The business world is getting more global. Does that mean you should be following suit with your practice? Based on conversations I’ve had with some bank advisors over the months, and especially in the past few weeks, most would probably rebuff that idea. But I’m not so sure.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a Wall Street chief strategist about the spectacle of Europe sliding toward recession and battling to save its currency. After a few minutes of genuine sympathy for an intertwined economy coming apart, we turned our attention to the next big question, at least by Wall Street standards: Who stands to gain?
He said the chaos has created a major buying opportunity for investors but added that deal hunters have to be savvy enough to pick through the rubble for single stocks, not simply load up via a pan-European ETF. I pointed out that most people have gotten used to buying index funds and ETFs, not individual stocks. But he believes a new day is coming: to get the best deals (and the diversification), investors, and their advisors, will have to start picking stocks again.
And that conversation began a healthy discourse I had with several other market watchers over the next few weeks. It came down to the old active-versus-passive management debate with the added twist that today’s high correlations in the stock market have caused some challenges for ETFs. Namely, returns for many indexes are clustering. And even more important, investors are looking back at the past decade of flat U.S. stock market returns and are questioning the value that managers provide for the fees they charge.
Opinions on active-versus-passive differed, of course, but I think there is a strong case to make that the pendulum has swung too far toward passive investing. Being a discerning investor is critical now and the time may be ripe for a swing back to active investing. This happens to coincide with a major buying opportunity in Europe. (Convenient!)
So, should advisors be looking toward Europe with an eye for individual securities? It would be a very different job for them. They would have to revamp their entire approach: think globally while marketing themselves locally. I know most advisors will rebuff this idea. I know because I asked some of them, and they all rebuffed this idea. They reminded me that their job is more than creating wealth. It’s about minimizing taxes, planning and—the biggie—managing decumulation in retirement.
Fine. But I can’t help but think that this is all still based on the idea that the client has saved and accumulated a few dollars in the first place. I would dare say that most people in the industry today started at some point since 1982, the accepted beginning of the bull market that last almost 20 years. In bull markets, investing in a handful of indexes can make you look like a genius.
But that’s not the case anymore. In fact, it hasn’t been the case for 10 years, even though many people still have the mindset that “stocks always go up.” And over the very long term, that may be true. But most people have a limited time frame they care about (20, 30 years). And stocks can indeed go down or stay flat for 20 years or more. (It’s already happened for 10). So indexing may not be the saving grace for today’s client.
Whether you believe it is time to go on a shopping spree or not, the thing not to do is shun an entire continent. And lest anyone think it impossible that investors would shirk back and become isolationists, bear in mind that it’s happened before.
There was a previous era of globalization before our own. In the early 20th century, stock markets were linked together across the world, according to “A History of the Global Stock Market, from Ancient Rome to Silicon Valley” by B. Mark Smith. Driven by the belief that interdependency among economies would reduce the possibility of war, investors drove the total capitalization of the world’s stock markets to robust heights in the century’s first decade. By 1913, as a percentage of global gross national product, it had attained levels not seen again until the 1980s.
With the advent of WWI, the tide turned and the U.S. became isolationist. That mindset reigned for decades.
Behavioral finance experts will tell you home bias and familiarity bias are constant sources of inefficiency. What’s more, they become especially marked in times of stress and danger. So when Europe looks frightening, the natural inclination is to avoid it entirely, rather than dig down to look for bargains in an area that feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar even in the best of times. But wherever you stand on the active-passive debate, history teaches us that simple shunning is an inclination best restrained.