The end of the year is the time to reflect on the past and the beginning of the year is time to reflect on the future.
So how did your portfolio do last year? The Dow Jones Industrial Average for US stocks hit 16,576 with a 26% gain for the year, the best year since 1996. By comparison, the Hang Seng Index performed 3%; Tokyo Nikkei did best at 57% and the Malaysian Bursa ended up 10.5% higher, just a tad off its record high.
On the other hand, the fastest growing economy in the world had the worst stock performance – the Shanghai Ashare index closed the year at -8%. Gold prices fell 27% to $1,196 per oz, whilst property prices seemed to have done well in the US and in China. Bond prices are now extremely shaky, with the JPM Global Aggregate Bond Index falling by 2% during the year.
What is going on?
The answer has to be Quantitative Easing (QE) by the advanced country central banks. The world is still flush with liquidity and since investors are unclear on what direction to invest in, they have reversed the investments in commodities (such as gold), avoided bonds because of prospective rises in interest rates and essentially piled into stocks.
Individual investors like you and I tend to forget that the market is really driven today by large institutional investors, including fast traders with computer-driven algorithms that have better information than the retail and can trade in and out faster and cheaper. It is not surprising that retail investors who have traditionally driven Asian markets have been moving more to the sidelines.
Even institutional investors are not equal. Long term fund managers like pension funds and insurance companies are by and large highly regulated, with restrictions on what they can or cannot buy. So it is not surprising that the biggest money managers are today even larger than banks. Black Rock, the largest independent fund manager alone looks after nearly $4 trillion, larger than most banks in emerging markets.
There are of course two types of asset management – active (where the managers actively invest according to their judgement on your behalf) and passive (where they simply follow the market indices or buy Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that track market indices. According to the Towers-Perrin study of top 500 global asset managers, during the last decade, passive managers did better than the group as a whole.
So should we trust the market experts? I have been reading for years Byron Wien&’s annual Predictions for Ten Surprises for the Year. Byron used to be top investment pundit for Morgan Stanley but he is now working for Blackstone. His prediction of surprises is defined as events where an average investor would assign one-third chance of happening, but which he believed would have a better than 50% chance of happening. He got roughly seven out of ten wrong in 2013, the more relevant mis-calls being the price of gold, a possible drop in S&P500, the price of oil and the A share index.
Bill Gross, one of the top bond fund managers, pointed out that retail investors tend to be conservative, focusing largely on safe portfolios, such as investment grade and high yield bonds and stocks. But institutional investors have gravitated instead into alternative assets, hedge funds and more unconventional assets. Unfortunately, all these assets are “based on artificially low interest rates”. So if low interest rate policies are reversed, investors have to be prepared.
He rightly pointed out that the advanced country central banks are “basically telling investors that they have no alternative than to invest in riskier assets or to lever high quality assets.” But if they withdraw QE or “taper”, then higher interest rates will cause a reversal of investment prices and also cause de-leveraging.
In other words, in order to bail out the world and keep the advanced economies afloat, their central banks are asking global investors to bear quite a lot of the risks of the downside. The smart money might be able to get out fast enough, but most retail investors do not have the skills to time their investments right.
So what should the retail investor do?
Peter Churchouse, who writes one of the best reports in Asia called Asia Hard Assets Report, quoted his son&’s advice as “Buy good companies with strong earnings, strong growth and rock solid management. The world will go on.”
But how do we know which companies have rock solid management? My answer is: watch not what the annual report says (by all means read them), but look at what the management does. I have always tended to shy away from companies with high profile CEOs who tend to win “Manager of the Year” awards.
There is of course, no substitute for solid own research and look for yourself how the company or the economy that it operates in is doing. The consumer or tourist is still the best investor because seeing for yourself gives you a feel of what is quite right or wrong with the country and just visiting the retail outlet, getting a sense of the service quality and the employee attitude would give you first hand what is right or wrong with the company you are investing in.
My favourite economy in Asia right now has to be Indonesia. I spent nearly 10 days over Xmas going through the markets of the most densely populated cities in Java and my conclusion was that Indonesia is on the move – literally. The population is young, mobile and connected. Every other shop seems to be selling mobile phones, cars or motorbikes. The quality of the retail shops, design and service has been improving over the years. And despite the coming elections, there is hope for change.
My bet therefore for 2014 is that if we stick to the better run companies in the stronger economies, we should be better prepared for any tapering of QE to come.
The writer is President of the Fung Global Institute.