Trapped twice by market's swings

Jack Ablin figured the phone calls would be coming.

Like many money managers, he was faced last winter with clients who wanted out of the stock market, period, as share prices collapsed to 12-year lows and the end of civilization seemed like a reasonable possibility.

Now, with stocks up 50% or more since March -- and the sun still rising each morning -- "guys who pulled the plug want in again," says Ablin, who oversees $60 billion as chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago.

"Sell low, buy higher" isn't the ideal investing strategy, but it's the one plenty of people have had to follow this year to keep their sanity.

Mentally, it was just too difficult for many investors to stay in the market as it crumbled. Five months later, with stocks in a powerful rebound, those same investors face the anguish of watching the boat sail away without them.

Stocks rallied Friday to new 10-month highs after the government estimated that the economy lost a net 247,000 jobs in July, the smallest monthly drop since August 2008. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 13.40 points, or 1.3%, to 1,010.48, lifting its gain from its March low to 49.4%.

The employment report added to the growing body of evidence that the economy has reached some kind of bottom, and may start to expand again between now and year's end.

Of course, as everyone has read, heard and Tweeted by now, the doubts about an economic recovery are legion. The American consumer, whose spending accounts for 70% of economic activity, is tapped out after a two-decade spending spree.

Worse, the ranks of the long-term unemployed have ballooned. And hiring isn't high on any company's priority list as executives and small-business owners remain largely in defensive mode to protect what profit they can.

Wall Street knows all this. But as has often been the case, the market was front-running the economy -- in the plunge that began last fall and again in the surge since March.

When investors collectively sense that the economy has stopped getting worse, their natural inclination is to believe that things will get better, eventually. Hope and greed take it from there.

As horrid as this recession is, one of the beneficial side effects is that Americans are saving money again at a pace last seen in the late 1990s.

But back then people could earn a reasonable nominal interest rate just keeping their cash in three-month Treasury bills, which paid 4% to 5% for most of that period.

Today, short-term cash accounts such as T-bills and bank savings certificates pay next to nothing. So people understand that they have little choice but to take more risk, in bonds, stocks and other assets, if they want to have any hope of rebuilding their nest eggs in their lifetimes.

The problem is, this reality fosters desperation at both ends. A desperate fear of losing is what fueled the tidal wave of selling in the stock market last winter. Now, a desperate fear of not winning is pushing investors back to risky assets, maybe far too quickly.

The obvious lesson is that desperation is a terrible motivating force for investors.

I turn here to Steven Romick, who manages the $1.7-billion First Pacific Advisors Crescent mutual fund in West Los Angeles.

Romick, 46, has been running the fund since its inception in 1993. What sets Crescent apart from most mutual funds is Romick's ability to own almost any kind of asset. He can buy whatever he believes holds the greatest value and best potential return for the risk involved.

And when he believes there's little value at all in risky assets, Romick isn't afraid to keep the fund heavily (though never entirely) in cash. Morningstar Inc. rates his long-term record "superb."

In 2008, a big cash buffer helped limit the fund's loss to 20.6%, when the S&P; 500 index sank 37%.

But as stocks and corporate bonds kept tumbling early this year, Romick aggressively put money to work -- exactly when fearful investors were fleeing.

He now holds about 37% of the fund in stocks, 30% in corporate bonds and 26% in cash-type assets. He also has a small portion of the portfolio in "short" positions, betting on individual stocks to decline.

Romick says he doesn't believe the stock market is wildly overpriced despite the surge of the last few months, and despite the concerns he shares with most investors about the strength of any economic recovery. "I see stocks at pretty close to being fairly valued now," he said.

His eclectic mix of equities includes energy firms such as Chevron Corp. and offshore drilling firm Ensco International, biotech leader Amgen Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

But his biggest winners this year have been the junk corporate bonds he picked up for deeply depressed prices last winter. Now, he says, he's cutting back on many of those bonds because the junk market "has rallied ridiculously."

Crescent is up more than 17% this year compared with the 13.6% gain for the S&P.;

Even this thumbnail sketch of Romick's investment strategy should make clear that he isn't simply a buy-and-hold type manager. He's willing to buy when he sees value -- and sell when value disappears.

The problem individual investors face is that market volatility often drives them to do exactly the opposite of what logic would dictate. That's how the goal of "buy low, sell high" gives way to "sell low, buy high" in practice.

Perhaps the only way to conquer that tendency is to keep a portfolio mix that limits the possibility that you'll be driven to desperation at potential market turning points.

If nothing else, this year has demonstrated that being out of risky assets entirely is itself too risky a strategy for many investors.


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