The upward trajectory in equity markets has continued unabated. Markets continue to be supported by low interest rates and central bank liquidity support. The US Federal Reserve’s recent comments that that they would continue their asset purchase program and that interest rates are not expected to rise anytime soon has added fuel to markets. This is despite growing concerns of rising inflation, which has been a major focal point for central banks and investors alike. One of our observations is that markets are disregarding any negative news which is of concern as this is typical behavior in the late stages of a bull market. Uncertainty also remains as to the playbook the pandemic will follow. The spike in the Delta strain of Covid-19 has highlighted the evolving nature of the virus and, as we have seen domestically, it has had a material impact on Australia’s ability to ‘open up’, which has had a detrimental impact on many households and small businesses. Furthermore, geopolitical risk continues to flare up with the recent retreat of the US from Afghanistan creating a power vacuum in that region.

Our asset allocation positioning has been positive for investors as we have maintained an overweight exposure to risk assets such as equities. We are seeing that asset valuations in some sectors are looking stretched as the market has extended its rally. We are looking at ways to further diversify our portfolios as well as looking at opportunities to take profits via portfolio rebalancing where appropriate. The main challenge from a portfolio construction perspective at the moment is that bonds and cash do not look particularly attractive, so the hunt for other diversifying assets is a focus for us. Within our multi-asset portfolios, we have incorporated a range of assets such as gold and alternative strategies to provide diversification from equities and bonds.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

The recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report made for sobering reading. Based on the most up to date, science-based understanding of the climate system and climate change, the report found that it “is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. “ According to the report, human influence has ‘very likely’ to ‘almost certainly’ contributed to global land and ocean warming, the retreat of glaciers, the decrease in Artic sea ice, rising sea levels and the increase severity and number of extreme weather and climate events that are occurring across every region across the globe.

The Lonsec Sustainable Managed Portfolios have a dual objective of delivering strong risk-adjusted returns while also making a positive contribution to the key environmental and social challenges facing society as measured by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Climate change impacts a number, if not all, of the SDGs.

For example, changing weather patterns, more severe droughts, floods and tropical cyclones can significantly impact SDG 2 Zero hunger (and consequently SDG 3 Good health and well-being) due to increased food insecurity. SDG 1 No poverty will also be affected, as livelihoods, particularly in the agricultural sector, are lost. Climate change is also clearly impacting SDG 14 Life below water with coral bleaching events and ocean acidification on the rise and 15 Life on Land as decreased biodiversity, changing climate zones, and heatwaves threaten the extinction of many species.

The Lonsec Sustainable Managed Portfolios seek to address climate change in several ways;

  • We invest in strategies that are actively looking to solve the challenges of climate change. Impact strategies such as the Impax Sustainable Leaders Fund which invests globally in companies that are active in resource efficiency and environmental markets and the Pengana WHEB Sustainable Impact Fund which invests in sustainable investment themes including environmental themes such as cleaner energy, sustainable transport and water management. The Lonsec Sustainable Portfolios also have exposure to green and sustainable bonds through our fixed income strategies, where the proceeds of the bonds go directly towards funding climate solutions such as wind and solar farms.
  • We limit our exposure to fossil fuels, and in particular, thermal coal. As the highest emitting fossil fuel, coal is simply an exposure we want to avoid. Most of our underlying managers go further and exclude fossil fuels altogether which we strongly encourage as alternative technologies including renewables become more accessible. We monitor the portfolio’s exposure to each of the major fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil) using a third-party data provider to ensure that our exposures are low or zero and aligned with the goals of the Paris agreement, and we track the overall carbon footprint of the portfolio.
  • We invest in strategies such as the BetaShares Global Sustainability Leaders ETF (ETHI) that targets ‘climate leaders’. These are global large cap companies that have passed screens to exclude companies with direct or significant exposure to fossil fuels. 100% of the power generated by the companies in ETHI come from renewable sources.
  • We invest with managers that have strong Environment Social and Governance (ESG) integration, that is, they understand and incorporate the physical and transition risks of climate change into their financial analysis. They are managers that engage directly with companies around their climate disclosures and on their transition plans to net zero emissions. While targeting climate leaders and excluding fossil fuels can assist in keeping the carbon footprint of the portfolio low, it does little to reduce carbon emissions in the real-world – it simply passes the problem and emissions onto other investors. All companies, not just those focused on climate solutions, need to be part of the transition if we are to have a real-world impact. We want fund managers to work with all companies to reduce their emissions across the board and improve the carbon footprint of the entire market. In this regard, we see ESG integration as playing a critical role in delivering to the SDGs.

We believe the Lonsec Sustainable Portfolios are well positioned from a climate change perspective, however, more needs to be done. We will continue to work with fund managers and encourage more ambitious goal setting. At present we have 35% of FUM in the portfolio committed to net zero emissions by 2050 either through the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative or independent commitments. We want to see that number increase. It is important to Lonsec and important to our clients that we seek to urgently address climate change. We believe that addressing the impacts of climate change can help build more resilient portfolios and deliver more stable and higher long-term returns for our clients.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

With the growing dominance and potentially anticompetitive nature and conduct of big tech multinational players of the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Alphabet, there is bipartisan support behind the need for antitrust reform. US President Joe Biden’s appointment of staunch antitrust reform advocate Lina Khan as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission in June this year, reinforces the Biden administration’s firm intent to seek to address the broad range of antitrust concerns. In her role as Chair, Lina Khan will work with Congress on bills to limit the power of big tech companies, collaborate with European regulators on antitrust issues, and will be involved in deciding whether to launch antitrust investigations and court cases.1 Amazon is currently being investigated by the FTC for past acquisitions, treatment of third party sellers and its cloud services business. As evidenced by recent flurry of capital outflows in response to significant regulatory change targeting the technology and education sectors in China, regulatory and ESG risks can have a material impact on stock markets. This article discusses the rationale behind the need for antitrust reform which has been articulated by Khan and other advocates in the area, using the example of Amazon, to capture the reality of the anticompetitive risks that big tech companies present to society.

Amazon has an undeniably impressive long-term track record as a growth company. It has a substantial and growing addressable market, with promising businesses in AWS and Alexa, as well as value-add opportunities in Amazon Prime, grocery delivery and healthcare. As a result, it is often a ubiquitous and prominent holding in the portfolios of growth investment managers, which has proven to be a multi-bagger stock, and then some. AWS is a “scale as a service” platform, which delivers IT infrastructure services online. It has been transformational in making cloud computing more accessible and affordable to smaller companies, and its scale has enabled Amazon to invest more in the development and management of services than what would have otherwise been possible.2 Following Congressional hearings last year, the US House of Representatives’ Antitrust Subcommittee established that Amazon has “significant and durable market power in the US online retail market”, with monopoly power over third party sellers on its platform and suppliers.3 Amazon have developed a valuable service for vendors and consumers, built a strong market position and are entitled to a return on their substantial investment and innovation over the years. They have acted on a strategy of heavy reinvestment and research and development to produce a more competitive offering for consumers. However, there is growing recognition of the need for sufficient checks and balances to ensure that anticompetitive hazards are mitigated.

