Japan’s giant pension manager is unrepentant after a push into equities saw the fund post its worst quarterly result since at least 2008.
There’s no reason to doubt the 135.1 trillion yen ($1.1 trillion) Government Pension Investment Fund’s investment strategy, officials said on Monday in Tokyo as they unveiled a 7.9 trillion yen loss for the three months through September. The slump was GPIF’s first negative return after revamping allocations last October, when it doubled holdings of Japanese and foreign shares.
The loss will test the resolve of the fund’s stewards and of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called for the shift out of bonds to riskier assets such as equities as the government tries to spur inflation. Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank Ltd. and Saison Asset Management Co. say that while the public may question the safety of their pension savings, GPIF should be judged on how it meets the retirement needs of the world’s oldest population over a longer horizon.
“They will see some criticism for this. But that’s more of an issue of financial literacy," said Ayako Sera, a market strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust in Tokyo. “The liabilities of public pensions have an extremely long duration, so it’s best not to carve it up into three-month periods. However, from a long-term perspective, it’s necessary to continue monitoring whether the timing of last year’s allocation was good or not.”
The fund shifted the bulk of its holdings at a “terrible" time, just as stocks peaked, Sera said.
GPIF lost 5.6 percent last quarter as China’s yuan devaluation and concern about the potential impact if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates roiled global equity markets. That’s the biggest drop in comparable data starting from April 2008. The pension manager’s Japan equity investments slid 13 percent, the same retreat posted by the Topix index, and foreign stock holdings fell 11 percent. The fund lost 241 billion yen on overseas debt, while Japanese bonds handed it a 302 billion yen gain.
Things are looking up. The Topix has rallied 12 percent since the start of the fourth quarter, while a gauge of global shares has gained about 7 percent. As of Sept. 30, GPIF had 43 percent of its assets in equities around the world.
The asset manager “seriously considered" whether to continue with its current investment mix before deciding it’s the right approach, Hiroyuki Mitsuishi, a GPIF councilor, said on Monday. Short-term returns are more volatile these days, but there’s less risk that GPIF will fail on its long-term objective of covering pension payouts, he said. Fund executives have argued that holding more shares and foreign assets will lead to higher returns as Abe’s inflation push risks eroding the purchasing power of bonds.
“Short term market moves lead to gains and losses, but over the 14 years since we started investing, the overall trend is upwards,” Mitsuishi said. “Don’t evaluate the results over the short-term, as looking over the long term is important.”
A stronger yen contributed to GPIF’s quarterly loss, with the currency gaining 2.2 percent against the U.S. dollar in the quarter. The fund can hedge its foreign-exchange risk if needed, Mitsuishi said, while declining to comment on whether GPIF had, or plans to start doing so.
GPIF hadn’t posted a quarterly loss since the three months through March 2014. The most recent results included returns from a portfolio of government bonds issued to finance a fiscal investment and loan program, with GPIF providing such figures since 2008. If those are stripped out, the drop was the fund’s third-worst on record, exceeded only by declines in the depths of the 2008 global financial crisis and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
“They changed their portfolio knowing something like this could happen, and they’re not going to change their investment policy because of this,” said Tomohisa Fujiki, the head of interest-rate strategy for Japan at BNP Paribas SA in Tokyo. “They reduced domestic bonds and increased risk assets such as stocks, so temporary losses can’t be helped when there’s chaos in the market like in August and September."
For Tetsuo Seshimo, a fund manager at Saison Asset Management in Tokyo, GPIF gets a pass on its performance given it was in-line with benchmark indexes, and a failing grade on its public-relations strategy.
“If you have half your portfolio in stocks, this kind of thing can easily happen," he said. “However, the public will probably be surprised. The issue is whether they have explained this properly -- they haven’t.”
GPIF knows it needs to convince the public that it’s doing the right thing. It unveiled a new YouTube channel on Monday, which will have videos of its press conferences.
“People are probably very interested in GPIF’s results,” said Mitsuishi. “We want to directly explain to them that a long-term view is important.”
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