Offshore oil supply containers are strewn about after Hurricane Ida's storm surge swept through Port Fourchon, Louisiana, the US, August 31 2021. Picture: LUKE SHARRETT/BLOOMBERG.
Offshore oil supply containers are strewn about after Hurricane Ida's storm surge swept through Port Fourchon, Louisiana, the US, August 31 2021. Picture: LUKE SHARRETT/BLOOMBERG.

The extended period of unconventional monetary policy employed by central banks after the global financial crisis has eroded historic risk premiums, be it equities or bonds, not to mention the money market. It is not new knowledge that one must thus now assume more risk than in the “noughties” to earn a similar return. 

This is especially true in the realm of fixed income investing: the average yield of the US 10-year Treasury bond from 2000 to 2008 was 4.59% and 2.35% from 2009 to 2020. At end-August it was 1.3%. A further symptom of this, and worsening the situation, is that globally $16.5-trillion (R234.5-trillion) in debt is negative yielding. 

Against this backdrop of ultralow bond yields, asset allocators are naturally looking at alternative sources of return, such as commodities, hedge fund strategies and digital assets. In the fixed-income asset class one such opportunity lies within catastrophe risk, a subset of insurance-linked securities (ILS). 

Catastrophe risk is a sophisticated market where investors provide insurance coverage on damage caused by natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. Here, insurers, reinsurers, companies, governments and supranational organisations issue catastrophe bonds (CAT bonds) — paying an investor a premium to assume responsibility for covering losses from specific events. 

Transferring risk is not new. However, insurers and reinsurers have regulatory capital and diversification constraints and can only stand to absorb so much of a given loss. This led to the development of the ILS market, which has undergone significant growth in recent decades. The creation of this class of security has allowed a broader group of investors to absorb insurable risks and increase the capacity for risk coverage globally. In return, investors can earn the insurance premiums.

At end-March, global reinsurer capital is estimated to have totalled $650bn, of which $96bn (about 15%) comprised alternative capital or ILSs, up from $28bn (about 6%) in 2011. This is expected to further evolve as urbanisation causes an increased demand for insurance, while capacity for risk on reinsurers’ books remains limited.

Compared with a plain vanilla corporate bond, where an investor assumes the risk of the borrower failing to repay interest or capital, with a CAT bond an investor assumes the risk of specified natural catastrophic events occurring. If the event does not occur the bond “matures”, and capital is returned to the investor, having also earned the coupon(s), or insurance premium(s). If there is an event, the capital invested is proportionally reduced by the value of insured loss. 

Important role

As with any investment, risk diversification is vital. By combining exposures to different peril zones and different trigger events one can arrive at a portfolio that reduces the risk associated with a specific event while earning a comparatively attractive premium, or coupon — the average coupon of issuance in 2021 has been 5.75%. The added benefit of this, in the context of a traditional multiasset portfolio, is that the drivers of risk and return for CAT bonds are not tied to financial markets or the economic cycle in the way other financial instruments are — one’s risk (and return) depends on the occurrence of natural catastrophes, together with the dynamics of risk pricing in the reinsurance market.

ILS and specifically CAT bond exposure can play an important role in an investment portfolio, particularly as an alternative source of return, providing risk is uncorrelated with traditional asset classes. The correlation of monthly US dollar returns of the global equity market and global bonds from the beginning of 2006 to the end of July 2021 was 0.4. Comparing each, in turn, to the SwissRe Global CAT Bond TR index yields a figure of 0.21 vs global equities, and 0.16 vs global bonds.

An added benefit, and a perspective that has become more front of mind lately, is the benefit to society from increased capacity available for risk transfer. Increasingly investors view CAT bonds as being naturally aligned to certain social needs that are fundamental to ESG investing. One area of growing need is the costs associated with climate change, where the increased incidence and severity of extreme weather events is driving increased usage of these instruments.

While pension funds and university endowments have invested in these securities for years, private investors have also been allocating through specialist managers. Having previously held exposure in portfolios, and viewing the space as relatively attractive, Stonehage Fleming recently allocated to the CAT bond market in some of its global mandates. 

In a world hungry for yield, and the construct of global developed market central bank policy expected to slowly exit from its current ultra-accommodative setting, an allocator would do well to evaluate a wider spectrum of investment tools. If this opportunity comes with the added benefit of lower correlation with traditional asset classes, all the better.

• Van Wyk is senior analyst at Stonehage Fleming Investment Management SA.

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