Theoretical Underpinnings of Antitrust Law

There has been a shift in approaching antitrust from economic structuralism toward consumer welfare. The current approach was introduced by Judge Robert Bork and supported by the University of Chicago Law school through the Chicago School of Antitrust framework. This approach narrows the scope and application of the law to focus solely on consumer welfare, specifically consumer prices, rather than the entire spectrum of market participants and implications to market power dynamics in the economy. Antitrust laws are centred on the objective of maximising consumer welfare, measured primarily through prices. Furthermore, the view is that consumer welfare is best achieved through market efficiency, in which firm size, structure and concentration are a result of market forces.4 Consistent with this theory, Amazon as a profit maximising actor, has a large market share and integrated supply chains. Its concentrated structure enables it to achieve lower prices and thereby maximise consumer welfare. This approach overlooks risks Amazon poses to competition and other market participants, and the multitude of other ways it can exploit market power. Market efficiency lies on the premise that rational economic actors will maximise profits by combining inputs in the most efficient manner. However, economic actors do not always act rationally and unchecked and without proper oversight have opportunities to act unfairly for the ultimate detriment of consumers. Monopolies and oligopolies increase barriers to entry, risks of collusion and price fixing, and lowers the pricing power of consumers, suppliers and even employees.5 Amazon has barriers to entry that assist the durability of its market power, including high switching costs for consumers to shop outside Amazon’s ecosystem and its fulfilment and delivery advantage through a large logistics network.6 In addition, network effects and data collection that cannot be easily replicated by new entrants, further increase these barriers.7 As Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal stated when questioning Jeff Bezos in the antitrust Congressional hearings in 2020, Amazon can monitor third party vendors on their platform so there is a risk competitors don’t get big enough so that they can never essentially compete.

Antitrust ideology in the 1960s centred on the theory of concentrated economic structuralism, which takes the view that concentrated market structures promote anticompetitive conduct. Markets with several small and medium sized companies are more competitive in structure than where it is concentrated among a few large players. Thus, the application of antitrust law was broader and took into consideration the interests of these stakeholders, including suppliers, employees, and competitors. Even if current interpretation of antitrust is correct in its focus solely on consumer welfare, consumer prices are only one measure of consumer welfare. This approach ignores the totality of consumer welfare including product quality, variety and innovation.8 These are best fostered through open markets and competition, rather than concentrated market structures with a few, large powerful companies.9 The aim of antitrust law should be to promote market competition and ensuring market power is appropriately distributed to achieve this, rather than consumer welfare.10 Practically, however, it is difficult to envisage that the application of this approach should result in the break-up of big tech companies. In the case of Amazon, the economies of scale arguments hold true, the vertical integration of business provide cost advantages to consumers that could not otherwise be achieved. However, closer regulatory oversight of big tech companies to prevent infringement upon interests of other stakeholders may be warranted.

There is broad support for the view that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of legislative intent behind the Sherman Act as a consumer welfare prescription is inaccurate. The genesis of antitrust was based on several aims, including to control and distribute the power of large industrial trusts and ensure that they did not impinge upon the opportunities for newer entrants in the market.11 In fact in the 1960s the Supreme Court specifically highlighted that the legislative intent of antitrust was to prevent concentrations of economic power,12 which reduced economic competition and gave rise to the potential for significant political control.13 Congressional debates by Senator Sherman himself highlighted one of the purposes of Congress during the 1890s was to protect an industry structure of small units which effectively compete with each other.14 Whilst this was the legislative intent of the 19th and 20th centuries, intent of Congress is an important basis for courts in interpreting and applying legislation.

Predatory Pricing

Whilst companies are entitled to competitively price and discount goods and services, predatory pricing to eliminate competition is illegal. However, the distinction between the two can be difficult to determine. In 2009, Quidsi, a growing e-Commerce business declined Amazon’s acquisition offer. Amazon subsequently aggressively reduced prices on product categories sold by Quidsi including diapers and baby products. Amazon used its data advantage, with pricing bots monitoring and following any price cuts made by Quidsi. Amazon’s product manager admitted to a strategy to match prices no matter what the cost.15 Ultimately, this resulted in the sale of the business to Amazon, after which Amazon raised the prices on products that were previously discounted. Arguably Amazon used its market power to undermine competition. Advocates may argue that this is the type of conduct which the Clayton Act was designed to prevent, as articulated in Congressional debates ‘by the use of this organized force of wealth and money the small men engaged in competition with them are crushed out; and that is the great evil at which all this legislation ought to be aimed.’16 On the other hand, it may be argued that this is an example of competitive pricing. Companies often compete on prices to attract and gain customers. Amazon thus could at best be said to have engaged in a pricing war with Quidsi on similar products, which ultimately resulted in Quidsi’s sale. In a general sense mergers and acquisitions can aid platforms in achieving scale, gain functionality to provide to its large user base as well as obtaining talent and resources for innovation.17 However, even if we are to look at antitrust through the lens of the consumer welfare standard, Amazon’s conduct significantly reduced the degree of competition and choices in the market when in Amazon’s own view it believed that Quidsi was its largest short term competitor.18 This seems to meet the FTC’s guidance on predatory pricing in that it harmed consumers by allowing a ‘dominant competitor to knock its rivals out of the market and then raise prices to above-market levels for a substantial time.’19

Amazon’s significant size and influence enables losses from aggressive pricing strategies to be offset and recouped through other avenues, including charging publishers higher fees for services.20 In an incident termed the “Gazelle Project”, small book publishers, dependant on Amazon for sales, were subjected to unfavourable treatment if they did not agree to more favourable terms during contract negotiations.21 Similar instances were highlighted by the US House of Representatives’ Antitrust Subcommittee, such as Amazon threatening retaliation if publishers would not accept contractual terms that limited their ability to work with Amazon’s rival e-book retailers.22 Publishers are at a structural disadvantage in negotiations not only because they rely on Amazon for distribution and marketing, but also because Amazon is vertically integrated into publishing and may promote its own content over external publishers.23

Advocates argue that predatory pricing laws should be more strongly enforced to reflect the uncertainty surrounding predatory pricing. Predatory pricing cases are rarely brought in the US. The Clayton Act of 1914 prohibited large companies from reducing prices below the cost of production to eliminate competitors and make their business unprofitable, and with the aim of becoming a monopoly.24 Similarly, the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 aimed to prevent conglomerates and large companies from using their buying power to obtain discounts from smaller companies to destroy competition.25 However, the Supreme Court has adopted the view that rather than predation, there is a greater risk of price competition being misclassified as predation (Matsushita Electric Industrial Co v. Zenith Radio Corp). This is because the success of predation schemes of predatorily low prices is uncertain in the long-term. The Chicago School’s critique of predatory pricing was that below cost pricing is irrational, unsustainable and rarely occurs.26 Economics is not an exact science and the Chicago School’s argument is not an unbreakable principle of law.27 The Chicago School undermined the idea that price discrimination could be used to create monopolies, which they argued was the premise of the Robinson-Patman Act. Indeed, Amazon uses below cost pricing as a systematic and highly effective strategy, and whilst prima facie irrational, below cost pricing can nonetheless prove to be sustainable in the long term and enabler of gaining market share. This is not necessarily conclusive that Amazon engages in predatory pricing but evidences the outdated thinking behind predatory pricing and the need for this to be revisited.

