Equity investments keep giving bumper sized returns, almost overlooking all the possible downsides to economies dealing with the pandemic. What should investors be thinking next? Image Credit: AFP

Conventional wisdom says that you cannot make money by investing in line with the consensus. As with many successful (and damaging) fake news, there is an element of truth to it.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of investors, this sliver of truth is pretty much irrelevant at best and extremely detrimental to wealth accumulation at worst.

Last week, I met with a high networth individual who asked me whether we were in the ‘overweight equities, risk of a 7-10 per cent equity market correction and buy-the-dip’ camp like most of his advisers. The answer is: Yes.

But alas, the fact that the client is hearing the same from everyone else immediately switched my ‘paranoia radar’ on and nudged me to try to figure out what we are missing. Perhaps, a more relevant question is: “Should we care about being largely in line with the consensus?”

Read More

Going full alpha

To some degree, it depends on your investment objectives. If you are looking to outperform a benchmark (i.e., generate ‘alpha’), then maybe you need to be more conscious about when there is market group-think. However, if you are merely trying to generate decent investment returns over the long term with minimal effort – that is, capture market ‘beta’ – then you need to worry a lot less.

Over any 12-month period, equities have historically, on average, outperformed bonds 60-70 per cent of the time. Therefore, it makes sense that the consensus is for equities to outperform in the coming 12 months – probabilistically this has been the most likely outcome.

Of course, there are reasons why this may not be the case in the “next 12 months”. In late March last year, the pandemic was causing economic lockdowns on a scale we have never experienced before, raising the risk of widespread bankruptcies and a depression. Today, after about 90 per cent gains in equities since the March lows, there are renewed fears that the Delta variant could lead to renewed lockdowns, putting an end to the largely uninterrupted rally.

All eggs in a basket scenario

However, this line of thinking can cause investors to make two common mistakes, which can reinforce each other to hurt investment performance. First, they invest in a narrow basket of securities or asset classes, which increases the volatility of returns, making investing seem riskier than it needs to be.

This, together with the common behavioural bias that the pain of a loss is greater than the emotional benefit from positive financial outcomes, results in the second mistake of keeping too much money on the sidelines (i.e., in deposits which earn little or no interest and, generally, lose purchasing power over time due to inflation).

As Chief Investment Officer of Standard Chartered Bank, my responsibilities are two-fold: First, ensuring that my team does a thorough review of the pros-and-cons of the global economic and financial outlook to try and outperform a benchmark (i.e., generate positive alpha).

So, part of me worries about group-think and we have different tools and processes to quantify it. Second, I am responsible for helping clients grow their investments in a safe and sustainable way that will not leave them worried, should equity markets drop a “normal” 7-10 per cent, or even 30-40 per cent.

In terms of relative importance, I believe my second responsibility is far more important than the first. To place this in context, we have been tracking the performance of our Asia asset allocation models for almost 10 years.

Stay fully invested

While this has performed well over this period, about 90 per cent of the total returns over this period was contributed by ‘beta’ (i.e.. being invested in the markets) while only about 10 per cent was contributed by the ‘alpha’. In my view, capturing the beta return is far more important than worrying excessively about which asset classes to be overweight or underweight in.

To help investors keep this perspective in mind and stay the course on their investments through volatile markets, there are two sources of comfort we try to provide. First, we help investors diversify such that the downturn in their overall portfolio is much smaller in size than it would be if their allocations were highly concentrated.

Second, we try to prepare them mentally for the inevitable market volatility and then guide them through the aftermath of any sell-off, potentially signalling opportunities that the weakness presents. We believe, for the vast majority of investors, being fully invested - and staying fully invested - is the key to achieving financial freedom.