Stocks tumbled, the yen strengthened and bond yields melted away after Japan moved to negative interest rates, but the head of the country’s giant pension fund is far from fazed.
The Government Pension Investment Fund is still assessing whether rates below zero will be effective in bolstering the economy, and time may be needed to see the positive impact, Norihiro Takahashi said in an interview in Tokyo. Takahashi became president of GPIF this month. It has taken up to 18 months for the benefits to be seen in other regions, and the GPIF has not decided how long it will spend weighing the situation, he said.
The Bank of Japan’s surprise announcement of the policy in January sent yields on about 70 percent of the nation’s government bonds into negative territory. GPIF had 38 percent of assets in domestic sovereign debt at the end of December, and while the fund has profited from the BOJ-fueled bond rally, the slide in yields makes earning enough money to fund pension payouts a tougher task. Takahashi is in no rush to make changes and says the fund is not advising external managers to avoid bonds with below-zero yields.
“It’s only been three months. We need to assess the results first,” Takahashi, 58, said. “We are long-term investors and if you ask us whether the aim of accelerating inflation has changed, we don’t think it has.”
Negative interest rates sent yields on JGB maturities all the way out to 40 years below 0.3 percent. The Topix index of shares plunged as much as 16 percent from the BOJ’s announcement of the policy on Jan. 29 through the gauge’s mid-February low, and is still down 2.8 percent since then. The yen has strengthened 9.3 percent against the dollar.
“Just because interest rates are negative doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly reduce bonds, or increase Japanese stocks,” Takahashi said. “When we created our current portfolio, interest rates were already low.”
Takahashi replaced Takahiro Mitani, who oversaw the fund for six years as it underwent a radical overhaul. The GPIF reduced its allocation to domestic debt by almost half in October 2014 and doubled equities, while the retirement-savings manager has also started investing in alternative assets and sought to revamp its governance.
The GPIF is using alternative assets to diversify its portfolio and limit risk and is still looking for investment targets, Takahashi said. The fund has approval from its investment committee to invest in infrastructure, private equity and real estate, but not hedge funds, he said. GPIF can put up to 5 percent of its holdings in alternative assets.
The fund has also started hedging against currency fluctuations on some of its foreign assets, Takahashi said, while declining to give further details.
GPIF earned 3.6 percent in the December quarter, after suffering its worst loss since at least 2008 in the prior three months, and is likely to post another loss in the quarter ended March. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who oversaw the move into stocks, has faced criticism from opposition party lawmakers who say the public’s pension savings are at risk as stocks tumble.