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How Investors Should Respond to the Continuing 'New Normal'


Manage against downside shocks and focus on higher-quality companies with strong balance sheets that are selling into higher-growth markets, including those that pay healthy dividends.

We recently concluded our Secular Forum, an annual event in which PIMCO investment professionals from around the world discuss and debate our three- to five-year outlook for the global economy and financial markets. The Secular Forum process demands that we focus on the long term and imposes a discipline on us that we believe makes us better stewards of our clients' capital.

Mohamed A. El-Erian published a summary of our conclusions from the Forum, titled Policy Confusions and Inflection Points. And my portfolio manager colleagues are participating in a series of interviews discussing these conclusions.

My goal here is to discuss what our revised Secular Outlook means for equity investors. But first I think it is important to take a moment to review conclusions from prior Secular Forums and objectively consider what has actually happened in the intervening periods. What have we gotten right? What has surprised us?

When "New Normal" Was New

In the spring of 2009, with the US economy and financial markets still reeling from the financial crisis, PIMCO conducted its annual Secular Forum right on schedule. It was during this time that PIMCO first applied the term New Normal to its updated outlook for the global economy. It is important to note that I wasn't at PIMCO at the time – I was still at the Treasury helping to fight the financial crisis. I only joined PIMCO six months after I left government.

As government officials consumed with trying to stabilize the global financial system, my colleagues and I were much more concerned about surviving the next few days or weeks than thinking about the next three to five years. It is noteworthy that an investment management firm had the poise to stop to think about the longer-term outlook during that stressful time.

The New Normal called for long-term deleveraging that would lead to lower growth than society had been accustomed to. It called for more modest investment returns across asset classes, as the leveraging of the economy reversed course. It called for increased regulation and reduced globalization. Most importantly, it said there would be no V-shaped recovery that is typically seen after a recession. It would be a long, hard adjustment period with sustained high unemployment. It also called for a transition of stress from private balance sheets to sovereign balance sheets.

These trends, unfortunately for societies, have played out as my PIMCO colleagues forecasted. I also observe that implicit in their forecast was the assumption that policymakers would be successful in stabilizing the financial system and preventing a collapse. In hindsight, they seem to have been more confident than we in government were at the time. I am glad they were right.

While this may seem self-congratulatory for me to pat my PIMCO colleagues on the back, as I noted above, I wasn't at PIMCO at the time. I am just observing, with the benefit of hindsight, what has actually happened.

While PIMCO's New Normal call has proven remarkably accurate, its implications for equities were less clear.

PIMCO did not forecast that central banks would employ unprecedented aggressive monetary policy via quantitative easing with the specific goal of pushing up the prices of risk assets in an attempt to stimulate economic activity. The QEs have been effective in pushing up equities (see Chart 1 below) and staving off deflation, though the effect on real GDP is less clear. In addition, the New Normal did not forecast record corporate profits that many companies have enjoyed, especially large multinationals.

In the past three years, equities have rallied more than the underlying economic fundamentals would have predicted on the back of extraordinary monetary policy activism and strong corporate earnings.

In addition to muted economic growth, record low interest rates, and sustained high unemployment, extraordinary equity market volatility has been a repeated feature of the past three years.

Chart 2 shows the VIX (^VIX), or volatility index of the S&P 500 Index, over the past 10 years. You can see three fairly clear periods: "old normal," financial crisis and New Normal. As the crisis has spread from corporate to sovereign balance sheets and from the US to Europe, sentiment has repeatedly swung from fear to greed and back to fear, triggering wild swings in equity markets.

Many investors, both individuals and institutions, were truly shocked by the losses they experienced during the financial crisis: The S&P 500 (^GSPC) fell 38% in 2008. After years of gains, many people couldn't believe their nest eggs were being destroyed. This experience has left many investors both scared and scarred – and as heightened volatility persists, many equity investors remain on the sidelines.

Our updated Secular Outlook calls for a continuation of the deleveraging we've experienced for the past few years.

Slow real economic growth in America of 1% to 2%, a likely recession in the eurozone stemming from the ongoing debt crisis, and – and this is really important – slowing growth in the emerging markets of 5%, down from 6% previously. Remember, emerging markets have powered the global economy for the past few years; the US will have to carry more of that load now. But with more moderate overall global economic growth in the next three to five years, markets will be more vulnerable to shocks.

The volatility that equity markets have experienced in the last few years is also likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The crisis in Europe will take years to resolve in part because policymakers there are trying to simultaneously achieve multiple, often-divergent objectives: 1) preserve basic eurozone stability, 2) keep pressure on fiscal authorities to make hard choices and 3) keep inflation in check. These multiple objectives prevent them from taking final, decisive action to quell the crisis. Our base case outlook is continued spurts of crisis and volatility coming out of Europe. These policy and macro factors will likely continue to overwhelm company-specific factors in the short term.

