‘We’ll never get free
Lamb to the slaughter
What you gonna do
When there’s blood in the water?’
I started this post on March 11, 2020. It was not a good day. Today is March 12, and it is worse. Much worse. Historically worse. Originally, my quote was from the old disco song Le Freak by the one hit wonder Chic:
‘All that pressure got you down
Has your head spinning all around’
Today, with markets down about 10%. To simply ‘Freak Out’, as Chic sung, didn’t seem to have the gravitas that the day demanded. The much darker and edgier song by indie artist Grandson seemed more appropriate. In that song, Mr. Grandson asks a very appropriate question: ‘What you gonna do when there’s blood in the water?’ That seems more appropriate.
While this market action can be primarily attributed to the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic, there are other factors. Disagreements in OPEC+ which contributed to the oil markets to falling 43% during this crisis are also playing on investor fears. Oil at $30 is disastrous for US producers, many of which are already struggling. This has caused spreads on energy companies to widen by almost 200bps, from 250bps pre crisis to 437bps today. There are likely to be bankruptcies, stoppages of operations and other disruptions for US producers. These rapidly falling markets and increasing volatility can make even seasoned investors act in irrational ways. Especially when just weeks ago we were happily running with the bulls pretending every day was July in Pamplona.
One minute I held the key,
next the walls were closed on me.
And I discovered that my castles stand,
upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.’
Coldplay, Viva La Vida
In a crisis, it can be difficult to step back and look at the big picture. And this crisis is different from others. It’s a pandemic, not a tech bubble. For anyone who doubts the seriousness of the pandemic because we ‘only’ have 1200+ cases in the US, turn to the world of professional sports for a measure of the gravity of the situation.
The NCAA March Madness tournament is cancelled. It is estimated that the NCAA makes over $1bn off the tournament. Cancelling was not done in haste, no one cancels $1bn in revenue on a whim. The NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons too. This will also be very costly. Of course, the sports world isn’t alone. SXSW is cancelled (Austin, don’t be Philadelphia 1918!). Schools nationwide, canceled. Comic-Con, canceled. The list goes on. This is uncharted territory.
You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
U2, Walk On
You and your clients may be filled with a sense of trepidation with these market moves. During the financial crisis I was a portfolio manager of two global equity funds (one long only and one long/short) which had retail and institutional assets invested. While I don’t expect this crisis to reach the same magnitude of the financial crisis, there is no question that this is a severe event from a market and economic perspective. And though every crisis is different, we can learn lessons from the last crises an apply them to this one. These lessons have nothing to do with how to time the market or look for the latest opportunity to profit. These are lessons that I learned while watching markets plummet and on dealing with frantic clients, both retail and institutional that I hope will serve you during these turbulent times.
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out’
Twenty One Pilots, Stressed out
You’re stressed. You are on the frontlines and watching the markets every day. Your clients are losing money and that is hard to watch. If your fees are based on assets managed, your income just decreased. Stress affects everyone differently, but if you are too stressed out, you may not be making your best decisions – for you or your clients. Lowering your stress levels will make you better equipped to deal with your clients and the markets. Maybe turn off CNBC or Bloomberg for a while, stop reading the internet, go for a walk. Figure out something that works for you. It is imperative that you are focused and clear-headed during times of crisis.
‘I said, young man, if you wanna make God smile
Make plans, you’ve got to be ready’
Justin Timberlake, Young Man
Have an action plan. Be prepared to explain the plan. Be able to articulate the plan clearly and succinctly. The plan can be exactly what you had in place before the pandemic struck. The plan can be new, to deal with recent market activity. The plan can be that you are waiting for something to happen, then you will <insert action item here>. But have a well thought out course of action (with contingencies!) for whatever you are going to do. And re-evaluate and alter your plans as you get more information. And be prepared to act.
‘Trouble’s comin’ from time to time
But that’s all right, I’m not the worrying kind
Because I got confidence’
Elvis Presley, I’ve Got Confidence
Have confidence. In your plan, in your ability to navigate your clients through turbulent times, and to be a voice of calm and authority. Remember #1, where I said that you are stressed? Your client’s are too. When they call you, they want to know that you have the situation under control. Have the situation under control. It is what you do. It’s why they pay you.‘I’m like ma bell, I’ve got the ill communications’
Beastie Boys, Get it Together
Communicate. Don’t wait for your clients to contact you – contact them. Be proactive. Send email updates with words of wisdom, market perspective, opportunities, whatever. Call to articulate your plans, listen to their concerns. Call to tell them you’re in control. Even if the message you are delivering isn’t positive, getting out in front to deliver it will add to your credibility.
‘Oh, take your time, don’t live too fast
Troubles will come and they will pass’
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Simple Man
These troubles too shall pass. Heed the wise words of Ronnie Van Zant. Be ready and come out stronger. Both for you and your clients. Freak