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August 16, 2021

Beyond Diversification: The Case for Active Multi-Asset Funds

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August 16, 2021

Beyond Diversification: The Case for Active Multi-Asset Funds

Market Pulse

Beyond Diversification: The Case for Active Multi-Asset Funds

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August 16, 2021


Hiking enthusiasts understand the importance of wearing the right footwear given the terrain. Comfortable sneakers work just fine on the flats wending through the forest or around a lake. Hiking boots generally afford a sturdier tread for tougher terrain, and high-tops improve ankle support. Waterproof boots are available for river crossings and crampons can be attached for added traction on the most challenging hikes. But treadless sneakers in the downhill steeps on scree? The potential for a disastrous fall.


Investors too are faced with continually changing market conditions. In our years of active fund management, our team has invested during economic recessions and recoveries, momentum markets and bubbles, rising interest rate and inflationary environments. Not to mention those “black swan” events that can take even the most astute investors by surprise.

Diversification is good but not sufficient

Given the vicissitudes of the market, holding certain investments in certain markets could be potentially disastrous. Research shows that, in distressed markets, equities across the globe start to move together in lockstep. Equity-only managers have no recourse other than to reallocate between their equity holdings and cash. We have previously referred to this quandary as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Fixed income is often viewed as a safer investment in volatile markets. But we have seen bond funds lose money, and they have historically delivered lower long-term performance than equity.

Diversification is often the pat answer to managing volatility. It entails building a portfolio with both equity and fixed income assets in some fixed proportion based on an investment horizon and risk profile. And it’s a good idea.

Until it isn’t.

In our minds, a passively-managed portfolio, no matter how diversified, fails to protect capital during significant market drawdowns. Imagine an investor holding a 70% equity/30% fixed portfolio: If the equity allocation is down -30% and fixed income is unchanged, simple maths indicates the total portfolio is still down -21%, i.e., bear territory.

In contrast, a multi-asset manager allocates across multiple asset classes that can be rearranged to manage risk. But in our view, there are two keys to managing a multi-asset portfolio successfully: One, that the manager is a truly active manager, and two, that they manage to a volatility target, not a benchmark.

Active management is forward looking

Simply defined, multi-asset managers manage equity, fixed income and cash in the same portfolio. In our case (and others), we manage commodity-linked notes as well. Multi-asset funds are not “target date” funds, where allocations between equity and fixed income change at prescribed intervals over the life of the fund, based on the age and risk profile of the investor. While target date funds are a good fit for certain investors, they generally do not make tactical adjustments based on market conditions over the life of the fund.

As we see it, diversification is only effective if a portfolio is actively managed. In our case, active management is a forward-looking exercise, and anticipating volatility events is the hallmark of our investment approach. Yes, that means we are, in fact, trying to forecast the future. But not with tarot cards. Our dedicated team of 171 investment professionals continually surveys macroeconomic and geopolitical conditions across the globe to identify potential sources of risk that could arise. Our stated goal is to adjust portfolio exposures before volatility strikes.

In our portfolios the equity allocation is the primary lever for adjusting our risk exposure. When we expect some event—such as political instability, exacerbated trade tensions or a significant change in monetary policy— to cause a spike in market volatility, we typically—actively—reduce exposure to equities. Our goal is to get ahead of the “bad” news, as opposed to a post-volatility correction. In the same way, when we expect a reduction in the volatility level, we actively increase exposure to equities, to take advantage of the upside potential. Display 1 shows how we have adjusted equity exposure in anticipation of various global events over the past two years.

As you can see from Display 1, we make significant changes to our asset mix based on what we see as upcoming risk events. Our equity allocation was near 80% in mid 2018, but when US-China trade tensions were exacerbated globally by political factors, we shifted that allocation to close to 25% by the summer of that year. In early 2020, to help manage volatility during the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented shutdown of the global economy, we reduced the equity allocation of our flagship portfolio from around 55% to 20%, a position we maintained as volatility remained elevated.

