Best of the Long View 2020: The Pandemic and Investing
From coronavirus to ESG, these are some of the most memorable moments from our podcast in 2020.
Hear some of favorite clips from conversations we had in 2020 with portfolio managers and investors in this week's episode.
Here are the complete episodes that are referenced in this week’s episode.
Jeff Ptak: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I’m Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.
Christine Benz: And I'm Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar, Inc.
On this week’s episode we’ll feature some of our favorite clips from interviews we’ve done with portfolio managers.
We’ll start this best-of episode on an obvious subject: The coronavirus pandemic. When we spoke with Allianz’s chief economic advisor, Mohamed El-Erian, in March 2020, the public health emergency had triggered a full-blown economic and financial crisis. At that very fraught moment, we asked Dr. El-Erian what he thought the correct fiscal and monetary policy response was and here’s what he had to say:
El-Erian: I've differentiated between monetary policy and fiscal policy. I've argued that monetary policies should aim at addressing market failures. And the most efficient way of doing that is by targeting them directly. And that's why the series of emergency funding windows that have been introduced for commercial paper, for the money market sector and others are absolutely essential. I've argued that cutting interest rates now will not do very much, that the time will come to provide an interest rate cut. But let's not use the scarce tool we have right now. And as you see, the 150 basis points cut actually got a thumbs down from the marketplace, a thumbs down despite that. Because people realize very quickly that low interest rates are not going to help with the two things you need to do right now. They're not going to reactivate economic activity, because people are scared. And secondly, they're not going to do much on your mortgage bill or anything else because it's a much bigger problem. So, monetary policy should be focused on ensuring that market malfunctions don't reverse contaminate the real economy.
Fiscal policy is different. And what fiscal policy can do is help people through this economic sudden stop, help support their balance sheets, make sure that they can afford the payments or as we're seeing increasingly, press pause on certain payments, so that people can manage, protect the most strategic sectors of our economy, including health and importantly, make sure that when we restart this economy, liquidity problems haven't turned into solvency issues. Fiscal policy can be incredibly effective in all that. Low interest rates will not do much.
We had the chance to get a bird’s eye view of the economic toll the pandemic was taking from a portfolio manager who has a uniquely lofty perch: Rick Rieder runs the BlackRock Global Allocation and BlackRock Total Return funds, among others, and when we asked him how he’d compare what he was hearing from the management teams of the firms they invest in before and after COVID, here’s the perspective he shared:
Rieder: So, first thing, that might hit you on a superficial level is more and more companies are pulling their guidance on future revenues and future earnings. And obviously, reflective of the fact that the uncertainty on how the economy opens and globally has caused them to pull their guidance overall. And we're hearing that from a lot of companies. And it's not necessarily people tend to view that as a negative, and I don't necessarily view it as a negative. I just think it is appropriate uncertainty given where we are today. That has been the biggest shift.
The second part that we obviously talked to a lot of companies, as you said, we look at a lot of surveys that are done. The other thing that companies are doing is more and more looking at technology, R&D, how to make your business more efficient, how do you operate your business, obviously more virtually, and it's pretty impressive in terms of that rate of growth there. The other side of it is, I have to say that--and it's hard to say this on a broad basis or generalize it--but we've been pretty impressed with particularly in parts of the manufacturing area, in the homebuilding area, and otherwise, that there's some optimism that this is not going to be a V-shaped recovery, but it's also not going to be an L. Business will come back and they're seeing green shoots in a bunch of their businesses. Places like China have been a very good illustration of--and we talked to a lot of companies there, that economy has really closer to a V-shaped than I think others would have imagined. And you see the companies that are selling into Asia or interacting with places in Asia and China specifically. We've been pretty impressed with how that's come back.
