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2022 Curriculum CFA Program Level III Portfolio Management and Wealth Planning

Liability-Driven and Index-Based Strategies

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Introduction

Fixed-income instruments make up nearly three-quarters of all global financial assets available to investors. It is thus not surprising that bonds are a critical component of most investment portfolios. In our coverage of structured and passive total return fixed-income investment strategies, we explain that “passive” does not simply mean “buy and hold.” The primary strategies discussed—immunization and indexation—can entail frequent rebalancing of the bond portfolio. We also note that “passive” stands in contrast to “active” fixed-income strategies that are based on the asset manager’s particular view on interest rate and credit market conditions.

We explain liability-driven investing by demonstrating how to best structure a fixed-income portfolio when considering both the asset and liability sides of the investor’s balance sheet. It is first important to have a thorough understanding of both the timing and relative certainty of future financial obligations. Because it is rare to find a bond investment whose characteristics perfectly match one’s obligations, we introduce the idea of structuring a bond portfolio to match the future cash flows of one or more liabilities that have bond-like characteristics. Asset–liability management (ALM) strategies are based on the concept that investors incorporate both rate-sensitive assets and liabilities into the portfolio decision-making process. When the liabilities are given and assets are managed, liability-driven investing (LDI), a common type of ALM strategy, may be used to ensure adequate funding for an insurance portfolio, a pension plan, or an individual’s budget after retirement. The techniques and risks associated with LDI are introduced using a single liability and then are expanded to cover both cash flow and duration-matching techniques and multiple liabilities. This strategy, known as immunization, may be viewed simply as a special case of interest rate hedging.

We then turn our attention to index-based investment strategies, through which investors gain a broader exposure to fixed-income markets, rather than tailoring investments to match a specific liability profile. We explain the advantages of index-based investing, such as diversification, but we also note that the depth and breadth of bond markets make both creating and tracking an index more challenging than in the equity markets. We also explore a variety of alternatives in matching a bond index, from full replication to enhanced indexing using primary risk factors. Finally, we explain that it is critical to select a benchmark that is most relevant to a specific investor based on factors such as the targeted duration profile and risk appetite.


Learning Outcomes

The member should be able to:

  • describe liability-driven investing;
  • evaluate strategies for managing a single liability;
  • compare strategies for a single liability and for multiple liabilities, including alternative means of implementation;
  • describe construction, benefits, limitations, and risk–return characteristics of a laddered bond portfolio;
  • evaluate liability-based strategies under various interest rate scenarios and select a strategy to achieve a portfolio’s objectives;
  • explain risks associated with managing a portfolio against a liability structure;
  • discuss bond indexes and the challenges of managing a fixed-income portfolio to mimic the characteristics of a bond index;
  • compare alternative methods for establishing bond market exposure passively;
  • discuss criteria for selecting a benchmark and justify the selection of a benchmark.

