Why invest in real assets?

Institutional investors have long valued diversified real assets to help build portfolio resilience. Now, ever-growing numbers of investors are also looking at real assets to aid their path to net zero.

 

What are real assets?

At Manulife Investment Management, we think of real assets as tangible investments with intrinsic worth, spanning real estate, land, infrastructure, commodities, precious metals, and natural resources. They're also vital to society—consider how agriculture, timberland, and real estate innately contribute to meeting basic human needs for food, fiber, and shelter, while infrastructure contributes to essential services.

Real assets are diverse, yet they all share two defining features: Typically accessed through private markets, they may therefore provide an illiquidity premium over mainstream public market investments. Secondly, their intrinsic value is rooted in what’s concrete, enduring, and essential, which tends to make real assets less vulnerable to unexpected changes in inflation, consumer preferences, and global growth.

Real assets represent a large and growing investment subset. These assets have become a rapidly growing allocation for investors searching for sources of long-term income, protection from inflation, and reduced volatility. Forty-nine percent of insurers and 37% of pension funds expect to increase their allocation to real asset strategies going forward, and many real assets are a natural fit for investors wishing to put their capital to work sustainably in ways that generate a positive contribution to society.

The investment case

Private real assets have long provided investors with sources of diversification, long-term income, and protection from inflation. And relative to public markets, allocating to any one type of real asset within a portfolio may enhance yield profile while reducing price volatility, as real assets tend to exhibit low correlations to other asset classes—and to each other

U.S. historical return and standard deviation (2001–2020)
Chart displays U.S. historical return and standard deviation of real assets between 2001-2020 against other global and U.S. asset classes.

Source: Data for timberland refers to the NCREIF Timberland Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for farmland refers to the NCREIF Farmland Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for commercial real estate refers to the NCREIF Property Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for infrastructure refers to the Burgess Infrastructure Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for small-cap equities refers to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. Small Stock TR USD, as of December 31, 2020. Data for non-U.S. equities refers to the MSCI EAFE International Equities Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for corporate bonds refers to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. LT Corp TR USD, as of December 31, 2020. Data for U.S. Treasury bills refers to the Ibbotson series IA SBBI U.S. 30 Day Tbill TR USD, as of December 31, 2020. Data for commodities refers to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of December 31, 2020.  The S&P 500 Index series is from Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC, as of December 31, 2020. Data for U.S. private equity refers to the Cambridge Associates Private Equity Index, as of December 31, 2020. Data for U.S. forest products refers to the S&P Composite 1500 Paper and Forest Products Index series, as of December 31, 2020.

Investments in real assets have historically experienced low volatility while providing potentially attractive risk-adjusted returns. Effective management of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations helps to minimize investment risk and ensure long-term sustainability of assets. 

Tangible investments with intrinsic value

Below, we summarize four of the more significant opportunity sets for real asset strategies: real estate, infrastructure, timberland, and agriculture.

Real estate investment

Real estate refers to land, structures on the land, air rights above the land, and ground rights below the land. Most investors commonly think about real estate as income-producing structures with contractually obligated rent payments.  Equity real estate investment is typically divided into two main categories: residential and commercial. Equity strategies may range from core to opportunistic and can provide several potential portfolio benefits, including income, portfolio diversification through low correlation with other asset classes, inflation hedging attributes, and downside portfolio protection amid public market volatility.

Real estate investments can suit a range of risk/return profiles

 

Core

Lower risk and return

Core plus

Balanced risk and return

Value added

Moderate to high risk and return

Opportunistic

High risk and return

Net return range  <8% 8%–11% over a full market cycle 12%–15% 15%–18%
Leverage 0%–30% 40%–50% 50%–70% 60%+
Markets Primary Primary and secondary Primary and secondary Primary, secondary, and emerging
Capital improvements Little/none Low to moderate Moderate to high High
Source: Manulife Investment Management. For illustrative purposes only. Expected returns are not meant as predictions for any particular investment vehicle, and are not a guarantee of future results. Actual returns may vary. Potential for profit as well as for loss exists.

