Chris Brightman, Research Affiliates’ chief investment officer, discusses the 2018 outlook across a global opportunity set, while Research Affiliates’ asset allocation and research specialists offer insights into key asset classes. Jim Masturzo (equities), Shane Shepherd (bonds), Michael Aked (real return assets) and Omid Shakernia (alternative strategies) discuss the opportunities they’re seeing as we start the year. As always, their insights are in the context of the PIMCO All Asset and All Asset All Authority funds.

Q: Let’s begin with a discussion of your outlook across global asset classes. What are your return estimates spanning the global opportunity set as we enter 2018, and where are you finding opportunities for attractive multiyear returns?

Brightman: Developing asset class return forecasts (as well as estimates of risk and cross-correlations) is central to our tactical management of the All Asset portfolios. We continually reposition the All Asset portfolios in response to changes in capital market prices to seek high long-term real returns, but in a way that also aims to help investors diversify away from mainstream equity risk and protect against rising inflation. Objectively forecasting returns using our disciplined, value-oriented modeling techniques enables us to systematically employ contrarian rebalancing – essentially seeking to buy assets that have fallen in price, sell assets that have appreciated and repeating this essential practice over time.

By contra-trading against the market’s excess volatility across a widely diversified collection of asset classes, we seek to create a long-term source of incremental wealth accumulation that goes beyond a simple buy-and-hold allocation.

Our approach to forming long-term return forecasts is undergirded by our “building block” model of capital market returns. This model provides long-term asset class real return forecasts by summing the fundamental components of all capital market returns: yield, real growth and changes in valuations. Because we believe today’s yields provide more information about future returns than do predictions of future price changes, we employ only a mild valuation reversion assumption: We assume a 50% reversion to equilibrium valuation within 10 years (or, equivalently, a 50% chance of full mean reversion and a 50% chance of none). Within our All Asset investment process, we further condition these valuation reversion assumptions for the current strength of the economy (i.e., accelerating growth or decelerating growth), which helps calibrate our longer-horizon views for near-term expected fundamentals.

As we scan capital markets today, we find that even after the strong returns of 2017, Third Pillar markets (diversifying markets – including real assets, emerging markets and high yield bonds) remain compelling opportunities, especially in contrast to lower-yielding mainstream stocks and bonds. Figure 1 provides our annualized 10-year real return outlook as of 30 November 2017 across a wide array of asset classes. The red band includes all markets with an estimated real return of 1% or less. A casual glance reveals this lowest band of estimated returns is home to most mainstream asset classes. Unsurprisingly, the conventional 60/40 portfolio (with 60% equities proxied by the S&P 500 and 40% bonds by the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Bond Index) is priced to yield a real return of only 0.5%, by our calculations.

As we move up the graph, the yellow band represents asset classes with real return forecasts of 1%–3%, and the green band, of 3% or more. Note that these higher-return areas are dominated by Third Pillar asset classes, trading at prices that provide high relative yields, which in turn position them for relatively attractive forward-looking rates of return. Over a span of 10 years, we forecast an equally weighted Third Pillar portfolio1 to deliver returns in excess of 2% per annum greater than that of 60/40.

Even after emerging from a modest bear market in 2013–2015, Third Pillar asset classes still reflect what we view as compelling valuations today. Let’s now turn to our colleagues, who provide more detailed discussions of our forecasts by major asset class category.

Equities

Masturzo: The past year was very strong for global equities, with all 25 of the markets we model yielding positive returns and emerging markets (EM) posting a 29.5% aggregate return through November 2017, net of inflation (see Figure 2). The ordinal ranking of returns in 2017 by market also aligned with our expected returns entering the year, as well as with our positioning in the All Asset Fund portfolio at the outset of 2017. As the equity markets rallied across all regions, the funds benefitted and we reduced exposure in both EM and EAFE (Europe, Australasia and Far East); our U.S. equity exposure did not change given its small starting weight.

