, using fixed weights and indexes from the IPS, is a good choice for any governance model. It is the utility player of portfolio benchmarks.

Conclusions

What is the purpose of a benchmark? Different governance structures imply different questions that a benchmark may answer. What party is being evaluated? For what tasks and responsibilities? Are there principal/agent problems that a benchmark can address – or a lack thereof that a benchmark should not?

When an asset owner has delegated responsibility for managing a portfolio (implementing policy), we believe that a portfolio benchmark’s primary purpose is to assess how well the advisor is implementing the Investment Policy. There should be an intimate, unbreakable relationship between the client’s Investment Policy and the portfolio’s benchmark. The benchmark should always come directly from the Investment Policy Statement, and it should not be possible to calculate a benchmark without reference to the Investment Policy Statement. Exceptions to this rule should be very rare and thoughtfully considered.

Contemplating benchmark construction can often feel technical, and asset owners may be tempted to outsource the decision to the “experts.” But it really is essential for the asset owner to retain full control and understanding of their portfolio’s benchmark, lest allowing the portfolio’s implementer to grade their own spelling test, so to speak. If the primary purpose of a benchmark is to provide a governance mechanism, then determining the benchmark must remain the client’s responsibility. (A good advisor will always still assist the client in discharging this responsibility.)

Benchmarking a total portfolio is an essential governance function for any asset owner, and the most appropriate benchmark for any portfolio reflects the governance relationship between the client, who is responsible for Investment Policy, and the implementer of that Investment Policy (most typically, an outside hired advisor). Proper benchmark design can solve principal/agent problems between these two parties, but improper benchmark design can introduce them.

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Appendix: What About Illiquid Investments?

Some portfolios contain illiquid investments, and it can be tempting to design a total portfolio benchmark differently to account for this illiquidity. Whether the benchmark should change (away from the optimal framework articulated above) depends on who controls the timing of the cash flows into and out of these investments.

Open-ended (sometimes called “core”) private real estate funds are a good example of an investment where we would not advocate changing the benchmark to account for illiquidity, as tempting as it can be to do so. Private real estate funds typically offer quarterly liquidity, and sometimes investors must enter a queue to either enter or exit the fund. These practical constraints make it difficult to maintain consistent targeted exposure to the asset class, especially when transitioning between funds; it is not unusual to sit “out of the market” for a quarter or two, if the timing of one fund’s redemption doesn’t perfectly align with another fund’s entry.

We have seen some investors prefer to calculate an “actual allocation” benchmark for their portfolio to account for this logistical difficulty. Under this method of creating a total portfolio benchmark, the underlying indexes are weighted using their actual weights at any point in time, rather than using the strategic target weights from the Investment Policy. The effect of this calculation is to have the benchmark unallocated to private real estate while the portfolio is.

This benchmarking approach does not measure the efficacy of the portfolio’s implementation of Investment Policy. The Policy calls for consistent exposure to real estate, or at least for returns that are comparable to consistent exposure to real estate — high enough to overcome the logistical drag inherent in choosing to employ private real estate funds. Imposing that logistical drag on the benchmark as well as the portfolio inappropriately breaks the link between Policy and implementation. In our example of private real estate funds, the portfolio implementer chose to implement the client’s investment policy in a logistically challenging way. The drag arising from that logistical challenge should be expressed in return deviation from benchmark just as much as the higher return associated with selecting a superior fund would.

At the same time, there are some illiquid investments, like private equity, where the logistics are entirely out of the client’s or the portfolio manager’s hands, because the very nature of the investment involves cash flows whose timing is directed by the fund manager, not by the client or their advisor. For portfolios with private markets investments like these, we work with clients to design their Investment Policies to acknowledge this limitation and identify the placeholder location for the assets ultimately designated for private markets, elsewhere in the client’s portfolio. Knowing this information, we can design a total portfolio benchmark that still expresses the client’s Investment Policy with high fidelity. The link between Policy and benchmarking remains unbroken.

First Quarter 2022 Market Snapshot

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First Quarter 2022: Rising Prices, Rising Rates, Rising Tensions

The stock market’s mild single-digit dip in the first quarter concealed wide swings in bond and commodity markets as investors dealt with the highest inflation readings in 40 years, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a tightening Federal Reserve that increased their number of projected rate hikes for 2022.

