Steady as she goes: market crises require transparency and caution

Quintin Rayer advocates caution and transparency when discussing investments and market crises with clients.

Market Crises RisksAlthough markets regularly go through periods of falling prices, it is easy for trustees and other financial professionals to focus on the upside, directing relatively little effort towards spotting the next crisis. Press coverage is short term, with negative market events fading rapidly from memory. Discussions with portfolio managers and intermediaries tend to concentrate on the positives, neglecting the possibility of downward market moves.

This article explores some ideas around the fundamental causes of financial crises, which are often deeply rooted in human nature. It also sketches a possible approach for better managing investments in the face of this uncertainty.

Q G Rayer (2018), Steady as she goes, STEP Journal, volume 26, issue 5, pps 74-75, 12th June 2018.


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INTRODUCTION

Although markets regularly have periods of falling prices, it seems easy for trustees and other financial professionals to focus on the upside, directing relatively little effort towards spotting the next crisis.  Press coverage seems short-term, with negative market events rapidly forgotten.  Discussions with portfolio managers and intermediaries tend to concentrate on the positives and the potential for downward market moves can seem neglected.

Recent events have shown that political events often impact markets (2016: Brexit, US presidential elections) with outcomes not as anticipated by mainstream opinion. In this context it seems strange that those in financial services do not spend more time discussing the potential for future financial crises.  One might expect these discussions to extend both amongst financial professionals and trustees themselves and also to conversations with their clients.

This article explores some ideas around the fundamental causes of financial crises, which are often rooted deep within human nature.  It also sketches a possible approach for better managing investments in the face of this uncertainty.

FINANCIAL CRISES

Like many investors, trustees know that stock markets are prone to periods of rising or falling prices, often referred to as ‘bull’ or ‘bear’ markets respectively.  These can impact individual asset classes, or else be more widespread, although generally a bull or bear market would be taken to refer to equities unless otherwise qualified.  For investors these are a source of great concern since a stock market crash can result in a decline of 25% or more in real equity values[1].  Markets often appear to be driven as much by sentiment as by economic reality and as suggested by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan during the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, can suffer from ‘irrational exuberance’[2].

Stock market values are perceived to be linked to economic cycles, but since market participants seek to anticipate investment opportunities ahead of competitors, markets are forward looking.  To be forward looking, investors must make judgements and forecasts about economic and investment outcomes with incomplete information.  This results in the likelihood of error and decisions coloured by human psychological and behavioural biases.  With many market participants a wide range of views are generated; logically not all of these can be correct.

Even if ‘normal’ economic cycles could be predicted from interest rates, unemployment and other data, national economies are subject to external influences from foreign counties via trade, decisions made by their governments, and wider geopolitical events.  Some countries may be ‘serial defaulters’ on their sovereign debt; these are countries that tend to over-borrow during good times leaving them vulnerable during the inevitable downturns[3],[4].  Governments can be prone to treat favourable shocks as permanent developments, fuelling a spending spree financed by borrowing that eventually ends in tears.  Alternatively financial innovations can appear to render illiquid assets more liquid, permitting them to command higher values than previously, such as during the US subprime mortgage crisis of 20073.

In fact is it possible that the complexities of financial markets make them prone to fingers of instability which extend throughout the system, making them capable of amplifying small events with potentially catastrophic consequences4,[5].  Financial markets may be ‘chaotic’ systems, meaning that they are extraordinarily sensitive to tiny influences5.  Predicting the long-term future of any chaotic system is practically impossible, but worse than that, financial markets may have a tendency to organise themselves into so-called ‘critical states’ which have a tendency towards sudden and tumultuous changes5.   This suggests that there may be that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ market crisis5.

Hyman Minsky also pointed out that stability leads to instability, for example, long periods of stability can lead to debt accumulation until dangerous levels of leverage are reached4.  If markets are indeed in a ‘critical state’, it may be that attempts to avoid smaller crises, can predispose markets to much larger crises, when they do eventually occur5.  Thus well-meant initiatives to make financial markets more stable, by preventing lesser crises, may predispose financial markets to have less frequent, but far more catastrophic crises.  Smaller corrections may be an indispensable component of the dynamics required to keep financial markets healthy5.