Now it's different. Europe is still really tough. The emerging markets generally are still tough. But I've been pretty impressed with particularly in some industries the enthusiasm of some comeback in terms of their businesses--again, if it's travel or leisure or transportation, tougher--but other places, you know, better than I would have thought.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic and a massive fiscal and monetary response, we asked a market master, longtime Loomis Sayles Bond Fund portfolio manager Dan Fuss, whether he worried about inflation rearing up again and how he was preparing for the possibility of rapidly rising prices in the way he was positioning the portfolios he managed. Here’s what Dan had to say:
Fuss: Mentally, I'm preparing because I think it is a real risk. Now, there are a lot of counter arguments. As you look around the world, some countries have been doing this already and interest rates are not up. And the population growth is slowing, will probably slow a lot. Now, it will take some time. But once you increase the monetary stock beyond a certain point, getting tremendously--I had--the growth of the population even as you're getting economic improvements for the individual members of the population and rising demand for money because of that, nonetheless, you do get to a point. Do I think that in the United States we're going to hit something like the Weimar Republic in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s? No, I don't think so. Do I think some other countries without support will get there? Yes, if they try to deal with it just by themselves. That's why they're asking for help. It could otherwise come in and say, “Hey, listen, we're going to just print money like mad.” That's not a good fallback position, particularly for a smaller country. The real question then becomes, Well, that's all well and good, but what about the U.S.?
And here, I would say that, yeah, inflation is going to come back. At what sort of rate? Don't we have the tools to fight it? Yeah, we do. Would will we be willing to slow the economy again, lean against it? Well, I'm not going to lean against the economy because the problem is our total revenues are far short of our expenses. So, I want the economy to boom. OK, that's understandable. Now, what happens to prices as you do that? Well, no, we can make enough. What about what you pay people to make enough? Well, is the population growing fast? Well, no, it's not. So, you start to get into a situation more like what you had in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it creeps and then, at some point, it starts to go up faster. I would not anticipate a return to something like the late ‘70s, at least not in the U.S. But it is so hard to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. We cannot successfully do it. It's not possible.
What we have to do is--our problems aren't just the coronavirus and the reaction in the economies. Our problems have to do with the climate and with the ability to deal with each other on a friendly basis and not have the two major countries in the world, China and the U.S., start lobbing missiles back and forth, because that's game war. So, that's our setting. And it is a global setting. At home, I'm not too worried at this point in time. We'll get through it whether the bottom is at the end of the second quarter or it's in the third quarter or it's out in the fourth. I don't know. Hopefully, it will be sooner than that. Hopefully, we'll be too bearish in our forecast. But that's hope. Right now, reason says, “No, it's going to run longer.” And we'll just have to see.
The pandemic placed unique stress on portfolios, so it was refreshing to get insights on bond portfolio construction and risk management from someone as learned and accomplished as Mary Ellen Stanek. Mary Ellen is managing director and chief investment officer at Baird Advisors, which oversees the Baird family of mutual funds. Here Mary Ellen shared what it was like to run bond strategies during the sell-off, likening their portfolio construction approach to loading a kitchen dishwasher:
Stanek: Well, so interesting. And that is where you have the benefit. And our team has a wide range of experience, but a number of us have worked for decades together. And that experience matters, particularly as you go into these very uncertain times. Certainly, none of us had ever experienced a pandemic in our lives. None of us had ever seen the economic self-destruction that we went through as the economy virtually was shut down in the interest of public health. So, as we tried to manage through that and understand that we always say in tough times, good times, investing is like putting a puzzle together. And you look for those missing puzzle pieces. Do things make sense?
I grew up with a father who always would say to my mother, Katherine, these kids, all brains and no common sense. And so, trying to think about how are we going to be able to navigate through this for our investors? Again, remember--and we always remind ourselves--that the position we occupy for investors, we typically are their core. One investor said to us many years ago, you're my sleep insurance, and thought we were going to be offended. And I said, actually, that's a badge of honor. That's exactly the position that we occupy for investors across the duration spectrum, taxable or tax-exempt.
So, into this, you know, we checked off all of those key boxes that are so fundamental to how we invest, make sure we have available liquidity for our investors should they need it. And in hindsight, they did need it in particularly the month of March. Quality and integrity of the portfolio, so that what our investors believe they have in terms of the portfolio, and our style and approach that we truly show up and behave like that into all market environments. We really strive for an all-weather approach and a balanced approach.
