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Please see below for the latest blog from Legal and General’s Investment Management Team regarding their ‘key beliefs’ in relation to the markets:

This week, we look at the investment case for three strategies that should in theory be defensive: holding UK sovereign bonds, owning gold, and diversifying by equity factor.

As with all Key Beliefs emails, this email represents solely the investment views of LGIM’s Asset Allocation team.

A furlough bar to clear

We have been tactically underweight UK gilts for almost exactly six months now. This has been largely based on our view that: (1) a furlough extension was inevitable; (2) negative rates were not on the cards; and (3) the distribution of potential returns was likely to be negatively skewed given those first two factors.

Thursday saw Rishi Sunak extend the furlough scheme for another six months, but the new version is considerably less generous than its predecessor. Employees must now work a minimum of a third of normal hours and employers and workers must bear a greater share of the burden. This incentivises companies to retain one full-time employee rather than two employees working reduced hours, and we believe it will result in further redundancies and pressure on household incomes in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the debate on negative rates has ebbed and flowed at the Bank of England without much clear direction. The latest hints from Governor Andrew Bailey have seen the short end of the curve price out negative rates in the near term, but the Bank’s inconsistent communication on this issue makes it hard to have much confidence in the outlook.

Given these two developments, the third argument above has become harder to defend. While we maintain a negative view on gilts over the medium term, the changing balance of risks has led us to call time on our tactical position.

Going for gold

Given its perceived status as a safe-haven asset, gold is never far from our thoughts when assessing the multi-asset opportunity set. While we maintain a positive long-term bias on the metal, we need to stay price sensitive too. Having closed a tactical overweight back in July, at current levels we believe it’s time to scale back in again.

With interest rates close to zero in most developed markets and increasingly limited space for monetary policy against an uncertain backdrop, finding candidates to diversify the cyclical nature of equities and other risky assets has rarely been more challenging. Gold is, in our view, less exposed than many assets to innovative, unconventional future measures to ease policy, and we therefore believe it offers something different from fixed-income assets in that regard.

No investment is without risk, however. Gold price movements have historically closely tracked a combination of real yields and the US dollar, but there is the possibility that this relationship could be changing. In particular, with yields pinned close to zero it could be that inflation expectations and realised inflation become the more important future drivers of fair value. Given inflation expectations have tended to behave similarly to equities, that would seem at odds with gold’s expected role as a safe haven and diversifier.

Factor fiction?

A wide range of equity risk factors (or styles) have been identified in the academic literature, yet there remain relatively few that are both compensated (i.e. deliver a positive risk premium over time) and transparent (i.e. there is a plausible and widely accepted rationale for their persistence). Five factors have historically exhibited both characteristics: value, low volatility, quality, size, and momentum.

While individual factors can go through sustained periods of relative under- or outperformance, they are likely to do so at different times, so it follows that a balanced portfolio of factor exposures should provide a diversified and cost-effective way to gain exposure to the range of equity risk premia over time.

This year has nevertheless been tough on US equity factor portfolios, largely because of the outsized influence of technology stocks. The outperformance of the largest stocks in the market-cap weighted index has weighed heavily on the returns of any diversified equity strategies which move away from the ‘tallest trees’ in the index. Some of that underperformance has reversed recently as some of the froth in tech has been removed, but we believe it is too early to call a sustained rotation in the US.

The same cannot be said of factor portfolios outside the US, however, where there is much less of a tech bias. The recent bout of risk aversion has seen non-US factors behave more in line with expectations, with quality and low-volatility stocks outperforming, while value has been relatively flat. Where we have allocated to a basket of non-US equity factors, their positive contribution has been an effective diversifier over the past couple of weeks.

Detailed and focused opinions from market leading investment managers such as Legal and General can be a useful addition to your overall view of the markets.  

Please keep reading our blogs to ensure your holistic view of the markets is well informed, diversified and up to date. 

Keep safe and well.

Paul Green