For those inclined to question the value of financial advice, there are two important trends taking place right now that need to be reckoned with. Firstly, the federal government is committed to the scheduled rise in the superannuation guarantee, which will see the rate rise to 10% by 2021 and, if the government sticks to the schedule, to 12% by 2025. Workers are gearing up to have more of their retirement wealth exposed to financial markets in coming years, raising the stakes for the wealth management industry and making financial advice less a luxury and more a practical necessity.

Secondly, there have been some troubling signals coming from financial markets over the past six months. While the bull market trend in equities has held up since the start of 2019, the ‘recession dashboard’ is starting to light up, with leading indicators suggesting things might not be as rosy as the stock market suggests. Market turning points pose a real challenge for fund managers and have a way of pushing their process and discipline to their absolute limit. In times like these, product recommendations and manager selection really count, and advisers can quickly find their own processes exposed when things go wrong.

However, even as the value of advice is growing, the perception of advice has suffered through the trauma of the Royal Commission and the uncovering of illegal and unscrupulous practices. Regulatory changes and the shifting nature of advice will inevitably lead to some attrition in the industry, but for the rest there is an acute awareness that things won’t improve on their own. Clients need to be presented with a highly compelling value proposition that demonstrates how the advice process helps them. It also needs to address both the perception issues and the very real regulatory issues around conflicted advice and best interest duty. This is where having the right investment research becomes critical.

Quality investment research is essential to your value proposition

It’s tempting to see investment research as a cost of doing business. The reality is that research is not merely there to supply data, tick a compliance box, or support an established view on a particular product. Quality research is an essential part of the value proposition, because it enables advisers to deliver the things that clients expect from their financial advice: namely, to be able to take full advantage of the depth of Australia’s investment product market and be given recommendations that are most likely to satisfy their investment goals.

Achieving this requires advisers to conduct a full comparison of individual financial products covering a wide range of factors. For any recommendation to be meaningful, it must go beyond past performance to focus on the key qualitative factors that drive future performance and determine whether the product is in line with the client’s needs and preferences. To do this well, advisers must be able to draw on a full team of research specialists with experience across different asset classes, structures, and sectors. Having quality research means partnering with a team that can cover the breadth of products available in the market, and for each product perform the deep dive needed to truly understand how it works and how it can best be incorporated into the client’s portfolio. Having the right investment research means having the resources and capabilities to deliver on your value proposition.

This is why the regulatory challenge facing advisers should not be seen as something distinct from the value proposition. Meeting the highest regulatory and professional standards is something that clients expect, and it’s essential that advisers can demonstrate how they meet these standards. Advisers face a perfect storm of regulatory change, and the winners will be the ones able to adapt to the higher expectations set for them by the regulators and the community. Demonstrating a commitment to acting in the client’s best interest and an ability to avoid or effectively manage conflicts is key.

Tighter regulatory standards reflect the community’s desire for better investment outcomes

The Safe Harbour provisions of the Best Interest Duty state that, when recommending a financial product, an adviser must have conducted “a reasonable investigation into the financial products that might achieve those of the objectives and meet those of the needs of the client that would reasonably be considered as relevant to advice on that subject matter.” In practice, this means that the adviser has not simply looked at a product in isolation and determined if it’s likely to make their client better off but has actively compared it to other similar products and recommended the most suitable one.

In the case of super, there are specific requirements that relate to the due diligence advisers must undertake. Firstly, they must consider the client’s existing products and any products the client requests to be considered. Secondly, the adviser must show the benefits of a new fund, including qualitative factors such as the member servicing environment, the types of insurance the fund offers, the educational material it makes available, and the menu of investment options.

And the standards are getting tighter. The FASEA standards state that advisers “must not advise, refer or act in any other manner where you have a conflict of interest or duty.” This goes beyond the Corporations Act, which merely requires advisers to disclose a conflict and gain the client’s consent before acting for them. The FASEA standard is also broad in the sense that it isn’t limited to conflicts in relation to remuneration. The FPA’s view is that the primary ethical duty in this standard is: if you have a conflict of interest or duty, you must disclose the conflict to the client and you must not act. While these standards are tight, they reflect the community’s expectations that recommendations are free of conflict.

Partnering with a research provider gives you the resources and capabilities to conduct in-depth product comparisons and allows you to show the client how your expertise adds value. Having the right research means you’re better able to support product recommendations with in-depth analysis and detailed product comparisons. It puts you in a better position to meet the regulatory standards and it lets you have deeper conversations with your clients that directly address their needs.