Amazon have developed a valuable service to consumers, third-party vendors and publishers on its eCommerce platform. As a result of significant and continuous reinvestment into the company it has earned its strong market position and are entitled to a return on investment. However, the dominant business structure and power imbalances of third-party vendors elevates risks of anticompetitive harm. Closer regulatory oversight may be needed to protect the interests of these broader groups of stakeholders albeit the market will be very wary of the impact such regulations may have on the earnings power of Amazon and other big tech companies.

Author: Asha Rahman, Associate Analyst
Approved by: James Kirk, Manager – Global Equities & Alternatives


1. The Economist, ‘Joe Biden appoints Lina Khan to head the Federal Trade Commission’, 19 June 2021 < https://www.economist.com/united-states/2021/06/19/joe-biden-appoints-lina-khan-to-head-the-federal-trade-commission>.
2. Baillie Gifford, Portfolio Construction Forum 2021.
3. Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the Committee of the Judiciary, US House of Representatives, Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets, Majority Staff Report and Recommendations (2020) 254.
4. Lina M Khan, ‘Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox’ (2017) 126 Yale Law Journal 710, 720.
5. Ibid.
6. Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the Committee of the Judiciary, US House of Representatives, above n 3, 260.
7. Khan, above n 4, 772.
8. Ibid 737.
9. Ibid 739.
10. Ibid 737.
11. Ibid 740.
12. Greenfield B Leon, Lange A Perry and Nicole Callan, ‘Antitrust Populism and the Consumer Welfare Standard: What are we Actually Debating?’ (2019) 83(2) Antitrust Law Journal, 2.
13. Darren Bush, ‘Consumer Welfare Theory as an Ethical Consideration: An Essay on Hipsters, Invisible Feet, and the “Science” of Economics’ (2018) 63 The Antitrust Bulletin 509, 511-12.
14. Ibid 513.
15. Sarah Oh, ‘Is there evidence of antitrust harm in the house of judiciary committee’s hot docs?’ (2021) 37 Santa Clara High Tech Law Journal 193, 199.
16. Sandeep Vaheesan, ‘The Profound Nonsense of Consumer Welfare Antitrust’ (2019) 64 The Antitrust Bulletin 479, 481.
17. D Daniel Sokol and Marshall Van Alstyne, ‘The Rising Risk of Platform Regulation’ (2020) 62(2) MIT Sloan Management Review, 3.
18. Ibid.
19. The Federal Trade Commission, ‘Predatory or Below-Cost Pricing’ <https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/competition-guidance/guide-antitrust-laws/single-firm-conduct/predatory-or-below-cost>.
20. Khan, above n 4, 765.
21. Business Insider Australia, ‘Sadistic Amazon Treated Book Sellers “The Way a Cheater would Pursue a Sickly Gazelle”’, 23 October 2013, <https://www.businessinsider.com.au/sadistic-amazon-treated-book-sellers-the-way-a-cheetah-would-pursue-a-sickly-gazelle-2013-10?r=US&IR=T>.
22. Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the Committee of the Judiciary, US House of Representatives, above n 3, 269.
23. Khan, above n 4, 766.
24. Ibid 723.
25. Ibid 724.
26. Ibid 727.
27. Bush, above n 13, 511.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561, AFSL No. 421445 (Lonsec). Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.
Disclosure as at the date of publication: Lonsec receives fees from fund managers or product issuers for researching their financial product(s) using comprehensive and objective criteria. Lonsec receives subscriptions for providing research content to subscribers including fund managers and product issuers. Lonsec receives fees for providing investment consulting advice to clients, which includes model portfolios, approved product lists and other advice. Lonsec’s fees are not linked to the product rating outcome or the inclusion of products in model portfolios, or in approved product lists. Lonsec and its representatives, Authorised Representatives and their respective associates may have positions in the financial product(s) mentioned in this document, which may change during the life of this document, but Lonsec considers such holdings not to be sufficiently material to compromise any recommendation or advice.
Warnings: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. The information contained in this document is obtained from various sources deemed to be reliable. It is not guaranteed as accurate or complete and should not be relied upon as such. Opinions expressed are subject to change. This document is but one tool to help make investment decisions. The changing character of markets requires constant analysis and may result in changes. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to “General Advice” (as defined in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth)) and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (‘financial circumstances’) of any particular person. It does not constitute a recommendation to purchase, redeem or sell the relevant financial product(s).
Before making an investment decision based on the rating(s) or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances, or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness. If our advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of particular financial product(s), the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire a financial product. Where Lonsec’s research process relies upon the participation of the fund manager(s) or product issuer(s) and they are no longer an active participant in Lonsec’s research process, Lonsec reserves the right to withdraw the document at any time and discontinue future coverage of the financial product(s).
Disclaimer: This document is for the exclusive use of the person to whom it is provided by Lonsec and must not be used or relied upon by any other person. No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by Lonsec. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of completion but subject to change without notice. Lonsec assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.
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The yield curve shows how yields for bonds of the same credit rating, typically government bonds, differ based on maturity date. It sounds simple and yet from this curve one can glean insights into market expectations of inflation, economic growth, and future central bank policy. As such, those who follow fixed income markets pay close attention to movements in the curve. In February 2021, the curve’s shape changed by an amount so large in magnitude that a similar shift has not been seen since the 1994 bond market meltdown.

The conventional measure of the ‘steepness’ of the yield curve is the difference between the yields of 10-year and 2-year Government Bonds. In Australia, this gap was 1.04% at the beginning of February. During the month, this gap rose to a high of 1.80%. The driver of this was a sharp increase in yields of 10-year, and other longer duration Australian Government Bonds (AGBs), while yields for 2-year and other shorter duration bonds stayed relatively static. Throughout February yields for 10-year AGBs rose from an initial value of 1.15% to a high of 1.92%. Movements of this size might be common in equity markets, but in the world of government bonds such shifts in recent years have been rarely seen. For context, February 2021 was the Bloomberg AusBond composite index’s worst month since 1994, as surging bond yields throughout the month were mirrored with a corresponding decrease in prices. Not all news is bad however, as a steeper curve allows for additional fixed income investment strategies to be utilised, including those which involve purchasing longer duration bonds and picking up price increases as they “roll down” the yield curve.