 

SECULAR TRENDS

Secular trends can also significantly change the investment landscape, creating new opportunities while undermining others.  Market practitioners generally have a range of opinions, while some may correctly anticipate trends others will not.  Further, the results of elections or national referendums may turn slight popular biases into clear cut outcomes which can come as a surprise to the consensus view.  Examples of secular trends include:

  • Rising nationalism, including the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote, the election of more nationalistic political candidates, with potential for protectionist trade policies in contrast to previous eras of increasing free-trade.
  • New technologies, including, more recently, the internet dot-com stocks bubble (1990s)2. However this is hardly a uniquely recent phenomenon considering, for example, the 1840s railroad mania and 1793 canal mania[6].
  • Demographic impacts as populations’ age, increasing demand for healthcare and associated support services, combined with disinvestment associated with drawdown from pensions.

PEOPLE & POLITICS

Human nature often seems to lead to the over-anticipation of future developments (both good and bad) and exaggerated valuations.  The fickle nature of human confidence plays an important role3.  People tend to prefer simple explanations, and prefer any explanation rather than none; unfortunately that does not mean such explanations are correct4.  Leaders in the financial sector may believe that their innovations have genuinely added value and underappreciate the risks their firms are taking3.  Alternatively, financial product providers may be responding to inappropriate incentives in less-well-regulated areas.  Almost all bubbles require some form of new financial technology or financial engineering4.

An economic role that governments’ play is to maintain a balance between producers and consumers to assure fair market prices.  However other forces are at work in politics, with constituencies attempting to influence governments either through money, polling or petitioning (the ‘will of the people’).  Governments respond to political influences both to silence critics and because they gain from these actions the means to stay in power.  Market events can also provoke responses from financial authorities, which although intended to address current difficulties, are likely to sow the seeds of future problems, such as quantitative easing4.  The actions that result can lead to financial bubbles, which are caused by governments creating artificial criteria to achieve political goals.  Government can exert its power over financial markets and on public thinking in ways which can set things up for a future disaster[7].

WHAT TO DO?

Managing portfolios in the face of these considerable uncertainties is challenging.  The risks are unlikely to be captured by conventional risk measures (such as volatility, value-at-risk etc.), however stress-testing portfolios may be able to help[8],[9],[10].  With support from portfolio managers, trustees can identify particular issues associated with these risks and construct scenarios of possible outcomes that attempt to quantify asset movements.  Typically these can be based around significant historical market events, or use invented scenarios that reflect particular concerns. If test results impact portfolios to an unacceptable degree, they can be restructured to attempt to make them more robust to the scenarios considered.

SUMMARY

Anticipating market crises is not easy, their complexities may make them capable of amplifying small events with potentially catastrophic consequences4, 5.

Financial professionals have to overcome their in-built human biases, as well as political and economic systems that can leave markets prone to periodic crises.  Given difficulties with anticipating such market crises, along with other market practitioners, trustees should be constantly on the alert, particularly during quiescent periods when everything seems to be sound and markets are generating consistent positive returns.

It may be difficult, but portfolio managers and trustees should be attempting to form judgements about the likelihood of developing market crises and discussing them with their clients.  Such conversations should help ensure clients have a more complete and realistic understanding of the risks their investments may entail, and facilitate a better discussion around portfolio investment allocations.

 

[1] R. Barro and J. F. Ursua, “Stock-market crashes and depressions,” NBER Working Paper 14760, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass., 2009.

[2] Wikipedia, September 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrational_exuberance. [Accessed January 2017].

[3] C. M. Reinhart and K. S. Rogoff, This time is different, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

[4] J. Maudlin and J. Tepper, Endgame, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2011.

[5] M. Buchanan, Ubiquity, why catastrophes happen, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

[6] C. P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes, a history of financial crises, 3rd ed., London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1996.

[7] J. Blessings, The anti-demographic cliff, Createspace, 2014.

[8] Q. G. Rayer, “Dissecting portfolio stress-testing,” The Review of Financial Markets, vol. 7, pp. 2-7, 2015.

[9] Q. G. Rayer, “Testing times,” STEP Journal, vol. 24, no. 8, pp. 62-63, October 2016.

[10] Q. G. Rayer, “Testing Times, Part 2,” STEP Journal, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 66-69, April 2017.

About Dr Quintin Rayer

Quintin is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments, a Chartered Wealth Manager and holds a Physics degree from Imperial College London and a Physics doctorate in atmospheric physics from Oxford University and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.