As we sorted through these things we've never seen before, we went back to the things we do know, and we do know how to do and that's layer liquidity into the portfolios. And certainly, those decisions in that structure had to be in place long before the chaos started. But confirming that we had those layers of liquidity ready and available in the portfolio, the quality and the structure or the integrity of the portfolio structure, was it intact and could it withstand some very significant stress--both financial market stress, liquidity stress, as well as economic stress--and continuing to do the fundamental analysis that we believe we do and have always done. All of the risk mitigation that we have on the portfolio, again, things that you have to have in place long before any of the onset of the volatility.
One of the best risk-management tools we have is diversification and diversifying our exposures very, very carefully. Portfolio structure, some people will refer to it as how we load the dishwasher. Other people have used that analogy. I think it's a great analogy to use in terms of how we structure the portfolios across the sectors to both deliver portfolios that will deliver on the objective, but over time will provide our investors competitive after-expense ratio or fee value. So, into the chaos where there was, for moments and days, liquidity was quite challenged. And so, how were we able to do that? In hindsight, the liquidity layers held up very, very well for us. Certainly, cash is your first layer of liquidity, but then your Treasury positions, agency mortgage-backed positions, some of your shorter, very high-quality asset-backed securities. So, those layers held up very, very well for us.
While we continue to try to put that puzzle together and understand what was happening, and one of the key pieces that was an important piece of information to watch carefully was where the selling pressure was coming from. At the time, in real time, we believed in the industry and we could watch your data and others' data on redemptions and net outflow activity and the force selling that happens with portfolios when managers have to meet those redemptions. We also through our industry contacts realized very quickly that leveraged investors were being forced to sell and take down leverage. And that was causing certainly some additional dislocation. We confirmed at the time that when you get into those chaotic environments, and investors are being forced to sell, other investors are being forced to sell, they sell what they can sell. And typically, that's high-quality, shorter duration assets. And so, it puts some, as we said at the time, quality on sale and created some unusual opportunities.
Looking back, I said to some of our younger credit analysts the other day, the last three months are like dog years careerwise, but it will help shape them in terms of how they think about risk, how they manage liquidity, how they manage and make recommendations on portfolio names and portfolio structures. It's a great living laboratory for young talent.
Although he’s not a portfolio manager per se, Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein has built a successful digital platform that essentially allows individual investors to be their own portfolio managers, which has meant trying to see the world through their eyes and designing features that inculcate good habits that confer better outcomes over the long haul. So, we were curious to get his perspective on whether the pandemonium last spring yielded new insights into investor behavior and psychology. Here’s what Jon shared:
Stein: We're watching and learning every day some surprising things. One, in all the volatility, which really peaked in March, we saw only a 2% increase in the number of withdrawals. And I'll tell you, I've been building Betterment for 10 years. We're just coming up on our 10-year anniversary in May. And I've heard on every podcast, on every panel, in every investor conversation--what happens in the downturn, what happens to Betterment in that time? And I feel like we might be now living in that moment. This is that downturn that we've been preparing for, for all these years. We were born in the last downturn. We came out of the 2008 crisis. And so, in many ways, we're built for this. And it's been great to see our customers staying the course, keeping invested. Of all of our customer base, again, in March, we saw 26% more customers making ad hoc one-time deposits than making any sort of withdrawal, and that's in addition to all the auto deposits, and most of our customers have some kind of auto-deposit setup as well. And for our millennial customers, for the younger customers, it was 37% more deposits than withdrawals. Younger people were more apt to see this as a buying opportunity and be moving into the market. And so, those are a couple of the interesting things. Although, we've done some surveying of our customers and there's been a lot of interesting findings.
Benz: Like what?
Stein: Well, for one, we found that most of our customers who got a stimulus check, had been depositing that money into longer-term savings. They'd been not spending it as maybe you might expect, but they'd been putting it into their IRAs or retirement goals, or even just saving for some future thing that's a couple of years out. The vast majority of our customers are doing that. Now, a little bit, that's who Betterment customers are. But to see only a tiny fraction, less than 15%, put them toward near-term goals is pretty surprising, I think.
