Category Archives: Investing

Risk Parity in Indiana

For readers interested in either Indiana or investment strategy, see my letter (subscription) to the Indianapolis Business Journal commenting on the new asset allocation and risk management strategies at INPRS, the state’s $25-billion pension fund.

Ken Skarbeck’s column (Nov. 19) addressed a new strategy the Indiana Public Retirement System is using to diversify its portfolio. The new strategy, known as risk parity, has been around for over 20 years and will eventually compose 10% of INPRS assets.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, INPRS has dedicated significant time and resources to improve its risk management infrastructure. The decision to move a portion of the assets into risk parity – which seeks to diversify risk, rather than merely diversify asset classes – is one direct outcome of the new risk management program.

Risk parity attempts to balance risk across equities, bonds, commodities, and inflation-linked bonds. It recognizes the distinct performance characteristics of these assets during periods of robust or slow growth, for instance, or high or low inflation. For any given rate of return target, risk can be mitigated. Likewise, for a given risk appetite, returns can be improved. Nothing is a sure bet, but risk parity strategies have achieved robust returns while minimizing risk over most time periods.

Mr. Skarbeck makes a good point that historical volatility does not measure all types of risk. We heartily agree.

Mr. Skarbeck thinks stocks are a good bet right now. He may be correct. INPRS owns billions of dollars of equities and works with investment managers who have strong views, perhaps similar to Mr. Skarbeck’s, about the direction of stocks, bonds, and other assets. But as an entity charged with funding the retirements of 500,000 Hoosier workers and retirees, INPRS as a whole should not make overly concentrated bets.

Truly balanced portfolios recognize that neither INPRS, nor anyone else, knows with certainty what the global economy has in store. Committing to a concentrated asset mix because of a particular view on equities would represent the very type of risk Mr. Skarbeck warns against.

Fortunately, risk parity has performed well in all environments – from low inflation, high growth periods where stocks might outperform to high-inflation periods where commodities and TIPS might do better. That’s the point of the strategy: seek healthy returns sufficient to fund the retirements of INPRS members while minimizing downside risk.

Bret T. Swanson
Trustee and Investment Committee Member
Indiana Public Retirement System (INPRS)

Kessler may be crazy. But mark-to-market’s absurd.

Of the Treasury’s long-awaited non-plan bank plan, Andy Kessler writes, “Mr. Geithner should instead use his ‘stress test’ and nationalize the dead banks via the FDIC — but only for a day or so.”


strip out all the toxic assets and put them into a holding tank inside the Treasury. . . .  inject $300 billion in fresh equity for both Citi and Bank of America. Create 10 billion new shares of each of the companies to replace the old ones. The book value of each share could be $30. Very quickly, a new board of directors should be created and a new management team hired. Here’s the tricky part: Who owns the shares? Politics will kill a nationalized bank. So spin them out immediately.

Some $6 trillion in income taxes were paid by individuals in 2006, 2007 and 2008. On a pro-forma basis, send out those 10 billion shares of each bank to taxpayers. They paid for the recapitalization.

Each taxpayer would get about $100 worth of stock for each $1,000 of taxes paid. Of course, each taxpayer has the ability to sell these shares on the open market, maybe at $40, maybe $20, maybe $80. It depends on management, their vision, how much additional capital they are willing to raise, the dividend they declare, etc. Meanwhile, the toxic assets sitting inside the Treasury will have residual value and the proceeds from their eventual sale, I believe, will more than offset the capital injected. That would benefit all citizens, not the managements and shareholders who blew up the banking system in the first place.

Is Kessler crazy? Well, maybe. In his own creative and boisterous way. But not nearly so crazy as Washington’s fumble-bumble these last few months. I’d much prefer Kessler’s out-of-the-box plan to D.C.’s muddle.

What becomes clearer every day is that all the government’s efforts, from the AIG “bailout” to TARP 1.0 and TARP 2.0 onward, have essentially been efforts to get around the terribly destructive interaction of “mark-to-market” accounting and regulatory capital requirements. A few keen observers — David Malpass (I), Brian Wesbury (I, II, IIIIV), Steve Forbes (I, II) — have made this point from the start. But the government and most economists clung stubbornly to “fair value” in an apparent attempt not to “let the banks off the hook.” 

But what a time for an attack of conscience, a principled stand for supposed accounting purity! We’ll spend trillions and totally alter the nation’s financial landscape, but a minor (though powerful and free!) accounting change — relaxing mark-to-market — is a bridge too far? Explain that one. (more…)

“Buy property”

Really? That seems like an odd thing to advise at a time like this. But read David Dreman’s argument:

One last investment that should work out well over time: Buy property, if you live in a place with a forest of for-sale signs. The housing crisis is terrible, but it won’t last forever. If you can get a mortgage, and if I’m right about inflation, you will eventually be paying it back with 50- or 60-cent dollars. Pay 20% down on a house that rises 40% in five years and you’ll triple your investment, assuming you can cover the interest and maintenance with rental income. If prices rise above the rate of inflation, a reasonable possibility given how depressed they are now, your return will be still higher, possibly significantly so.

William Baldwin of Forbes comments:

Shrewd advice from an accomplished money man. But, at the same time, it’s dispiriting that he’s right. The way to make money is not by financing progress but by speculating against the ability of the Federal Reserve to do its job.

Gambling by investors is a good thing, if by that we mean gambling on the next Orville Wright or Steve Jobs. But the gamble against the dollar is something different. It’s one in which your windfall profit is matched by a windfall loss for the fellow on the other side of the table–the unfortunate saver who lent you the money for the house.