This historic shift was caused by a combination of increased inflationary expectations, and a more optimistic outlook of economic growth in the medium term. The component of the increase due to inflation expectations can be tested for directly by comparing the change in yields for 10-year AGBs with the change in yields for 10-year Australian Treasury Indexed Bonds (TIBs), which offer returns that are adjusted in-line with inflation. Throughout February yields for TIBs rose by approximately three quarters as much as for AGBs. This suggests that approximately one quarter of the increase in the yield for AGBs was due to inflation expectations, as, if the entire increase were due to inflation there would have been no movement in the yield for TIBs. The remainder of the increase in AGB yields implies a combination of a more positive economic outlook, and expectations of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) adopting tighter monetary policy sooner than expected. While there is no way to test for either of these, due to; vaccine rollouts, a decreasing unemployment rate, and soaring commodity prices, an optimistic economic outlook is expected post last year’s recession. The first since the early 1990s. The conundrum is RBA policy, as the central bank has moved to directly counter the increase in yields by expanding its quantitative easing program, which involves purchasing 10-year AGBs on the open market. The announcement of this policy led to a dip in yields, but the upwards trend has since resumed. Given the better-than-expected economic recovery to date, the market may have doubts as to the RBA’s conviction in keeping yields low moving forward.

Moving forward, February’s increase in yields could mark the beginning of a return to normal after the COVID induced recession of 2020. While the increase in 10-year AGB yields was extremely large, even after the increase, yields remain low compared to historic norms. The gap between 10-year and 2-year yields remains large however, but this can also be closed from an increase in rates at the lower end of the curve, possibly brought about by the RBA ending its yield curve control program, in which it is targeting yields for 3-year AGBs at 0.1%, the same level as the Cash Rate. The main cause of problems would be in the case that the strong economic conditions that are implied by the increase do not manifest, whether due to a resurgence of COVID, falling commodity prices, or an unrelated reason. If signs of such an occurrence appear it is likely that yields would fall again. Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain of which outcome will occur, but regardless of the specifics of future economic outcomes, February’s events will remain a focal point in discussions of fixed income market outlooks for some time.

Issued by Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec). Warning: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any advice is General Advice without considering the objectives, financial situation and needs of any person. Before making a decision read the PDS and consider your financial circumstances or seek personal advice. Disclaimer: Lonsec gives no warranty of accuracy or completeness of information in this document, which is compiled from information from public and third-party sources. Opinions are reasonably held by Lonsec at compilation. Lonsec assumes no obligation to update this document after publication. Except for liability which can’t be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error, inaccuracy, misstatement or omission, or any loss suffered through relying on the document or any information. ©2021 Lonsec. All rights reserved. This report may also contain third party material that is subject to copyright. To the extent that copyright subsists in a third party it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material. Any unauthorised reproduction of this information is prohibited. 

Pre-pandemic, Australian office market fundamentals were solid and in high demand from both investors and tenants. This was supported to a large extent by high population and employment growth, significant infrastructure spending by governments and a lag in supply, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. However, over the last 12 months market dynamics have shifted significantly as COVID-19 restrictions left the CBDs of Australian capital cities empty/under-capacity for large parts of 2020, fuelling a major shift in habits of working (‘working-from-home’), shopping, leisure and education.

Announcements of successful vaccine trials in late 2020 have given a much-needed boost of confidence and as the vaccine roll-out progresses and lock-down restrictions ease, a sense of normality will begin to return. However, the debate in Australian and global property markets is now focussed on how the pandemic may have changed demand for office space on a permanent basis.

In Australia, the immediate impact has seen CBD office vacancy levels rise in Sydney and Melbourne from 3-4% to around 8-9% over the year to January 2021. Net absorption for Australia overall has reduced from +50,000sqm in the six months to January 2020 to -90,000sqm in the latest six months to January 2021. Sub-leasing has spiked as tenants with longer leases look to offload spare capacity. While face rents have remained largely unchanged, incentives have risen to over 35% compared to around 25% pre-pandemic, dampening net effective rents. Businesses are taking longer to commit to new leases and when they do, there is a trend towards shorter terms.

Rental collections have held up and investor interest remains high in this relatively higher yielding sector, thus placing a floor under valuation reductions. In response to COVID-19 conditions, valuations were conservatively adjusted down for office (-10%) and retail (-15%) assets, while industrial/ logistics asset values remained steady to slight increases in line with rental escalations and/or lease extensions.

As restrictions ease (barring the occasional lockdown) and workers begin returning to their offices with encouragement from businesses and government, there is a growing realisation that more flexibility to work-from-home is both possible and desired. While dependent on industry and function, the consensus view is that a ‘hybrid’ working model is the most likely outcome – two or three days working from home with the remaining days spent in the office. While some firms experienced increased worker productivity during the lockdowns, intangible aspects such as corporate culture, team morale, creativity and innovation rely on human interaction to a large extent.

As corporates plan ahead and leases come to an end, there is already demand for core space plus an option for a flexible amount. Landlords will also need to ensure that buildings provide good quality space (including high environmental ratings) with facilities being upgraded in line with social distancing requirements. While these guidelines are being progressively relaxed, the floor densification trend of the last few years may have peaked, and businesses may require more floor space per person. However, it is likely that the trend for more flexible space/work-from-home will drag on demand while the world works its way through this pandemic. Given the possibility of further pandemics, the outlook for office space has a high degree of uncertainty. One bright spot is medical and life sciences office space, where demand benefits from pandemic conditions, as such tenants are usually businesses deemed ‘essential’ with minimal operating restrictions.

A noticeable trend is the ‘flight to quality’, where premium/A-grade office assets on long leases to strong corporate and/or government tenants remain very well bid, due to greater perceived stability of cashflows for investors. Assets that are of secondary quality and/or location, tenanted by less robust tenants are coming under valuation pressure. There is also some debate on whether suburban offices, which are usually in less preferential locations compared to the CBD and accordingly charge lower rent per square metre, will benefit from the working-from-home trend.

A further consideration is the expiry of the National Cabinet Mandatory Code of Conduct for commercial tenancies and the expiry of the JobKeeper program, both of which helped businesses survive through the pandemic. With this support now largely withdrawn, the impact on business insolvencies, employment and associated office demand remains to be seen.

