Category: Professor Kenneth French

Possible Brexit Consequences and Your Portfolio

Whether you support Leave or Remain, you may be wondering how leaving the EU (or staying in) can affect your investments. Will British stocks underperform if the UK leaves? Will the pound continue to be under pressure until the June referendum, but recover if people vote to stay in the EU? Is there anything you can do to prepare your portfolio for either outcome?
The Brexit referendum is a typical example of an event with known timing (23 June) but unknown outcome. Plenty of these occur in the markets on a regular basis, including corporate earnings, macroeconomic data or central bank policy announcements. While this one is obviously of extraordinary significance, the underlying principles of market psychology still apply.
One of these principles is that anticipation can result in as much volatility as the event itself (if not more). In other words, when investors know that something is going to happen, or might happen with a certain non-zero probability, the market often “reacts” before the outcome is announced. In line with the Efficient Market Hypothesis, prices immediately reflect all available information.
The pound has weakened by 9% against the dollar and by 11% against the euro in the last 3 months. It seems like big part of the damage has already been done. Will it depreciate further? It is impossible to predict.
When anticipating an event, sometimes the market overshoots and then corrects, making a counterintuitive move when the actual outcome is finally known (like the pound strengthening after the referendum even if Leave wins). The saying “buy the rumour, sell the fact” comes to mind. Sometimes it’s the opposite. Other times it’s completely random. No one can tell before it happens.
With the above being said, there are two things we consider highly likely:
Firstly, until the June referendum we will probably continue to see increased volatility in the pound’s exchange rate (saying nothing about the direction). As the first days have confirmed, the debate will be heated. New questions and new fears will arise. Both camps will achieve small victories and suffer small defeats. The perceived probability of leaving the EU will change as new opinion polls will come out.
Secondly, given the high profile and non-stop media coverage of the matter, the economic significance and consequences of Brexit are probably exaggerated at the moment by both the Remain supporters (doom and gloom if we leave) and the eurosceptics (prosperity guaranteed if we rid ourselves of EU bureaucracy).
Contrary to what it may seem, the world has not come to a standstill, waiting for the UK to decide. There are other events and other factors which will continue to influence the economy, the stock market and the currency, before and after the referendum. Some of them will probably have much greater effects than Britain leaving the EU – possible candidates include oil price (the FTSE is energy heavy), interest rates, slowdown in China or the US, wars (e.g. Ukraine, Syria) getting worse and spilling over, or shocks in the financial sector. This time last year, it was Grexit, not Brexit, dominating the headlines. The fact that no one talks about Greece at the moment does not mean that the sovereign debt problem (in Greece and elsewhere) has been resolved. It can strike back at any time and hurt British banks and the economy even if we are already out of the EU.
The above does not mean that consequences of a possible Leave vote will be negligible or non-existent. However, they are too complex for anyone to understand and forecast. We don’t know the referendum outcome. If it’s Leave, we don’t know how the future arrangement will look (in any case, the UK will not cease to trade with Europe). Most importantly, the global economy and external factors will definitely not remain constant, further complicating any predictions.
Therefore we believe that avoiding panic and sticking to your long-term investment strategy is the best course of action. Remember that trying to outsmart and time the market rarely leads to superior results.

Bear Market Coming? Stick with Your Strategy

Following a multi-year rally, 2015 wasn’t particularly successful in the global markets and, so far, the start of the new year hasn’t been any good either. The UK’s FTSE 100 index is below 6,000, lowest in more than three years. It’s times like this when various doomsday predictions start to appear, warning against events “worse than 2008”, using words such as “crash” and “meltdown”, and pointing to factors such as rising interest rates, growing political tensions, China, rising commodity prices, falling commodity prices and many others.
The truth is that no one really knows what is going to happen. Not the TV pundits, not the highly paid bank strategists and stock analysts, not even the Prime Minister or the Bank of England Governor.
That said, when you have significant part of your retirement pot invested, it is natural to feel uneasy when you hear such predictions, especially if they come from an analyst who got it right last time and correctly predicted some previous market event (he was lucky).
When the markets actually decline and you see your portfolio shrinking in real time, the concerns may become unbearable. Fear and greed get in charge, both at the same time. It is tempting to think about selling here and buying the stocks back when they are 20% lower a few months from now. Easy money, so it would seem. Nevertheless, that would be speculating, not investing. The problem with the financial industry (and the media) is that these two are confused all the time.
Time in the Market, Not Timing the Market
While some people have made money speculating, academic research as well as experiences of millions of investors have shown that it is a poor way to save for retirement. When a large number of people take different actions in the markets, some of them will be lucky and get it right purely due to statistics (luck). However, it is extremely difficult to repeat such success and consistently predict the market’s direction with any accuracy.
In the long run, the single thing which has the greatest effect on your return is time, not your ability to pick tops and bottoms. The longer you stay invested in the market, the more your wealth will grow. You just need the patience and ability to withstand the periods when markets fall, because eventually they will recover and exceed their previous highs.
Time Horizon and Risk Tolerance
The key decision to make is your risk tolerance – how volatile you allow your portfolio to be, which will determine your asset allocation. While personality and other personal specifics come into play, the main factor to determine your risk tolerance is your investment horizon. The longer it is, the more risk you can afford and the more volatility your portfolio can sustain. If you are in your 40’s and unlikely to need the money in the next 20 years, you should have most of your retirement pot in equities. If you are older and closer to retirement, your portfolio should probably be more conservative, because you might not have the time to wait until the markets recover from a possible crash. It is important to get the risk tolerance and the asset allocation right (an adviser can help with that) and stick with it.
How to Protect Your Portfolio from Yourself
Because the above is easier said than done, here are a few practical tips how to protect your retirement pot from your emotions and trading temptations:
1. Have a written, long-term investment plan. It is human nature to consider written rules somehow harder to break than those you just keep in your head. It is even better if you involve your adviser to help you create the plan. Not only is an adviser better qualified and more experienced in the investment process, but another person knowing your rules makes them even harder to break.
2. Do not check fund prices and the value of your portfolio every day. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t review your investments regularly. But the key is to make these revisions planned and controlled, rather than emotion-based. You will be less likely to make impulsive decisions, which more often than not are losing decisions.
3. Maintain an adequate cash reserve. This should be enough to meet any planned short-term expenditure and also provide a reserve for unexpected expenses. It will help you avoid the need to encash investments at a time when investment values are low.

