A historic downturn indicator has proven accurate again in 2020—but it happened for a reason we didn’t see coming. We provide a plan for investing in a recession.
Last year we published a blog focusing on investors’ concerns that the long-running bull market in US equities was nearing an end and the economy was on the verge of a recession.The impetus for this concern was the inversion of the Treasury yield curve—from 10 years to three months—that occurred over the summer. Some may recall other concerns, such as trade tensions with China and even simply the length of the expansion, which had broken the record of 120 consecutive months set in 2001. But the yield curve was the focus, since an inverted yield curve has historically been a reliable indicator of a pending recession.
That indicator proved accurate again in 2020—but not for any of the reasons we considered then. A virus originating in China in the second half of 2019 spread around the globe, shuttering economies and stagnating global growth. Its impact on the US economy alone has been stunning. GDP peaked in the fourth quarter of 2019 and was in decline for the first two quarters of 2020, meaning we’re officially in a recession. These results aren’t surprising given the rapid shuttering of the economy that occurred in April and the limited reopenings of May and June.
US real GDP growth, annualized
Under normal circumstances, current uncertainty would have resulted from a national election that could shift the balance of power in Washington in less than 80 days. But the election is taking a back seat to a pandemic that continues to rage. As long as this situation continues, it will be hard for the economy to recover to Q4 2019 levels. But the outcome has been entirely different for investors. Let’s take a look at how they’ve benefited while the real economy has suffered.
How long will the Fed’s COVID-19 response help?
Amid widespread job losses and housing fears, several broad-based US cap-weighted equity benchmarks and aggregate bond indexes are near or above their all-time high-water marks. Unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus programs have unequivocally benefited investors. Below is a quick summary of the US fiscal and monetary response to COVID-19 to date, not considering negotiations underway in Washington on further stimulus.
These actions have helped to put dollars in consumers’ pockets and drive real interest rates further into negative territory. But enthusiasm for stimulus programs perceived to benefit wealthier investors may wane as we consider the path forward. The current stalemate in Washington surrounding the next stimulus package provides a glimpse into what this might look like.
10-year constant maturity real rate
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 8/7/2020. For illustrative purposes only. Not a recommendation to buy or sell any security
A three-point plan for investing in a recession
We could see the virus spreading to new hot spots, triggering further shutdowns as the stimulus spigot runs dry, putting equities under pressure. We could also see material vaccine progress sending the equity market to new all-time highs. A whole range of outcomes exists between these two extremes. If history is any guide, we should expect a bumpy path ahead to a brighter tomorrow. Against this backdrop, to invert a phrase from Daniel Kahneman, investors need to think slow, not fast. In short, avoid reacting with emotion and develop a plan thoughtfully, following these steps:
Seeking liquidity from acutely risk-averse markets can be painful, forcing investors to realize a loss and eliminating potential for recovery. Investors need to consider the income required from their portfolio and develop a plan to generate it without liquidating growth-oriented assets for a defined period of time. An allocation to lower-risk assets, like Treasuries or high-grade municipals, may tide investors over during future dislocations. The goal of a liquidity plan is to give a portfolio time to recover from a stressful event.
Is it adequately diversified? Does it have holdings that are expected to perform reasonably well in any environment, regardless of economic growth or inflation? Most advisors can assist investors if they feel their portfolio lacks this level of diversification.
Short of a high level of conviction in a specific asset class, the diversified policy portfolio is what the investors want to own. Achieving this outcome means adjusting on day one to get an actual portfolio aligned with the policy portfolio’s targets and putting in place a methodology to rebalance back to the targets as markets move in the weeks and months ahead.
The bottom line
Today’s uncertainty is arguably higher than one year ago as the ongoing pandemic drives economic outcomes. There’s plenty of opportunity for the situation to get worse before it gets better. Careful planning and a range of tools tailored to specific client goals will allow investors to navigate these challenging times.