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What's the Right Bear Market Strategy?

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What portfolio construction strategies are best suited to handle a possible bear market? That question has been looming larger for advisors and investors alike.

When the U.S. stock market plunged in mid-January, global oil prices were crashing and Chinese stocks had dropped into bear territory. On American soil, signs of fear crept in as investors digested a Federal Reserve rate hike, commodities prices fell and voters faced the prospect of a bizarre presidential election cycle.

On what was arguably the worst day for the markets, Jan. 15, when oil settled below $30 a barrel and U.S. retail sales and industrial production data signaled economic weakness, portfolio manager Laif Meidell decided to move his actively managed exchange-traded fund 100% into cash.

“Support was breaking down in the market,” said Meidell, president of Reno, Nevada-based advisory firm American Wealth Management and portfolio manager of the AdvisorShares Meidell Tactical Advantage ETF (MATH). “It will be a day-by-day process of evaluating trend reversal before we go back in.”

At the same time, Michael Kay, a certified financial planner and president of Financial Life Focus, a fee-only independent registered investment advisory firm in Livingston, New Jersey, was busy reminding his clients that they had worked with him to craft a goals-based financial plan designed to weather periods of volatility.

“The time to change your allocation is when you have a clear view of your particular needs and wants,” Kay said. “If you’re risk averse, it’s not prudent and appropriate to go to all cash in a bear market. I’m telling clients, ‘You just want to turn off Fox Business News and turn on “I Love Lucy” or “The Golden Girls.” Find things that will make you laugh and not cringe, and know we’ll get through this.’”

Theory vs. Practice

Portfolio management in a tumultuous market isn’t an easy job. It’s a time when managers’ resolve on asset allocation strategy gets tested and advisors field calls from clients who worry whether their investments are well positioned. What seems simple in theory becomes more complicated in practice, but putting these pieces together can mean the difference between overreacting and selling out of asset classes at the wrong time.

Technically speaking, a bear market happens when an asset class declines at least 20% from its peak, while a correction represents a drop of 10%. On Jan. 12, nearly half of the S&P 500 Index was in a bear market while the index as a whole slipped in and out of correction territory, according to a MarketWatch report. Just as troubling, the index fell more than 8% in the first three weeks of the year while international stocks in Japan, China and the U.K. had all officially entered a bear market.

What does a bear market mean for advisors and their clients? It means properly adjusting a portfolio for risk and an understanding of financial goals and time horizons. That may involve adjusting the percentage of bonds in a portfolio upward and focusing more on blue chips. And it also means making a rational choice of asset classes before a bear market ever hits.

“Investors should know what they own,” said David Santschi, chief executive officer TrimTabs Investment Research, Sausalito, California. “A lot of people have been reaching for yield and taking on risk, but they don’t know what they’re buying. Even since January, asset prices are still very high historically: stock, bonds, real estate and collectibles. Assets have been expensive for a long time and they still are.”

Knowing what to own in a bear market is tricky, Santschi added. Cash and higher-quality bonds are among the best safe harbors in this period of volatility, he said. “Commodity prices have come down a lot but price action isn’t good, and it could stay like that a long while. I wouldn’t be bullish on gold or energy, especially oil.”

Commodities: Yes or No?

Commodities should be viewed as a trading vehicle rather than an investment choice, according to Ritholtz Wealth Management Chief Executive Officer Josh Brown and Director of Research Michael Batnick.

“We don’t include any slots for commodities in our asset allocation models and we never have. It’s not that they can’t go up, or that we predicted the current rout — it’s that long-term portfolios work just fine without them and their benefits as a diversifier have been overstated by the fund industry,” Brown wrote in a post for his blog, The Reformed Broker, on Jan. 13.

Batnick said people who are hell-bent on gaining commodity exposure would do better buying stock funds. For example, he noted, 8% to 10% of the S&P 500 is in the energy sector while 3% is in the materials sector. Further, many emerging markets countries and companies are correlated to commodity prices.

Along with commodities, high-yield debt, or junk bonds, have taken a tumble. Commodities companies are major issuers of junk bonds, to the tune of 27% of the market in 2014. Further, Third Avenue Management liquidated its Third Avenue Focused Credit fund in December, further tarnishing the high-yield market.

