Forced sellers and other distractions

Disorderly divestments create confusing market dynamics

Last week could be characterised as an “orderly” repricing of equity markets to the consequences of COVID-19 disruptions. This week has seen second-order market dynamics, driving valuations down to levels which do not seem particularly rational anymore.

Are we back to a systemic crisis, the return of a global financial system teetering on the brink of collapse as it did back in 2008/2009? The answer is a firm and resounding ‘No!’.

This time the source of the stock market downdraft is not the financial system itself, but an external shock to global economic activity. Given such shocks happen far more frequently than banking crises and the resilience of the financial system is stronger following the financial crisis of 10 years ago, we see far less stress across the financial system overall.

Nevertheless, stock and bond markets are displaying levels of apparent disorientation as they bounce between brutal sell-offs and staggering recoveries, suggesting that distressed sellers are dominating the markets. The double whammy of the oil price collapse adding to the growth downgrades from COVID-19 counter-measures has clearly worsened the situation, but not to the extent that it can explain some of the market action we are currently experiencing.

Instead, it is likely that a number of large investors who entered this rapid sell-off with geared/ leveraged investment positions (to catch the growth rebound that was predicted at the start of 2020), are now scrambling to reduce their positions because their leveraged market exposure has put most of their capital at risk (needless to say that Cambridge portfolios do not hold geared investment exposures). To quote Warren Buffet: “Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who has been swimming naked.”

This may provide some explanation why markets are driven down to valuation levels that appear to price in a sustained fall in company earnings – as would result from a lasting recession – even though it is by no means clear that this is the most likely outcome. In other words, we cannot currently gain much insight from market action, except that no-one has more insight than anybody else.

What is very encouraging is the willingness for concerted action between governments (fiscal support) and central banks (monetary intervention). It is easier to agree to protect society as a whole from virus disruptions than bailing out the ‘fat-cats’ of the banking sector as was required 11 years ago. On that note we commend the new chancellor, government and Bank of England on taking the lead amongst the western nations in announcing bold action plans to prevent long lasting economic damage from what increasingly looks like an inevitable but temporary public health crisis.

We read from the UK’s actions, but also some of the extraordinary steps taken by the Italian government to contain the economic fallout at household level, that we may well experience, not only a virus inflicted pause to public live and economic activity, but also a pause to the financial rules and obligations that private households and small businesses normally have to live by. This will feel very uncomfortable for most of us and is likely to confuse markets again, but such action is absolutely what may at some point be required to address this formidable challenge.

In all of this we will not lose sight at Cambridge of the fact that such extraordinary times also lead to some extraordinary opportunities in investments, as too much focus on the very short term leads to buying opportunities for those with a longer term perspective. Historical precedent tells us that this virus crisis will pass and lead to a strong recovery, because the recessionary conditions are related to a passing condition, rather than a sustained deterioration in the general direction of travel the global economy was on before the virus crisis struck.


Lothar Mentel 

Lead Investments Adviser to Cambridge Investments Ltd