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The current market turmoil – driven primarily by concerns stemming from the coronavirus outbreak – has lead me to reflect upon my experiences working at family offices while living through previous periods of extreme market volatility and steep drawdowns in equity markets. Certainly the circumstances surrounding this episode of market turbulence are unique, and no two examples of bear markets are identical; however, there are lessons learned in how to approach these situations that I find helpful to draw upon when faced with similar situations; specifically how to frame, engage and implement investment decisions with family office Principals during times of severe market stress:
Remain calm, but be diligent and thorough
When evaluating the drivers of the current market environment and their potential impact on the portfolio, do not panic or make rash changes.
- Continue to focus on the long-term goals for the family, remembering the investment mandate and agreed upon strategic asset allocation.
- Take a detailed look through the entire portfolio to determine if there are any investments that are particularly at risk, and make decisions on those positions in a timely fashion.
- Explore and evaluate potential hedging strategies, being mindful that buying protection in periods of elevated volatility can be prohibitively expensive, impacting the value of the hedge.
Continuous and meaningful communication
Staying calm and patient during these volatile times is difficult advice to follow, particularly if the Principal(s) is on edge given potential sharp declines in the portfolio and the constant stream of headlines. Regular and candid communication with the family is crucial.
- Keep them informed on the latest market activity and the impact on the portfolio, and set expectations on how existing investments will fare if the downturn continues.
- Determine if there is a change in risk profile and/or pressure points for the principal, and outline courses of action for various short-to-medium-term scenarios based on these conversations. For example:
- If protection of the principal and reduction of volatility is the primary concern, consider a methodical approach to taking risk off in increments at various levels as the market falls.
- Conversely, if there are potential opportunities to take advantage of oversold markets, establish a framework articulating what areas are of particular interest, the circumstances that need to be in place to invest, and what the size of those bets should be.
Resist the urge to make large, reactionary changes to the portfolio
Timing the market with any precision and consistency is incredibly difficult, so resist the urge to make large bets in the heat of the moment, when volatility is highest.
- Market sell-offs driven by unexpected, non-economic events (like the coronavirus) are not entirely based on fundamentals. Therefore, it is virtually impossible in the near-term to predict the extent of the impact of a pandemic or what the long-term economic effects will be.
- Past outbreaks typically result in a sharp negative move in markets followed by a commensurate recovery. However, be mindful of the effect of the pandemic on business activity and any potential impact to the overall economic outlook, and should review the strategic asset allocation as the long-term effects become clearer.
Maintain excess liquidity
When financial markets are experiencing downward pressure, having sufficient liquidity is paramount.
- Maintain cash – or cash-like equivalents – that can fund the principal’s expenses and capital commitments for an extended period of time (at least one year). This will help reduce the pressure and unease of riding out a prolonged period of market stress and volatility.
- Additionally, having excess liquidity during these challenging periods will also serve as dry powder, allowing you to take advantage of investment opportunities coming as a result of the sharp downturns once the market volatility and negative news cycle have subsided.
Develop a course of action
Develop a framework to assess the appropriate time to begin re-investing in the market, and what approach to take when that moment comes
- Determine asset classes, market sectors/industries, and specific stocks that are well-positioned to outperform on the heels of the market sell-off.
- Assess areas of the market that stand to benefit from the new economic reality post downturn. Also, identify what areas were oversold in a “baby with the bathwater” scenario and should have an asymmetric return profile once normal market conditions resume. For example:
- Quality businesses trading with attractive valuations that one,should hold up better if the market downturn is not over and two, are more likely to make a strong recovery when the turmoil has subsided.
- Specific industries or market sectors that have either been oversold, or should benefit from the post-crisis environment.
- Re-assess the long-term asset allocation of the family’s portfolio factoring in any changes in economic paradigm and outlook following the market downturn.