Just ten weeks ago, investors were coming off one of the best years in a decade for a broad swath of financial assets. The S&P 500 rose by 31.5% and bonds, as measured by the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index, increased by a dramatic 8.7%. Almost everything good that could happen for investors did happen. What a difference a couple of months makes. With each passing week, markets now seem to be confronted with yet another unexpected piece of news or negative turn of events. The list over the last three weeks alone would be enough to fill an entire year:
- The rapid spread of COVID-19 outside of China not only led to volatility in stock and bond markets, the likes of which we have not seen since the Global Financial Crisis, it has also severely disrupted daily life and travel plans for many around the globe.
- The tenor of the U.S. presidential election shifted substantially as a more moderate candidate emerged to challenge progressive frontrunners at the same time the economic outlook darkens.
- Instead of bolstering confidence, an unexpected emergency interest rate cut from the Federal Reserve confirmed investor concerns of an underlying shift in corporate and economic fundamentals and signaled a potential return to zero interest rate policy.
- Over this past weekend, an alliance of oil producing countries known as OPEC+ fractured, leading oil prices to decline almost 25% in a single day and causing significant declines in the prices of stocks and bonds issued by many well-known energy companies.
Collectively, these events have had a significant impact on the equity positions within investor portfolios and driven long-term interest rates to record lows in the U.S. Uncertainty and worry have turned the market upside down in short order. The speed of the transition suggests the market has gone from pricing assets as if nothing negative would ever happen again to pricing them as if the worst possible outcome is now unavoidable. As risk gets re-priced and sentiment turns negative, government bonds are trading at levels more consistent with a recession environment and stocks are trading slightly above levels that would mark the first official bear market in over 12 years.
It’s important to remember that RGT has been in business for 35 years and has the requisite experience to manage through market disruptions such as this. While each disruption is different, experience is valuable when navigating turbulent market environments.
RGT is preparing for a longer grind than many market pundits are indicating today and one with more frequent bouts of volatility. A technical recession, defined as two quarters of negative GDP growth, or even something more protracted are real possibilities. While we view many of today’s events such as COVID-19 as transitory, economic damage has been inflicted. Corporate investment is slowing, and consumer spending is shifting while risk aversion increases. While the ultimate length of time required for markets to find a bottom, and the ultimate level of that market bottom is unknowable, there are a few silver linings in play.
RGT client portfolios came into this environment balanced and well-positioned. Not only have bonds helped mitigate losses and reduce volatility during this market turmoil, high-quality bonds have performed very well. Our investment philosophy is guided by thoughtful asset allocation and diversification, two pillars that we have stood by when many abandoned them during this period of low interest rates and an uninterrupted bull market. Consequently, we have what we believe is a solid foundation from which we can manage portfolios through this environment as there are no dramatic, rash decisions to be made. Like sailing through choppy waters, marginal adjustments are much better (and easier to make) than wholesale portfolio changes.
We utilize a platform of experienced investment managers continuously focused on improving their portfolio’s risk and return profile. We regularly speak with these managers and are currently deep in the process of speaking to them about the present landscape. These conversations, which are already bearing fruit and informing our views, have reminded us of the value our managers bring in helping us make more informed, marginal changes to portfolios during volatile periods. We believe utilizing managers as a resource to stay current on how the economy and specific companies are performing is an advantage. We loathe the thought of having to look at a portfolio made up entirely of ETFs, quantitative strategies, and index funds that don’t say a word, and make no changes to their portfolios, when times are tough.
Given the significant performance differential over the last month between bonds and stocks, we are now actively looking for rebalancing opportunities between asset classes and other strategies where performance has diverged. We expect a series of smaller changes to be made over the course of months, not days. While this process can be tedious and is often dependent on individual client or family circumstances, it is a disciplined and unemotional act of strategically working to buy low and sell high. Rebalancing also allows us the opportunity to reset portfolio exposures back to longer-term targets.
Finally, it is worth noting that as riskier assets, such as stocks, decline in value they inherently become cheaper. This ultimately improves future returns, perhaps dramatically if the decline is steep or growth ends up surprising to the upside. The ultimate length and depth of economic disruption is anyone’s guess, but stocks have improved return prospects on both an absolute basis and relative to bonds, especially as interest rates plumb record lows. An investor with a long-term time horizon and no need for immediate liquidity will thus be more appropriately compensated for owning risk assets going forward.
As markets continue to fluctuate, sometimes wildly and unpredictably, it is important to remind yourself that these types of environments often give rise to significant opportunities. Current losses aren’t permanent when markets decline despite how uncomfortable it can be along the way. Maintaining a disciplined and deliberate approach centered around a long-term strategic asset allocation increases the probability of participating more fully in higher-returning environments. Responding from a balanced position also makes it easier to identify and invest in compelling opportunities when they arise.
Please let your RGT advisor know if you would like to discuss these ideas.