Display 1: Dynamic equity exposure is key in our multi-asset portfolios

Source: Morgan Stanley Investment Management, DataStream, 30 June 2021. Subject to daily changes, for illustrative purposes only. Not intended as a recommendation to buy or sell a specific security. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.


Multi-asset managers have to manage volatility

On one level we are managing a multi-asset portfolio, but in truth, what we are really managing is volatility. In our case, we manage our multi-asset fund to a pre-defined risk budget, also defined as a volatility target range. In the MS INVF Global Balanced Risk Control Fund, launched in November 2011, we target volatility in the range of 4%-10% (see Display 2). Typically, we expect volatility to be towards the middle of this range, but in extreme conditions we may make fuller use of the range, for example to protect the portfolio from volatile down markets. Our goal is to deliver competitive returns and minimize downside market participation within these volatility parameters.

Display 2: A track record of stable volatility

Source: Bloomberg, 6-months volatility, 4 May 2012 to 30 June 2021. Subject to change daily. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Provided for informational purposes only and should not be deemed as a recommendation to buy or sell securities in the asset class shown above. Each portfolio may differ due to specific investment restrictions and guidelines. Accordingly, individual results may vary.


This is quite a different approach from most investment managers, who designate a benchmark to evaluate their fund’s performance. But evaluating any investment relative to a benchmark is tricky: If the broader market is down -35% and a portfolio only -30%, the manager has in fact beaten their benchmark, which is great for the manager. The client, however, has still lost close to a third of their investment.

We benchmark our portfolios based on volatility and our investment process begins with risk. As discussed, we specify a target range of volatility, e.g., 4%-10%, within which we aim to maintain the strategy’s volatility. Typically, we expect this to be towards the middle of the range i.e., 6%-7%. As stated, our multi-asset portfolios hold a mix of equities, fixed income, commodity-linked notes and cash, and this flexibility to diversify across asset classes is critical in managing risk.

In the industry vernacular, we are often referred to as, not surprisingly, a “volatility manager.” A paper from the Yale School of Management, “Volatility Managed Portfolios,”2 indicates that volatility management is an investment approach that can produce superior investment results.

From the paper’s abstract:

“Managed portfolios that take less risk when volatility is high produce large, positive alphas and increase factor Sharpe ratios by substantial amounts.”

Furthermore from the research:

“We construct portfolios that scale monthly returns by the inverse of their expected variance, decreasing risk exposure when the returns variance is expected to be high, and vice versa. We call these volatility-managed portfolios. We document that this simple trading strategy earns large alphas across a wide range of asset-pricing factors, suggesting that investors can benefit from volatility timing.”

The Global Balanced Risk Control team’s multi-asset portfolios: 2020

2020 is a good example of what we believe are the advantages of an actively managed multi-asset portfolio benchmarked to a volatility target.

As can be seen in Display 3, our multi-asset portfolio, the MS INVF Global Balanced Risk Control (GBaR) Strategy (USD Returns) — captured nearly 90% of the MSCI All Country World Index’s (ACWI) (USD) positive return over the course of 2020. Yet, its maximum drawdown during the year was only half that of the index—approximately ~10% vs. ~20% for the MSCI ACWI, achieved with less than half the volatility—approximately 10% versus 23% for the MSCI ACWI. In our view, delivering competitive performance without extreme volatility is particularly appealing for the vast majority of clients.

Display 3: An active multi-asset approach anticipates risk, avoids extremes

Source: Datastream. Data shown from 01 January 2020 until 31 December 2020. Subject to change daily. Provided for informational purposes only and should not be deemed as a recommendation to buy or sell securities in the asset class shown above. Each portfolio may differ due to specific investment restrictions and guidelines. Accordingly, individual results may vary. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.


