COVID-19 Letter

Thursday, March 12, 2020

In this rapidly evolving market environment we’d like to share how we perceive our role in serving families who depend on us.

Our training, experience, and commitment to the craft of being the best financial advisors we can be is about to be put to the test. The recent double whammy of COVID-19 and the apparently unrelated breakdown of OPEC has created tremendous uncertainty and fear. Eight of the last twelve trading days have seen the S&P 500 close up or down more than three percent with a nearly eight percent decline on March 9th. This is what volatility looks like.

This is our World Series and we are in game one. We’ve been here before; sliding into the abyss, staring down a sheer cliff into the fog of uncertainty. That same fog obscures the view across the chasm; while our rational selves know the other side of the canyon exists our emotional selves feel a rising doubt.

The other side exists. There is a solution to this crisis and we’ll be well on our way out of this hole before we have clarity on the path. The way will only become clear in hindsight, when we are standing in sunshine on the opposite rim. As financial advisors our challenge is to help our clients remain clear about why they are investing, clear about understanding what is possible and what is not possible, and keep them on course so they are onboard for the eventual climb out of this morass – which no one will believe is sustainable even as it is happening.

Following are some thoughts that may be helpful as we work to help our clients through the coming months.

  • Remain calm. Decisions made from a place of fear rarely work out well. Recall that markets have experienced black swan events before; events that at the time are unique and in the moment appear to have the ability to upend everything we’ve ever known about investing. Note that those events, in hindsight, always pass into history and the world moves ahead. In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008 – an event the world had never before experienced – there was no clear path out. Many hypothesized it was the end to capitalism. Yet here we are.
  • Revisit your reasons for investing. Most of us are investing in an effort to benefit from the better returns that owning part of the economy can offer. Sometimes it’s easy to stay the course. At other times, like now, it can be difficult. By revisiting your reasons for investing, and acknowledging that part of the price of benefiting from what markets offer in the long-term is accepting that sometimes it hurts in the short-term, you are more likely to be successful. Millenia of evolution has wired us to flee danger; to climb the tree when we see the lion on the savannah. While such quick reaction to perceived danger allowed us to survive as a species it has proven to be an impediment to investment success. The best time to buy stocks is when nobody wants them.
  • Recall your time frame. Your near term financial needs should already be invested in low volatility assets such as cash accounts and high quality fixed income tools. Your long-term investments can and should remain invested in spite of the volatility.
  • Hold the perspective that you invest in companies, not stocks. Is the business proposition sound? Will the business proposition still be sound when the current crisis is behind us? When we look at our portfolio companies – from Amazon to Visa, we are confident that their businesses will be bigger, better, and stronger three to five years from now than they are today.
  • Be wary of trying to anticipate the market. While the news is bleak be clear that markets will recover well before we are out of this morass. In fact it’s nearly certain the news will be even bleaker when the market begins a sustained recovery. And also be clear that no one called this selloff. Yes, there are perma-bears who can now say “Aaha, I told you so! This is a terrible market and you should be out!” Yet these same individuals have been bearish for over a decade and following their advice would have caused you to miss out on an historically strong bull market. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  • Recognize the news will get worse before it gets better. And when the news is really, really bad the market will have some exceptional and unexplainable up-days. The vast majority of stock market gains over the course of a decade happen in just a handful of trading sessions. You do not want to miss those days! Unfortunately such days may occur around the same general time as the handful of historically terrible market days. To benefit from the market you have to accept the pain it dishes out from time to time. Unfortunate, but true.
  • Understand the difference between the medical issues and the political issues surrounding Coronovirus. The medical issues, while still not perfectly clear, are coming into focus. The political issues revolve around the fact that we all feel compelled to do something. Whether a federal, state, or local government, a large or small company, an individual or family, there is a strong need to do something. (see: evolutionary drive to climb the tree when lion is spotted on the savannah). Even at Albion we are doing something. We are updating and practicing our disaster mitigation plans, particularly those relating to working remotely. And we are focusing on the basics; washing hands, staying home when ill, and generally avoiding contact. Much of the impact the economy is experiencing is driven by our desire to do something. Much of it will likely turn out to be either irrelevant or counterproductive. But do something we must.
  • Your long-term goals, and likelihood of reaching them, have probably not changed. As of this writing equity markets have retreated to where they were back in the middle of 2019. If you were on track then you’re still on track now.
  • This too shall pass. We are deep into the challenge and there is no apparent way out. But there is a way out; we just don’t see it yet. The world can only end once and this isn’t it.

While we work to address and plan for potential downsides to our clients financial position in calm times it is ok to revisit such conversations in the midst of risk events. Most of the time we’ll find that the allocation is correct, the adjustments that have been made are sufficient, and we can move ahead. However there are circumstances when this is not the case. And there are actions you can be taking right now.

  • Be clear about how much risk you have – In the market meltdown of 2008-2009 no one went bankrupt just owning stocks. However many went bankrupt leveraging up to own assets with debt – primarily real estate. Low debt or no debt makes it far easier and safer to weather economic storms.
  • Prospective clients often come to us with no buffer against stock market volatility. Some balance between growth and stability in an asset allocation almost always makes sense.
  • Take advantage of the lower prices in the selloff to add to investment accounts. Regular investments in your 401(k), 529 plan, or other investment accounts mean you will continue buying when prices are lower. Will you nail the bottom? Almost certainly not. But you will be paying less than you were a few weeks ago.

We hope you can make one of our conference calls and look forward to visiting with you then. And as mentioned above please reach out to your Albion team if you have any questions or concerns about your specific situation.

Please stay healthy,

John Bird