Summary

  • Structured fixed-income investing requires a frame of reference, such as a balance sheet, to structure the bond portfolio. This frame of reference can be as simple as the time to retirement for an individual or as complex as a balance sheet of rate-sensitive assets and liabilities for a company.
  • Assets and liabilities can be categorized by the degree of certainty surrounding the amount and timing of cash flows. Type I assets and liabilities, such as traditional fixed-rate bonds with no embedded options, have known amounts and payment dates. For Type I assets and liabilities, such yield duration statistics as Macaulay, modified, and money duration apply. 
  • Type II, III, and IV assets and liabilities have uncertain amounts and/or uncertain timing of payment. For Type II, III, and IV assets and liabilities, curve duration statistics, such as effective duration, are needed. A model is used to obtain the estimated values when the yield curve shifts up and down by the same amount.
  • Immunization is the process of structuring and managing a fixed-income portfolio to minimize the variance in the realized rate of return over a known investment horizon.
  • In the case of a single liability, immunization is achieved by matching the Macaulay duration of the bond portfolio to the horizon date. As time passes and bond yields change, the duration of the bonds changes and the portfolio needs to be rebalanced. This rebalancing can be accomplished by buying and selling bonds or using interest rate derivatives, such as futures contracts and interest rate swaps.
  • An immunization strategy aims to lock in the cash flow yield on the portfolio, which is the internal rate of return on the cash flows. It is not the weighted average of the yields to maturity on the bonds that constitute the portfolio.
  • The risk to immunization is that as the yield curve shifts and twists, the cash flow yield on the bond portfolio does not match the change in the yield on the zero-coupon bond that would provide for perfect immunization.
  • A sufficient, but not necessary, condition for immunization is a parallel (or shape-preserving) shift whereby all yields change by the same amount in the same direction. If the change in the cash flow yield is the same as that on the zero-coupon bond being replicated, immunization can be achieved even with a non-parallel shift to the yield curve.
  • Structural risk to immunization arises from some non-parallel shifts and twists to the yield curve. This risk is reduced by minimizing the dispersion of cash flows in the portfolio, which can be accomplished by minimizing the convexity statistic for the portfolio. Concentrating the cash flows around the horizon date makes the immunizing portfolio closely track the zero-coupon bond that provides for perfect immunization.
  • For multiple liabilities, one method of immunization is cash flow matching. A portfolio of high-quality zero-coupon or fixed-income bonds is purchased to match as closely as possible the amount and timing of the liabilities.
  • A motive for cash flow matching can be accounting defeasance, whereby both the assets and liabilities are removed from the balance sheet.
  • A laddered bond portfolio is a common investment strategy in the wealth management industry. The laddered portfolio offers “diversification” over the yield curve compared with “bullet” or “barbell” portfolios. This structure is especially attractive in stable, upwardly sloped yield curve environments as maturing short-term debt is replaced with higher-yielding long-term debt at the back of the ladder.
  • A laddered portfolio offers an increase in convexity because the cash flows have greater dispersions than a more concentrated (bullet) portfolio.
  • A laddered portfolio provides liquidity in that it always contains a soon-to-mature bond that could provide high-quality, low-duration collateral on a repo contract if needed.
  • Immunization of multiple liabilities can be achieved by structuring and managing a portfolio of fixed-income bonds. Because the market values of the assets and liabilities differ, the strategy is to match the money durations. The money duration is the modified duration multiplied by the market value. The basis point value is a measure of money duration calculated by multiplying the money duration by 0.0001.
  • The conditions to immunize multiple liabilities are that (1) the market value of assets is greater than or equal to the market value of the liabilities, (2) the asset basis point value (BPV) equals the liability BPV, and (3) the dispersion of cash flows and the convexity of assets are greater than those of the liabilities.
  • A derivatives overlay—for example, interest rate futures contracts—can be used to immunize single or multiple liabilities.
  • The number of futures contracts needed to immunize is the liability BPV minus the asset BPV, divided by the futures BPV. If the result is a positive number, the entity buys, or goes long, futures contracts. If the result is a negative number, the entity sells, or goes short, futures contracts. The futures BPV can be approximated by the BPV for the cheapest-to-deliver security divided by the conversion factor for the cheapest-to-deliver security.
  • Contingent immunization adds active management of the surplus, which is the difference between the asset and liability market values, with the intent to reduce the overall cost of retiring the liabilities. In principle, any asset classes can be used for the active investment. The entity can choose to over-hedge or under-hedge the number of futures contracts needed for passive immunization.
  • Liability-driven investing (LDI) often is used for complex rate-sensitive liabilities, such as those for a defined benefit pension plan. The retirement benefits for covered employees depend on many variables, such as years of employment, age at retirement, wage level at retirement, and expected lifetime. There are different measures for the liabilities: for instance, the accumulated benefit obligation (ABO) that is based on current wages and the projected benefit obligation (PBO) that is based on expected future wages. For each liability measure (ABO or PBO), a model is used to extract the effective duration and BPV.