Looking forward, our long-term models still show favorable estimated returns in both developed non-U.S. and emerging markets, but less so than a year ago – not that 10-year annualized return estimates of 5.9% and 4.5%, net of inflation, are anything to sneeze at. (Asset classes are proxied by the indexes listed below Figure 2.) From a risk-adjusted perspective, we view these markets as equally attractive entering 2018 given their similar forecasted Sharpe ratios, owing to the higher volatility in emerging markets.

From a valuation perspective, based on the cyclically adjusted price/earnings (P/E) ratio, we see emerging markets as now only slightly undervalued, with a 30 basis point (bp) annual tailwind in forecasted return from mean reversion – down from 1.4% a year ago. However, estimations in the undervaluation of EM currencies provide a further, and meaningful, tailwind to these assets, and serve as a reminder that hedging EM currencies has often been a costly mistake.

On the home front, the bull market in U.S. stocks continued in 2017, buoyed by optimism and high corporate profits. Even when including results from the global financial crisis, average corporate profits since 2006 are roughly 4 percentage points higher than they were over the previous 60 years, as Figure 3 shows.

Will tax reform drive profits even higher? In the short term, we think it’s entirely possible, although not to the extremes some may expect. According to a recent CNBC report, the average effective tax rate among S&P 500 companies is about 24%, significantly lower than the topline corporate rate of 35%.2 In addition, as Figure 3 shows, while wages have been trending down as a percentage of GDP for 70 years, they have historically hit periods where they pop back up. Additional profits accruing to corporations could be a catalyst for such a bump, and any bounce-back without an associated increase in productivity could eat into profits.

We thus remain tilted away from U.S. stocks and toward foreign markets; however, in a departure from the past, our preference for the latter is now less about undervaluation in those markets and more about the benefits of currency and income against the backdrop of what we view as rich U.S. equity markets.

Bonds

Shepherd: Our 10-year outlook for core fixed income strategies is rather unexciting, reflecting the current environment of low starting yields and expectations for modestly rising rates, which will create headwinds for longer-duration assets. That said, we do see pockets of opportunity outside of core fixed income.

The U.S. yield curve has flattened significantly over the course of 2017, with the short end energized by three hikes in the fed funds rate. However, on the long end, the 10-year rate actually declined slightly, and the 30-year fell by more than 25 bps over the course of the year. As such, the slope of the curve (represented by the 10-year minus the three-month rate) flattened from 1.9% to 1.0%, leading to a much poorer risk premium for taking on duration.

Our interest rate models forecast a rise in equilibrium real interest rates to about zero over the next decade (roughly a 2.3% short-term nominal yield) and the slope reverting back toward our 1.6% estimated equilibrium rate. As such, we estimate short bonds returning about 0.2% annualized on a real basis over the next 10 years, with intermediate Treasuries providing 0.6% and long bonds delivering -0.8%. We therefore allocate small positions to U.S. duration, solely for the hedging properties. (All asset classes discussed here are proxied by the indexes listed below Figure 1.)

We similarly see limited opportunities for generating attractive real return in credit sectors. Investment grade (IG) credit spreads have become tight, leading to our estimated real return of 1.0%, only 0.4% greater than that of intermediate Treasuries, as eventual widening of IG credit spreads toward average levels will create headwinds. Farther down the credit spectrum, the story is similar. We estimate high yield bonds are priced to deliver 1.5% on a real basis, also reflecting tightened credit spreads that are likely to widen going forward. Improving economic conditions reflected in our business cycle model are expected to keep defaults in check for the short term, although a recession and subsequent defaults sometime in the next 10 years remain highly likely. Bank loans provide perhaps the best opportunity within the credit space, as we see them priced to deliver a 1.7% real return over the next 10 years. They offer similar credit risk but less volatility than high yield bonds and their floating rate characteristic provides an inherent hedge against rising interest rates.