In fact, we find that our approach to multi-asset investing often meets the needs of both high-net-worth (HNW) investors and smaller clients. In particular, as a core portfolio allocation for the former and as a holistic strategy for the latter. Over the years, we have come to understand that investors are often more concerned with keeping their money than with growing it aggressively. Having said that, we see that both HWN and smaller investors do want to grow their money, but with less volatility and most importantly, with no surprises. These investors (and others) realize that massive drawdowns have the potential to cause even the most sophisticated investors to sell at the bottom—often the biggest disaster of all. Our ability to protect portfolios on a relative basis during the most volatile periods is shown in Display 4, demonstrating the manager’s true active management and flexibility within a volatility target/risk control framework. The speed of execution and available tools (futures and options, among others) in order to achieve these results are also factors to consider when an investor delegates part of their portfolio to a multi-asset manager with a risk control framework.

Display 4: Drawdowns since inception of MS INVF Global Balanced Risk Control Strategy (USD returns) in comparison with MSCI ACWI TR (USD) and S&P 500 TR USD

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This is for information purposes only and should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell the funds mentioned.

Source: Morningstar Direct


ESG & multi-asset investing

There has certainly been an uptick in demand for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)-run products in recent years—and multi-asset is no exception to this trend. As a team, we believe that the market ascribes value to ESG factors and that companies with strong ESG profiles are more attractive investments; emphasising such companies therefore provides an opportunity to add value to portfolios. Likewise, avoiding companies that perform relatively poorly on ESG criteria, and could be expected to suffer in the new environment, is an additional risk management tool.

For this reason, the Global Balanced Risk Control team seeks to enhance portfolios’ ESG profiles, or ESG “friendliness,” through a process of “tilting” towards securities with relatively high ESG ratings. In addition, the team excludes securities with exposure to significant ESG controversies and seeks to actively engage with company management on ESG issues for a targeted set of companies held in our portfolios. Ultimately as an increasing number of ESG factors represent material investment risks, incorporating ESG in an investment process is no longer simply a matter of personal conviction, but in our case is a natural extension of our risk control philosophy.

Looking ahead

As of the writing of this article, let us try to answer some concerns of our clients that revolve around inflation, a rising-rate environment and the dreaded stagflation (the dreaded mix of stagnant economic growth coupled with high inflation).

RISING-RATE ENVIRONMENT – A rising interest rate environment often heralds a strong economy and an uptick in inflation, which should benefit cyclical sectors including, for example, financials, energy and industrials. We view this type of environment as rich with opportunities for an active multi-asset manager, as opposed to passive buy and hold strategies.

INFLATION/STAGFLATION – We have clients concerned about a scenario pairing hyperinflation and a depressed economy. In our view, runaway inflation would be the result of undisciplined monetary policy or a major supply shock. While we have witnessed sizable increase in debt levels in many major economies such as the U.S., fiscal spending going forward is likely to be more funded and hence less inflationary. The near term supply constraints are likely to push up costs such as raw material prices, but we foresee the bottleneck to be transitory. That being said, we do see some of the structurally deflationary factors such as globalization start to weaken and expect inflation to return in the coming decade.

In any of these scenarios, an active multi-asset portfolio is likely the best place to be. Our anticipatory approach to risk guides us as to where we should be – and in a higher inflation scenario we would consider investments like gold, broad commodities, energy stocks, short duration assets and select emerging market equities, amongst others. Our list of choices continually evolves and we believe gives us an edge over passive equity and fixed income vehicles.

An approach that adapts – so that you don’t have to

Serious hikers and enthusiasts choose footwear that can deliver comfort and traction on a wide variety of terrain. We believe that multi-asset portfolios can do similarly by employing an approach that actively manages allocation decisions, while managing the entire portfolio to a volatility target. This is an approach that adapts the asset mix so that you don’t have to.

The goal is similar: Competitive performance with minimized participation in distressed markets.

Time to hit the trails!


