Investors should prepare themselves and their assets; not predict

Making an annual review of portfolios is good practice for investors. Unfortunately, January may not be the best time for this. The rosy glow of last year’s performance has too much emotional appeal, and the background noise of pundits is distracting.

It is tempting to project market gains for the year, or to pencil-in likely economic scenarios. But each investment year is a journey; investors and their assets need to be prepared for a range of outcomes. What investors need are not predictions and a narrowly-optimised portfolio, but a robust asset structure that can handle the unexpected. The key is recognising the potential for surprise, and managing the resulting volatility and anxiety.
Many investors and traders tend to view last year’s results as “banked”, but politics and economics do not observe calendar years so carefully. So as 2014 begins, how should investors view prospects?

It would be easy for investors to be overconfident. The central banks’ money-printing has made company executives and fund managers alike look good. For most portfolios, one and five year performances are excellent. The worst of the bear market in 2008 has now rolled off the record, and last year proved a rewarding environment for those taking some risk. The recent period has favoured active management and stock-picking, particularly as many of the biggest global companies have disappointed.

Active managers looking for value outside the very largest groups, and into medium- sized companies, have been rewarded for their analysis and risk-taking. Over the past 12 months, the actual choice of shares has mattered; riskier banks such as Commerzbank and Lloyds Banking Group have performed well, but the presumed safer ones, such as HSBC, have been dull.

Many clients will be told that their portfolios were cautiously managed, so they lagged, but that does not mean 2014 will see a reverse. The problems of emerging markets are likely to have the greatest impact on the biggest global groups. The comfort that investors have sought in major businesses did not deliver performance last year. The defensive qualities of businesses such as Unilever and BATS have been called into question as they unveiled profit disappointments triggered by their exposure to emerging economies.

One action that investors can take should be automatic and unemotional. Rebalancing a portfolio has been proven to add long term value, and it can stop last year’s trends directing this year’s investment allocation.

If a proportion of a portfolio is intended to be in equities, cash or bonds, it may have drifted due to stockmarket moves. It is usually best to reset that. After last year’s moves, many portfolios will now have an exposure to shares that has grown, and there may be individual holdings that have become too large.

Gilts, bonds and other fixed-interest investments have generally performed poorly in recent months but the prospect of deflation persists. Even the recent extraordinary house price rises seen in parts of most major economies can, surprisingly, have a deflationary effect: it means living costs rise, squeezing other consumption. So bonds may still have a role to play in an overall asset mix, despite their recent weakness.

Some trends that may dominate 2014 are already in place. Many international investors had written-off Europe, expecting a collapse in Europe’s periphery, the break-up of the euro, or further banking problems. The possibility that Europe might muddle through, gradually patching up its problems, has not been factored into everyone’s portfolios.

Many global funds have too much exposure to emerging markets and now need to rebalance. The eurozone is now picking up after a bigger setback than the US experienced, and its recovery could have further to go. Valuations also look attractive, and may encourage some profit-taking from US shares to reinvest in Europe.

The best advice for investors is to attach no particular significance to the calendar, but instead focus on their own risk preferences and current trends.
The new year will bring new opportunities, such as flotations and issues of high yielding bonds. But much of this bond issuance will come from banks and will be risky capital with potential for loss.

Tempting as it is to increase portfolio income, a steady growth of dividends from well-managed businesses may be the best way of achieving this. The key is to avoid letting markets blow longer term financing planning off course. Investors should not try to predict a scenario for 2014, but structure their overall finances to cope with what it brings.

A version of this article was published in the Herald on January 4 2014.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with which I am affiliated. I have no business relationship with any company mentioned in this article. The information presented in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however, I make no representation as to their accuracy or completeness and accepts no liability for loss arising from the use of the material. Articles and information do not represent investment advice.

Image: Learning Resources 4-Pan Algebra Balance, Amazon

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