Pensions Sell Stocks to Buy Bonds

Coming off a year when the broad U.S. stock market enjoyed a 30 percent gain, investors and financial advisers are struggling to determine the most appropriate portfolio asset allocation consistent with their tolerance for risk, says Andrew Clinton, president of Clinton Investment Management, in Stamford, Conn. Pension funds, in particular, are striving to lock in the outsize gains they have enjoyed over the past few years in the booming debt and equity markets. To do so, they are going against the broader fund-flow trend by selling equities and shifting money to fixed income. Deutsche Bank forecasts that pensions will liquidate about $150 billion in equities this year alone to buy bonds with maturities of 10 years or longer.

“It’s only logical,” says Clinton. “Pensions struggling with underfunded status need to lock in the lift of the past couple of years. From a risk-adjusted perspective, equities, for all their recent outperformance, are nearly four times as volatile as municipal bonds. Pension managers are in a different dialogue than everything you hear now about people rotating out of stocks, etc.”

Clinton believes this asset reallocation is likely to last for years. As for domestic equities, which are near their all-time high: They are their costliest compared with government debt in three years. The Standard & Poor 500-stock index’s profits as a percentage of the index’s price is just under 3 percentage points higher than the yield for 10-year government notes, the smallest premium since March 2011.

In the third quarter, U.S. pension funds, which have assets of $16 trillion, swapped out of equities and into bonds at the fastest clip in five years, data compiled by the Federal Reserve show. According to Matt Robinson of Bloomberg News, they bought $117 billion of debt on an annualized basis and offloaded $135 billion of stocks. The 100 biggest corporate pension plans thinned their deficits by a net $319 billion, according to consultancy Milliman; they are now 95 percent funded, compared with a low of 77 percent two years ago.

“It makes sense,” says Michael Gayed of Pension Partners in Manhattan. “Rebalancing to target weights is a time-tested approach to enhancing longer-term returns—forcing you to buy low and sell high.” He says the “Great Rotation” is presently, at the margin, from stocks back to bonds.

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