Long reads

How to prepare for investing in more ‘normal’ times

Marco Mottadelli

Marco Mottadelli

Head of Global Brokerage, Fineco Bank

Extreme periods of disruption are seldom quiet. When the stock market moves several percent points in the course of a day, headlines scream while opinion writers speculate on the cause. Such was the case in the latest round of serious market volatility in the latter part of the first quarter 2020. As the pandemic swept around the world, indices from New York to Shanghai plunged as investors sought to absorb the scale and impact of this rather unprecedented global challenge. Markets would shoot up at the announcement of stimulus, only to plummet on miserable viral news.

The impact was a massive spike in the VIX, the most famous and well-known measure of volatility. In just a few weeks, the measurement increased eight times, reaching a peak even above the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Newly stuck at home and with additional time, investors piled into the market. Experienced traders doubled down on investments while millions picked up a new hobby. The subsequent increases in volume generated more news and encouraged even more people to take a more active approach to investing.

There’s something that less frequently pointed out about these periods of extreme turmoil – they seldom definitively end. Stories slowly become less frequent, front pages become dominated by new debates and controversies. Editors know that fewer clicks come from calm than panic. The end of disruption is quite frequently indeed quiet.

So it was with the pandemic. After peaking in late March, the VIX began a relatively quick downward trend. By the middle of April it had halved; by May it had halved again. There were some brief upticks around virus resurgence and the American election, but nothing on the scale of what was in the spring. Volatility measurements around major indices the world over have now returned to historic averages, or in some cases are below the norm. Calm has returned to the market.

What this means in practice is that investors both retail and domestic are no longer able to deploy strategies predicated on multiple percentage point swings in companies, sectors or markets with regularity. With some very notable and arborescent exceptions in the realm of digital currencies, calmer markets mean less overall movement. This adjustment will be particularly challenging for those newfound hobbyists who took up investing during the pandemic, as this will their firm calm cycle.

The proper reaction to this change in circumstance should not be despair. Rather a change in tactics is needed, one that takes into account the realities of the current situation. Thankfully this in some ways a return to the orthodoxy of classical investment approaches, although one mixed in with lessons of the past and new technology. Here are three places to start.

Adjust your time horizons. Digital platforms have made frictionless access to investing information possible. The Fineco platform has integrated detailed charting and market data features make it incredibly simple to track the performance of an individual security in minute detail. But just a tool is available doesn’t mean it is appropriate for every task – having a hammer in hand can make everything start to look like a nail. Shift the focus to long-term over or under-performance over the course of months or years. And considering adjusting routines on checking performance to match this more expansive approach.

Expand into other investments. The ‘Gamestonk’ phenomenon highlights a central tenet of this last way of investment: a huge focus on a very narrow range of companies. By February it became common for even the average British investor to be aware of the share price of AMC, a cinema chain that doesn’t even operate in the United Kingdom. All of this made ‘investing’ synonymous with an infinitesimally narrow sliver of the overall capital markets. Now is the time to zoom out. Investors should look at the growing numbers of funds focused on sustainable investing, or look to broaden their portfolio with funds focused on fixed income. Diversification is easier when not spending every waking hour on the gyrations of a meme stock.

Have a broader perspective. Many investors focused on a relatively small amount of their overall network. For some this was ‘funny money’ that they invested in line with the old adage ‘don’t put any money in you can’t afford to lose’. Others chose to focus on a small tranche of their retirement or other savings for active management. Some were successful, some weren’t. Use extra time not spent tracking intra-day movements figuring out the right mix of specialty funds to hit a target retirement date. Synchronise saving and fiscal years to maximise the tax benefits of ISA and similar programmes. Make sure there aren’t unnecessary fees on a chosen current savings or checking account.

The early signs are that this shift is happening. The decline in volatility has not been followed by a subsequent drop in overall investors. At Fineco, we saw growth in new account signups and volumes continue in 2021 – the first quarter was our biggest quarter ever. People who entered the market last year seem to be staying, and in many cases, they are attracting friends. We believe the key to keeping these investors.

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