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The Last Bastions of Risk-Taking? SWFs

Not all institutional investors are de-risking.

(March 7, 2013) -- Large pools of sovereign capitals are the last remaining investors with major appetites for risk, according to a panel of asset management experts.

As other institutional investors have shrunk away from risk-laden asset classes, these gargantuan capital piles have actively been taking on more, according to Mike O'Brien, global head of JP Morgan Asset Management's Institutional Client Group.

O'Brien was addressing attendees at the National Association of Pension Funds Investment Conference in Edinburgh this morning on a panel including BlackRock's head of UK institutional business Arno Kitts, Mercer CIO Andrew Kirton, and Tesco Pension CIO Steven Daniels.

"There has been a structural move away from equities," said O'Brien. "Pension funds are moving further into different sorts of debt, real estate and infrastructure. Sovereign wealth funds are the last bastions of risk-taking."

He said these institutions had been allocating more assets to equity investments, smart beta strategies - as active management hadn't worked out well for many - and dropping their US Treasuries allocations. He added that many had been taking up European investment-grade bonds and would continue to do so for the next couple of years.

Second in the level of risk-taking, according to O'Brien, are US public pension funds, mainly due to them having very high investment return targets of often over 8%.

"They have to ramp up the risk to try and meet these return targets," said O'Brien. "They often invest in illiquid alternatives in an attempt to boost returns.

Insurance companies have been identifying opportunities within infrastructure investment, he said, and in fact there was not enough capacity for all the appetite. He estimated that over $25 billion would be invested in infrastructure debt this year, solely from this sector.  

More widely, Kitts said over the recent past there had been "volatility of volatility" with rates moving up and down the scale at dramatic rates.

"Static asset allocation makes sense only in stable conditions," said Kitts. "There is a need for a more flexible approach - almost 'risk parity plus'. Dynamically allocating to a range of factors makes sense."

The NAPF Investment Conference runs until Friday afternoon.

Follow @ai_cio and the #napf hashtag for more updates.

Related content: Risk Averse Pensions Open Doors for SWFs

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