Real estate investment strategies capitalize on income-growing and capital appreciation opportunities by investing in commercial properties that reflect the evolving needs of businesses, consumers, and occupiers. While some strategies can be very specific, others are diversified across markets, property sectors, and tenants. This not only allows investment managers to take advantage of market trends to generate long-term positive returns, it also diversifies portfolios and offers other significant benefits.

Real estate investments have a long history of generating stable yet appreciating income and capital growth while providing the potential for portfolio diversification and inflation protection. As the global economy continues to grow and evolve, so too should the demand for real estate space.
 

Infrastructure investment

Infrastructure broadly covers companies and assets involved in providing essential services for the movement and storage of goods, people, energy, water, and data. Infrastructure assets include electric, gas, water networks, power-generation plants, highways, railroads, ports, and telecommunication towers, which may benefit from both limited competition and stable consumer demand. As a hybrid asset class, infrastructure assets typically blend some of the most beneficial characteristics of many other investment categories at lower volatility and represent opportunities across the spectrum for risk and return. 

Infrastructure investing across a range of opportunities 
Returns and risks of infrastructure investment rise according to strategy target, ranging from super core (least) to private equity strategies (highest).
For illustrative purposes only.

Investments in long-lived infrastructure assets can generate steady cash flows, supported by either long-term contracts or regulated inflation-adjusted rates of return, and tend to demonstrate a greater degree of insulation against macro risks, such as economic recession or unexpected inflation. Such exposure tends to bolster portfolio resilience to market downturns and, as the asset class continues to evolve, technological innovation, intelligent urbanization, and the rise of the network economy are reshaping opportunities for institutional investors.
 

Timberland investment

Investing in timberland involves investing in forests—a renewable resource that integrates planning, growing, managing, and harvesting trees as sustainable fiber and solid wood products to meet a wide range of human needs, including shelter, packaging, and hygiene. Timberland strategies are often diversified across geography, species, age class, and end product. This not only allows asset managers to take advantage of market trends to generate long-term positive returns, it also diversifies portfolios while providing numerous opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigate climate change.

Timberland's potential nominal gross return ranges
Table shows expect returns for timberland investment (7%-10%), composed of approximately 2%-3% income, and 5%-7% appreciation.
Source: Manulife Investment Management's timberland resource planning and analysis team, as of December 2020. For illustrative purposes only. Expected returns are not meant as predictions for any particular asset class, fund, or investment vehicle. All expected returns refer to a five-plus year horizon and are presented on a nominal basis, unlevered, gross of investment management fees, and do not guarantee future results. Actual returns may vary. Potential for profit as well as for loss exists.

Timberland can provide both current income and capital appreciation, supported by unique characteristics that enable a “store of value” in volatile markets. Timberland investments have long demonstrated strong financial results and can provide portfolio diversification and potential inflation protection while positively affecting global communities through the sustainable management of timberland assets. As nature-based solutions, forests can provide positive social and environmental impacts by sequestering carbon, providing wildlife habitats, and offering other ecosystem services such as providing clean water or recreational opportunities.

Growing global demand for timber provides investors with an opportunity to benefit from favorable supply and demand dynamics, underpinned by strong macro factors, including mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The growing number of corporate commitments to net zero emissions, and global attention to climate change and carbon markets, are creating new opportunities to manage forests for carbon value, as well as for timber value.

Agriculture investment

Agriculture investing is the investment in tangible assets related to crop production, processing, distribution, and marketing, often diversified across geography, crop type, and management style. Investing in core agriculture involves investing in physical assets such as farmland and related improvements, including irrigation systems and grain storage, or in the case of orchards and vineyards, trees, and vines. Farmland is planted, managed sustainably, and crops are harvested and sold as sustainable food and fiber. Investment in vertical integration (also known as farmland plus or core-plus agriculture investing) can reduce volatility relative to crop-only investment and help control third-party processing costs while enhancing crop marketing outcomes.