Selecting the right manager involves looking at more than just past performance. It’s about delivering future outperformance based on an in-depth assessment of individual investment teams. This means understanding how people, strategies, and capabilities come together to position fund managers for success. When it comes to selecting for future success, qualitative research is not merely a filter or a heuristic, it’s the backbone of your entire research process.

While you might be able to get away with poor manager selection when the bull market is raging, the real test comes when the market reaches a turning point. Given the troubling signals from financial markets over the past six months, this is something many investors are starting to take very seriously. Market turning points pose a real challenge for fund managers and have a way of pushing their process and discipline to their absolute limit. In times like these, product recommendations and manager selection really count, and advisers can quickly find their own processes exposed when things go wrong.

Identifying future outperformance is an artform, not a science. Lonsec’s entire research process is built around understanding the range of qualitative factors that determine manager success and giving advisers the tools to select investment products based on individual client needs. Our analysis is based on an onsite assessment of investment teams, combined with a rigorous peer review process that safeguards the quality and integrity of our investment product ratings. Looking back over the past 10 years, our qualitative process has proven its worth. Lonsec’s Recommended and Highly Recommended managers have outperformed their respective benchmarks, even during a period where the long-running beta rally has pushed passive investment strategies ever higher, casting shade on many active managers who have struggled to offer value in this environment.

One of the topics asset allocators are grappling with at the moment is whether asset class valuations are expensive or not.  Whether you are an active asset allocator, or an active bottom-up stock picker, valuation will most likely be at the core or at least form part of your analysis when making a decision to enter or exit an investment. Valuation historically has been a good long-term metric in assessing the potential future return of an asset. However, with interest rates at depressed levels, asset prices that are expensive based on historical levels, don’t appear to be that expensive given the low interest rate environment. Equity markets in general and growth companies, in particular those that are expected to grow their free cashflow in the future, have benefited from the low interest rate environment as they tend to be more sensitive to interest rates akin to a long duration bond. It could be argued that if interest rates remain at low levels (and possibly lower) risk assets will continue to benefit. Despite this we believe that at some point markets will focus on fundamentals and that the market will need to demonstrate earnings growth to sustain valuations. Furthermore, studies suggest that the relationship between interest rates and valuations is not linear, meaning that markets benefit from low interest rates to a point.

From an asset allocation perspective, valuation remains an important tool to help make active asset allocation decisions. We believe that in the current environment you also need to consider medium-term signals such as where we are in the cycle, liquidity and sentiment, as these factors can influence the extent to which asset prices can remain elevated or depressed for periods of time.

Many behavioural studies have shown there are several traits and biases that can impede us from making reasonable decisions about everything from what to eat to how to invest. Understanding these biases and considering whether they may be negatively impacting decisions can be beneficial when implementing long-term investment plans. These studies show, in general, people have asymmetric risk profiles and fear losses more than the expectation of gains by at least a 2:1 margin[1]. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, this ratio increases substantially as people approach retirement.

American psychologist and economist, Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work challenging the prevailing assumption of human rationality in modern economic theory has stated, ‘If you have an individual whose objective is to maximise wealth at a certain future point in time, then loss aversion is very bad because loss aversion will cause that individual to miss out on many opportunities.’

This loss avoidance trait stands in contrast to a basic investment principal, that investors need to accept higher risk (and higher potential for near-term losses) in order to achieve higher returns over the long term, particularly during market sell-offs. When faced with losses, rational decision-making can become impaired by the emotional desire to avoid more losses.

There are a wide range of cognitive biases that can impact retirement plans, some are listed below:

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the natural human tendency to seek information that confirms an existing point of view or hypothesis. This can lead to overconfidence if investors keep seeing data that appears to confirm the decisions they have made. This overconfidence can result in a false sense that nothing is likely to go wrong, increasing the risk of being blindsided when something does go wrong.

Information bias

Information bias is the tendency to evaluate information even when it is useless in understanding a problem or issue. Investors are exposed to an array of information daily, and it is difficult to filter through this and focus on the relevant information. In general, investors would make superior investment decisions if they ignored daily share price movements and focused on prices compared to the medium-term prospects for the investments. By ignoring daily share price commentary, investors would overcome a dangerous source of information bias in the investment decision making process.

Loss aversion bias

Loss aversion is the tendency for people to strongly prefer avoiding losses than obtaining gains. The loss aversion effect can lead to poor and irrational investment decisions, where investors refuse to sell loss-making investments in the hope of making their money back. Investors fixated on loss aversion can miss investment opportunities by failing to properly consider the opportunity cost of their investments.