Chart 1 — Commercial property yields

Chart 1 shows office yields bottomed-out during 2020 and now appear to be rising, but the extent of this reversal of the trend of falling yields is still uncertain. The office sector continues to offer yields of 5-7% p.a., which is an attractive spread over bond rates as Chart 2 illustrates. Central banks have adopted ultra-low monetary policy settings, which maintains investor demand and underpins tight market capitalisation rates (apart from discretionary retail property assets which faced headwinds well before the pandemic).

These policy settings are artificially low, and as inflation resurfaces bond rates and borrowing costs are likely to increase as exemplified by the US 10-year bond yield rising from 0.70% in early October 2020 to 1.74% at the end of March 2021. While this rate has come off in recent weeks, the only certainty is uncertainty.

Chart 2 — Commercial property yields vs. 10-year bond yield

Source Chart 1: AMP Capital (April 2021); Chart 2: Charter Hall (December 2020).

Author: Balraj Sokhi, Senior Investment Analyst

Issued by Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec). Warning: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any advice is General Advice without considering the objectives, financial situation and needs of any person. Before making a decision read the PDS and consider your financial circumstances or seek personal advice. Disclaimer: Lonsec gives no warranty of accuracy or completeness of information in this document, which is compiled from information from public and third-party sources. Opinions are reasonably held by Lonsec at compilation. Lonsec assumes no obligation to update this document after publication. Except for liability which can’t be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error, inaccuracy, misstatement or omission, or any loss suffered through relying on the document or any information. ©2021 Lonsec. All rights reserved. This report may also contain third party material that is subject to copyright. To the extent that copyright subsists in a third party it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material. Any unauthorised reproduction of this information is prohibited. 

Federal government doubles down on expansionary budget

It’s been only seven months since the last federal budget in October 2020, which was delayed in order to give the government maximum flexibility to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This budget is the second pandemic budget, with the focus now shifting from temporary spending measures to keep the economy afloat to building a more sustainable post-COVID economy and beginning the long journey of budget repair.

What’s clear is that—unlike many of the job saving initiatives employed during the pandemic—the impact on Australia’s fiscal position will be much less temporary, with mounting deficits through the forward estimates set to accumulate a net debt of just under $1 trillion by 2024-25. The consolation is that, with interest rates at record lows and the Reserve Bank of Australia intent on keeping them that way, there has never been a better time for the government to borrow to support households and add to Australia’s infrastructure pipeline.

The government has not taken any chances with this budget. While the economic recovery has been strong—reflected most notably in employment growth—and consumers have so far shrugged off the unwinding of the JobKeeper program, the pandemic is still with us and there are plenty of potential risks that could derail or forestall growth. Instead of taking the opportunity to go harder on budget repair, the government is keen to secure the recovery with a very expansionary budget that doubles down on the 2020-21 fiscal strategy.

Still fighting the virus

Australia’s management of the pandemic has been the envy of the world, but now the test of the Morrison government will be how effectively it can support the roll out of vaccines while providing the necessary fiscal support to businesses, households, and the healthcare system. To address the immediate challenge of the vaccine rollout, the government is providing $1.9 billion through the COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy plus an additional $1.5 billion to extend a range of COVID-19 health response measures.

While Australia is emerging from the COVID-19 shock with a strong recovery in activity and employment, the outlook for the global economy remains highly uncertain. With 800,000 COVID-19 cases diagnosed daily across the world, new strains of the virus emerging and international travel restrictions yet to be lifted, the effects of COVID-19 may not dissipate for some time yet.

Tax relief and targeted support for vulnerable sectors

Aside from the direct COVID-related measures, the real centrepiece of the budget is the tax relief measures, which will provide more dry powder for households, which are now more confident about the direction of the recovery and hopefully willing to spend down the savings they accumulated during the pandemic.

The government will retain the low and middle income tax offset (LMITO) in 2021-22 to provide $7.8 billion in targeted support to around 10.2 million low- and middle-income earners. This is on top of the $25.1 billion in tax cuts flowing to households in 2021-22 that have been announced in previous budgets.

The other key item is the extension of full expensing of depreciable assets for businesses with turnover below $5 billion, which was introduced as a temporary measure in the 2020-21 budget. This budget extends full expensing for another 12 months until 30 June 2023 to encourage additional investment and allow businesses embarking on projects with longer lead times to capture more of the benefits of this measure.

Other initiatives to provide more targeted support include an additional $1.2 billion for the aviation and tourism sectors, the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Recovery Loan Scheme, which builds on the SME Guarantee scheme, and an additional $500 million to expand the JobTrainer Fund, subject to matched funding by state and territory governments.

Another infrastructure budget

Infrastructure has become a budget staple regardless of who is in power, and the Morrison government has not missed their opportunity this time around. This budget provides an additional $15.2 billion over ten years for road, rail and community infrastructure projects, which the government claims will support over 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.

The highlights of the infrastructure spend include $2 billion to support delivery of the Melbourne Intermodal Terminal to increase national rail freight network capacity, $2.6 billion for the North-South Corridor (Darlington to Anzac Highway in South Australia) and $2.0 billion for the Great Western Highway Upgrade (Katoomba to Lithgow in New South Wales). This package also includes an additional $1 billion to extend the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program.

Improving aged care

Although it took a back seat through the pandemic, aged care reform has been the big issue on the government’s radar following the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. The government has committed an additional $17.7 billion over five years to improve the system, including $6.5 billion for the release of 80,000 additional Home Care Packages over the next two years. The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission will also receive additional resources to manage compliance and ensure quality care services and the introduction of new star ratings.
An additional $13.2 billion has been provided for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, while a key political focus for the budget has been on the $3.4 billion to support women, including programs to improve women’s safety and economic security.

The elephant in the room: debt and deficits

None of the spending initiatives in this year’s budget would be possible without upending Australia’s fiscal norms. While debt-to-GDP remains low compared to Australia’s peers, the two pandemic budgets will test the political restraints that have traditionally governed the nation’s fiscal settings, even in the wake of the GFC. Government outlays are expected to hit 32.1% of GDP in 2020-21 and, while that is the peak, such a figure would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Australia’s net debt will hit nearly $1 trillion by 2024-25

 

Source: Budget papers

Net debt is expected to be 34.2% cent of GDP in 2021-22 and peak at 40.9% of GDP in 2024-25. Net debt is then projected to fall over the medium term to 37.0% of GDP in 2031-32. In other words, Australia will be managing the fiscal impact of the pandemic for a decade or more.

While gross debt has increased significantly since the onset of the pandemic, the cost of servicing that debt is lower in 2021-22 than it was in 2018-19 as a result of historically low interest rates. The government’s management of the yield curve has helped reduce refinancing risk and has made repayments less sensitive to short-term yield moves. However, while low yields will be doing much of the heavy lifting, the government must still work to reduce the economy’s dependence on government spending and ensure there is enough room to move when the next crisis hits—hopefully far off down the road!

