Despite the large and seemingly meaty title, this will be a short piece. I class these types of investors together because most of them have long investment horizons. From an asset-liability management standpoint, that would mean they should invest similarly. That may be have been true for Defined Benefit [DB] pension plans and Endowments, but that has shifted over time, and is increasingly not true. In some ways, the DB plans are becoming more like life insurers in the way they invest, though not totally so. So, why do they invest differently? Two reasons: internal risk management goals, and the desires of insurance regulators to preserve industry solvency.
Let’s start with life insurers. Regulators don’t want insolvent companies, so they constrain companies into safe assets using risk-based capital charges. The riskier the investment, the more capital the insurer has to put up against it. After that, there is cash-flow testing which tends to push life insurers to match assets and liabilities, or at least, not have a large mismatch. Also, accounting rules may lead insurers to buy assets where the income will show up on their financial statements regularly.
The result of this is that life insurers don’t invest much in risk assets — maybe they invest in stocks, junk bonds, etc. up to the amount of their surplus, but not much more than that.
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DB plans don’t have regulators that care about investment risks. They do have plan sponsors that do care about investment risk, and that level of care has increased over the past 15 years. Back in the late ’90s it was in vogue for DB plans to allocate more and more to risk assets, just in time for the market to correct. (Note to retail investors: professionals may deride your abilities, but the abilities of many professionals are questionable also.)
Over that time, the rate used to discount DB plan liabilities became standardized and attached to long high quality bonds. Together with a desire to minimize plan funding risks, and thus corporate risks for the plan sponsor, that led to more investments in bonds, and less in equities and other risk assets. Some plans try to cash flow match expected future plan payments out to a horizon.
Finally, endowments have no regulator, and don’t have a plan sponsor that has to make future payments. They are free to invest as they like, and probably have the highest degree of variation in their assets as a group. There is some level of constraint from the spending rules employed by the endowments, particularly since 2008-9, when a number of famous endowments came to realize that there was a liability structure behind them when they ran low on liquidity amid the crisis. [Note: long article.] You might think it would be smart to have the present value of 3-5 years of expenditures on hand in bonds, but that is not always the case. In some ways, the quick recovery taught some endowment investors the wrong lesson — that they could wait out any crisis.
That’s my quick summary. If you have thoughts on the matter, you can share them in the comments.