Institutions take more investment risk as Asia returns fall

As returns on traditional assets have nosedived or turned more volatile in Asia, conservative investors such as pension funds and insurers have been pouring cash into alternative investments that bring the yield they need, but at significantly higher risk.

Many countries in Asia only started to cut interest rates in 2015 or 2016, but they are now at or near record lows and expected to fall further. India, South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand are all likely to see rate cuts this year, according to economists at Nomura.

The resulting decline in bond yields has hit the region later than many other parts of the world, but is now forcing a strategy rethink for investors that need predictable income to match their fixed commitments.

Zurich Insurance's Asian division, for example, is considering investing in private debt, including collateralised loan obligations and commercial real estate and infrastructure debt.

"We simply have to accept that returns going forward will be lower than what they have been historically," said Mr Michael Vos, Asia-Pacific investment manager at Zurich. "There is no free lunch - if you want higher returns, you need to take more risk."

Risks include a dearth of buyers when you want to sell, a greater chance of loan defaults and lower levels of disclosure about the underlying assets.

Credit Suisse said it too was increasing allocations to hedge funds and senior secured bank loans on behalf of Asian institutional clients.

Swiss private bank Union Bancaire Privee (UBP) said it was switching more of its high-net- worth clients' money from low- yielding bonds and volatile stocks into hedge funds, real estate debt and insurance-linked securities.

"There is no doubt that the risk-reward of equity and fixed income markets has deteriorated dramatically over the last six to 12 months," said Mr Ted Holland, Asia-Pacific head of business development for UBP. "Finding 'low- risk' yield in this environment has been particularly difficult."

This rapid change in climate is demonstrated by GIC, Singapore's biggest sovereign wealth fund. Its portfolio return slowed to 3.7 per cent per annum over the five years through March, from 6.5 per cent in the five years ended in March last year, and it warned difficult investment conditions would persist for a decade.

A survey by State Street Global Investors in July found that 44 per cent of 72 Asian pension funds, which must keep a steady income flowing to pensioners, are seeking higher-risk, higher-return strategies.

Mr Vos acknowledges that investors in alternative assets need to take protective measures.

"When you take higher risk, it is important you have sufficient capital to absorb the extra volatility that comes with taking this additional risk so we are not forced sellers at the bottom of the market," he said.

But even private individuals are pouring into such investments.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Institutions take more investment risk as Asia returns fall'. Print Edition | Subscribe