Our largest fixed income positions remain in emerging market local bonds and local currencies. We view these assets as attractive due to their high real yields and the potential for currency appreciation, and their foreign currency denomination insulates them against inflation in the U.S. dollar. Our 10-year estimates for EM local currency returns are 3.5% net of inflation. This is driven by a weighted average real yield of 1.8% – a considerably better starting point than the negative real yields provided by U.S. and other developed market yield curves. On top of this, we estimate a 1.7% annual appreciation in emerging market currencies over the longer run. This reflects two factors: First, the U.S. dollar remains overvalued on a real purchasing power parity (PPP) basis compared with most currencies; and second, we model a gradual appreciation in relative PPP for emerging markets as their productivity rises (as described by the Balassa-Samuelson effect3).

These twin tailwinds should continue to drive stronger returns for all assets denominated in EM currencies. As such, our 10-year real return estimate for EM local currency bonds is also attractive, at 3.8%. However, the incremental return provided by this additional duration exposure relative to the 3.5% estimated local currency return is not large. We have reduced exposures to these assets given their high volatility relative to currency rates. However, we still prefer them to hard-currency EM bonds, whose strong tie to the U.S. dollar and U.S. yield curve leads to less compelling starting yields, and the lack of potential currency appreciation further limits their return potential in the current environment.

Real return assets

Aked: We define traditional real return assets as those that provide an explicit hedge against inflation – for instance, a direct indexation of value to a price level, such as the consumer price index (CPI) for Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), the price of commodities for various commodity futures or the value of property for a real estate investment trust (REIT). The surprise outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2016 and resulting policy uncertainty drove medium-term breakeven inflation rates4 back above 2%. But at least for 2017, the risk of rising inflation from continued expansionary policies proved to be more bark than bite.

Traditional real return assets have caught the attention of a wide swath of investors over the past decade, reflecting in part a desire to hedge against the effects of extraordinary policies by central banks globally. But these traditional inflation hedges come with a significantly lower estimated return. Despite the strong performance of emerging markets in 2017 for both equities and fixed income, we think EM assets – which my colleague Chris Brightman referred to as possibly “the trade of a decade” back in early 2016 – still provide a significantly cheaper inflation hedge than do traditional real return assets for U.S. dollar investors.

TIPS performed well during 2017, both in absolute terms and relative to nominal Treasury securities. The risk of an economic slowdown receded across both developed and emerging markets, and noninflationary growth spurred the return of “Goldilocks market” sentiment. Commodities, particularly oil, rose slightly, but in some cases the gains were not enough to overcome the negative yield implied by the commodities futures’ forward curve. REITs rode the wave of the broader equity market, rising a touch below 10% as of 30 November. (All asset classes discussed here are proxied by the indexes listed below Figure 1.)

We increased our positions in traditional real return assets over 2017 as their estimated returns became more competitive with our nontraditional inflation fighters, such as emerging market debt and equity. While our position in All Asset and All Asset All Authority funds grew around 5%, predominantly in REITs and commodities, we are utilizing them at much lower levels than we did a decade ago when these assets were viewed by many investors as alternative investments, and consequently came with a much larger estimated return. We will continue to scour the global investment landscape to uncover the best real return opportunities, whether traditional or nontraditional, for the benefit of our investors.

Alternatives

Shakernia: The beauty of alternative strategies is in their potential to provide market-neutral, differentiated sources of return with low correlations to the equity and interest rate risk factors. The opportunity set for alternative strategies within the All Asset funds includes PIMCO long/short equity strategies, absolute-return-oriented fixed income strategies and futures-based trend-following strategies.

In light of these strategies’ generally low volatilities and market-neutral risk profiles, we do not expect them to deliver returns above our respective long-term secondary benchmarks of CPI + 5% and CPI + 6.5% for the All Asset and All Asset All Authority funds. Yet these strategies can play a critical role in our portfolios: We deploy them to dynamically adjust the portfolios’ “risk dial,” especially when we believe they are likely to outperform our traditional “dry powder” options (i.e., short-term, core bonds and long-duration bond strategies).

