Cash drag — the opportunity cost of holding low-return liquid assets to meet potential capital calls — is a common complaint among private-capital investors. The uncertain timing and magnitude of cash flows force limited partners (LPs) to maintain precautionary liquidity — cash on hand to meet net capital calls — in excess of expected capital calls because realized capital calls may ultimately be greater. In this blog post, we explore how diversifying a portfolio can reduce cash-flow risk and thus cash drag.
Positively correlated cash flows tend to occur at the same time and in the same direction, leading to lumpy inflows and outflows as well as an increase in volatility from quarter to quarter. In contrast, uncorrelated cash flows are less likely to coincide, creating smoother, more predictable cash flows over time. While smooth expected cash flows are attractive, LPs need to worry about how accurately they can predict cash flows. For instance, it is useful to know that the expected net distribution is USD 100, but it is critical to be aware of whether there is a 10% chance that you could actually face a USD 20 net capital call.
To determine the likelihood of any potential cash flows, we take an approach similar to the one used for value-at-risk models. We simulate realistic portfolios of funds that are randomly sampled from the Burgiss Manager Universe (BMU) to demonstrate the importance of diversification in ensuring predictable and manageable cash flows.
Diversifying within an asset class
We replicate an LP committing USD 100 to each vintage of an asset class by randomly sampling funds from the BMU to create a probability distribution of cash flows. The exhibit below provides a simple demonstration of the power of diversification within portfolios beginning in 2010. We simulate the net cash flows from two different types of portfolios per asset class; one portfolio allocates USD 100 for each vintage to one fund and the other portfolio evenly splits the USD 100 across six funds. Predictably, increasing the number of funds has little impact on the median cash flow, but it substantially reduces the dispersion of possible cash flows within a given quarter. Adding more commitments diversifies away each fund’s idiosyncratic cash-flow risk. However, cash flows remain volatile from quarter to quarter. While there are obvious benefits to diversifying commitments within an asset class, this approach is unlikely to produce a self-financing portfolio.
More fund commitments in an asset class, but limited diversification
Diversifying across asset classes
While we are able to diversify away some idiosyncratic and temporal cash-flow risk by committing across six funds of the same asset class per vintage, we could reasonably expect to diversify away additional cash-flow risk by committing across asset classes. Intuitively, one would expect cash flows from two funds in different asset classes to be less correlated than the cash flows from two funds in the same asset class; if this is true, we should expect to see less net capital-call risk in the multi-asset-class portfolio than in the single asset class portfolios, as indicated in the exhibit below by the portions of the shaded ribbons below the median. The exhibit below compares the annual six-commitment portfolios from the exhibit above with our new asset-class-diversified portfolio. The asset-class-diversified portfolio is analogous to the six-commitment portfolios, except its USD 100 commitments per vintage are evenly allocated to one fund from each of the six asset classes in question. Because both types of portfolios in the exhibit below commit to six funds per vintage, they are comparable in idiosyncratic and temporal diversification.
For debt and real assets, it is clear that diversifying across asset classes reduces downside cash-flow risks; the single-asset-class portfolios exhibit occasional large net capital calls, while the multi-asset-class portfolios have more predictable capital-call risk. However, this effect is much less obvious than in the comparison between asset-class-specific portfolios with one annual commitment and those with six annual commitments. The addition of asset-class diversification appears to smooth cash flows over time, making the multi-asset-class portfolio’s net cash flows less volatile than those of the individual-asset-class portfolios.
Lower capital-call risk through diversifying across asset classes
In particular, portfolios that consist of six annual commitments to buyout or real-estate funds require essentially the same precautionary liquidity as our multi-asset-class portfolio, as demonstrated in the exhibit below. The 90th-percentile liquidity requirements, which indicate the amount of liquidity required to meet 90% of all net capital calls, are comparable between these three portfolios. In contrast, the multi-asset-class portfolio requires significantly less liquidity than venture-capital, senior, distressed, or especially natural-resources portfolios, even though two-thirds of the multi-asset-class portfolio is committed to these four asset classes. Diversifying across asset classes appears to reduce the need for precautionary liquidity relative to several different asset-class portfolios. This is likely to be even more apparent when considering tail risks that are more extreme than the 90th percentile.
Diversification across asset classes generally lowered liquidity needs
Reducing liquidity risk and cash drag
Holding cash-like assets to meet future private market capital calls can come at a high opportunity cost, making liquidity management one of the central concerns for private-asset investors. As such, constructing a portfolio that reduces the need for precautionary liquidity has the potential to improve total portfolio returns. While diversification is primarily treated as a way to reduce return risk, we have demonstrated that diversifying across funds also plays an important role in reducing cash-flow uncertainty. At the margin, diversifying across asset classes provides additional protection against large net capital calls, especially when compared to portfolios consisting of debt or real-asset funds. The cash-flow benefits of diversification — reducing dispersion and volatility — are key to managing liquidity and reducing cash drag.
The authors thank Dan Hadley for his contributions to this blog post. This post originally appeared on Burgiss.com. MSCI purchased Burgiss — now known as MSCI Private Capital Solutions — in October 2023.