WeeklyWatch – Can volatility be an opportunity?

16 March 2020

Stock Take

Which part of the brain tends to win out on markets? The amygdala (emotions) or the prefrontal cortex (rational thinking)? These testing times might reveal all…

As markets battle the volatility of coronavirus (COVID-19), it is natural for investors to feel a sense of unease. Human nature plays an enormous role in markets, and even the most prudent investors can come unstuck because they fail to account for their own natural biases, preferences and emotional responses to events.

In recent days, as indices around the world strayed into (and sometimes back out of) bear territory, the big question for investors was what exactly the global economic outlook is. However, the reality is that, while there is already a notable economic and financial cost, it is impossible to forecast the virus’s spread and, therefore, its ultimate impact.

Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management, Co-manager of the St. James’s Place International Corporate Bond fund, said:

“Anything I say with respect to the coronavirus will be a guess, and that holds true for all non-scientists. Overall, the news about the disease seems to get worse. The key questions are how the news will compare against the expectations factored into security prices, and whether and when we’ll get the virus under control. Since the market’s reaction will ultimately be a function of both economics and emotion, it’s impossible to quantify how far it will go.”

Given these levels of uncertainty, the next question is how investors will respond – and they were certainly reacting last week – first by mass selling and then, on Friday, by rapid buying, at least on Wall Street (although this morning’s European trading suggests selling is once again in favour).

Will investors apply rational thinking to their buy-and-sell decisions, or will they allow animal instincts and emotions to take over instead? To some fund managers, at least, rational thinking appears thin on the ground just now.

Wasatch Advisors, Manager of the St. James’s Place Emerging Markets Equity fund, said:

“Consider that, in the last week of February 2020, US markets suffered their biggest one-week drop since the 2008–09 global financial crisis and officially entered ‘correction’ territory. Similar irrational fluctuations have repeated through early March, creating a volatile environment that is difficult to predict.”

For some managers, however, the apparent overreaction of recent days may also reflect a longer-term phenomenon, in which central banks stoke investor confidence artificially.

Ian Lance of RWC Partners said:

“The continual intervention of central banks in financial markets for the last 20 years has encouraged risk-taking behaviour that created a financial system that was fragile and hence less able to cope with the slightest stress. This eventually materialised with the economic shock caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

In fact, on Sunday evening, the Federal Reserve announced a shock cut that took the US base rate down to a range of 0-0.25%. Fed Chair Jerome Powell also said it would begin a new, $700 billion programme of quantitative easing, in which the central bank buys bonds to prop up markets – and the economy.

Yet if that’s what central banks are doing, the question remains: what should investors do now? Experience and far-sightedness will, of course, remain key; but when markets are down this far, active managers should, at the least, be looking hard for companies that have been unfairly devalued in the mass sell-off.

Mark Dowding of BlueBay Asset Management said:

“Many assets are still in the wrong hands and assets will also need to be forcibly sold in order to meet redemptions, which may occur. On top of this, we confront an unprecedented situation where banks and managers, BlueBay included, are enacting protocols with respect to splitting teams and working from remote locations. This will mean that liquidity will continue to be challenged and, in this environment, some sales will surely occur at distressed levels – and these are the moments when it is good to be in the position to buy rather than sell.”

Policy responses

The rising severity of the virus’s impact, in both health and economic terms, triggered a wide range of policy responses last week from both governments and central banks. In Italy, the government extended its lockdown policy, which had previously been limited to Lombardy, to the entire country. France, Spain and Germany have also announced travel restrictions. In the UK government’s inaugural Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a raft of measures to support growth in the months ahead, not least a £30 billion boost in spending.

In terms of market impact, these decisions paled in comparison to the announcements made by Donald Trump and by major central banks. The US President’s decision to announce, via live televised address, that he was imposing a 30-day travel ban on flights from most European countries (since expanded to include the UK and Ireland), caused equities to suffer their biggest one-day fall since 1987 on Thursday – although Friday’s rise for US equities significantly softened the week’s fall in aggregate.

The other big US story of the week was the continued comeback of Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. Although markets generally prefer Biden to Sanders, they also give him a higher chance of beating Donald Trump in the autumn.

Europe in its sights

The virus’s spread has, of course, become a European tale in recent weeks, placing central banks in the spotlight. The Bank of England cut rates by 0.5% shortly before the Budget (well-timed to avoid complaints of politicisation), meaning the UK economy will benefit from both fiscal and monetary boosts at a time of significant economic need. In its Economic and fiscal outlook, published last week, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said Brexit had already knocked two percentage points off the size of the UK economy. The OBR also said that the government’s fiscal boost would account for more than half of the expansion in output both this year and next.

The European Central Bank, on the other hand, disappointed investors last Thursday by choosing, contrary to expectations, to leave rates unchanged for the moment. That said, its rate currently stands at -0.5% – hardly expensive for borrowers.

Wealth Check

It’s been a challenging few weeks for investors. Last Monday saw the biggest one-day drop since the financial crisis, as fears of an oil price war compounded those about COVID-19. Then on Thursday, the US travel ban precipitated the biggest daily fall for over 30 years, and took leading indices into bear market territory (at least temporarily), having fallen 20% from previous highs.

The chart below looks at the daily movements in the FTSE All-Share Index since 1986 and highlights the 20 best and worst days over that period. It shows that the best days often closely follow the worst ones. In other words, if you react to the falls, there is a good chance you’ll miss the recovery, significantly reducing your potential returns over the long term.

Wall Street provided a perfect illustration of this last week: on Friday, US equities staged their biggest one-day rally since 2008.

Source: Financial Express/Vanguard; data shown is for the FTSE All Share Total Return Index.
Past performance is not a guide to future returns.

These are tough times for investors, and markets are likely to remain volatile in the weeks and months to come as uncertainty persists over the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy and public health. Difficult though it can be, investors should remain focused on their own long-term financial goals.

In the Picture

Although volatility can be unsettling for investors, it can also provide massive opportunities – as Chris Ralph, Chief Global Strategist at St. James’s Place, discusses:

The Last Word

“The investor with a portfolio of sound stocks should expect their prices to fluctuate and should neither be concerned by sizeable declines nor become excited by sizeable advances. He should always remember that market quotations are there for his convenience, either to be taken advantage of or to be ignored.”

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

The information contained is correct as at the date of the article.

BlueBay, Oaktree, RWC and Wasatch are fund managers for St. James’s Place.

The information contained does not constitute investment advice and is not intended to state, indicate or imply that current or past results are indicative of future results or expectations. Where the opinions of third parties are offered, these may not necessarily reflect those of St. James’s Place.

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