As we’ve noted in a couple of recent commentaries, we view value stocks across global markets as one of the most compelling opportunities for long-term results within the All Asset suite today (see All Asset All Access, October 2017 and “The Fundamentals of RAE: Buying Low, Eyeing the Future” for more of our views). With an extended bear market in value stocks relative to high-flying growth stocks, the PIMCO RAE Fundamental strategies (our primary vehicle for value stock exposure) today are priced at deep discounts relative to their market-cap-weighted benchmarks. In our contrarian viewpoint, this portends high excess return potential for these strategies in the years ahead.

PIMCO’s long RAE Fundamental and short market-cap strategies provide the All Asset funds with equity-market-neutral vehicles by which to harvest sources of potential alpha, giving the funds what we view as the most favorable long-term prospects within the alternatives strategies opportunity set. Given this outlook, it’s no surprise that these strategies represent the bulk of our current allocations within the alternatives category.

The All Asset strategies represent a joint effort between PIMCO and Research Affiliates. PIMCO provides the broad range of underlying strategies – spanning global stocks, global bonds, commodities, real estate and liquid alternative strategies – each actively managed to maximize potential alpha. Research Affiliates, an investment advisory firm founded in 2002 by Rob Arnott and a global leader in asset allocation, serves as the sub-advisor responsible for the asset allocation decisions. Research Affiliates uses their deep research focus to develop a series of value-oriented, contrarian models that determine the appropriate mix of underlying PIMCO strategies in seeking All Asset’s return and risk goals.

Further reading

Recent editions of All Asset All Access offer in-depth insights from Research Affiliates on these key topics:

  • A recap of what drove 2017’s strong performance (December 2017)
  • A revealing look at why a negative correlation with mainstream assets isn’t required to benefit from diversification (November 2017)
  • A deep dive into the All Asset strategies’ dynamic risk positioning (October 2017)
  • A retrospective look at the All Asset Fund’s performance in the 15 years since its launch (September 2017)
  • Outlook for inflation and real return investing (August 2017)
  • Outlook for credit markets, plus a framework for creating long-term asset class forecasts (July 2017)
1 Third Pillar consists of an equally weighted allocation to U.S. high yield (Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High Yield Index), long U.S. TIPS (Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Treasury Inflation Notes: 10+ Year Index), EM local bonds (JPMorgan Government Bond Index-Emerging Markets Global Diversified Index (Unhedged)), EM equities (MSCI EM Index), REITs (Dow Jones Select U.S. REITs Index) and diversified commodities (Bloomberg Commodity TR Index).

2 See “The S&P 500 may not get such a ‘big league’ benefit from Trump’s tax plan after all,” posted 13 February 2016 on CNBC.com.

3 The Balassa-Samuelson effect (proposed by economists Bela Balassa and Paul Samuelson in 1963) identifies that countries with high productivity growth also experience high wage growth, which can lead to higher real exchange rates. This can be used to explain currency appreciation in emerging countries versus developed countries, as the former tend to be characterized by higher levels of productivity per capita.

4 As measured by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ 5-Year, 5-Year Forward Inflation Expectation Rate.
The Author

Christopher J. Brightman

Chief Investment Officer, Research Affiliates

Jim Masturzo

Asset Allocation, Research Affiliates

Shane Shepherd

Director, Head of Research, Research Affiliates

Michael Aked

Head of Asset Allocation, Research Affiliates

Omid Shakernia

Asset Allocation, Research Affiliates

Related Funds

Disclosures

Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses of the funds carefully before investing. This and other information are contained in the fund’s prospectus and summary prospectus, if available, which may be obtained by contacting your investment professional or PIMCO representative or by visiting www.pimco.com. Please read them carefully before you invest or send money.

