In this Q&A, David Elms, Head of Diversified Alternatives at Janus Henderson Investors, discusses the role of alternatives in uncertain markets.

Key Takeaways

  • For the past two decades, bonds have acted as a hedge during periods of stock market uncertainty. With yields at such low levels and with little room for further interest rate cuts, the room for further compression is limited.
  • Volatility was significantly underpriced at the start of 2020, but the speed and breadth of the spread of COVID-19 in February and March saw a significant and sharp repricing, with markets understandably stressed and illiquid as economies around the world ground to a halt.
  • There is a disconnect between financial market pricing and the real world: Stimulus measures have kept markets buoyant while many industries continue to struggle with the ongoing fallout from COVID-19.

Bonds have traditionally been held for income, capital preservation and diversification benefits. With rates now so close to zero, can bonds still perform these roles? What alternatives might be able to play a similar role?

David Elms: For the past two decades, the negative correlation between equities and bonds has been a gift for investors looking to build natural diversification into their portfolios. Bonds have acted as a hedge during periods of stock market uncertainty, with weakening sentiment usually coinciding with falling expectations for interest rates and a consequent flight to quality. This mechanism hinges on the ability of yields to move so that bonds can achieve capital gains. However, with yields at such low levels and little room for further interest rate cuts, the room for further compression is limited.

Persistently low levels of inflation have also contributed to the negative correlation between bonds and equities. Should current stimulus measures feed through into higher inflation, without an equivalent level of growth, this could indicate that something is fundamentally changing. The behavior of markets is not fixed, although it can take a while for investors to change their habits.

We believe that alternatives are well placed to perform a similar role for investors, in terms of delivering uncorrelated performance throughout the market cycle. There are many potential options within the alternatives arena, but an allocation to a “multi‑strategy” platform of market-neutral strategies combined with a protection strategy may provide an attractive alternative to a traditional bond/equity allocation, diversifying a portfolio with a greater range of potential sources of alpha.

In your 2020 outlook you stated that you thought volatility was underpriced and could rise in 2020. How did volatility perform in February and March (the onset of the COVID crisis)?

Volatility is never a one‑way bet, but it was our view at the end of 2019 that it had been significantly underpriced for some time due to the prevalence of systematic volatility selling programs. The speed and breadth of the spread of COVID-19 in February and March saw a significant and sharp repricing of volatility, with markets understandably stressed and illiquid as economies around the world ground to a halt. Companies were laying off workers at an unprecedented rate, with business survey indicators for economic activity breaching new lows.

While we still see some opportunities to buy volatility, the trade is no longer the slam dunk it was at the start of 2020. Markets are always evolving and the cost of carry on a long volatility position strategy has risen commensurately with the level of current uncertainty. This raises an interesting question about what other strategies can systematically provide uncorrelated returns during periods of high cost of carry for long volatility.

What is the biggest risk in the market right now that you do not think has been accurately priced in?

It is apparent to us that there is a disconnect between financial market pricing and what is going on in the real world. Governments and central banks have been complicit in creating this problem, with stimulus measures that have kept markets buoyant while many industries continue to struggle with the ongoing fallout from COVID-19.

One risk that does not seem correctly priced into markets is the potential for stimulus measures to gain more traction than expected, feeding through to higher inflation, with a consequent impact on bond yields. Given that we have been in a secular bull market since the early 1980s, there is limited first-hand experience of what a bear market for fixed income looks like and how to weather it.