Modelling one side of a two-sided problem

Ah models, my old friends. You’re always wrong, but sometimes helpful. Often dangerous too.

A recent article in The Actuary magazine addressed whether “de-risking in members’ best interests?”  I say “recent” even though it’s from August because I am a little behind on my The Actuary reading.

In the article, the authors demonstrate that by modelling the impact of covenant risk, optimal investment portfolios for Defined Benefit (DB) pensions actually have more risky assets than if this covenant risk is ignored.

The covenant they refer to is the obligation of the sponsor to make good deficits within the pension fund. Covenant risk then is the risk that the sponsor is unable (typically through its own insolvency) to make good on this promise.

On the surface it should seem counterintuitive that by modelling an additional risk to pensioners, the answer is to invest in riskier assets, thus increasing risk.

The explanation proffered by the authors is that the higher expected returns from riskier assets allow the fund to potentially build up surplus, thus reducing the risks of covenant failure.

I can follow that logic, particularly in the case where the dependence between DB fund insolvency and sponsor default is week. It doesn’t mean it’s a useful result. Continue reading “Modelling one side of a two-sided problem”

Credit Suisse annual update on market performance

Credit Suisse has for several years now put out an annual Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2013 is out now.

It’s worth reading in its entirety for the insights. I don’t agree with everything there, and I certainly don’t agree with the widely held view (not among the authors) that the universe of countries included in the survey is supposed to be somehow representative of the world.

The countries chosen have an absolutely clear bias in their selection. They are successful economies with successful financial markets. They are included by virtue of their long-term success and capital growth and returns for investors.

The authors know this, but many readers don’t.  The returns per this survey are an overly rosy view of possible future returns.

Surveys, papers and books on the ERP

Some interesting papers on the ERP:

Market Risk Premium used in 56 countries in 2011: a survey with 6,014 answers

The Equity Premium in 150 Textbooks

Equity Premium: Historical, Expected, Required and Implied

  • This work provides a fairly in-depth analysis of the differences between the various definitions of ERP and a comprehensive survey of major sources for estimates of these. In general, the estimates of the Expected ERP over T-bonds (rather than short-dated T-bills) are in line with the range I use of 3% to 5% with several showing values to the lower end of this range.
The debate certainly isn’t over, but these papers and the referenced papers, research and textbooks are a good starting place to get up to speed.

 

 

 

 

Your ERP estimate is still too high

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who had been told that “Credit Suisse recommended an Equity Risk Premium of 7%”.  I’m curious to know whether they truly view that as an appropriate ERP.  If your ERP is 7%, it’s still too high.

The authors of Triumph of the Optimists have joined forces with Credit Suisse to publish the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2010 (pdf) which is a brief update of their brilliant research.  You should definitely read the original book.

The updated research shows a very familiar picture to that of the book.  Here are a few important outcomes:

  • Realised excess returns of equities over bonds have been negative for most countries for the last decade.

Clearly, using realised excess returns (or historical ERPs) over a short period as a measure of future ERP is a bad idea.  I’m fairly sure the future ERP is positive.

  • For the World, the US, the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland and South Africa (a few countries I chose to look at before I realised the trend is near-universal) have had declining historical ERPs over the last 110 years. Some have had a few bumps in between, but the overwhelming trend has been downward.  The last decade’s poor performance has obviously helped establish this trend, but it was pretty well established for most of these countries even without the last decade.

Using unadjusted historical ERPs over long periods is a dangerous idea because trends in the data make it a poor estimate of future experience.

Pension funds don’t have enough junk

Junk Bonds are debt instruments issued by corporates that have relatively low credit ratings.  They pay interest at high rates as a result.

Typically viewed as risky investments, the junk bonds boom of the 80s showed that there is more to junk than just a risky investment.

Locally, our pension funds and other retirement savings money should be more heavily invested in junk bonds. I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about this. It might be due to the limited availability of junk in the SA market. On the other hand, if demand picked up, I’m sure we could see more original-issue junk bonds as yields drop and become more attractive financing vehicles.

There are always marks for considering tax

Why should pension funds be invested in junk? Tax. Approved retirement savings vehicles in South Africa don’t pay income tax. Thus, the value of securities that would attract significant tax is higher for these investors than for the market as a whole. If risk and return are balanced for the market as a whole, the extra return available to retirement vehicles through not paying tax is a bonus over and above that appropriate for the risk.

Conversely, pension funds should stay far away from tax-efficient instruments such as preference shares. The prices of these instruments have already been bid up by tax-paying investors. Continue reading “Pension funds don’t have enough junk”

How not to lose money in Make a Million

I have a clear strategy for how not to lose money playing the Make a Million competition. As I explain it, you may come up with some smart tactics to win the competition and enhance your returns, but you’re on you’re own there.

So, how does one not lose money with the Make a Million competition?

Don’t enter.


You are overwhelmingly like to lose money if you enter this competition. I’ve said this before, and I’ve been right before. I’m right again.

There’s also the little idea that the  structure of the Make a Million competition increases risks of  financial meltdown

Let’s look at some hard statistics to show what I mean.

Telling statistics (what they don’t show)

In the MaM presentation, the organisers include some interesting statistics about number of trades, trading activity and many other metrics.

They don’t show average returns or performance.

So let’s look at some of the numbers:

Raw return data (excluding prize money) based on 2009 MaM competition.

Average Return -11.49%
Expected Loss R 1,149
Median Return -15.06%
Mode Return -9.12%
Probability of breaking even 25.00%
Probability of earning less than 10% 83.00%
Probability of doubling money 1.78%
Probability of winning 0.20%

Suddenly the competition doesn’t look so great, does it?  (This isn’t the first time, here is my analysis of the Comedy and Tragedy that was the 2008 Make a Million competition.) Continue reading “How not to lose money in Make a Million”

Implied Pension Return Assumptions and the Equity Risk Premium

When companies value pension obligations and required contribution rates, they make assumptions about the expected future investment returns. (Accounting standards require market-based rates reflecting fixed interest returns, but that’s a separate point).

So what assumptions are pension funds making? The WSJ has an interesting article showing that the average US pension fund is assuming future returns of approximately 8%. To put that in perspective, yields on 30 year T-bonds in the US are about 3.9%, 10-year yields are below 3% and inflation is currently about nothing. This is a huge real return and suggests that many of these pension funds may be underfunded.

It’s also interesting to work out what Equity Risk Premiums these valuation assumptions imply. FinanceClippings makes  some educated guesses at likely portfolio construction, and estimates assumed ERPs of nearly 8%. For reasons I’ve described before, an 8% ERP is madness.

My own calculations

FinanceClippings assumes a simple portfolio mix of 50% equities and 50% government bonds in this calculation, and assumes the average yield will be consistent with 30-year assumptions. I would differ slightly here. If we are looking at an overall portfolio, I would expect some investment grade corporate bonds and property in the mix too. These assets could be expected to earn 1% to 2% over risk-free over time (after adjusting for expected default loss on the corporate bonds). These return assumptions may seem low to some, but this is another area where it’s easy to overestimate the possible returns based on inappropriate periods of data. Continue reading “Implied Pension Return Assumptions and the Equity Risk Premium”