Japanese pension fund execs hear ideas for investing in low-interest-rate environment

Japanese pension fund executives came together in Tokyo with money managers and others to hear conceptual and practical ideas about different asset classes and techniques available for managing their funds in a very low-interest-rate environment, where rates are expected to rise and where the rules of modern portfolio theory might no longer apply.

The group of more than 260 attendees and more than 40 speakers spent two days at Pensions & Investments-Nomura Securities' seventh annual global pension symposium Nov. 12-13.

Tomoyuki Teraguchi, senior managing director, head of the global research division and fiduciary service research center at Nomura Securities, Tokyo, set the scene for the Japanese pension fund universe, noting the funds are moving into a drawdown stage, where they will have less tolerance for asset volatility.

“The Japanese pension scheme is going through a transformation ... and being in a post-MPT world really does represent a regime change in pension investment going forward,” Mr. Teraguchi said.

Throughout the conference, speakers presented examples of pension funds using alternative and illiquid investments, smart beta and other strategies to manage assets in light of the potential for rising interest rates and the risks from the future tapering of the quantitative easing programs from the U.S. Federal Reserve and from central banks around the world.

Kiyoshi Murase, president of Japan's Pension Fund Association, Tokyo, presented data showing that 65.5% of Japanese pension funds are investing in alternatives, particularly hedge funds, to help meet investment objectives of further diversification and the pursuit of absolute return, while also controlling market risks.

Hedge funds of funds dominate the alternative investment categories used by Japanese pension funds, accounting for 31.6% of alternatives, according to Mr. Murase's presentation. Single hedge funds account for another 25.4%; while managed commodities futures were 7%; private placement real estate investments, 6.3%; real estate investment trusts, 5%; private equity funds of funds, 4.1%; private equity single funds, 3%; and collateralized loan obligations and collateralized debt obligations combined, 2.4%. The remainder was attributed to other unidentified investments.

“Investment in alternative assets, particularly in hedge funds, has been increasing, as products suitable for (pension funds') investment objectives, such as further diversification through expansion of the investment scope, pursuit of the absolute return, and controlling the market risks,” become more prevalent in the market, Mr. Murase's presentation stated.

Panelists from three Japanese corporate pension funds described their use of alternatives as part of efforts to diversify risk and stabilize returns, rather than increase returns, as the pension funds are reducing exposure to Japanese equities.

In 2012, Japanese pension funds cut their exposure to Japanese equities to 21.6%, from 25.1% a year earlier, while increasing Japanese bonds' share to 36.2% from 33.9%, according to Mr. Murase's presentation.

Among corporate funds, the shift away from Japanese equities is also dramatic. Domestic equities accounted for 15.6% of portfolios in 2012, down from 17.5% in 2011; while allocation to domestic bonds held at 35.8% in both years.

Despite the 60% rise in Japanese equities in the year since the election of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his efforts to stimulate the Japanese economy, many Japanese pension funds are reducing their equity exposure in an effort to reduce their portfolio volatility, several speakers said.

A panel on rationalizing illiquid assets in pension funds discussed how real estate can help pension funds and other institutional investors deal with the risks of tapering QE3 and rising interest rates.

Peter Pereira Gray, managing director in the investment division of Wellcome Trust, London, told the conference that the characteristics of real estate, especially rental income, make it an attractive, stable investment for long-term investors. ???

This article originally appeared in the November 27, 2013 print issue as, "Japanese pension fund execs hear ideas for investing in low-interest-rate environment".