1. Morgan Stanley Investment Management, Team as of 31 March 2021. Team members may change from time to time without notice.
2., published on 23 November 2015
3. Lipper Alpha, 20 May 2019

Managing Director
Global Balanced Risk Control Team
Managing Director
Global Balanced Risk Control Team

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Risk and Reward Profile - Global Balanced Risk Control Fund of Funds - Z



The risk and reward category shown is based on historic data.

  • Historic figures are only a guide and may not be a reliable indicator of what may happen in the future.
  • As such this category may change in the future.
  • The higher the category, the greater the potential reward, but also the greater the risk of losing the investment. Category 1 does not indicate a risk free investment.
  • The fund is in this category because it invests in a range of assets with different levels of risk and the fund’s simulated and/or realised return has experienced medium rises and falls historically.
  • The fund may be impacted by movements in the exchange rates between the fund’s currency and the currencies of the fund’s investments.

This rating does not take into account other risk factors which should be considered before investing, these include:

  • The value of bonds are likely to decrease if interest rates rise and vice versa.
  • The value of financial derivative instruments are highly sensitive and may result in losses in excess of the amount invested by the Sub-Fund.
  • Issuers may not be able to repay their debts, if this happens the value of your investment will decrease. This risk is higher where the fund invests in a bond with a lower credit rating.
  • The fund relies on other parties to fulfill certain services, investments or transactions. If these parties become insolvent, it may expose the fund to financial loss.
  •  There may be an insufficient number of buyers or sellers which may affect the funds ability to buy or sell securities.
  • There are increased risks of investing in emerging markets as political, legal and operational systems may be less developed than in developed markets.
  • Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results. Returns may increase or decrease as a result of currency fluctuations. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and investors may lose all or a substantial portion of his or her investment.
  • The value of the investments and the income from them will vary and there can be no assurance that the Fund will achieve its investment objectives.
  • Investments may be in a variety of currencies and therefore changes in rates of exchange between currencies may cause the value of investments to decrease or increase. Furthermore, the value of investments may be adversely affected by fluctuations in exchange rates between the investor’s reference currency and the base currency of the investments.


Sharpe ratio is a risk-adjusted measure calculated as the ratio of excess return to standard deviation. The Sharpe ratio determines reward per unit of risk. The higher the Sharpe ratio, the better the historical risk-adjusted performance. Volatility (Standard deviation) measures how widely individual performance returns, within a performance series, are dispersed from the average or mean value.

The Asset Allocation strategies provide the Investment Adviser with wide discretion to allocate between different asset classes. From time to time, the Asset Allocation may have significant exposure to a single or limited number of fixed income or equity asset classes. Accordingly, the relative relevance of the risks associated with equity securities, Fixed Income Securities and derivatives will fluctuate over time.

Investments in derivative instruments carry certain inherent risks such as the risk of counter party default and before investing you should ensure you fully understand these risks. Use of leverage may also magnify losses as well as gains to the extent that leverage is employed. These investments are designed for investors who understand and are willing to accept these risks. Performance may be volatile, and an investor could lose all or a substantial portion of his or her investment.

The MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI) is a free float-adjusted market capitalization weighted index designed to measure the equity market performance of developed and emerging markets. The term “free float” represents the portion of shares outstanding that are deemed to be available for purchase in the public equity markets by investors. The performance of the Index is listed in U.S. dollars and assumes reinvestment of net dividends. The S&P 500 Total Return Index is an index that consists of 500 stocks chosen for market size, liquidity and industry group representation. The S&P Index is a market value weighted index with each stock’s weight proportionate to its market value. The S&P Index is one of the most widely used benchmarks of U.S. equity performance. The performance of the S&P Index does not account for any management fees, incentive compensation, commissions or other expenses that would be incurred pursuing such strategy. Total return provides investors with a price-plus-gross cash dividend return. Gross cash dividends are applied on the ex-date of the dividend.  


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