 

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN: 608 837 583 (LIS), a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR number: 1236821) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN: 11 151 658 561 AFSL: 421 445 (Lonsec Research). LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Fiscal Holdings Pty Ltd ACN: 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

Disclosure at the date of publication: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services. LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document. LIS and Lonsec Research’s representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

Warnings: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to “general advice” (as defined in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth)) and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness. If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

Disclaimer: This document is not intended for use by a retail client or a member of the public and should not be used or relied upon by any other person. No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of completion (refer to the date of this document) but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication.

Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN: 608 837 583

While the use of a value approach or value (factor) bias is often associated with equity portfolios, the extraordinary events in early 2020 served as a reminder of the value bias inherent in many multi asset solutions. This bias results from the valuation factors inherent in both asset allocation and security selection decisions.

The emphasis managers place on ‘value’ in their asset allocation and security selection processes has impacted portfolio performance over the past several years given the headwinds ‘value’ as a factor has faced. Lonsec’s recent review of multi-asset funds emphasised the need for adequate risk management systems to ensure any ‘bets’ in the portfolio are intended and in line with managers’ strategic decisions. Moreover, Lonsec was interested to discuss the role of ‘value’ in asset allocation decisions alongside other factors including liquidity, sentiment and policy, and the timeframe in which managers frame their decisions.

In this thought piece Lonsec aims to answer why the last five years has been a challenge for asset allocators, the role the ‘value’ factor has played and why Lonsec believes it is vital that asset allocators and their investors understand the drivers and extent of any bias’s present in portfolios and the likely effect this will have on portfolio performance at different points in the cycle.

Asset allocation

Investment managers who build diversified portfolios of assets with allocations to an array of asset classes (i.e., multi asset portfolios) often use an asset allocation approach as the core building block of their portfolio construction process.

While there are numerous asset allocation approaches, the most recognised are long term ‘strategic asset allocation’ (SAA), medium term ‘dynamic asset allocation’ (DAA) and short term ‘tactical asset allocation’ (TAA). While some managers have defined their own asset allocation approach and associated acronym, their approaches invariably sit somewhere between long term SAA and short term TAA.

For managers who build portfolios based on a clearly defined asset allocation approach, capital market assumptions (i.e., forecasts for asset class returns, asset class risks and cross-asset correlations) are key inputs into the setting of portfolio asset allocation, regardless of the approach used.

When defining capital market assumptions for the forecast period, asset allocators commonly use expected returns, expected risk and correlations as the essential inputs into the asset allocation process. For SAA decisions, expected returns are heavily reliant on current valuations. DAA processes by contrast focus on medium term horizons of circa 18 months to 3 years and can focus on broader factors in determining the under and overweights to particular asset classes. In Lonsec’s experience, valuation will still play a role, and in some cases a heavy role, in determining positioning over these periods. For example, if equity markets are deemed to be trading at high valuations relative to long term averages (e.g., on metrics such as price to earnings multiples), asset allocators may choose to down-weight equities in their current asset allocation. This decision may be driven by the assumption valuation multiples will normalise in the ensuing period towards the long-term average (e.g., where a compression in earnings multiples drives a fall in share prices). Likewise, in the fixed income sphere, low yields and narrow spreads have meant allocating to these sectors has been a challenge. The difficulty with this approach is that valuations can overshoot for an extended period of time, especially when liquidity is higher than average and central bank policy has been supportive. The use of valuation metrics as inputs in asset allocation approaches is likely to create a bias towards asset classes offering attractive valuations and in turn creating value biases in multi asset portfolios.

The dominance of macro factors in overshadowing asset specific factors has continued to be a discussion point between Lonsec and multi-asset managers. Lonsec has found those using a framework to assess the economic and market cycle to have a more holistic DAA framework when compared to others using more simple methodologies.

Security selection

Alongside asset allocation, another dominant driver of positioning for multi asset managers is security selection. Having identified the desired portfolio asset class exposures, in order to select the securities for inclusion in each asset class managers will often analyse the prevailing valuation levels of securities or sectors. This analysis can involve drilling down to the sub asset class level, geographical location level, and the sector/industry level to find the best opportunities within an asset class.

While some managers may seek to build portfolios with diversified factor exposures, many managers tilt security selection away from seemingly expensive areas of securities markets and towards undervalued areas of securities markets.

As Figure 1 shows, entering 2020 the valuation gap between growth equites and value equities had moved to highs not seen since the early 2000’s bubble:

Figure 1

While increasing exposure to cheaper areas of securities markets makes sense intuitively, where multi asset managers apply this approach across many of or all the underlying asset classes utilised, it may create a large value factor bias within portfolios. Lonsec believes managers need to be aware of these biases and ensure exposures are intended rather than unintended positions.

The last five years, and heading into 2020

In the years after the GFC, having taken official cash rates to record lows, the modus operandi of central banks has been to pump liquidity into economies and investment markets at any and every sign of trouble. This has helped to drive down bond yields and expected returns across all asset classes. The challenge of where to invest in this environment has been one impacting all asset allocators.

While managers have stuck to their investment and portfolio construction processes over this time, Lonsec notes there has been a disconnect between portfolio positioning and financial market performance. The challenge for managers over this period was to correctly form a view on the business cycle. With interest rates rising (albeit slowly) from late 2015 to 2018 and contrasting views on the emergence of inflation, there were divergent views on how portfolios should be positioned (over this period Lonsec has noted funds in its Variable Growth Assets > Real Return sector have been positioned at both ends of the risk spectrum). Likewise, views on the market cycle becoming later stage were predicated on valuations becoming more expensive across the board. Many of the managers we rate had been conservatively positioned due to this, and underperformed passive benchmarks which benefitted from the continued and increasing richness of valuations (particularly in geographies like the US, and sectors like Technology and Healthcare).

While there were signs of a pick-up in economic growth and a corresponding response from value and cyclical assets in late 2019 and some managers became more constructive on market outcomes, the three-year period leading into January 2020 undoubtably favoured strategies that invested in growth assets over value assets, as shown in Figure 2:

Figure 2

The 2020 experience – the bear market

The COVID induced sell off that began in February 2020 saw value stocks fall faster and further than growth stocks through late March 2020. Value orientated strategies have at times underperformed at the beginning of equity bear markets, arguably as investors throw in the towel and finally pull the sell trigger on their worst performing stocks, and this was the case in 2020. Figure 3 shows that from 1 Jan 2020 to 20 May 2020, the performance of value stocks materially lagged that of growth stocks.