The terms “cheap” and “rich” as used herein generally refer to a security or asset class that is deemed to be substantially under- or overpriced compared to both its historical average as well as to the investment manager’s future expectations. There is no guarantee of future results or that a security’s valuation will ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.

Return estimates are based on Research Affiliates LLC proprietary research and are for illustrative purposes only and are not a prediction or a projection of return. Return estimates are an estimate of what an asset class may return on average over the specified time period based on a set of assumptions that may or may not be realized. Actual returns may be higher or lower than those shown and may vary substantially over shorter time periods. Hypothetical and simulated examples have many inherent limitations and are generally prepared with the benefit of hindsight. There are frequently sharp differences between simulated results and the actual results. There are numerous factors related to the markets in general or the implementation of any specific investment strategy, which cannot be fully accounted for in the preparation of simulated results and all of which can adversely affect actual results. No guarantee is being made that the stated results will be achieved. Return estimates may vary from PIMCO capital market assumptions.

PIMCO does not provide legal or tax advice. Please consult your tax and/or legal counsel for specific tax or legal questions and concerns.

A word about risk:

The fund invests in other PIMCO funds and performance is subject to underlying investment weightings which will vary. Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The value of most bonds and bond strategies are impacted by changes in interest rates. Bonds and bond strategies with longer durations tend to be more sensitive and volatile than those with shorter durations; bond prices generally fall as interest rates rise, and the current low interest rate environment increases this risk. Current reductions in bond counterparty capacity may contribute to decreased market liquidity and increased price volatility. Bond investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed.  Investing in foreign denominated and/or domiciled securities may involve heightened risk due to currency fluctuations, and economic and political risks, which may be enhanced in emerging markets. Commodities contain heightened risk including market, political, regulatory, and natural conditions, and may not be suitable for all investors.  Mortgage and asset-backed securities may be sensitive to changes in interest rates, subject to early repayment risk, and their value may fluctuate in response to the market’s perception of issuer creditworthiness; while generally supported by some form of government or private guarantee there is no assurance that private guarantors will meet their obligations. High-yield, lower-rated, securities involve greater risk than higher-rated securities; portfolios that invest in them may be subject to greater levels of credit and liquidity risk than portfolios that do not. Investing in securities of smaller companies tends to be more volatile and less liquid than securities of larger companies.  Inflation-linked bonds (ILBs) issued by a government are fixed-income securities whose principal value is periodically adjusted according to the rate of inflation; ILBs decline in value when real interest rates rise. Equities may decline in value due to both real and perceived general market, economic, and industry conditions. Derivatives and commodity-linked derivatives may involve certain costs and risks such as liquidity, interest rate, market, credit, management and the risk that a position could not be closed when most advantageous. Commodity-linked derivative instruments may involve additional costs and risks such as changes in commodity index volatility or factors affecting a particular industry or commodity, such as drought, floods, weather, livestock disease, embargoes, tariffs and international economic, political and regulatory developments. Investing in derivatives could lose more than the amount invested.  The cost of investing in the Fund will generally be higher than the cost of investing in a fund that invests directly in individual stocks and bonds.  Diversification does not ensure against loss.

There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions or are suitable for all investors and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market. Investors should consult their investment professional prior to making an investment decision.