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is the tendency to rely too heavily on, or anchor to, a past reference or one piece of information when making an investment decision. For example, if you were asked to forecast a stock’s price in three months’ time, many would start by looking at the price today and then make certain assumptions to arrive at a future price. That’s a form of anchoring bias – starting with a price today and building a sense of value based on that anchor.

How do we try and overcome the biases when building retirement portfolios?

The objective based nature of Lonsec’s Retirement portfolios means there is a greater focus on absolute rather than relative performance. Additionally, the portfolios have been constructed to manage risks, including:

  • Market and sequencing risk
  • Inflation risk
  • Longevity risk

Some investment strategies that can assist in controlling for these risks include:

Variable beta strategies can vary equity market exposure by allocating to cash in periods where equity market opportunities are perceived to be limited due to expensive valuations, or where market downside risk is considered high.

Long / Short – Active Extension (also known as 130/30 funds) utilise a broad range of strategies including short selling and adjusting the net equity position for performance enhancement, risk management and hedging purposes.

Multi-asset real return funds invest in a wide range of asset classes, with the managers having considerable flexibility in the type and percentage of asset classes allocated to. Typically, these funds will seek to limit downside risk, while also targeting a real return i.e. a CPI + objective.

Real assets such as property and infrastructure, commodities and inflation linked bonds can assist in managing against inflation risk.

When constructing the Retirement portfolios, Lonsec takes a building block approach by assigning a role for each fund – yield generation, capital growth and risk control.

The yield component of the portfolios generate yield, or a certain level of income from investments that have differing risk return characteristics. The capital growth component is designed to generate long term capital growth, with limited focus on income, and is more suited to early retirees. The risk control component is critical for retirement portfolios and is designed to reduce some of the market risks in the yield and capital growth components. It is important to note that the risk control part of the portfolios will not eliminate these risks but aims to mitigate them. Asset allocation and diversification are also important ingredients in managing the overall volatility of the portfolios.

The Retirement portfolios can assist in managing the risks that impact retirees, however it is important to note that none of these strategies provide a guaranteed outcome. The range of products that offer certainty of income or capital protection such as annuities has increased in recent years, in recognition of Australia’s aging demographics and demand for greater certainty in retirement. Separate guidance on the use of annuities is available from Lonsec.

 

[1] Gachter, Johnson, Herrmann (2010). Individual – level loss aversion in riskless and risky choices. Columbia Business School

Thankfully my kids have moved on from their ‘Frozen’ phase and the tunes of ‘Let it go’ are well and truly buried away in the back of the DVD cabinet. As professional investors, one of the biggest challenges we face is when to ‘let it go’. When we make an investment into a stock or managed fund the investment rationale is clear, attractive valuations, positive earnings growth, solid investment team, appropriate investment style. However, what happens when our investments don’t follow the course we anticipated and perform poorly? An even more difficult decision is when to let go of a ‘winner’?

Behavioural factors play a big role in terms of how people react to events and the subsequent decisions they make. The belief that things will turnaround, the comfort of the pack (we all go down together), ‘falling in love’ with an investment. Such emotions impact all of us even the most experienced investor. The main line of defense to minimise the impact of behavioural factors in a decision making process is to always point back to your investment philosophy and the underlying process which underpins that philosophy. If your overall philosophy is one of generating returns with lower downside risk than the market do the underlying investment align to this philosophy? have they provided downside protection? if not, why? (are there cyclical reason for this or is there something structural impact the return profile). If an investment has provided this type of return profile what have been the factors contributing to this e.g. certain sector or country exposures, and do you expect these factors to work in the future? If we use a managed fund as an example it is important to look out for any changes to how the manager is managing money which may be reflected in a change in the risk and return profile of a fund. Is there a change in how the manager positions their investment approach to what they communicated a few years ago?

The main forum for our manager and stock decisions for our managed portfolio are our Manager and Security Selection Investment Committees.  The committees are made up of senior members of our Research and Investment Consulting teams, our CIO as well as our external experts. Decisions to ‘let an investment go’ are made via the committee process. Investment recommendations are supported by qualitative and quantitative analysis. If we use managed funds for example this would include meeting with the manager (outside of the formal annual review process) focusing in on the issues at hand and targeted quantitative analysis which may provide a clue as to where the problem rests, an example being where a manager has taken stock-specific risk which is uncharacteristic of the manager.

Important information: Any express or implied rating or advice is limited to general advice, it doesn’t consider any personal needs, goals or objectives.  Before making any decision about financial products, consider whether it is personally appropriate for you in light of your personal circumstances. Obtain and consider the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product and seek professional personal advice before making any decisions regarding a financial product.