Figure 3

Figure 4 shows that the valuation gap between growth equities and value equites continued to reach new multi-year highs during and coming out of the COVID induced bear market:

Figure 4

The 2020/21 experience (so far) – multi asset managers

The chart in Figure 5 shows the experience of a sample of managers in the Variable Growth Assets – Real Return sub-sector. While some multi asset managers suffered smaller drawdowns relative to peers by entering February 2020 defensively positioned based on valuations (and had been conservatively positioned for much of the prior two to three year period), other multi asset managers nimbly reduced risk exposures by reducing equity exposures or adding downside protection through derivatives.

Among the managers that suffered larger drawdowns relative to peers, many had pronounced value biases through their asset allocation and security selection approaches, in some cases adding significantly to cheap, cyclicals as the market sold off. These managers were impacted when growth styles started to recover more quickly. Lonsec notes, however, that those managers with value biases have bounced back (in some cases sharply) as the value rotation has taken hold since late 2020, though Lonsec notes it is too early to suggest how sustained this will be and may be somewhat dependent on the path of the economic recovery from here.

Lonsec believes articulation of the manager’s strategy to be important given it is likely to provide a greater understanding of how the manager and their fund is equipped to perform in different environments. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that Lonsec’s ratings encompass a ‘through the cycle’ view on managers we assess.

Figure 5

Key takeaways

Whilst portfolios may be diversified at the asset class level, this may not be indicative of the inherent level of diversification overall within portfolios. As Lonsec has seen in its recent multi-asset review, biases towards the value factor have, in some cases, been high and exacerbated by biases coming from both asset allocation and security selection effects. Lonsec prefers to see diversification across not only style, but also strategy, geography, sector and factor. Value biases have been pronounced in some portfolios in recent years given high valuations and the belief in some quarters that the cycle was maturing. This positioning has proved a performance headwind against passively managed SAA weighted benchmarks in recent years and in recent months led to significant performance dispersion among different strategies.

Going forward, while it is difficult to time decisions over shorter periods, Lonsec expects greater levels of dispersion in markets which should provide greater opportunities for active asset allocators to extract alpha from markets. Lonsec continues to discuss the foundations for any active bets in portfolios and the framework behind such decisions. Moderately leaning into certain style or factor bets can be challenging but possible at points in the cycle when supported by a strong asset allocation framework.

When the value bias in an investment manager’s approach is compounded in the security selection process, Lonsec believes asset allocators must be cognisant of the degree of value bias in their portfolios to ensure this is in line with their strategy (or any factors for that matter). All bets must be intended with unexpected performance resulting for those unaware of their true exposures. As valuations have been shown to have stronger explanatory power on returns over longer term horizons, Lonsec also continues to progress conversations on the time horizon of manager’s decision making processes. Overall, Lonsec believes that asset allocators making shorter to medium term decisions should include value as one factor among others that may have increased forecasting power over the medium term.

Authors

Darrell Clark, Manager, Multi-Asset

Sebastian Lander, Senior Investment Analyst

Issued by Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec). Warning: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any advice is General Advice without considering the objectives, financial situation and needs of any person. Before making a decision read the PDS and consider your financial circumstances or seek personal advice. Disclaimer: Lonsec gives no warranty of accuracy or completeness of information in this document, which is compiled from information from public and third-party sources. Opinions are reasonably held by Lonsec at compilation. Lonsec assumes no obligation to update this document after publication. Except for liability which can’t be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error, inaccuracy, misstatement or omission, or any loss suffered through relying on the document or any information. ©2021 Lonsec. All rights reserved. This report may also contain third party material that is subject to copyright. To the extent that copyright subsists in a third party it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material. Any unauthorised reproduction of this information is prohibited. 

Generating a meaningful level of income within the risk constraints of a retirement portfolio has certainly had its challenges over the last 12 months.

When the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, a number of usually very reliable income sources—such as the banks, REITs, and infrastructure—either reduced, suspended or cancelled their dividends altogether as the global economy came to an abrupt halt. Bond yields, which have been grinding lower for the better part of 30 years, plummeted further, reaching record lows. In fact, yields across an entire diversified portfolio came under enormous pressure and remained that way for the better part of a year.

At Lonsec we were able to generate in excess of the targeted 4.0% p.a. yield (before franking) across our Lonsec Retirement Managed Portfolios despite the difficult market conditions—a great outcome for our clients who rely on this income to fund their retirement needs.

Lonsec’s portfolios have generated income in excess of the 4.0% target
(12 months to end March 2021)


Source: Lonsec

The importance of active strategies and diversification

So how did we get here?

For us, the single most important factor was active management. Being active at all stages of the investment process—from asset allocation through to manager selection and security selection—was critical in helping deliver income objectives for our clients. With the potential for default rates to skyrocket and dividend traps around every corner, we wanted both our equity and credit managers to really test the balance sheets of companies and ensure the robustness of the businesses we were investing in or lending to.

Wide dispersion in outcomes also played out at the sector level, where the “stay at home” tech sectors, for example, did well out of COVID, while the travel sector was heavily impacted. In an environment where uncertainty is high and there is a large dispersion between the likely winners and losers, active management was key.

Secondly, diversification was, and will remain, very important in terms of how we construct retirement portfolios. COVID-19 has made that excruciatingly clear. If you were relying on the dividends of a few bank stocks to meet your living expenses in retirement, then you took an enormous hit to your income over the last 12 months. We aim to diversify income sources broadly across not only asset classes – but also across the underlying drivers of that income—whether that be dividends from equities, option premia, bond coupons, rental income from real estate and other sources.

Over the course of the year, we also broadened out the types and sources of income we were accessing in the portfolio. We invested in relative value strategies in the fixed income space that didn’t rely on credit or duration to generate returns as well as shorter duration credit strategies that had the ability to rotate across fixed income sectors to source income.

We also accessed some more idiosyncratic or alternative sources of income (via multi-asset income strategies), which allowed us to gain exposure to assets such as litigation finance, catastrophe bonds, healthcare and music royalties. Importantly, these additional sources of income were largely unrelated to what was going on in the broader economy and uncorrelated to existing income sources in the portfolio.

Crisis equals opportunity

It is often in times of crisis that the best opportunities emerge. We believe it is important to be opportunistic and have enough nimbleness in your process to take advantage of those opportunities as they arise. Shortly after the market sell-off in March 2020, good opportunities opened up in some of the higher yielding credit markets as spreads blew out. We entered a position in syndicated loans given the spread widening in that sector, funded by reducing our exposure to a traditional global equity dividend yield strategy which was facing headwinds from the COVID-induced shutdown.

We also tilted towards strategies where there was an obvious tailwind. For example, we increased our weighting to strategies employing option strategies which we felt were well positioned to take advantage of the increased volatility in markets. Key to being able to take advantage of these opportunities is having a robust decision-making framework in place that allows you to respond quickly.