The Bloomberg Barclays Intermediate Credit Index is the intermediate component of the U.S. Credit Index. The U.S. Credit Index includes publicly issued U.S. corporate and foreign debentures and secured notes that meet specified maturity, liquidity, and quality requirements. Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index represents securities that are SEC-registered, taxable, and dollar denominated. The index covers the U.S. investment grade fixed rate bond market, with index components for government and corporate securities, mortgage pass-through securities, and asset-backed securities. These major sectors are subdivided into more specific indices that are calculated and reported on a regular basis. The Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate High-Yield Index the covers the USD-denominated, non-investment grade, fixed-rate, taxable corporate bond market. Securities are classified as high-yield if the middle rating of Moody’s, Fitch, and S&P is Ba1/BB+/BB+ or below. The index excludes Emerging Markets debt. Bloomberg Barclays U.S. TIPS Index is an unmanaged market index comprised of all U.S. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities rated investment grade (Baa3 or better), have at least one year to final maturity, and at least $250 million par amount outstanding. Performance data for this index prior to 10/97 represents returns of the Barclays Inflation Notes Index. Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Treasury Inflation Notes: 10+ Year is an unmanaged index market comprised of U.S. Treasury Inflation Protected securities with maturities of over 10 years. The Barclays U.S. Long Treasury includes all publicly issued US Treasury securities that have a remaining maturity of 10 or more years, are rated investment grade, and have $250 million or more of outstanding face value. The Bloomberg Commodity Total Return Index is an unmanaged index composed of futures contracts on 22 physical commodities. The index is designed to be a highly liquid and diversified benchmark for commodities as an asset class.  The Citigroup 3-Month Treasury Bill Index is an unmanaged index representing monthly return equivalents of yield averages of the last 3 month Treasury Bill issues. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is an unmanaged index representing the rate of inflation of the U.S. consumer prices as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.  There can be no guarantee that the CPI or other indexes will reflect the exact level of inflation at any given time. The Dow Jones U.S. Select Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) Index is an unmanaged index subset of the Dow Jones Americas U.S. Select Real Estate Securities (RESI) Index. This index is a market capitalization weighted index of publicly traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and only includes only REITs and REIT-like securities. JPMorgan Emerging Local Markets Index Plus tracks total returns for local currency-denominated money market instruments in 24 emerging markets countries with at least U.S. $10 billion of external trade. The JPMorgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus is a total return index that tracks the traded market for U.S. dollar-denominated Brady and other similar sovereign restructured bonds traded in the emerging markets.  JPMorgan Government Bond Index-Emerging Markets Global Diversified Index (Unhedged) is a comprehensive global local emerging markets index, and consists of regularly traded, liquid fixed-rate, domestic currency government bonds to which international investors can gain exposure. The JPMorgan BB/B Leveraged Loan Index is designed to mirror the investable universe of USD institutional leveraged loans, excluding the most aggressively rated loans (rated below B3/B- by either Moody’s or S&P) and non-rated loans. The Index is a subset of the broader JPMorgan Leveraged Loan Index, and as such follows all of the same inclusion rules, loan selection methodology and the rebalance process, with the sole exception being the tranche rating criteria. The Index is formed by the following inclusion rules: loans must be $200mn or greater at issue and have $100mn or greater currently outstanding, only institutional 1st lien loans which excludes revolvers, Term Loan A’s, letters of credit, bridge loans, mezzanine loans, 2nd or 3rd lien loans, loans. Only USD issuers from developed markets are included.  The MSCI EAFE Index is an equity index which captures large and mid cap representation across Developed Markets countries* around the world, excluding the US and Canada. With 928 constituents, the index covers approximately 85% of the free float-adjusted market capitalization in each country.  The MSCI Emerging Markets Index is a free float-adjusted market capitalization index that is designed to measure equity market performance of emerging markets. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index consists of the following 21 emerging market country indices: Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey. The National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT) Equity Index is an unmanaged market weighted index of tax qualified REITs listed on the New York Stock Exchange, American Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ National Market System, including dividends.  The Russell 2000 Index is an unmanaged index generally representative of the 2,000 smallest companies in the Russell 3000 Index, which represents approximately 10% of the total market capitalization of the Russell 3000 Index.   The S&P 500 Index is an unmanaged market index generally considered representative of the stock market as a whole. The index focuses on the Large-Cap segment of the U.S. equities market. It is not possible to invest directly in an unmanaged index.

This material contains the opinions of the manager and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material has been distributed for informational purposes only and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this material may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission. PIMCO is a trademark of Allianz Asset Management of America L.P. in the United States and throughout the world. ©2017, PIMCO.

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