Would you like to discuss this article with an adviser?

Changes to the UK State Pension

The Department for Work and Pensions has just launched a new campaign to explain the new single-tier state pension.

The new single-tier state pension, which will replace both the basic state pension and the state second pension (S2P) is now only 16 months away. While the focus of late has been on increased flexibility for private pensions, the state pension reform is in some respects more significant, if only because it will affect many more people.

The Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) has launched what it describes as a “new multi-channel advertising campaign” which it hopes will “ensure everyone knows what the State Pension changes mean for them.” That may be a tall order to judge from some research results which the DWP published alongside the press release announcing its new campaign. That research showed:
• 42% of people yet to retire admitted that they needed to find out more about saving for retirement;

• 38% conceded they “try to avoid thinking about” what will happen when they stop working;

• Only 60% of those surveyed realised it is possible to take action to increase their State Pension; and

• 37% of those aged 65 or over thought (wrongly) that the amount of their state pension will change as a result of the reforms. Although the DWP did not ask the obvious question, the chances are very few in that group were expecting a cut in payments after April 2016.

The DWP’s ministers “are urging everyone – and the over-55s in particular – to look at what the changes will mean for them and to secure a detailed State Pension statement so that everyone can plan accurately for retirement.” It is a recommendation we thoroughly agree with. However, be warned that if you have ever been a member of a contracted pension scheme you could well find that your projected state pension is less than “around £150 a week”, which is commonly quoted – even by the DWP in its press release.

Who would predict the price of oil?

The price of crude oil has fallen around 40 per cent since a recent peak in June this year. This has a profound effect on economies and markets around the world as the cost of manufacturing and transporting goods falls along with oil producers’ income and the currencies of oil-rich countries.
The theory goes that consumer spending will rise because people have more disposable income; that inflation will fall as the price of goods eases; and that companies with high energy bills will become more profitable. If lower prices hold, the effect might become political and environmental as the balance of world power shifts from oil exporters to oil importers, and the impetus to develop cheaper clean energy wanes. Oil seeps so deep into the global economy you might think that to be a successful investor you need to have an accurate view on its price and its impact on asset prices. But you would be wrong.

No-one with an opinion about oil knows whether their view is right or wrong, and only the changing price will confirm which they are. Market prices are a fair reflection of the balance of opinion because they are created by many buyers and sellers agreeing on individual transactions. As an investor you can take a view of whether that balance – that price – is right but, like all other people with an opinion, you have no way of knowing whether you are right or wrong until the price moves.

Knowing this, it seems irrational to take a view (or a risk) on something so random as the direction of the oil price. In fact, why would one take a view on anything related to the changing price of oil; the US economy, for example; or the price of Shell; or Deutsche Post; or anything else?
The rational approach is to let capital markets run their course and to have a sufficiently diversified portfolio that allows you to relax in the knowledge that, over time, you will benefit from the wealth-generating power of your investments as a whole; without risking your wealth on a prediction that might go one way or the other.

Acts of Commission make you feel worse than Acts of Omission

Take a look at this 5 min video about Dollar Cost Averaging by Professor Kenneth French.

Dollar (UK investors should read Pound) Cost Averaging, in this case refers to lump sums available for  investment which, instead of  immediately being fully invested in the markets, are allocated over a series of months. The objective is to avoid being caught out by sudden market falls shortly after making the investment. In the UK we call this ‘Phased Investment’.

Interestingly, Prof French  reinforces the academically accepted view that Dollar Cost Averaging does not optimise returns, given the level of risk that an investor wishes to take. When considered purely from a finance perspective, if the right thing to do, in order to deliver a set of goals, is to invest in an equity portfolio, then it should be implemented in full, immediately. Market timing has been shown to contribute very little to returns and as a consequence there is no good reason to delay.

But, is this always right? Well ,Prof French observed that, from a behavioural finance point of view, it may be a good thing. People apparently feel worse about the negative outcomes from acts of comission (things they did) than they do about acts of ommission (things they didn’t do). Hence an investor feels a lot worse about the fact that his portfolio plummeted shortly after investing the money that he does about the returns which he failed to make because he didn’t invest the money.

On balance, Prof French concludes that, even with his finance professor’s hat on, the damage to prospective returns caused by Dollar Cost Averaging is very little, so it makes little difference whether investors use it or not. However, he observed that it may give them an experience that they feel better about.

Ultimately as investment professionals and, especially as financial planners, we do need to step outside of the theoretical world of optimised portfolios and look at things more closely from our client’s point of view. If doing things that are theoretically sub-optimal but not actually damaging makes our clients feel better about what they are doing then there is no good reason not to facilitate this. After all we are not on some kind of Evangelical mission to convert the pagan unwashed. Oh, and it is their money…. not ours.

Interesting huh!

Active Fund Management is a Zero Sum Game

In this video, Professor Kenneth French explains about why active fund management is always doomed to under-perform the market.

Chris Wicks CFP
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