Many investors aren't sure what to do – where to turn for "safe" investment returns in light of this volatility. As I regularly meet with clients and financial advisors, I repeatedly hear a few questions about how to navigate these choppy equity markets that are worth discussing here:

Given the volatility of the New Normal, why should I invest in equities at all? Why shouldn't I just sit in cash and wait it out?

Unfortunately the final end-state for the global economy following this debt-induced crisis is unclear. If the global economy faces deflation, sitting in cash or fixed income instruments will probably be the best option. Purchasing power will increase as prices fall. While a deflationary scenario is not impossible, it is the least likely outcome given central banks' actions to date. More likely is a moderate inflation scenario. Sitting in cash in such a scenario will see purchasing power degrade due to inflation. Equities should perform well in a moderate inflation scenario. This is our highest likelihood outcome.

A high inflation scenario can't be ruled out either. It is possible that central banks could lose control of inflation expectations. In such a scenario cash and bonds will likely perform the worst, with equities next. Real assets and commodities would likely perform best, because prices for those assets should rise with inflation.

Because of the uncertainty regarding the end-state of the global economy and the fact that the only scenario in our view where cash performs well is the least likely, deflationary scenario, sitting on the sidelines is unfortunately not a good option for those who have future liabilities they need to meet. We think a better investment approach is to invest globally, across asset classes, reflecting the likelihood of the various outcomes.

Given our outlook that moderate inflation is the outcome with the highest long-term probability, we believe equities should be a meaningful part of a diversified investment portfolio. Equity investors should continue to focus on higher-quality companies with strong balance sheets that are selling into higher-growth markets, including those that pay healthy dividends.

My clients just can't take the equity market pullbacks. What should I do as a financial advisor?

Many clients are in this situation. From May 2002 to May 2007, during the old normal, the S&P 500 experienced a 5% correction from a recent high five times, or on average of once per year, and a 10% correction four times. In the three New Normal years from May 2009 to May 2012, the S&P 500 experienced seven 5% corrections, more than twice as often, and a 10% correction three times. This increased downside volatility not only has direct financial implications for clients, but also has indirect effects that are important too: The emotional swings are scaring clients into sitting on the sidelines. As discussed above, this could prove very costly if central banks are successful in engineering moderate inflation, let alone high inflation.

We believe clients and advisors should focus on strategies that can be used to manage downside volatility. There are a number of ways to pursue this: 1) Buying higher-quality companies and those with strong balance sheets, because they tend to be more resilient against shocks, according to our research. 2) Buying companies at deep discounts to their intrinsic value. 3) Buying companies offering more immediate return on investment through dividends. 4) Actively hedging the portfolio, with tail risk hedging (which refers to taking a defensive position against extreme market shocks), or other means. 5) Investing in multi-asset solutions that provide diversification and include equities, fixed income securities and commodities in one vehicle.

Is passive or active management better in this environment?

We believe there is a place in client portfolios for both passive and active management. Each has advantages. Passive management tends to be cheaper than active management. But with each pull back in the equity markets, a passive strategy should fall in lock-step with the market. Passive index replication, by definition, has no downside protection against market moves. If clients are alarmed about market corrections, passive management won't help them. A related point that I have written about previously (Teaching to the Test – September 2011) is that many managers associate index investing with taking less risk. Index investing is taking no benchmark risk, but clients are still taking risk – as the S&P 500's 38% loss in 2008 so painfully reminds us.

We believe active management should aim to provide clients with a better experience. That means enabling clients to participate in much of the growth, appreciation and income potential provided by a vibrant equity market, while also actively managing against major pullbacks associated with macroeconomic shocks that we've been experiencing over the last few years. Achieving this – capturing most of the upside while limiting the downside – isn't easy. It requires both deep company-specific analysis and a strong top-down, macroeconomic framework. And we believe it requires investing globally to take advantage of the best possible risk-adjusted return opportunities wherever they are. Limiting the downside likely requires giving up some upside in a rally – and in this environment especially – we think that's probably a good tradeoff. It would be great to be able to limit the downside without sacrificing any upside. Unfortunately that's not realistic – but we believe managing against downside shocks is enormously beneficial to compounding attractive returns over the long term.

Although markets are again focused on risks from Europe right now, sentiment will likely swing back to "risk on" again, and people will wonder what all the fuss was about. And then at some point it will swing back to "risk off." Equity investing in this environment isn't easy or for the faint of heart. With long-term risks of global inflation, sitting on the sideline isn't an option for many people. We think the right approach is to focus on the right companies and to be willing to give up a little upside, while working hard to protect the downside.

Call it the New Normal of equity investing: Three years and counting.

This article originally appeared on PIMCO.
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