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Avoid the Temptation to Invest Through the Rearview Mirror

Prepare your portfolio for your future goals instead of relying on past results.

Editor's note: Read the latest on how the coronavirus is rattling the markets and what investors can do to navigate it.

Dan Kemp is the chief investment officer for Morningstar Investment Management in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region. He spoke at an in-house event on April 28, 2020. Below is an excerpt of his presentation.

It goes without saying that we live in extraordinary times. We've never before had a deliberate stop on the economy in peace time. And it's not surprising that we witnessed a very sharp fall in asset prices in February and March 2020. Living through these periods can be unsettling, but I think we need to remember that market crashes are a feature and not a bug of investing. Crashes reset valuations and provide the opportunity for investors to improve their portfolios--and particularly to improve the expected returns of those portfolios long into the future.

To use an agricultural analogy, we can think of crashes as providing the fertile soil into which we sow the seeds of future returns. Unfortunately, unlike the turning of the seasons, the precise timing of crashes is unpredictable. You don't know when they're going to occur. Moreover, you can only sow seeds into ground that is cleared of the last harvest. Investors who left the previous crop in the ground too long hoping for a bigger harvest were poorly prepared for a crash and face the problem of trying to decide what to plant and what to harvest at the same time.

Now, we at Morningstar Investment Management, like anyone else, don't know when a crash is coming, but the investment team spends a lot of time thinking about whether the current environment is favorable for investors and whether our focus should be on planting or harvesting. And as prices of some equity markets became very stretched over the past couple of years, we've generally taken a little bit less risk in portfolios, so we were reasonably well prepared for what happened in February and March.

Providing you're not caught with your harvest rotting in the fields, investing during a crash is pretty straightforward. You simply buy more as prices fall and the margin of safety for future returns looks better and better. The questions become: what you buy, how much you buy, and how quickly you buy. We responded to those falls in February and March by rebalancing portfolios. That's the first and most efficient step. Then, toward the end of that March period, we added more equity risk.

The current situation is now much more difficult. The opportunities we saw a month ago have declined. U.S. equities in particular have risen sharply, and simply adding more risk is less attractive than it was. Now we are much more focused as an investment team on finding the best opportunities. We're especially interested right now in sectors that have been hit the hardest during the downturn--for example, global energy and high-yield bonds. We've been adding those positions to the portfolios.

We're also seeing opportunities in markets that fell sharply but haven't really participated in the recovery. U.K. equities are a good example of that, and some emerging-market bonds have become relatively more attractive as well. Of course, all these decisions are being underpinned by the deep fundamental research that's the hallmark of our investment management team.

Another challenge faced by investors in volatile times is that they tend to look at the path behind them and use that as a guide to the future in front them. We can think of this a little bit like driving a car just using the rearview mirror or plowing a field (to stick with the agricultural analogy) just looking behind you. We know that leads to poor outcomes. You see that when people talk about the fact that we are past the worst, or that asset prices have risen too quickly--that indicates the path behind them is influencing the way ahead. The truth is that, frankly, we don't know what the near-term future holds. So, our portfolios have to be prepared for a range of possible outcomes. We also have to prepare our clients, as we can only empower their success if they stay invested.

I've learned some things that may help you as you think about long-term investing, or for advisors who are asked questions by others. The first is that we have to acknowledge people's concerns. We need to listen to them before they'll listen to us. There's no point just brushing past their concerns. We need to take those concerns seriously. Second, we need to understand that different people need different responses. Some clients need reassurance. Others will need evidence or data to help them make their own decisions. Some groups will need to be challenged out of wrong ideas or bad ways of thinking. Third, we need to focus on price/fair value and not on those past returns. By looking only at near-term returns, we can get the completely wrong idea. If you want to see how this works, I'd recommend going to the home page of Morningstar Direct and looking at the difference in the way that you feel when you look at year-to-date returns, which are a sea of red, versus the valuation lens, which shows a much more gentle blue (meaning that many assets are currently undervalued).

And then fourth--and most importantly--we need to focus on goals. The question is not how much is in your portfolio, but whether you're on track to meet your goals. An investor who has clear goals and a portfolio that's matched to those goals is likely to be more empowered and therefore successful.

Morningstar Investment Management LLC is a Registered Investment Advisor and subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. The Morningstar name and logo are registered marks of Morningstar, Inc. Opinions expressed are as of the date indicated; such opinions are subject to change without notice. Morningstar Investment Management and its affiliates shall not be responsible for any trading decisions, damages, or other losses resulting from, or related to, the information, data, analyses or opinions or their use. This commentary is for informational purposes only. The information data, analyses, and opinions presented herein do not constitute investment advice, are provided solely for informational purposes and therefore are not an offer to buy or sell a security. Before making any investment decision, please consider consulting a financial or tax professional regarding your unique situation.

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