To remain successful, we must stay ahead of the curve. Maintaining an edge with the affluent community means knowing how to discuss alternative investments as part of your clients’ overall asset allocation strategies. In all likelihood, if you do not discuss “alternatives” with your clients soon, some other advisor will–and assume the assets.
If you believe these investments are not the best fit for your clients, be sure to educate them on the “why not.” Otherwise, you may be opening yourself up to retention risk.
There are at least two major reasons behind the growing interest in alternative investments:
First, the bear market of 2000-2002 prompted a desire for portfolios that could weather down markets and produce more consistent returns.
Then, in 1997, Congress repealed an IRS rule and opened the door for traditional mutual funds to employ shorting strategies. According to Lipper, since the start of 2003, the number of mutual funds that utilize hedge fund strategies has more than doubled–to 49 (as of December 2006) from 21. In addition, Lipper reports that the amount of money going into dedicated long/short mutual funds has doubled in just one year. By the end of 2006, the category had attracted nearly $6.3 billion in net assets.
Unfortunately, along with this growth and greater access came more headlines. Given the stories about great performance returns in top endowments with large allocations to alternatives, discussing these types of investments with clients may make their portfolio return expectations overly optimistic. Alternatively, with horror stories of fraud or bankruptcies at a few hedge fund firms, the mention of alternatives could strike fear in clients, keeping them from doing what is best for their long-term financial goals. In short, overreactions to sound-bites rather than to factual information may lead clients to act irrationally either by investing with unrealistic expectations or not investing at all.
An advisor’s key responsibility is helping clients overcome their emotions, allowing them to make the best decisions for their particular financial situations. In the case of alternatives, one of the biggest hurdles may be identifying and managing your clients’ fears and misconceptions. Another challenge is keeping clients from feeling ill-informed or overwhelmed when such arcane terms as “alpha,” “beta,” and “correlation” are being thrown around.
With that in mind, we’ll focus this month on telling the “story” of alternatives to the affluent client. The ultimate goal is to help your clients make more rational investment decisions that will help them achieve their financial objectives, while you retain and build on your AUM.
Since this is geared toward the affluent investor, the discussion about alternatives is based on the assumption that these investments are packaged in mutual funds.
Alternative Investments 101
At JPMorgan, we have found it useful to frame conversations with clients using a “funnel” approach starting with very broad concepts and working down to the specifics.
So, let’s start with a question that we hear often: What is an alternative investment? The easiest answer to this may be to say what it is not. It is not traditional stocks, bonds, or cash. Alternative products include hedge funds, private and public equity, real estate, distressed debt, venture capital, and energy and natural resources.
These non-traditional assets usually fall into two categories: strategies that are (1) a pure play (returns are derived from the specific asset) on “out of the ordinary” or “newer types” of asset classes, including commodities, real estate, and inflation-protected strategies; or (2) a more mixed play on everyday asset classes (such as equities). Thus, what makes it an alternative investment is not the underlying asset but the way the portfolio is constructed.
The Pure Play Option
Pure play or “out of the ordinary” assets are customarily used by investors as a way to enhance returns, but with the knowledge that they are taking on the additional specific risk of the asset. In plain English, these are lesser-known or non-traditional investments included in a portfolio with the understanding that the road to return may be rockier.
However, along that rocky road there may be a long-term benefit. A June 2006 study by Ibbotson Associates demonstrated that from 1970 to 2004, investors would have been better off adding commodities to a portfolio of stocks, bonds, and cash, despite the added volatility of commodity portfolios during that timeframe.