One of the questions the pandemic has spurred is whether the traditional 60/40 portfolio can serve investors as well in the future as it has in the past. To answer that, we consulted a legend in the investing field: Author and researcher Burton Malkiel. Here Dr. Malkiel shares his thoughts on what the 60/40 allocation of the future might look like, referencing work he’s done at robo-advisor Wealthfront, where he serves as chief investment officer, as well as writing in the most recent edition of his well-known book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street:
Malkiel: Well, both in my book and in my work as chief investment officer of Wealthfront, we have strayed from the 60-40 allocation. And I think in this age of what I've called financial repression, where safe bonds yield next to nothing, that I think the 40% is too high. Now, of course, there's not just one figure that fits all. For some people it might be 60-40 would be OK. But I think, in general, the asset allocations that I have recommended have a much larger equity allocation and a much smaller bond allocation. And if you look at the 12th edition of my Random Walk book, you'll find that I have generally reduced the fixed-income allocation and increased the equity allocation--different amounts for different age groups, but generally, far fewer bonds. Now, what we do at Wealthfront, for example, particularly in the more aggressive portfolios for those people who can stand the risk, we have very little, certainly nothing like 40, not even anything as high as 20. As I say, I don't think you can make a specific number because people are different, and people need different allocations. But as a general rule, I would say the 40% fixed income should be lower, and I think at least some part of that ought to be in bond substitutes rather than in either government or even high-quality corporate bonds and stuff.
One of the questions contrarian-minded investors have been asking themselves is whether it’s time to ratchet up exposure to areas that have lagged U.S. large-cap stocks in recent years. We asked Jim Dahle, a practicing physician who moonlights as an author, podcaster, and investment advisor under “The White Coat Investor” banner, whether he thought now was the time to up one’s allocation to smaller stocks or those of non-U.S. firms. Here’s what he had to say:
Dahle: I think it's absolutely fascinating to talk about. If I had to put money down in Vegas on whether I thought international stocks and small-value stocks were going to outperform U.S. large-growth stocks over the next decade, I certainly would bet that way. But I think it's important to divorce how you feel about the market from what you actually do with your investments, and to be very, very rational and very intentional and stay the course with your financial plan when it comes to actually doing things with your investments. And I'll give you an example why.
If you go back to Internet forums and you go back to financial publications in 2010, you will see that people were saying, “Get out of bonds, they're going to have terrible returns; interest rates have nowhere to go but up.” And that has basically been the tune for the last decade. Meanwhile, what has happened? Well, interest rates have stayed low. They've even fallen. Bonds have had excellent returns over the last decade, and it's one of those things that everyone felt had to be true that turned out not to be true, and I kind of feel the same way today. Yes, I expect that international stocks are going to outperform U.S. stocks, but the market can remain irrational for longer than I can remain solvent. I think the most important thing about a plan, especially if you have written up a reasonable plan, is to stick with it through thick and thin, because there are going to be times where you feel like this can't possibly happen, and then it happens again and again and again for several more years. And you want to be able to make sure that you get those gains when that does happen even though you didn't expect the gains.
This has been a big year for ESG investing, as we’ve seen a lot of money rush into these strategies. Hoping to capitalize, fund companies have responded predictably, launching scores of new ESG funds of different kinds. Given that, we wondered how investors should view ESG investing—as a passing fancy or a valid new format for achieving their goals? Who better to turn to for perspective on that question than esteemed author and investment consultant, Charley Ellis, who had this to say:
Ellis: Well, we all know that demand creates supply. And there is a lot of demand, particularly in universities or public funds, where there is a social dimension that's rather large and important. So, that's probably the driving force, is that kind of demand. And if it's out there you might be able to sell something into it, it would make sense to think seriously about, Is that a skill set that you could develop? And it's not terribly complicated to develop that skill set. So, I think that makes it relatively easy to offer to provide supply.
