Last updated: 23:54 / Wednesday, 5 July 2017
Boston Event

MFS: Why is Reconsidering Active Management Now More Important than Ever?

MFS: Why is Reconsidering Active Management Now More Important than Ever?
  • Michael Roberge, CEO, President, and CIO of MFS Investment Management, reviewed the benefits of active management during his presentation at the 2017 MFS Annual Global Analyst and Portfolio Manager Forum
  • MFS expects a global equity return of approximately 4.3% over the next 10 years
  • While the expected return for the same time period in global investment grade fixed income is 3%
  • These returns make it extremely difficult for the bulk of investors to achieve their retirement goals, so they will need active management and alpha generation

How much does active management contribute as compared to passive management? With this question, Michael Roberge, CEO, President and CIO of MFS Investment Management opened his presentation at the 2017 MFS Annual Global Analyst and Portfolio Manager Forum, which took place in Boston in mid-May.

According to Roberge, some of their larger and more sophisticated clients, including those who manage sovereign wealth funds and pension plans, are increasing their positions in actively managed funds, contrary to what the average retail client is doing. During his talk, he explained the main reasons why clients should, according to MFS, consider active management in this environment, compared to investing passively.

The Short-Term Mentality of the Bulk of the Market

In the period immediately following Donald Trump’s election in November last year, the market rose between 6% and 7%. For Roberge, even more noteworthy than this rally, was the massive turnaround from the more defensive and higher-quality sectors to much more cyclical sectors, with the expectation that the new administration would reduce taxes and that the regulatory burden would be lower. Likewise, any increase in economic growth was traded: the price of deep cyclical stocks soared and consumer staples companies suffered a fall in prices. This was caused in part by investors who pursued these sectors out of fear of falling behind the benchmark in terms of performance. In a clear example of how the short-term mentality dominates the behavior of the markets, more than five months after Trump's takeover, a new rotation in the opposite direction was happening. Investors have begun to perceive that it will be difficult for Trump to get approval for significant spending on infrastructure, and that he lacks support for much of his election promises.

According to Michael Roberge, this was clearly reflected in the deep cyclical sectors: US Steel's stock price, which was US$ 21 per share pre-election, doubled to US$ 42 per share, only to returning a few months later to US$ 21. Meanwhile, MFS 'strategy was to sell cyclical stocks and buy defensive stocks. The asset manager’s teams look for returns with horizons of three-to-five years, identifying long-term opportunities. This is where the firm thinks it has the greatest opportunity to add alpha to a portfolio.

Higher Volatility

Another factor playing in favor of active management is the minimum volatility period experienced in the last decades. This is largely a consequence of the accommodative policies of central banks.

The European Central Bank, as well as the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan continue with quantitative easing programs; and while the Fed appears to be at the beginning of a rate-hiking cycle, Roberge argued that when inflation is considered, the real interest rate of Federal Funds is negative, which is especially stimulating for an economy growing at around 2%, with the potential to grow at 4%. In the CEO’s opinion, it could be said that all central banks globally, continue to inject liquidity into the system, which not only keeps interest rates low, but also suppresses market volatility.

MFS claims that, in the next ten years, a low growth scenario will persist globally. There is a problem of over-indebtedness and an aging global population in the major developed economies which will cause the world economy to remain below its potential.

For Roberge, the only way to achieve greater growth in real terms would be by fostering an increase in the labor force, something which new immigration policy trends are slowing, or increasing productivity. This last variable is the one that can best be implemented by governments worldwide.

“The global economic environment is still more deflationary than inflationary. In Japan, they have been trying to generate inflation for over 30 years, something that is also beginning to happen in the United States. The latest inflation data (with respect to the previous year) have been downward, even only taking into account the underlying inflation. It could be said that there is an inflation problem at the global level,” said Roberge.

Given these factors, MFS believes that investors can expect a world with lower economic growth, in which there will be greater volatility, as economies will face greater challenges. “There will be new episodes of uncertainty in Europe: Greece will reappear in news headlines due to debt renegotiation, and Italy will hold general elections in May 2018. And finally, the moment central banks begin to remove excess liquidity from markets, higher levels of volatility will be created, which, when added all up, represents a huge opportunity for active management as compared to passive,” he added.

For Roberge, this does not mean that a portion of the portfolio shouldn’t be invested in passive management vehicles, but how much is being spent on active management should be reconsidered.

A Disruptive Environment

According to MFS, another one of the fundamental keys that indicate that it will not be enough to buy the index to achieve the investment objectives is disruption. A large number of industries are going through a disruptive period: “The most obvious example is the retail sector where Amazon is crashing its competitors in the traditional retail segment. More and more sectors are undergoing a period of transformation: Airbnb, for example, has led to a similar change in the leisure industry, Uber has broken into the taxi industry, robo-advisors and smart beta ETFs have hit the financial industry. All of these examples, which highlight the complexity of the environment, make passive management less attractive.”

Now More than Ever, Investors need Active Management

Continuing with the discussion, Roberge highlights two reasons why investors should consider positioning themselves in actively managed vehicles: return and risk management. In relation to the return of the markets in the next ten years, the asset management company expects a global equity return of around 4.3%. This figure is considerably lower than historical returns, especially since starting valuations are very high, meaning most of the opportunities are already priced into the current market prices.

Meanwhile, the expected return for the same term in global investment grade fixed income is roughly 3%. Historically, rates are at very low levels, leaving very little room for capital appreciation gains, and leaving only the coupon search and the spreads on corporate debt as the main source of return for this asset class. Therefore, according to MFS, the average investor who invests in a balanced portfolio could achieve an estimated annual return of close to 4% over the next decade.

These returns make it extremely difficult for the bulk of investors to achieve their retirement goals. Therefore, they will need an additional source of return to achieve their goals, something that can only be achieved through active management and alpha generation,” Roberge said.

In this regard, the alpha in portfolios becomes a more important element than ever. According to MFS projections, for US large cap equities, the contribution of active management in terms of excess return on the index will increase from the 17% registered historically (2% over 10.1%), to 42% (2% over 2.8%). While in fixed income, active management’s contribution will increase from 12% (1% over 7.5%) to 24% (1% over 3.1%).

However, investors have recently stopped believing that there is alpha opportunity and lean instead passive management, seeking only lower commissions, regardless of net returns. In ten years, these investors will be very disappointed if indeed the MFS forecasts are met and their index returns are limited to below the 4% offered by the market, regardless of how low the fees charged by passive vehicles may be. For all of the above, Roberge encourages reconsidering active management as the main way to reach long term investment objectives.