Beware the True “Plunge”

Equity

Beware the True “Plunge”

Greg Kolb Greg Kolb, CFA August 2018

Key Takeaways

  • As markets haven't declined very much for very long lately, it's understandable why “plunge” - which we've historically reserved for declines of 20%, 30% or more - is being used for any move downward, no matter how small.
  • However, investors should remember that true market plunges can take attractive historical returns into deeply negative territory, where they can stay for extended periods.
  • Investors who defend their gains in a down cycle should be better positioned to outperform over the long term. As a result, we believe it's important to focus on building a resilient portfolio, asking “What could go wrong?” at the individual stock level and working to reduce correlations across holdings.

A running joke among a few of us here at Perkins involves the use – and recent misuse – of the word “plunge.” Breathless headlines such as “Stocks plunge, end day 1.4% lower” strike us as amusing. Since when does plunge indicate a relatively minor loss in the financial lexicon? We’ve invested through so much turbulence and wild swings over the years and have come to understand plunge as appropriate for larger declines of 20%, 30% or even more.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, in this case of the great bull market we are enjoying. After all, language does evolve. As Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan notes in her TEDx talk titled “What makes a word ‘real’?” English is a living language, with a constant flux of new words entering and others dropping out. A word’s meaning can even change quite radically. She gives the example of “peruse,” which at one time meant careful reading or examination but now more commonly suggests a mere skimming of material.1 Complacency is “in,” so to speak. As markets haven’t declined very much for very long lately, it’s understandable why plunge is being used for any move downward, no matter how small!

However, we might want to wait a bit longer before modifying our dictionaries. Given the intense focus on recent performance among many participants in financial markets today, the three- and five-year trailing results are enjoying particular prominence.Viewed through this point-in-time perspective, many broad stock indices and investment accounts currently have glittering performance, no doubt leaving many investors feeling flush. But is it really this easy? And what, if anything, do those historical results suggest about what lies ahead? Consider instead a rolling three- and five-year perspective to gain a better sense of the investing experience over time. This view shows that steep drawdowns are part of the journey and can dramatically alter portfolio returns for the worse when they occur. True market plunges can take shiny historical returns into deeply negative territory, where they can stay for extended periods.

 

Exhibit 1: Rolling Cumulative Total Returns For MSCI World Index SM

Exhibit 1: Charge-Off Rate For U.S. Commercial Bank Loans | Perkins Investment Management

Source: Bloomberg. Daily data are from 7/1/99-7/31/18.

Many investors have neither the wealth nor the temperament to endure steep or long-lasting declines in their portfolios. Significant losses are difficult to recoup, as future gains compound off a lower level of capital and an investor will rarely enjoy the benefit of a new stream of income to aid in the recovery effort. Moreover, it is psychologically challenging to stay the course or – better yet – add to holdings when markets and portfolios are experiencing turbulence. While the early and late 2000s were good times for deploying capital into the stock market, doing so was uncomfortable. Even remaining invested required significant discipline. Casually allowing “plunge” to be redefined as a modest move down is naively forgetful of this history and of market dynamics in general, and we believe this temptation to forget about risk in investing should be avoided at all costs.

Defending gains realized during the great bull market will require a resilient portfolio, in our view.

Defending gains realized during the great bull market will require a resilient portfolio, in our view. This begins at the individual stock level by specifically asking the question “What could go wrong?” in addition to considering the brighter scenarios. We believe companies that are not overly economically sensitive and have revenues that are highly diversified by customer and repeat purchases are attractive. Our analysts are identifying attractively valued stocks of this type across consumer staples, large-cap health care and with select “industrial staples” holdings. We are also intrigued by “off-the-beaten-path” companies that are not as well known in the investment community and are, therefore, perhaps not as richly valued and vulnerable to drawdowns as more mainstream stocks.

Resilience is also a crucial consideration at the portfolio level. Given the radically easy monetary policy that central banks around the world deployed in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it is perhaps to be expected that the bull market has been broad in nature. Monetary policy is a blunt tool. This suggests to us the converse may also be true: Risk derived from generous, but likely temporary, financial conditions permeates the global stock market. Therefore in addition to buying carefully vetted individual stocks with conviction, we think investors should emphasize variety in their portfolios. Reducing correlations across holdings will be an important risk-mitigating feature when turbulence returns, in our view.

Our thoughts on the changing financial lexicon are more anecdotal than scientific, to be sure. Still, investment cycles have their tops and it may prove beneficial to consider the indicators, even those of a subjective nature. In our experience, investors who defend their gains well in the next down cycle will by extension be better positioned to outperform over the full cycle vis-à-vis those who lag in a sell-off.

We wish you an enjoyable end to your summer and thank you for your co-investment with Perkins Investment Management.

Greg Kolb
Chief Investment Officer,
Portfolio Manager

1. https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_curzan_what_makes_a_word_real

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