I think if you did it the other way around and said, Are there investment managers who came to believe that was the right way to invest for the long term, and then developed a capability and brought it to the marketplace--then you get much smaller number. And candidly, I would turn to generation, cheerfully known by its nickname, Blood and Gore, because it was set up by Al Gore and David Blood, who had been longtime partner of Goldman Sachs and very, very able, truly wonderful human being. And that two of them jointly figured out that if you did invest in companies that were systematically and unrelentingly doing "the right thing," they did have a comparative advantage. They tended to attract a higher grade of talent to work in the organization, they tended to have a higher set of enthusiasm within the organization, people were happier working longer. And they tended to make slightly better decisions.
And over time that has proved to be a very successful criterion for that organization, then they've turned into a superior record that's been terrific to see. Yep, it does, in fact, work. And same thing is true, I think most of us would believe, a really high-integrity corporation does attract better people and does keep people who are really good for longer time and doesn't make mistakes and doesn't get into difficulties. It's because they're always on alert for what could they do to make themselves better and better and better. Doing the right thing really matters.
So, I think it's a perfectly sensible case for it. But I do think we all ought to be careful that when the word gets out that there is real demand for x or y or z, the supply will come up, too. Look to be sure that the supply was going to be there for internal reasons, not for sales reasons.
There aren’t many star portfolio managers left. But Fidelity Contrafund manager, Will Danoff, is one of them and for good reason: He’s amassed an enviable long-term record plying a strategy that’s favored the stocks of reasonably priced, faster-growing firms. When we spoke to Will last January, before the pandemic struck, we asked him about how he sources new investment ideas and weighs the opportunity costs the portfolio might incur if he pursues them. Here’s what he had to say.
Danoff: I think the key to being a great investor is being open to new ideas, learning from new ideas, and finding that right balance between waiting for the right moment. But again, circle of competence to me means you know your companies well, but you also know certain sectors particularly well. One--you have to make sure that you understand the threats to your existing holdings, but also, there's usually a pivot point where a concept then turns into a profitable business. And this is always this debate I have when I think about biotech as a sector, and there are some very smart scientists who are pursuing important – on medical needs. There could be big economic opportunity if these biotech companies can solve some of these disease opportunities. But do you wait for good phase 2 data? Do you wait for good phase 3 data? Do you wait for FDA approval? Do you wait for, God forbid, revenue and profit? And this is always the great debate. But this is what we do, and we try to do the best we can. Mistakes are made, but I think that's the other advantage I have at Fidelity where we have a lot of young analysts and associates who are more open to new ideas. And they've grown up with a smartphone in their pocket and can help me understand the trends that are a little more difficult for an older fund manager to appreciate and understand.
But the ideas of delighting your customer don't go away, whether it's finding a new drug for a rare disease or developing a new software program, either for an enterprise or for a consumer. I just feel more comfortable with the idea of touching and feeling, interviewing management, trying ideally to go to as many company presentations or user conferences. For a long time, I was a little late to the software-as-a-service sector. And then I went to Dreamforce, which is Salesforce.com's user conference out in San Francisco. And I think 150,000 people went to the conference over a week in San Francisco, and I was just blown away by the enthusiasm of the employees and the customers, and that can be priceless in terms of your appreciation of the strength of a franchise.
One of the more vexing issues in retirement planning is sequence-of-returns risk. An untimely loss at or near the beginning of retirement can leave even the best-laid plans in tatters. We explored that concept with T. Rowe Price portfolio manager, Jerome Clark. Jerome oversees T. Rowe’s target-date strategies and played a key role in popularizing those investments in defined-contribution plans. Recognizing that achievement, Morningstar recently named Jerome the winner of its 2020 Outstanding Portfolio Manager Award. We asked Jerome for his thoughts on how investors should think about the trade-offs involved in investing in target-date series that hold stocks for longer and the sequence-of-returns risk that can go with it. Here’s what he had to say:
Clark: I love that question. And the reason I love it is because many times what we talk about when it comes to sequencing risk is, point in time. So, I'm at retirement, if I look at my sequencing risk going forward, it can – a higher equity approach can seem like, you could question, is this a prudent thing to do given my vulnerability of losing principal in a down equity market? What we have to remember is that we just don't suddenly get to retirement and then we're investing at that allocation. If you're in a target-date glide path, you've been on a strategy that has been moving you towards this higher equity at retirement.
