Don’t get whipsawed by Risk Management!

Back in February of 2012, I recall a prominent CFO departing a global insurance company.  This particular individual was labelled “the highly regarded architect of a hedging strategy that proved key in rebuilding investor confidence in the wake of the financial crisis.”  The company had suffered financially during the prior market meltdown because of a huge exposure to equity-linked products;  pre-crisis the company had introduced investment products that guaranteed to return a substantial (if not all) amount of the investor’s initial investment.  The money was invested in the company’s funds which in turn invested in stock markets.  During the financial crisis, the value of these assets (stocks) held in the funds declined below the amount that was guaranteed spelling serious trouble for the company.  In response a stricter approach to risk management was adopted after-the-fact.

Sounds sensible doesn’t it?  But it just isn’t!  I’ve watched this pattern time and again over decades.  The fundamental flaw is a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes risk.

Risk is almost always equated to volatility.  For example, stocks move up and down rapidly with much magnitude so they are deemed more risky than bonds.  But are we really as averse to upside risk as downside risk?  Strangely people become more averse to volatility when they’ve suffered downside risk (and come to adore volatility when upside risk has rewarded them).  Because our internal model of risk is so much more complex than mathematics can reckon with, our efforts to ‘manage’ volatility can actually subject us to less volatility but more risk.  When we reduce risk (hedging strategies usually reduce volatility – both up and down) at the wrong times, we miss the chance to be rewarded by the kind of volatility we adore.  We are our own worst enemies.

The President and CEO of a completely different insurance company was quoted as saying this, also in February of 2012:

“We are maintaining our equity hedges as we remain very concerned about the economic outlook over the next few years. We continue to be soundly financed with year-end cash and marketable securities at the holding company of about $1 billion.”

 

This statement followed the company’s earnings release, having reported substantially increased losses from its investments – management had hedged the company’s equity position in 2010 (again, after-the-fact) and suffered investment losses in that year’s fourth-quarter because stock markets rose (instead of declining).  The actions designed to protect the company against volatility lost money.  Risk aversion after-the-fact caused the company to lose money and avoid potential returns from upside volatility.

Because the pain caused by the downside volatility suffered previously was still fairly recent, aversion remained at a high level causing the company to stick to its hedging strategy (in denial?) despite these huge losses, and it continued to lose money as the market continued to go higher and higher still.

The financial crisis is behind us and now that markets are hitting all-time highs, record amounts of dollars are scrambling to get some upside volatility action. Too late?  It’s hard to put a pin in it, but intuitively might one conclude that if managing risk (or ‘risk off’ as they say on business television) was a bad idea during and immediately after the financial crisis, then perhaps chasing volatility (‘risk on’) might not be such a good idea at present?

It might seem as if I was picking on insurance companies earlier, but many pension funds, other financial services companies, portfolio managers and everyday investors follow the same destructive pattern.  Adoring upside risk but loathing downside risk – always at the wrong times – has ruined careers and put a serious dent in the life-savings of families.  More experienced money managers (there are fewer of us nowadays) increase risk when others are most averse to the idea, and begin to manage risk (hedging, raising cash balances) during periods of ‘irrational exuberance.’  They’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to keep all the hair on your head if you avoid circumstances that make you want to pull it all out.

Mal Spooner

Reacting to headlines is perilous!

You can avoid plenty of grief by reading headlines and as George Costanza (from the popular sitcom Seinfeld) says: “Do the opposite.”

You might notice that the average ‘Joe’ was far more concerned about his job (justifiably) until we began seeing headlines such as ‘Dow Hits Highest Close Ever.’ All of a sudden the stock market is once again a worthy topic for discussion and it’s okay to actually speak to one’s investment advisor. Judging by money flows it’s a good bet that clients are instructing their advisors to buy stocks, EFT’s, equity mutual funds or whatever it takes to get them invested and fast. There’s nothing but good news. As I type this, ‘Stocks resume winning ways’ appears on the TV screen (CNBC).

Before succumbing to the urge to herd let me take you back to June of 2010.

In the first chapter of A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) I wrote the following:

In one newspaper, under the title “Economic crisis,” I found the headline: “World recovery under threat as growth slows, stimulus wanes.” On the same day in another newspaper, under the title “Recovery angst” was the similarly ominous caption: “Economic trouble is all investors see.”

If you are spooked by such nonsense and inclined to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach before investing any of your money at all in financial markets, then give your head a shake. These headlines are gold!

I went on to pose the question: “If the press is even partially representative of what economists and strategists are recommending, and if investors all share the same sentiments, then what happens when there’s some good news?”

There was plenty of good news even in 2010, but it was generally delegated to those pages in the back of the newspapers which people seldom read. One example, and a very important one for stocks, was rapidly improving corporate profitability.

While the general mood was (and continued to be) let’s say ‘despondent,’ institutional and retail investors kept taking money out of stocks and channeling it into money market funds and bonds – to take advantage of what tiny returns were available in those securities (yes, I am being sarcastic).

Meanwhile in answer to my rhetorical – because it should have been obvious what the answer would be – question in 2010 we certainly know now what happened when there was good news. Stocks skyrocketed and recently surpassed their previous highs.

My concern today is that investors will make the same mistake they always seem to make. Rather than ‘interpreting’ headlines, they will simply take them at face value and chase the stock market at an inopportune time.

I am paraphrasing, but I’ve heard and read nothing but good news of late such as:

  • “It’s definitely a ‘risk on’ market.”
  • “Don’t fight the FED!”
  • “Looks like we might avoid the usual summer slowdown this year.”

Most worrisome: Kramer (wait long enough and you’ll eventually be right) is more wound up than a four-year old high on chocolate. I do believe that stocks are a better investment than bonds over the next several years, but the trend in corporate profitability (and consumer sentiment, GDP and job growth) will be interrupted – count on it – affording convenient opportunities to get invested. With nothing but good news and euphoria, what happens if we get some bad news? A chance to invest at lower price levels. Right now, ‘risk-on’ is exactly what you should expect if you respond to headlines.

Click on this link for a chuckle: George Costanza Does the Opposite

Mal Spooner