Agriculture's potential nominal gross total return ranges
Chart shows potential nominal gross total return ranges for agriculture, from permanent crops (9-11%), to row crops (6-10%), and for farmland plus (10-16%).
Source: Forecast from Manulife Investment Management's agriculture resource planning and analysis team, as of August 2020. For illustrative purposes only. Forecasts are not meant as predictions for any particular asset class, fund, or investment vehicle. All expected returns refer to a 10-plus year horizon and are presented on a nominal basis, unlevered, gross of investment management fees, and do not guarantee future results. Actual returns may vary. Potential for profit as well as for loss exists.

Agriculture investments can maximize risk-adjusted total return, generate income, preserve capital investment, and realize long-term appreciation, and have a long history of generating strong financial results. The low correlation of farmland returns with returns of other asset classes means that farmland can provide diversification benefits within investor portfolios. Farmland investments may also offer moderate inflation protection.

Farmland, like timberland, is a nature-based solution that can provide positive social and environmental benefits by sequestering carbon, maintaining biodiversity, and contributing to rural economic vitality. As the global population grows, demand for food and fiber is expected to increase. Investors can capitalize on this trend by adding farmland to a portfolio to potentially improve diversification and enhance risk-adjusted returns, while also benefiting from numerous opportunities to reduce GHG emissions and help mitigate climate change.

Sustainable investing for sustainable returns

Real assets are gaining prominence among investors wishing to invest sustainably in ways that benefit our climate and our society. The recognition of the importance of considering ESG factors in investing provides an opportunity for real assets to play a fundamental role in sustainable investment for a better world. It’s clear that real assets can provide solutions for three of the world’s greatest challenges: climate change, nature loss, and rising inequality. 

Real assets for real problems

  Climate change Nature loss Rising inequality
Timberland Forests are a top natural climate solution acting as a significant carbon sink¹ Managing timber plantations intensively to produce wood products lessens the need to harvest more sensitive forests

Can provide rewarding employment in rural communities and maintain open space, recreational opportunities, and clean water resources in rural communities

Agriculture Farmland can act as a significant carbon sink Sustainable farming can restore nutrient deficiencies, reduce pest and disease vulnerability, and increase soil’s water holding capacity 
Real estate Construction and efficiency improvements, fuel switching, and renewable technology can support carbon reduction   We work to reduce water consumption, limit chemical pest controls, and operate green rooftop environments, urban gardens, and beehives  We need housing and healthy, resilient buildings, responsible contractor policies to safeguard workforces and community engagement with tenants
Infrastructure Renewable power is at the forefront of society's transition to cleaner energy We can assess nature-related factors such as water and biodiversity where material for the industry  Infrastructure serves as a foundation for services necessary to support socioeconomic activity
1 Modified from “Measurement of Forest Carbon” presentation by Steve Prisley, Principal Research Scientist, NCAS. For illustrative purposes only.

As long-term investors in real assets, we've long recognized the link between environmental and financial stewardship. To us, strong stewardship is inseparable from good investing since it encompasses the activities that not only protect the health of individual investments, but also those that foster the strength and sustainability of the systems on which those investments depend.

Long-term experience of both investing in and operating real assets allows us to embed stewardship in how we manage our operations, make investment decisions, and develop and offer financial products and services, including nature-based solutions to combat climate change. 

"Without strong stewardship, an investment’s integrity can be compromised; in turn, the asset manager/asset owner relationship can suffer, and the smooth functioning of financial markets can break down." 

Source: Stewardship report 2021, Manulife Investment Management.

Manulife Investment Management invests and operates assets in our real estate, timberland, and agriculture portfolios, while seeking to raise the bar of sustainable investing and stewardship, thereby enhancing the value of the assets and having a positive impact on our stakeholders. In our infrastructure investments, we focus on building strong relationships with companies, sponsors, and co-investors, which enable a meaningful approach to sustainability and enhance our influence over key assets and portfolio companies. And we’re accelerating the pace of innovation around developing products to solve investor needs and help create a more sustainable future.

How to invest in real assets

Private markets essentially allow buyers and sellers to transact through direct negotiation without a public exchange serving as intermediary, so the outright purchase of an office building, timberland property, wind farm, or integrated agricultural supply chain platform may be the preferred option for some institutional investors. Other investors will seek exposure through separate accounts or pooled vehicles with an investment manager. And since gaining access to these categories can be challenging, selecting the right partner with the required expertise across all real asset sectors is essential to building a globally diversified allocation across a variety of private real assets.  