So, for example, the 2008 market. When you look at, for example, our 2010 fund, in the 2008 market, you're approaching retirement, and at retirement we're known for having a higher equity allocation. And sure enough in the 2008 market environment, our 2010 fund had a higher loss than the average target-date product. Ours was approximately minus 26% versus a minus 22% for the average target-date product out there in the marketplace at the time. But what we have to remember is what led us up to that point in time. We tend to become myopic in a bear market. And we focus on what's happening here and now. And we have to remind ourselves to be holistic, more holistic, and think about what is happening not only in that bear market, but up to it, and what tends to happen afterwards.
And if you look at our 2010 fund, though it had a higher loss in that downturn, what you found is that if you've followed us from inception, because of good markets that occurred leading up to that market--we launched it towards the end of 2002--2003 was a good market, '04, '05, '06, and part of '07. Those markets contributed to a disparity where we had a higher balance. But when you experienced that 2008 market, though we had the greater loss, what we saw is relative to the average target-date fund provider out there, with our higher-equity approach, with a larger loss in that environment, we still had a higher balance for that participant, so they were never any worse off. And then what I always remind our investors is that you have to keep in mind that bear markets tend to be preceded by good markets. And within the equity markets, there is a correlation that doesn't exist in the equity-and-cash world, and that is that the more significant the bear market we experience, the more significant tends to be the bull market that follows. And you know, they refer to 2008 as--we hope--a once-in-a-lifetime event, but then look what followed was basically what we might call close to a once-in-a-lifetime event when it came to the bull market that followed behind it.
For our final highlight, we go to our conversation with Wellington Management portfolio managers Michael Reckmeyer and Matthew Hand. Michael and Matt oversee a number of prominent value-investing mandates, including the stock sleeve of Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund, as well as Wellington's portion of Vanguard Equity Income Fund, among other duties. They tend to favor the stocks of higher-quality firms that boast a competitive advantage of some kind. We wondered if those advantages are as durable as they used to be. Here’s what they said:
Reckmeyer: There are some secular headwinds in the marketplace. And we try to be aware of these and if there are secular headwinds, make sure that we're cognizant of this and factor this into our assumptions. And we're using focus on just what's the implication of Amazon--they're disrupting several different industries, the retail space, shopping centers. We've been aware of that for a while, and we just avoided that whole area. It's a secular headwind. And while you're seeing this when you have economic downturns like we've seen right now, these secular headwinds tend to accelerate. And so, this is an area that we've tended to avoid. The one area we've had within the retail space, we've been focusing on the home centers. There, I think, they have more durable moats around them. Their performance has been stronger than we would have thought actually coming into this economic downturn. But we try to avoid those situations where the secular headwinds are ahead of us, just because it just makes forecasting long-term prospects more challenging.
Hand: Yeah, that's a great question. We try to take a contrarian view on things but certainly pay a lot of attention to developments in sectors and whether they'd be transitory or structural and understanding things that may be changing over the long term. While it may not impact the short-term earnings estimates as an example, it certainly can impact long-term estimates and the multiple that the stock deserves. So, it's things that we pay attention to. I think the answer is different by company and by sector. But it's certainly something we pay a lot of attention to and try to have a view and continue to evolve that view as we get more information.
Thanks for listening this past year. From all of us here at The Long View, best wishes in the year ahead.
(Disclaimer: This recording is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Opinions expressed are as of the date of recording. Such opinions are subject to change. The views and opinions of guests on this program are not necessarily those of Morningstar, Inc. and its affiliates. Morningstar and its affiliates are not affiliated with this guest or his or her business affiliates unless otherwise stated. Morningstar does not guarantee the accuracy, or the completeness of the data presented herein. Jeff Ptak is an employee of Morningstar Research Services LLC. Morningstar Research Services is a subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. and is registered with and governed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Morningstar Research Services shall not be responsible for any trading decisions, damages or other losses resulting from or related to the information, data analysis or opinions or their use. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. All investments are subject to investment risk, including possible loss of principal. Individuals should seriously consider if an investment is suitable for them by referencing their own financial position, investment objectives and risk profile before making any investment decision.) about investing.