(Dow Jones) Many advisors are still taking their cues from pensions funds and endowments, even as losses in the recent financial crisis prompt these institutions to reshape their strategies. But that follow-the-leaders approach may not be right for all clients.
The needs of big pension funds and endowments, many of which have been badly squeezed by illiquid investments, don't always line up with those of individuals.
When the economy was strong and markets were rising, many of these big institutions turned more aggressive, taking risks in equities and illiquid alternative investments that produced some eye-popping returns. Some advisors embraced their strategies to a greater or lesser degree.
Those risks produced big losses in the downturn and, for many pensions and endowments, created problems funding month-to-month obligations. Now they are turning more conservative, "looking at fixed income to attend to some of their spending needs" and more liquid alternatives in real assets such as commodities, among other moves, said Margaret Foley, director of endowments and foundations resource center at Bank of New York Mellon Corp.'s (BK) BNY Mellon Asset Management.
Pensions and endowments aren't returning to the simple blend of stocks and bonds of the past. "We're never going to go back to a 60-40 [split] because they're controlling risk in a more sophisticated way," Foley said.
Some private pensions had begun even before the financial crisis to use more conservative, liability-driven investing, said Mark Ruloff, director of asset allocation at Towers Watson & Co.'s (TW) Towers Watson Investment Services. To some extent, they are able to this because they have to meet higher funding levels set by the Pension Protection Act.
Some investment advisors and most target-date funds are using those models, Ruloff said. But for advisors' clients, too conservative an approach can hurt them down the road. Many don't need to tap their savings now, but instead need a strategy that ensures growth. If they take their cues too closely from a pension fund on, say, how much to invest in equities, they could wind up short-changing clients who still have years to go until retirement.
"You may be safe from stock-market risk, but you're not safe from inflation risk," said Stuart Ritter, a financial advisor at T. Rowe Price Group Inc. (TROW).
If someone is going to invest more conservatively, Ritter said, "they need to simultaneously save more money"-something some clients can't or won't do.
Warren McIntyre, a financial advisor in Troy, Mich., said he tells his clients "you have to in effect create your own little pension." He said he prefers to start with the traditional 60-40 allocation and use lots of index funds because of their diversity, tax efficiency and low cost. He uses more equities with younger clients.