Looking forward now, and with the worst effects of the COVID-19 shutdown largely behind us, we have adopted what we would consider to be a more ‘normal’ portfolio position in that we are now close to benchmark weights across the major asset classes. Yields have begun to normalise, not only in equities where companies are feeling more confident about paying distributions, but also in bond markets where higher bond yields underpin our more optimistic outlook for income across the remainder of the year.

 

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

By Lukasz de Pourbaix, Executive Director & CIO – Lonsec Investment Solutions

Markets have been buoyed as signs of an economic recovery continue to be reflected in economic data. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has revised their projections upwards on global GDP growth with the US expected to grow by 6.4% in 2021 and China by 8.4% over the same period. Domestically, we have seen a similar trend with manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors as measured by the PMI (Purchasing Managers’ Index) lifting in March and consumer sentiment also on the rise.

The rotation into cyclical and contrarian value stocks continued for the first two months of the quarter as the market digested the prospect of an economic recovery and the potential for an uptick in inflation. Lonsec’s base case is that we may see a modest rise in inflation over the next 12 months, but that over the medium-term inflation will remain under control as broader structural deflationary pressures such as the continual impact of technology in society and the aging population continue to weigh down on most developed economies.

From an asset allocation perspective, we continue to favour risk assets over bonds despite bond yields rising over the quarter. Over the medium term we believe that cash rates and bond yields will remain relatively low which will continue to be conducive for risk assets. From a dynamic asset allocation perspective, we are favouring Australian Equities and Emerging Markets and within Fixed Income we are seeking to diversify away from duration risk.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

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Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

Debate in global property markets is now focused on office markets and how the global pandemic may have changed demand for office space on a permanent basis. In Australia, the immediate impact has seen CBD office vacancy levels rise in Sydney and Melbourne from 3.0–4.0% to around 8.0–9.0% over the year to January 2021.

Net absorption for Australia overall has reduced from +50,000 sqm in the six months to January 2020 to -90,000 sqm in the latest six months to January 2021. Sub-leasing levels have spiked as tenants with longer leases look to offload spare capacity. While face rents have remained largely unchanged, incentives have jumped to over 35% compared to around 25% pre-pandemic, dampening net effective rents.

The return to work in CBDs is progressive, but there is a growing realisation that more flexibility to allow working from home arrangements is both possible and desired. As corporates plan ahead and leases come to an end, already there is demand for core space plus an option for a flexible amount. Landlords will also need to ensure that buildings provide good quality space (including high environmental ratings) with facilities being upgraded in line with social distancing requirements.

While there will be some requirement for more space per person, it is likely that the trend for more flexible space and working from home arrangements will drag on demand while the world works its way through this pandemic. Given there is the possibility of more pandemics in the future, the outlook for office space will have a higher degree of uncertainty. A bright spot is medical and life sciences office space, where demand has been boosted by pandemic conditions.

Property sector will keep evolving

In the March quarter 2021 Australian property securities lost ground (S&P/ASX 300 A-REIT Index -0.5%) to the broader Australian equities index (+4.3%), although a stronger March almost made up for a poor first two months of the new year. Conversely, global property securities – AUD hedged (+7.3%) outperformed global equities – AUD hedged (+6.1%) during the first quarter of 2021.

Healthcare property continues to evolve with limited listed opportunities in Australia but increasing activity in unlisted funds. The highlight during the last quarter was the bid for Australian Unity Healthcare Property Trust by Canadian-based NorthWest Healthcare, with two conditional bids being rejected by Australian Unity as significantly undervaluing the patiently accumulated portfolio (December 2020 value was $2.4 billion) plus the ongoing development potential.

Heavily sold off early in 2020, retail property REITs have had bursts of recovery during the last six months as investors reacted to a vaccine-led recovery. Food and necessity-based shopping centres have continued to trade well and remain in demand by investors. Shopping strips and malls with a high proportion of discretionary spending have been hard hit, and owners face a period of readjustment in tenant mix and rentals. Nevertheless, in countries where lockdowns have lifted, foot traffic has rapidly returned to the ‘fortress’ shopping centres.

Secondary market for residential property expected to stabilise

A surprising area of strength is the residential market in Australia and some other parts of the globe where the COVID-19 response has been well handled (e.g. New Zealand). The combination of the RBA announcing that interest rates would stay low for a number of years and a shortage of supply in the secondary market has seen prices escalate quickly. This seems at odds with the underlying economic conditions in Australia where government income support (i.e. JobKeeper) has now ended and banks require mortgages to be serviced after a brief hiatus for those in need.

Lonsec expects some stabilisation to occur in pricing for the secondary housing market as these factors take hold and supply increases. Developers of primary housing stock will reap the benefits in the near term, although the apartment market is softer as demand is weak (no international buyers or renters) and rentals are about 20% lower than the pre-pandemic level. While values in regional and coastal areas have reacted to the work from home trend, this is also a reflection of relative value compared to the capital cities.

The residential rental and manufactured housing sectors are well developed internationally and have shown their resilience with a high proportion of recurring income from a multitude of tenants, although these sectors are not immune from some impact of a pandemic. Student housing is a good example, where travel restrictions have seen international student occupancy at very low levels. Longer-term trends of demand for high quality education should see these businesses recover in due course.

Property subsector winners include the Industrial and logistics and data centre sectors as growth continues off the back of accelerating trends towards e-commerce. However, pricing of assets in this area has become historically expensive and investors need to tread carefully to ensure the properties have tenants that are tied in not only by long leases, but by specialised fit-outs (preferably tenant funded). Similarly, hotels and lodging earnings are set to benefit as intra-national travel restrictions are eased and are dependent on how international travel patterns pan out.

A key positive that remains in place is low interest rates globally, which are having the impact of maintaining investor demand and underpinning tight market capitalisation rates (apart from discretionary retail assets). Lonsec maintains the view that these policy settings are artificially low, and as inflation resurfaces, bond rates and borrowing costs will rise (the US 10-year rate rose from 0.72% in October 2020 to 1.85% at the end of March 2021).

At this stage, REITs remain reasonably geared and investors should steer away from companies starting to push these boundaries. At the same time, highly priced property groups with components of funds management and development earnings can be vulnerable to a reversal of asset values.

Issued by Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec). Warning: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any advice is General Advice without considering the objectives, financial situation and needs of any person. Before making a decision read the PDS and consider your financial circumstances or seek personal advice. Disclaimer: Lonsec gives no warranty of accuracy or completeness of information in this document, which is compiled from information from public and third-party sources. Opinions are reasonably held by Lonsec at compilation. Lonsec assumes no obligation to update this document after publication. Except for liability which can’t be excluded, Lonsec, its directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error, inaccuracy, misstatement or omission, or any loss suffered through relying on the document or any information. ©2021 Lonsec. All rights reserved. This report may also contain third party material that is subject to copyright. To the extent that copyright subsists in a third party it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material. Any unauthorised reproduction of this information is prohibited. 

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.