Historically reserved for institutional investors and ultra-high-net-worth clients, alternatives are now becoming almost mainstream in high-net-worth and mass-affluent client portfolios. Providing access to these complex investment strategies enables financial advisors to deliver more robust investment solutions and differentiate their product offerings in the increasingly competitive marketplace for financial advice.
However, what an alternatives allocation includes and how these strategies are being used in portfolio construction differ widely within the wealth management industry. Here, Eric Mogelof, PIMCO’s head of U.S. global wealth management, and Aimee Almeleh, an account manager specializing in alternatives, discuss the ongoing evolution of alternatives strategies.
Q: What exactly are alternative investments?
A: While most investors can agree on the definitions of a stock and a bond, there is little consensus on what defines an alternative investment.
Some investors go strictly by investment vehicle, with public funds falling under traditional investments and limited partnerships or private equity drawdown vehicles viewed as alternatives strategies. Using this definition, however, can be limiting, as non-traditional investments can be wrapped in public funds; for example, interval funds, which are increasingly popular with financial advisors, use fund structures with liquidity features similar to those of some limited partnerships. Other investors distinguish between traditional and alternative investments based on whether the securities are public or private. And still others define anything outside of stocks and bonds as alternatives.
At PIMCO, we typically frame the discussion of alternatives around what types of assets are being bought and sold and how investment returns are generated. This offers flexibility in evaluating potential investment solutions. For example, an alternatives strategy may include only public market securities but employ a long/short trading or arbitrage strategy. A drawdown vehicle that takes exposure to privately negotiated and structured debt or illiquid real estate securities may also be an alternative investment. Yet another could be an interval fund that invests in both public and private market securities and uses leverage to try to optimize returns.
We think the most important features of an alternatives strategy are how it is expected to behave within a portfolio and what risks an investor is taking to achieve that outcome.
Q: Should every client consider including exposure to alternatives in an investment portfolio?
A: Before considering any investment, and especially alternatives, financial advisors will want to develop a deep understanding of a client’s overall financial situation, key investment objectives, risk/return profile and near- to medium-term liquidity needs. Based on these factors, financial advisors can then determine whether a specific alternatives strategy may be appropriate for a client.
Certain alternative investments – such as hedge funds and private equity held in a limited partnership – are only available to investors who meet minimum net-worth and income requirements. Many alternatives managers also establish high investment minimums, typically upward of $5 million. These requirements have historically served as barriers for many investors, even when alternatives strategies may have been appropriate from a portfolio and risk/return perspective.
More recently, however, an increase in interval funds, tender-offer funds and nontraded REITs (real estate investment trusts), as well as the rise of new financial technology (fintech) platforms, have helped “democratize” alternative investments, making them available to a much broader universe of investors. These offerings have preserved some of the attributes we consider typical of alternatives strategies, but in fund structures. In addition, many distribution firms are streamlining the alternatives subscription process and significantly reducing investment minimums to levels that are accessible for a larger range of investors.
Q: How are advisors using alternatives in portfolio construction, and what objectives are they pursuing?
A: We see three key reasons why financial advisors are utilizing alternatives in their client portfolios.
First, alternatives may offer higher return potential; we see this motivation most in ultra-high-net-worth client portfolios. This higher-return potential is often driven by investing in less liquid and/or more complex assets, along with greater concentration in high-conviction ideas. Returns may also be driven by the use of leverage to varying degrees.
Second, alternatives have potential diversification benefits. Some alternatives strategies take different risk-factor exposures than traditional stocks and bonds. This may help build portfolio resiliency and mitigate drawdown risk.
Third, exposure to the esoteric asset classes in alternative investments can provide alternative betas – non-traditional investment exposures – that are not easily replicated or accessed in other ways.
Among advisors using alternatives for their clients, we see allocations typically ranging from 10% to 30% of portfolios. For ultra-high-net-worth portfolios, we have seen allocations as high as 50%.
In sizing alternatives allocations, we go back to understanding client goals and objectives. We see advisors building diversified alternative portfolios that span hedge funds, alternative risk premia, private equity, private credit and real estate strategies. We think alternatives allocations should be large enough to move the needle for an investment portfolio but also maintain diversification across strategy, liquidity and asset class exposures.
Q: What else should advisors consider when allocating to alternatives?
A: Manager selection is always relevant in portfolio construction, but when considering strategies that offer lower liquidity and/or exposure to unique investment betas, manager selection may be critical.
Financial advisors should consider an investment team’s capabilities and process to determine whether returns are generated by skill or luck and whether those results are repeatable. In addition, top-notch operational and risk infrastructures are essential as alternatives strategies often incorporate derivatives and esoteric assets. Legal and compliance functions also need to be assessed given the increasingly complex legal and regulatory environment for alternatives.
Q: How is PIMCO approaching alternative solutions for wealth management clients?
A: Alternative investment strategies, when used prudently, can be an important tool in both preserving and growing client portfolios, in our view.
We envision a future where alternatives are accessible to more investors and financial advisors can integrate alternative solutions into client portfolios, where appropriate, with few or no barriers to entry.