The hunt for new hedges is in full gear.

While much has been made about the search for yield in a world of ultra-low interest rates, valuations in the U.S. Treasury market also leave very little room for price gains to counteract losses should the high-flying stock market turn lower. It’s a dilemma that could reshape the classic investing strategy of 60% stocks and 40% bonds as the Federal Reserve holds rates near zero for the foreseeable future.

Many investors have no choice but to stick with Treasuries because of fund mandates, or they do so since they’re unconvinced it’s worth taking a chance on something else. Yet others are exploring riskier assets -- from options to currencies -- to supplement or fill the role of portfolio protection that U.S. government debt played for decades, a trend that highlights the dangers that the Fed’s rates policy can create.

“The safety valve from fixed income is gone,” said Rob Daly, director of fixed income for Glenmede Investment Management, who oversees $4.5 billion from Philadelphia including a core fixed-income fund with a 6.4% return this year. “It is incredibly hard to hedge, in fact nearly impossible. At the end of the day, there are few hedges that work.”

Abandoning a classic strategy like 60/40 is not something to be taken lightly, considering its enduring track record. Even with an economy wrecked by the Covid-19 pandemic, a portfolio allocated 60% to the S&P 500 Index and 40% to the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Treasury Index has returned about 9% so far this year, in line with annual returns of almost 10% since the 1980s.

The Death of 60/40 Has Been Somewhat Exaggerated: Macro Man

Still, the dual selloff in stocks and Treasuries as the virus spread in March demonstrated how the two asset classes aren’t always inversely correlated. That’s not always a bad thing. The breakdown worked out in favor of balanced strategies like 60/40 this year since Treasuries maintained most of their gains as the stock market rallied back to new highs.

With rates near zero, the scope for Treasury gains is now more limited

Yet the failure of Treasuries to work as a hedge in times of market turmoil was reinforced amid an almost 10% drop in the S&P 500 in the first three weeks of September. The selloff was accompanied by a “highly abnormal” and “worrisome” failure of 10- and 30-year Treasury bonds to rally, according to John Normand, head of cross-asset fundamental strategy at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“Any investors that are holding fixed income to hedge their equity risk can’t count on those bonds as giving them capital gains when equities are declining,” Normand said.

Some alternatives are to own the yen versus other currencies, the dollar against emerging markets, or gold versus dollars -- all of which have been less reliable than Treasuries historically and therefore “problematic,” Normand said.