Safe Havens

Investors ran to the safe haven of U.S. government bonds along with gold and the yen in January. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which declines as its price rises, fell in correlation with moves in the price of oil. Yielding as much as 2.25% at the beginning of January, the 10-year briefly broke below the 2.00% level by mid-month.

However, Santschi said he’s not bullish on gold because price action hasn’t been good for a long time and gold can be correlated with the downward movement of commodities.

So where are advisors putting their money? According to a State Street Global Advisors survey released at end-2015, 814 respondents, 54% of whom are affiliated with broker-dealers, reported that their favorite asset classes were U.S. and international equities as well as investment-grade fixed income. Advisors said they were overweight in the technology, financial and health care sectors but underweight in utilities, materials and energy.

Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network, said U.S. companies haven’t been doing too badly, but the energy sector’s terrible results have helped take the market down.

“This decline is probably getting close to the end — oil is not going to zero — but it may still continue for several quarters,” McMillan wrote in a Jan. 26 comment on the cost to global markets of cheap oil.

Fund Flows

The fund market also has felt the effect of the decline. TrimTabs research shows investors running for the exits. U.S. equity mutual funds and ETFs shed a combined $30.9 billion in the first weeks of January, with outflows at their highest in any month since April. Strangely, Santschi noted, global equity mutual funds posted estimated inflows of $1.2 billion in the same period while global equity ETFs redeemed just $3.3 billion, even though these mutual funds were down 9.1% and the ETFs were down 9.9%.

“I think people are waiting for central bankers to ride to the rescue. Europe has a lot of problems, arguably worse than in the U.S., but U.S. investors have favored European stocks in recent years. They seem reluctant to let go of them,” Santschi said.

Heidi Richardson, head of U.S. investment strategy for iShares, apparently shares a view in line with U.S. investors. On Jan. 26, she advised investors preparing their portfolios for volatility to take advantage of buying opportunities in Europe, which remains in a monetary easing cycle that should help regional credit growth and stocks, as well as Japan, where stocks should benefit from sustained monetary policy easing in 2016.

As for robo-advisors, their brief history during a bull run has meant little experience with bearish sentiment. But much like traditional advisors, they are urging their online investors to stay the course with their relatively fixed allocations based on age, risk tolerance and financial goals.

For example, robo-advisor Betterment, in its January 2016 newsletter, reminded investors that market drops are an expected, unavoidable part of investing.

“Remember why you’re investing,” wrote Dan Egan, Betterment’s director of behavioral finance and investing, in “What to Do After a Market Drop.” “If you’re saving for a long-term goal, such as a retirement, your allocation already factors in a short-term market drop.”

Egan went on to say that during the last big market drop, on Aug. 24, 2015, the “vast majority” of Betterment customers followed the robo-advisor’s advice to “stay calm and stay the course,” and did not check their accounts too frequently. Eighty-three percent didn’t log in over the weekend following the drop, and the login rate was about the same as the previous four weekends when the markets hadn’t dropped, Egan wrote.

Inevitable Volatility

Indeed, market volatility can be depended upon, according to Brent Burns, president and founding partner of Asset Dedication, San Francisco, whose independent RIA clients outsource their asset allocations to the firm. Asset Dedication balances the risks of volatility and longevity through a goals- and time-based approach using individual bonds to match a retiree’s income stream.

Taking an historic view, Burns said that dating back to 1926, the S&P 500 and its predecessor index have averaged an annual return of 10.1%. Over the decades, he noted, the index heads downward about 25% of the time. When Burns sees a market like we’re in now, it doesn’t change his resolve or how he makes decisions about building a portfolio or allocating assets.

“Markets are volatile and they will continue to be volatile in 2016, at least what we’re seeing so far,” Burns said. “To get to the 10.1%, you have to take on this volatility. It’s certainly sexier for market timers and stock pickers to talk about switching stocks when the market is overvalued or undervalued. Unfortunately, market evidence shows you can’t do it consistently. I look at stock investments as at least a 10-year horizon, if not 20 or 30 years. In that case, the bear markets of 2002 and 2008 don’t matter. They just become blips in the background.”


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