Central banks have shifted to a new regime of easy monetary policy, thus reducing expected bond returns. As negative-yielding debt increases alongside stock-to-yield valuations to all-time highs, gold may become an attractive and more effective diversifier than bonds, justifying a higher portfolio allocation than historical performance suggests. Re-optimizing portfolio structures for lower future expected bond returns suggests investors should consider an additional 1%-1.5% gold exposure in diversified portfolios.
High risks and low rates
Investors are facing:
• an environment with flat to inverted yield curves – often a signal of an impending recession;
• stock valuations at extreme levels, particularly when compared to the level of interest rates, that has historically preceded meaningful stock sell-offs; and
• An increasing set of geopolitical concerns, including trade tensions, Brexit, and Middle East turmoil. Within this context, we believe that there are clear indicators for higher levels of safe-haven assets like gold, but portfolio allocation should not be limited to safe-haven concerns, as expected future returns from extremely low or negative-yielding bonds could weigh on the overall performance as well. Our research suggests that weaker supposed relationship returns favor additional gold exposure in well-diversified portfolios.
As bond yields fall, diversifiers with higher potential returns, like hedge funds, real estate, and private equity, carry heavier weights in optimized wallets. Our analysis also suggests that the historically higher volatility that accompanies these alternative investments, versus other assets such as stocks and bonds, warrants increasing allocations of gold to serve as a ballast in the event of a stock market pullback.
The Treasury yield curves are beginning to flatten and have even started to be inverted in some instances as well as Low opportunity cost makes gold very attractive.
One of the key drivers of gold, especially in the short and medium-term, is the opportunity cost of holding it. Unlike bonds, gold does not pay interest or dividends because it does not have credit risk. This lack of yield can deter investors. But in an environment where 26% of developed market sovereign debt is trading with negative nominal rates and, once adjusted for inflation, a whopping 82% trades with negative real rates, the opportunity cost of gold almost goes away, even providing what can be seen as a favorable “cost of carry” relative to sovereign bonds.
Gold prices have responded to the surge in negative real-yielding debt, as evidenced by the strong positive correlation between the amount of debt and cost of gold over the past four years To some degree, this illustrates the erosion of confidence in fiat currencies related to the monetary intervention.
A race to zero
Countries around the world are arguably trying to competitively devalue their currency, most notably through loose monetary policy. The global currency depreciation is reflected in the performance of the price of gold in those currencies. While the price of gold in US dollars and Swiss francs is still some way from all-time highs, the amount of gold in all other major G-10 currencies is at or near all-time highs.
Portfolio risk is rising yet bonds may underperform
The low rate environment has also pushed investors to increase the level of risk in their portfolios, either by buying longer-term bonds, lower-quality riskier bonds, or simply replacing them with riskier assets, like stocks or alternative investments.
Also, we do not believe investors will achieve the same bond returns they have seen over the past few decades. Our analysis suggests that current bond yields and the shape of the curve are good predictors of future returns. And based on this, historical data indicates that investors may see an average compounded annual return of approx — 2.3 % (±0.6%) between now and 2027 for the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Index.
For pension funds, this may be particularly tricky, as underfunded liabilities have increased, yet many are still required to deliver annual returns between 7% and 9%.
Investors are adding gold to their portfolios.
Central banks bought the most gold in history in 2018, with continued robust purchases y-t-d in 2019. And gold-backed ETF holdings have reached all-time highs in September as investors respond to the high-risk, low rate environment.
Gold excels when rates fall.
A lower rate environment may make gold more effective than bonds in mitigating stock-market risk, providing portfolio diversification, and helping investors achieve their long-term investment objectives. Bonds usually make up a significant proportion of portfolios. While it may not be feasible for investors to replace all bond exposure with gold fully, the environment warrants consideration of augmenting gold holdings.
Gold has historically performed well in the year following a shift in Federal Reserve policy from tightening to “on-hold” or “easing” – the environment in which we currently find ourselves.
Also, when real rates have been negative, gold has historically returned twice as much annually as the long-term average, or 15.3 %. Even low favorable real rates produce higher average returns. Effectively, it has only been during periods of significantly higher actual interest rates – an unlikely outcome given the current market conditions – that gold returns have been negative.
Gold allocations should be higher when yields are low
An analysis based on historical returns for major asset classes suggests a 2%-10% optimal gold allocation for portfolios with various asset compositions, increasing as riskier assets are added. But when we include lower expected returns for bonds based on the results from our model, we find that across most portfolios the optimal gold allocation increases by an additional 1%-1.5% and for a hypothetical average pension fund portfolio, the optimal allocation with the maximum risk-adjusted return increases from 4.2% to 6.6%