Risks of investing in real assets

Since many are not publicly traded, real assets' principal risks are centered on illiquidity, including transparency and price discovery as they don't change hands frequently, and their values are appraised only periodically. Moreover, alongside growth in interest from investors, we’re likely to see increasing regulatory and transparency requirements governing private investment structures as these investments become more mainstream. Investors in private real assets can benefit from investment managers with in-depth experience of these highly individual markets, combined with a disciplined risk management process that’s focused on the investor's unique demands. A well-diversified selection of private markets investments can reduce portfolio volatility, and most risks associated with real asset investing can be managed through diversification, careful planning, analysis, and due diligence, including evaluation of ESG considerations. 

Outlook

In an environment of historically low expected returns from public markets, the hunt for nontraditional sources of current yield and capital appreciation continues. Alternative sources of income are becoming increasingly important as more investors discover that debt just doesn't yield enough to meet their portfolio distribution needs.

We believe that private real asset investments, offering potentially stable yields and attractive diversification from public market investments, are well placed to bolster portfolio resilience and generate robust investment income. And given investors' growing concerns about sustainability—an area that real assets are exceptionally well positioned to directly address—we expect strong demand growth for private real assets to continue. 

A widespread health crisis such as a global pandemic could cause substantial market volatility, exchange-trading suspensions and closures, and affect portfolio performance. For example, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in significant disruptions to global business activity. The impact of a health crisis and other epidemics and pandemics that may arise in the future could affect the global economy in ways that cannot necessarily be foreseen at the present time. A health crisis may exacerbate other preexisting political, social, and economic risks. Any such impact could adversely affect the portfolio’s performance, resulting in losses to your investment.

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments.  These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person. You should consider the suitability of any type of investment for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.

This material is intended for the exclusive use of recipients in jurisdictions who are allowed to receive the material under their applicable law. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are subject to change without notice. Our investment teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. These opinions may not necessarily reflect the views of Manulife Investment Management or its affiliates. The information and/or analysis contained in this material has been compiled or arrived at from sources believed to be reliable, but Manulife Investment Management does not make any representation as to their accuracy, correctness, usefulness, or completeness and does not accept liability for any loss arising from the use of the information and/or analysis contained. The information in this material may contain projections or other forward-looking statements regarding future events, targets, management discipline, or other expectations, and is only current as of the date indicated. The information in this document, including statements concerning financial market trends, are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate and may be superseded by subsequent market events or for other reasons. Manulife Investment Management disclaims any responsibility to update such information.

Neither Manulife Investment Management or its affiliates, nor any of their directors, officers or employees shall assume any liability or responsibility for any direct or indirect loss or damage or any other consequence of any person acting or not acting in reliance on the information contained here. All overviews and commentary are intended to be general in nature and for current interest. While helpful, these overviews are no substitute for professional tax, investment or legal advice. Clients should seek professional advice for their particular situation. Neither Manulife, Manulife Investment Management, nor any of their affiliates or representatives is providing tax, investment or legal advice.  This material was prepared solely for informational purposes, does not constitute a recommendation, professional advice, an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of Manulife Investment Management to any person to buy or sell any security or adopt any investment strategy, and is no indication of trading intent in any fund or account managed by Manulife Investment Management. No investment strategy or risk management technique can guarantee returns or eliminate risk in any market environment. Diversification or asset allocation does not guarantee a profit or protect against the risk of loss in any market. Unless otherwise specified, all data is sourced from Manulife Investment Management. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

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Manulife Investment Management is the global wealth and asset management segment of Manulife Financial Corporation. We draw on more than a century of financial stewardship to partner with clients across our institutional, retail, and retirement businesses globally. Our specialist approach to money management includes the highly differentiated strategies of our fixed-income, specialized equity, multi-asset solutions, and private markets teams—along with access to specialized, unaffiliated asset managers from around the world through our multimanager model.

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