Here's How to Use Commercial Real Estate in Goal-Based Investing

The markets have see-sawed hundreds of points over the past few days as Americans voted and the aftermath became clear.

Stock markets have historically been susceptible to significant events, and the Donald Trump upset win in the presidential election certainly qualifies as that. 

What is an investor to do?

Bonds aren't the answer. Increasingly, they move in the same direction as stocks during market ups and downs. That makes them less attractive than in the past as a hedge on market risk.

A byproduct of this trend: Investors are taking a closer look at private-equity real estate and other alternative investments. Shielded from daily market swings, these assets strengthen portfolios with their high returns and low volatility.

In addition, there is a bigger change in investment strategy that plays to the strength of private-equity real estate. It is the shift to goal-based investing that has gained traction amid low interest rates.

With goal-based investing, the benefit isn't the premium return, as rewarding as that may be. It is knowing assets will be there when needed, be it for a college education, a second home, retirement income or even endowing future generations.

Financial advisers work with their clients to understand why they are investing their money, then target their investments to reach a budgeted amount by a certain date.

In the process, advisers are taking a page from the real estate, private-equity playbook by timing their investments for maximum returns when the asset will be sold, rather than constantly chasing short-term gains. It is a strategy that makes good sense and plays to the experience of the real estate portfolio managers.

Newly popular smart-beta funds try to deliver on these goals at an acceptable risk to the client.

By definition, private-equity real estate is also a goal-seeking investment. Value-added real estate projects work long-term to create value in under-performing assets, building both an income stream and market value.

Advisers look at life goals to generate the right returns at the right time. Private equity real estate can tie up principal for several years. So advisers create asset portfolios to match the duration of each goal. These investments can be ideal for long-range needs, while more imminent goals, such as funds for a business deal or new car, are parked in more stable, liquid assets. 

Advisers gauge a portfolio's progress on its performance to meet specific personal goals vs. beating the market or getting the highest possible return. By breaking down portfolios this way, investors can stay on track toward meeting their objectives even when the market twists and turns.

While most investment plans have time-based goals, portfolios are often managed as one big pot of money, mixing conservative and growth investments to meet multiple objectives and achieve maximum rewards. Separate portfolios can also make asset allocation more tangible and easily managed. That's because investors can watch separate portfolios and more easily tell if they are meeting their targets.

With goal-based investing, the reward isn't earning a premium on the investment. It's knowing the money will be there when it's needed.

It "makes periods like 2008 incredibly easy to handle," says Jean Brunel, author of Goals-Based Wealth Management and the former chief investment officer of JPMorgan Chase's private banking division.

The long-term nature of the strategy enables investors to use private equity real estate and other alternatives to smooth the up-and-down cycles of stocks and other equities.

In this approach, Brunel defines risk not as a shortfall in returns but "the probability of not achieving your goal." For instance, family business owners have good reasons for playing it safe with assets under their direct control. They can be more dispassionate with alternative investments such as real estate, and that allows them to set higher profit targets.

College savings can be locked into growth investments early on, then shifted to safety as tuition bills loom. The basic question becomes: Which asset classes grow the nest egg fast enough, and which preserve it?

A retirement plan built on goal-based investing might divide assets into several short- and long-term buckets, says financial planner Harold Evensky, author of the e-book Hello Harold. One bucket would set aside two years of cash for living expenses. Another would preserve the nest egg with stocks and bonds, while a third would take advantage of alternative investments to replenish savings.

The purpose-driven nature of goal-based investing also helps re-balance a portfolio. If returns are falling short of expectations, investors may make more aggressive investments or set more modest personal investment goals, says Brunel. Either way, they have a better idea where they're headed.

When investors simply seek higher interest rates in equity markets, they're tempted to take on increasingly greater risk. Private-equity funds, by contrast, provide low volatility and correlation to equity market swings. Combined with a high multiple on equity, private equity real estate maximizes risk-adjusted returns. With their focus on creating wealth, they put investors at ease. No matter where the market is headed, their assets are being managed in a way that builds toward their ultimate objectives.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author was a principal in a private-equity commercial real estate investment firm.

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