Fund Managers Optimistic About Equities, Alternatives

Towers Watson's Global Survey of Investment and Economic Expectations found pension fund managers anticipate fairly conservative investing approaches, but optimism remain optimistic about the years ahead.

The survey found fund managers continue to be optimistic about long-term investments in equities and alternative assets, but remain uncertain over the outlook for global economic improvement this year and are concerned over returns from government bonds.

“We believe equities will provide reasonable returns as easy monetary policy and mediocre growth combine to offer a relatively supportive environment, although valuations will vary across markets,” said Matt Stroud, head of delegated portfolio management, Towers Watson. “Short- to medium-dated sovereign bonds will provide reasonable returns as priced-in cash rates continue to be revised lower. Conversely, credit markets appear vulnerable to downside economic risks from an economic perspective, and from creeping leverage and weaker underwriting standards. Low starting yield spreads fail to provide much cushion against anything other than a benign outcome.”

When asked to identify their most critical investment issues over the next five years, six in 10 (61%) respondents cited government intervention, including monetary, fiscal, legislative and regulatory measures. More than four in 10 (42%) identified global economic imbalance as a critical issue, followed by inflation (35%). Managers also identified asset allocation and risk as the two most critical issues facing their institutional investor clients.

Fund managers’ ongoing uncertainty over the world economy is affecting how they view portfolio positioning over the next year. According to the survey, only one-quarter (25%) believe the investment strategies of their institutional clients will become more aggressive this year, a sharp drop from 44% who said the same last year. Conversely, more than one-third (34%) believe their clients will invest more conservatively, an increase from 29% in 2014.

Last year, managers in most markets projected better equity returns. This year, expectations are sharply divided by market. Managers expect equities to deliver the strongest returns in Japan (9.0%), China (8.5%) and the U.S. (7.2%). Lower returns are predicted for Australia (4.9%), Canada (5.4%) and Switzerland (5.7%).  

The survey showed most managers remain bullish for the next five years on emerging-market equities (70% vs. 76% in 2014), public equities (73% vs. 78%), infrastructure (60% vs. 53%) and private equity (55% vs. 59%). For the same time horizon, the majority of managers are bearish on nominal government bonds (83% vs. 81%), investment-grade bonds (53% vs. 58%) and high-yield bonds (50% vs. 42%).

Nearly two thirds (61%) of survey respondents see the U.S. dollar as a rewarding investment opportunity. Managers expect the dollar to maintain its strength, demonstrating a belief that currencies will play a key role in total returns and the management of assets on the back of 2014’s currency volatility. This is consistent with managers’ expectations of monetary policy’s continued prominent role in investment analysis over the next five years.

Many managers are predicting 10-year government bond yields will rise in 2015, with predictions rising to 2.8% for the U.S. (from 2.1% as of year-end 2014), to 2.8% for the U.K. (from 1.8%), to 1.4% for the Eurozone (from 0.5%), to 3.6% for Australia (from 2.7%), to 4.3% for China (from 3.7%) and to 0.9% for Japan (from 0.3%).

“Interestingly, many managers believe the most important attribute for investment success going forward is active management. While we agree that active managers can add significant value, especially in an environment where valuations are heavily impacted by government actions, we also believe the appropriate response to an uncertain future is to emphasize portfolio diversity,” said Stroud.

Towers Watson’s 2015 Global Survey of Investment and Economic Expectations includes the opinions of 101 investment managers, economists, strategists and market analysts. The majority of respondents have institutional assets under management (AUM) and retail AUM greater than $1 billion. The survey report may be downloaded here.