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Buckle's New Year: Resolve early to de-risk or not

A key decision for investors in 2018 is whether to de-risk or not. Should you de-risk your portfolio early and face missing out on potential returns, or should you stay invested and face a possible market downturn? Whatever you do, resolve to clearly make that decision.

03 January 2018, 16:53 GMT

Fireworks explode over the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as Australia ushers in the New Year in Sydney.
Jason Reed

'Roger screws up’

There is a wonderful ‘Far Side’ cartoon of an orchestra with a large man standing right at the back holding an enormous cymbal, poised to bash it. He has a thought bubble extending from his head saying ‘this time I won’t screw up’. The caption of the cartoon is ‘Roger screws up’.

This cartoon represents all of us trying to call a top in the equity market. There are of course three possible outcomes in that endeavour: too early, too late or just right. Some of us may be lucky and get it just right, but for financial planning purposes it’s best to assume you’ll be either too early or too late.

Erring either way is expensive. Our estimate of equilibrium P/E ratio for the S&P500 is 16, so it would have been very easy to have observed the PE ratio at 21 this time last year and viewed the market as expensive. Yet de-risk then and you’d have missed a 2017 return of 22%. If and when the equity downturn comes, I’d be surprised if it exceeds 20% - there have only been two such occurrences: 2000-2002 and 2007-2009.

As ever, investing is a risk-reward trade-off. It strikes me that investors have one of two choices: accept the risk of a downturn and stay invested in risky assets, or de-risk early and accept that return opportunities may be missed. It’s vital to be clear on that decision as the action required is quite different in each case. In not taking that explicit decision I fear many are implicitly assuming they’ll be able to exit at exactly the right time. That’s a brave assumption.

Let me take you through the two choices.

Stay invested

If investors have a tolerance for risk and are therefore happy to remain invested, they should take that decision fully expecting to go over the cliff at some point - that should be explicit.

Portfolio construction plays an important role here. For example, assuming a bad case scenario is a 20% drop in equity prices, holding approximately a third of assets in equities would mean that the portfolio could face a loss of 6%, which may well be tolerable for some investors.

Furthermore, in the two occasions when equities had downturns in excess of 20%, the bond market returned 30% and 17% respectively (as measured by the S&P 7-10 year Treasury index). Therefore, regardless of the valuation of fixed income, increasing the bond duration of a portfolio can help hedge against an equity downturn. To put numbers on this, if a portfolio is 70% invested in a 10 year bond index and 30% in equities, then a 20% drop in equities and 1% drop in bond yield would still post a positive overall portfolio return.

Whilst a lot of assets are expensive, there are pockets of value. European equity is one that attracts my eye, but the asset class I’m very drawn to is emerging index linked bonds. The event that gives me nightmares is a dropping equity market driven by higher yields. That unlikely scenario would presumably occur if inflation returns in force, and in that case EM index linked bonds would do well, and their real yields are attractively high.

De-risk early

An investor who is more risk averse may already have de-risked, arguing that momentum has driven returns, fundamentals are only moderate, and the market has had a great run. The investor may feel an equity drawdown could be bigger than 20%.

Other than opportunity cost, the problem with de-risking, is that the lowest risk assets are the most expensive of all; they guarantee a reduction in your purchasing power. Therefore, what’s important is to recognise that the investor will experience certain negative real returns all the while he or she has de-risked. The ‘stay invested’ investors wouldn’t be happy with that, and it’s that difference which largely separates them from the ‘de-risk early’ cohort.

So, if you are going to de-risk, don’t overdo it, and make sure you de-risk in an even way ensuring you keep a balanced portfolio - that means diversifying across asset classes and regions. Pertinently to a de-risker, the Asian debt market is usually underexposed in global fixed income portfolios.

Good luck in 2018. If you make a new year’s resolution, resolve to clearly decide: de-risk or not. Would you rather clash that cymbal too early or too late?

This content is for investment professionals only and should not be relied on by private investors.This content is provided for information purposes only and is intended only for the person or entity to which it is sent. It must not be reproduced or circulated to any other party without prior permission of Fidelity.This content does not constitute a distribution, an offer or solicitation to engage the investment management services of Fidelity, or an offer to buy or sell or the solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any securities in any jurisdiction or country where such distribution or offer is not authorised or would be contrary to local laws or regulations. Fidelity makes no representations that the contents are appropriate for use in all locations or that the transactions or services discussed are available or appropriate for sale or use in all jurisdictions or countries or by all investors or counterparties. This communication is not directed at, and must not be acted on by persons inside the United States and is otherwise only directed at persons residing in jurisdictions where the relevant funds are authorised for distribution or where no such authorisation is required. Fidelity is not authorised to manage or distribute investment funds or products in, or to provide investment management or advisory services to persons resident in, mainland China. All persons and entities accessing the information do so on their own initiative and are responsible for compliance with applicable local laws and regulations and should consult their professional advisers.Reference in this content to specific securities should not be interpreted as a recommendation to buy or sell these securities, but is included for the purposes of illustration only. Investors should also note that the views expressed may no longer be current and may have already been acted upon by Fidelity. The research and analysis used in this content is gathered by Fidelity for its use as an investment manager and may have already been acted upon for its own purposes. This material was created by Fidelity International.Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.This content may contain materials from third-parties which are supplied by companies that are not affiliated with any Fidelity entity (Third-Party Content). Fidelity has not been involved in the preparation, adoption or editing of such third-party materials and does not explicitly or implicitly endorse or approve such content. Fidelity International refers to the group of companies which form the global investment management organisation that provides products and services in designated jurisdictions outside of North America Fidelity, Fidelity International, the Fidelity International logo and F symbol are trademarks of FIL Limited. Fidelity only offers information on products and services and does not provide investment advice personal recommendations based on individual circumstances.Issued in Europe: Issued by FIL Investments International (FCA registered number 122170) a firm authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, FIL (Luxembourg) S.A., authorised and supervised by the CSSF (Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier) and FIL Investment Switzerland AG, authorised and supervised by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA. For German wholesale clients issued by FIL Investment Services GmbH, Kastanienhöhe 1, 61476 Kronberg im Taunus. For German institutional clients issued by FIL Investments International – Niederlassung Frankfurt on behalf of FIL Pension Management, Oakhill House, 130 Tonbridge Road, Hildenborough, Tonbridge, Kent TN11 9DZ.In Hong Kong, this content is issued by FIL Investment Management (Hong Kong) Limited and it has not been reviewed by the Securities and Future Commission. FIL Investment Management (Singapore) Limited (Co. Reg. No: 199006300E) is the legal representative of Fidelity International in Singapore. FIL Asset Management (Korea) Limited is the legal representative of Fidelity International in Korea. In Taiwan, independently operated by FIL Securities (Taiwan ) Limited, 11F, 68 Zhongxiao East Road., Section 5, Xinyi Dist., Taipei City, Taiwan 11065, R.O.C. Customer Service Number: 0800-00-9911#2IC18-1