What Is Liability Matching?

Liability matching is an investment strategy that matches future assets sales and income streams against the timing of expected future expenses. The strategy has become widely embraced among pension fund managers, who attempt to minimize a portfolio's liquidation risk by ensuring asset sales, interest, and dividend payments correspond with expected payments to pension recipients. This stands in contrast to simpler strategies that attempt to maximize return without regard to withdrawal timing.

How Liability Matching Works

Liability matching is growing in popularity among sophisticated financial advisers and wealthy individual clients, who are using multiple growth and withdrawal scenarios to ensure that adequate cash will be available when needed. The use of the Monte Carlo method of analysis, which uses a computer program to average the results of thousands of possible scenarios, has grown in its popularity as a time-saving tool used to simplify a liability matching strategy.

As an example, retirees living off the income from their portfolios generally rely on stable and continuous payments to supplement social security payments. A matching strategy would involve the strategic purchase of securities to pay out dividends and interest at regular intervals. Ideally, a matching strategy would be in place well before retirement years commence. A pension fund would employ a similar strategy to make sure its benefit obligations are met.

For a manufacturing enterprise, infrastructure developer or building contractor, a matching strategy would involve lining up the payment schedule of debt financing of a project or investment with the cash flows from the investment. For example, a toll road builder would obtain project financing and begin paying back the debt when the toll road opens to traffic and continue the regularly scheduled payments over time.

Key Takeaways

  • Liability matching is an investment strategy that matches future assets sales and income streams against the timing of expected future expenses.
  • This strategy differs from return maximization strategies that only look at the assets side of the balance sheet and not the liabilities.
  • Pension funds increasingly use liability matching to ensure they will not run out of guaranteed funds for beneficiaries.

Portfolio Immunization

A liability matching strategy for a fixed income portfolio pairs the durations of assets and liabilities in what is known as an immunization. In practice, exact matching is difficult, but the goal is to establish a portfolio in which the two components of total return — price return and reinvestment return — exactly offset each other when interest rates shift. There is an inverse relationship between price risk and reinvestment risk, and if interest rates move, the portfolio will achieve the same fixed rate of return. In other words, it is "immunized" from interest rate movements. Cash flow matching is another strategy that will fund a stream of liabilities at specified time intervals with cash flows from principal and coupon payments on fixed income instruments.

Immunization is considered a "quasi-active" risk mitigation strategy since it has the characteristics of both active and passive strategies. By definition, pure immunization implies that a portfolio is invested for a defined return for a specific period of time regardless of any outside influences, such as changes in interest rates.

The opportunity cost of using the immunization strategy is potentially giving up the upside potential of an active strategy for the assurance that the portfolio will achieve the intended desired return. As in the buy-and-hold strategy, by design, the instruments best suited for this strategy are high-grade bonds with remote possibilities of default. In fact, the purest form of immunization would be to invest in a zero-coupon bond and match the maturity of the bond to the date on which the cash flow is expected to be needed. This eliminates any variability of return, positive or negative, associated with the reinvestment of cash flows.