  • Interest rate swap overlays can be used to reduce the duration gap as measured by the asset and liability BPVs. There often is a large gap because pension funds hold sizable asset positions in equities that have low or zero effective durations and their liability durations are high.
  • The hedging ratio is the percentage of the duration gap that is closed with the derivatives. A hedging ratio of zero implies no hedging. A hedging ratio of 100% implies immunization—that is, complete removal of interest rate risk.
  • Strategic hedging is the active management of the hedging ratio. Because asset BPVs are less than liability BPVs in typical pension funds, the derivatives overlay requires the use of receive-fixed interest rate swaps. Because receive-fixed swaps gain value as current swap market rates fall, the fund manager could choose to raise the hedging ratio when lower rates are anticipated. If rates are expected to go up, the manager could strategically reduce the hedging ratio.
  • An alternative to the receive-fixed interest rate swap is a purchased receiver swaption. This swaption confers to the buyer the right to enter the swap as the fixed-rate receiver. Because of its negative duration gap (asset BPV is less than liability BPV), the typical pension plan suffers when interest rates fall and could become underfunded. The gain on the receiver swaption as rates decline offsets the losses on the balance sheet.
  • Another alternative is a swaption collar, the combination of buying the receiver swaption and writing a payer swaption. The premium received on the payer swaption that is written offsets the premium needed to buy the receiver swaption.
  • The choice among hedging with the receive-fixed swap, the purchased receiver swaption, and the swaption collar depends in part on the pension fund manager’s view on future interest rates.
  • If rates are expected to be low, the receive-fixed swap typically is the preferred derivative. If rates are expected to go up, the swaption collar can become attractive. And if rates are projected to reach a certain threshold that depends on the option costs and the strike rates, the purchased receiver swaption can become the favored choice.
  • Model risks arise in LDI strategies because of the many assumptions in the models and approximations used to measure key parameters. For example, the liability BPV for the defined benefit pension plan depends on the choice of measure (ABO or PBO) and the assumptions that go into the model regarding future events (e.g., wage levels, time of retirement, and time of death).
  • Spread risk in LDI strategies arises because it is common to assume equal changes in asset, liability, and hedging instrument yields when calculating the number of futures contracts, or the notional principal on an interest rate swap, to attain a particular hedging ratio. The assets and liabilities are often on corporate securities, however, and their spreads to benchmark yields can vary over time.
  • Investing in a fund that tracks a bond market index offers the benefits of both diversification and low administrative costs. Tracking risk arises when the fund manager chooses to buy only a subset of the index, a strategy called enhanced indexing, because fully replicating the index can be impractical as a result of the large number of bonds in the fixed-income universe.
  • Corporate bonds are often illiquid. Matrix pricing uses available data on comparable securities to estimate the fair value of the illiquid bonds.
  • The primary risk factors encountered by an investor tracking a bond index include decisions regarding duration (option-adjusted duration for callable bonds, convexity for possible large yield shifts, and key rate durations for non-parallel shifts) and portfolio weights (assigned by sector, credit quality, maturity, coupon rate, and issuer).
  • Index replication is one method to establish a passive exposure to the bond market. The manager buys or sells bonds only when there are changes to the index. Full replication can be expensive, however, as well as infeasible for broad-based fixed-income indexes that include many illiquid bonds.
  • Several enhancement strategies can reduce the costs to track a bond index: lowering trading costs, using models to identify undervalued bonds and to gauge relative value at varying points along the yield curve, over/under weighting specific credit sectors over the business cycle, and evaluating specific call features to identify value given large yield changes.
  • Investors can obtain passive exposure to the bond market using ETFs or mutual funds. Exchange-traded fund (ETF) shares have the advantage of trading on an exchange throughout the day.
  • A total return swap, an over-the-counter derivative, allows an institutional investor to transform an asset or liability from one asset category to another—for instance, from variable-rate cash flows referencing the MRR to the total return on a particular bond index.
  • A total return swap (TRS) can have some advantages over a direct investment in a bond mutual fund or ETF. As a derivative, it requires less initial cash outlay than direct investment in the bond portfolio for similar performance. A TRS also carries counterparty credit risk, however. As a customized over-the-counter product, a TRS can offer exposure to assets that are difficult to access directly, such as some high-yield and commercial loan investments.
  • Selecting a particular bond index is a major decision for a fixed-income investment manager. Selection is guided by the specified goals and objectives for the investment. The decision should recognize several features of bond indexes: (1) Given that bonds have finite maturities, the duration of the index drifts down over time; (2) the composition of the index changes over time with the business cycle and maturity preferences of issuers.