As investors, many of us like to be on the lookout for new opportunities that add value to our portfolios and are trying to make sure that our portfolios are protected during market downturns. An often overlooked or misunderstood asset class that can assist in both adding value to a portfolio and provide some protection is Alternatives.
What are Alternatives?
Alternative investments are generally considered to be assets that are not one of the more conventional or well-known investment types, such as equities, bonds, property or cash. ‘Alternatives’ can include a wide array of investments from artwork to film and cinema credits, to water and fishing rights to some of the better-known Alternatives of hedge funds and commodities.
Despite strong institutional use over the past thirty years, retail investors have been slower to invest in Alternatives. This may be changing, however, as from recent experience I have seen a number of sophisticated financial planning houses use Alternatives as tools in portfolio construction for their clients.
There are good reasons why retail self-directed investors have yet to take to alternatives, including:
- lack of transparency
- large minimum initial investment sizes (some start at $500K min)
- lack of accessibility
- being difficult to understand.
Bringing Alternatives onto the pitch
The main attraction for using Alternatives is they can add an extra element of diversification into your portfolio, as generally speaking Alternatives should be less correlated to the major asset classes of equities, bonds, property and cash – that is: Alternatives can be the X-Factor player in your portfolio – when your team is under the pump and you need that break through wicket late in the tea session or to score a try or kick a goal and create something from nothing, this is where you can bring the Alternative on to “bowl from the Members end” or to “come off the bench”.
While there is no doubt that some Alternative investments can be difficult to understand, I wanted to focus on one style of Alternatives that can be simpler and more transparent – gold bullion and other commodities.
Gold bullion can be viewed as the favourable port to go to when storms appear on the investment horizon, due to it generally being uncorrelated to the major traditional asset classes as mentioned above. Gold has tended to perform better than the major asset classes (equities especially) in market sell-offs and in times of higher than usual market volatility, and this is why central banks around the world have been buying gold for the past few years – as a buffer against future economic instability.
In addition to this, Gold has tended to work especially well when inflation kicks in – when the value of other assets is being eroded by inflation, the scarcity of gold helps it hold its worth.
A simple and easy way to access Gold Bullion, without having to take physical delivery of it or store it, is through the BetaShares Gold Bullion ETF – Currency Hedged (ASX Code: QAU). QAU is backed by physical gold bullion held in a vault in London – the serial numbers of these bars are published on the BetaShares website so you know what the Fund is backed by and the bullion vault is audited annually and the report also published on the BetaShares website.
Crucially, QAU is currency hedged, meaning that you are effectively getting exposure to the US price of Gold – whereas if you are buying gold in AUD terms (an unhedged exposure) then you are embedding a currency-bet into your gold exposure. As we have recently written, there has been a strong and distinct historical relationship between ‘The Little Battler’ (AUD) and the price of Gold, meaning that any gains in the price of Gold have the potential to be eroded by gains in the AUD if there is no currency hedging.
Other than gold bullion, other types of commodities can also be a handy inclusion in portfolios. In the below, I’ll focus on agricultural commodities. Agricultural commodities are an area that I find most share investors have limited exposure to. Whilst Australia is a major agricultural exporter, the local bourse has significantly low exposure to agriculture – being less than 1% of the share market.
Agriculture is a key global sector likely to enjoy a solid long-term or “secular” demand outlook, as the rising global population and improved per-capita incomes are increasing both the quantity and quality of food demanded worldwide. Over the short-term there appears to be particularly good upside price potential, as an unusually extended period of good global growing conditions has pushed many agricultural prices to relatively low levels. And irrespective of short-term price movements, due to the relatively low historical correlation between agricultural sector performance and the Australian equity market more broadly, some exposure to the agriculture sector offers a potentially handy extra source of portfolio diversification for Australian investors. Some ways to access these Alternatives include a pure agricultural commodities exposure via our BetaShares Agriculture ETF – Currency Hedged (synthetic) (ASX Code: QAG) or the broader based BetaShares Commodities Basket ETF – Currency Hedged (synthetic) (ASX Code: QCB). As with our Gold Bullion exposure, these two ETFs are currency hedged, meaning that you are again accessing the US price for the commodities and not embedding a currency risk with the AUD. Further, it is worth pointing out here that, unlike QAU, where a custodian is holding the physical bullion bars for the Fund’s benefit, with commodity investing (and this is applicable for our Crude Oil fund as well) we are investing the same way as institutional investors and hedge funds do – via Futures Contracts. The reason for this is that as much as I love animals, I can’t take physical delivery at my desk of 5,000 live pigs or cattle, nor can I store a few thousand tonnes of Corn at home. The most efficient way of investing in commodities is via Futures. As investment exposure is obtained in this way, they are called synthetic ETFs.
Lastly, as mentioned, investing in Alternatives can be complicated and, like all investments, it’s not without its risks so you may find it worthwhile getting assistance from a professional fund manager. There are a number of very talented and highly skilled fund managers focusing on Alternatives here in Australia, many of which will have their own unique investment strategies. Whilst the institutional world and, increasingly, financial planners are embracing these types of managers, they can be very hard for self-directed investors to get access to because, as mentioned previously, some are at capacity or have very high entry levels and fees. BetaShares last year launched an ASX traded version of the fund run by Shane Oliver’s team at AMP Capital – the AMP Capital Dynamic Markets Fund (Hedge Fund) (ASX: DMKT). So if you would like to access Alternative investments, such as commodities, combined with traditional asset classes, and would prefer to have full-time investment professionals monitoring the various markets, then DMKT is another ‘alternative’ in Alternatives.
Alternatives are useful diversification tools within investment portfolios. They can offer a potential source of outperformance when traditional asset classes are being sold off and likewise may underperform when the traditional asset classes are outperforming.