After reaching all-time highs in late 2021, equity markets were already reaching correction territory in early 2022 before the Ukrainian invasion pushed equity markets lower and commodity prices sharply higher. Supply chains, already stretched from the impact of the pandemic, took another blow as crude oil prices rose briefly above $120 a barrel. Other commodities were also impacted. With almost a third of the world’s wheat supply coming directly from Russia and Ukraine, prices per bushel doubled in early March before retreating slightly to end the quarter.

The large jump in commodity prices presents another headache for the Federal Reserve, which hiked interest rates for the first time since 2018 and has managed expectations for future hikes upward as inflation has remained persistently elevated. Expectations for higher rates sooner pushed bond yields higher and prices lower, leading to the worst quarter for investment-grade bonds in more than 40 years. The Bloomberg Aggregate, which measures investment-grade US debt, was down 6% in the first quarter while the Bloomberg Long-Term Treasury index was down almost 11%. Correspondingly, mortgage rates surged to the highest level since 2018.

What had been a double-digit loss for world equity markets midway through the quarter turned into a single-digit one as investors piled back into stocks, as well as more speculative bets, late in March to help cut losses. Energy shares were the main source of strength for the quarter, while investors with a value style tilt to their equity investments were also partially protected.

2022 Capital Market Assumptions

 Download our 2022 Capital Market Assumptions White Paper.

Sellwood’s 2022 Capital Market Assumptions portray a more optimistic environment for most asset classes, compared to a year ago.

Investor expectations for inflation are a core building block for both market prices and their prospects for future return. Rising inflation expectations contributed to an increase in our return expectations for most asset classes. Importantly, our assumptions are nominal in nature, so our higher forecasted returns do not necessarily imply higher purchasing power in the future.

Rising inflation expectations pulled fixed income yields higher over the course of 2021. Across the full Treasury yield curve, nominal interest rates for default-free Treasury assets rose by an average of 0.53%. Yields for bonds with modest credit risk rose by a bit more than that as spreads widened. Our forecasts for fixed income return have risen by approximately 0.30%-0.70%, consistent with the slightly higher expected returns offered by markets at the beginning of this year, compared to a year prior.

Equities are more challenging to forecast, and therefore have a wider assumed distribution of outcomes. Our forecasts for stock markets also rose, but by a smaller amount – approximately 0.15%-0.25% per year. This modest increase reflects our expectation that companies benefit, in nominal terms, from higher inflation. Our US equity assumption rose by a bit more than our non-US equity assumption did, partially reflecting that 2021’s performance for the US stock market, while extraordinary, underperformed corporate earnings performance, which was even more extraordinary.

Diversifiers mostly saw increased returns as well, reflecting their partial sensitivity to stock and bond markets. The only exception is real estate: very high recent returns have collapsed REIT yields (cap rates) to historic lows, reducing their expected return.

Fourth Quarter 2021 Market Snapshot

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Fourth Quarter 2021: There Is No Alternative

Global markets shrugged off supply-chain issues, various Covid-19 variants, and higher inflation in the fourth quarter to finish positive for the year, as the bull market that started in the spring of 2020 rolled on. Large-capitalization U.S. stocks continued their dominance as the S&P 500 ticked off 70 all-time highs, the second most highs ever recorded in a single calendar year. Exceptionally strong earnings and record-high profit margins were some of the catalysts for the stock market performance. Another driver can be summed up by the acronym “TINA” – There Is No Alternative. Investors, unexcited by low and rising fixed income yields, have shunned bonds and poured money into equity funds at record levels.

Supply-chain issues wreaked havoc on the world economy as consumers, flush with cash from record stimulus, shifted spending into consumer goods and away from in-person services. The subsequent inflation, initially contained in supply-constrained industries, has now extended to the broader economy. The resulting consumer price increases, the largest in three decades, forced Federal Reserve Chair Powell to ditch the at-best confusing “transitory” tag during his December testimony to Congress. Chair Powell also announced that the Federal Reserve is increasing the pace of bond tapering, paving the way for interest rate hikes as early as spring 2022. With inflation well above target and the unemployment rate at 4.2% in November, the path to rate raises would seem clear – but Chair Powell cited the Omicron variant and millions of U.S. adults that haven’t returned to the labor force as potential challenges for the economy in 2022.

Outside of the US, developed markets were more muted than U.S. indices but they did see double-digit returns for the year. Emerging markets, weighed down heavily by Covid-19 related closures, global supply chain disruptions, and real estate weakness in China, finished down for the year.