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Managing Risk at a Portfolio Level

In our
conversations with clients, we often find that depository portfolio managers spend
most of their time looking at individual securities and developing an opinion
on which way the market will move. ALM First takes the common view held in
professional asset management that market timing adds more to portfolio risk
than portfolio return. Additionally, we find that in the high-credit quality sectors
that depository institutions participate in, security selection is typically a
small contributor to portfolio returns. Instead, long-term performance is a
function of duration targeting/management first, sector allocation second, and
then individual security selection in a distant third.

Choosing the Right Duration Target

Proper
portfolio management starts with getting the duration of the portfolio right.
This means aligning the portfolio’s duration with its benchmark, which can be
an index such as the ICE BofAML 1-5 Year UST/Agency index. Another option is to
benchmark the portfolio to the institution’s liabilities using a liability
driven investing (LDI) framework. While more common in the insurance and
pension space, this methodology is very much applicable for depositories as
well. One benefit of using this framework is that it helps managers keep the
entire balance sheet’s risk profile in line by preventing managers from adding
too much or not enough duration in the investment portfolio.

Having
a duration target in hand frees portfolio managers from having to form an
opinion on the direction of rates and allows them to focus on other tasks, such
as researching cross-sector, relative value opportunities and monitoring the
risk/return profile of the portfolio relative to its benchmark. Additionally,
by having a duration target set, routine reinvestment decisions become relatively
simple. For instance, if the portfolio’s duration drifts lower, the investor
knows that she should look to add duration on the margin to push the duration
back towards the target; and as a result, means that she can narrow her focus
to assets with longer durations.

Focusing on Sector Allocation

After setting
the duration target, the next step is getting the sector allocations right. At
its core, this process involves adding exposure to sectors with the highest
risk-adjusted spreads and shying away from those with low risk-adjusted spreads.
It is also important to understand how a particular asset fits within the
portfolio in order to make sure that it belongs. At the end of the day, our job
as portfolio managers is to assemble assets and their risk profiles in a way
that maximizes return per unit of risk. Essentially, a portfolio can be thought
of as a collection of risks. Thinking of a portfolio in this manner, rather
than as a collection of bonds, can help investors focus on managing risk and
avoid getting bogged down with the details of individual securities.

A common way
for portfolio managers to get a handle on the different types of risks within
the portfolio is to conduct a multi-dimensional risk analysis (MDRA). This
analysis stresses the portfolio or asset class to a variety of macro-factor
risks and illuminates how sensitive a portfolio or asset is to changes in these
risk factors. A typical MDRA will stress the portfolio for a change in the
level of rates, slope of the yield curve, changes in asset and/or swap spreads,
level of interest rate volatility, and changes in prepayments. Exhibit 1 is an
example of this type of analysis.

Investors can
use this analysis to ensure the construction of a well-diversified bond
portfolio. By knowing which macro-factor risks the portfolio is exposed to, a
portfolio manager can look to offset some of this risk by adding assets that
move in the opposite direction or less than the current bonds that make up the
portfolio. For instance, portfolios with higher allocations to MBS do not
benefit as much in a rally due to heightened prepayments shortening the cash
flows, i.e. negative convexity. With this knowledge in hand, a portfolio
manager can add assets with more stable cash flows, such as fixed-rate agency
CMBS, to offset the negative convexity present in MBS. 

Maintaining a Well-Diversified Portfolio

We often review
portfolios that have several different positions in the same sector; this is
not a well-diversified portfolio. While spreading an allocation amongst
different positions helps to reduce the exposure to the idiosyncratic risk of
any one bond, it does not reduce the portfolio’s exposure to macro-factor
risks. For example, a portfolio with twenty different 2-year notes has the same
sensitivity to changes in the level of rates that a portfolio with one 2-year
note has; both portfolios have put on a one-way trade. Using an MDRA helps
prevent this.

The analysis
also helps to highlight that within the high-credit quality fixed income space,
where assets are fairly commoditized, individual bonds largely perform the same.
This further demonstrates why investors would be better served spending time to
ensure the duration of the portfolio is where it needs to be and that it is
allocated to sectors with the highest risk-adjusted spreads. Duration
management and sector allocation should be the priority, not combing through
the details of individual bonds.

Finding Sectors with the Most Value

In order to properly ascertain which sector provides the most value at any given point in time, an investor must be able to properly value the asset class. Some investors will look at yield, but yield doesn’t tell the full story. A junk bond will yield more than a Treasury and the reason is clear, one has more risk than the other. But for assets with similar credit quality, such as agency MBS, yield becomes much less informative. This is where option-adjusted spread (OAS) analysis comes into play. By looking at OAS, portfolio managers can better judge how well they are being compensated for the particular risk they are taking. An asset may have a high current yield but if it has a low or negative OAS, an investor can see that he or she is not receiving enough compensation.

At the end of the day, portfolio managers are risk managers. Our job is to assemble the pieces of an overall portfolio in a complementary manner. Managers must be able to understand and evaluate the risk present in any asset class. This allows them to properly asses value and accurately see how specific assets will contribute to the entire portfolio. To build a truly diversified portfolio, assets with different risk profiles should be added. Simply adding similar assets with different CUSIPs does not reduce exposure to macro-factor risks.  

Hafizan Hamzah
Director, Investment Management Group  
Hafizan Hamzah serves as a Director in the Investment Management Group at ALM First Financial Advisors, joining the firm in 2010. Hafizan works in ALM First’s Investment Management Group and assists in developing client-specific portfolio strategies as well as portfolio rebalancing. In addition to portfolio management, Hafizan is responsible for monitoring and rebalancing hedges associated with the firm’s mortgage pipeline and mortgage servicing rights hedge strategies.
Hafizan’s areas of expertise include fixed income portfolio management, mortgage pipeline hedging, MSR hedging, as well as asset liability management. He has written articles on these topics that have been featured in various publications including CU Business and WIB CFO Digest.
Hafizan received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Southern Methodist University.
 

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