Martin Gilbert: Sit tight and be patient during wild times

It has been a long time since we have seen such volatile stock and bond markets (14 years to be exact) for the type of market conditions where prices gyrate and liquidity does noit just dry up – it disappears.

In that time, a new generation of financial professionals has grown up. In asset management, they have risen from graduate trainees to portfolio managers during a time of extraordinarily benign markets. You could turn your screen off one evening and feel pretty confident you would come back to the same valuations in the morning.

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You could adjust your holdings and weightings at leisure after doing thorough research. Those markets are no more; volatility has been rising ever since the invasion of Ukraine in February, the resulting surge in energy prices and the inexorable rise of inflation and then saw a dramatic spike after the chancellor delivered his ‘Mini Budget’.

We have not seen the end of it. Inflation is still rising and energy shortages remain a real threat. Global interest rates will inevitably move higher and many companies will feel the effect of more expensive debt. The financial markets are very jittery and there will further shockwaves ahead.

Wild markets are scary places for anyone who has not witnessed them before, especially asset managers whose careers depend on the performance of the funds in their care.

When macro events beyond their control can wipe a quarter of a third off the value of their funds in a matter of weeks, obliterating the gains they have made over years. These sorts of conditions can trigger panic and that panic can do irreparable harm to client portfolios.

I have been in the asset management business more than 40 years and witnessed a series of major market shocks, from the crash of 1987, the dotcom bust in the early 2000s and the financial crisis in 2008. Each time it felt like the world as we knew it was coming to an end.

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With the benefit of hindsight, they were corrections along a growth path, but they have certainly helped me to develop a metaphorical tin helmet.

When I was CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management, I would go out onto the floor in our office near Cheapside at times like these and try to calm my colleagues’ nerves. ‘Do not try to trade your way out of this situation and do not cut at the point of maximum pain’, I would say. ‘I have confidence in you, so sit tight and be confident in your own research and in the quality of the businesses, the shares, the bonds and the other assets you have invested in. Stay close to them and to your clients.

In the end, we are in a long-term partnership with our clients and there needs to be trust and courage on both sides.’

I am not the first person to say the greatest secret to investment is time, not timing, but I do happen to believe it. Invest in high-quality debt and equity and you will generate excellent long-term returns. Treat every market correction as a potential opportunity, rather than a signal to rush for the exit.

Ultimately, this is also a great opportunity for active fund management, which I have long championed. Passive funds have dominated the investment scene in the past decade as the era of cheap money has lifted all boats.

But rising rates will determine significant winners and losers. Identifying them takes careful research, not programme trading. The recent market turmoil has already created significant value disparities, particularly in the London market – they are there for investors with the skill and foresight to take advantage of.

Martin Gilbert is chair of AssetCo and Toscafund

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