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Ongoing policy failures, soaring inflation and a generation of investors with a skewed sense of risk

29 June 2022 Charles-White Thomson, Chief Executive Officer at Saxo Markets UK

Moral hazard has skewed retail investors’ approach to risk, with the view that central banks and policy makers always ride to the rescue of investors, providing portfolio safety nets, with cheap money and loose monetary policy and that is a high-risk strategy.

The recent large price declines, US equities entering a bear market, and extreme falls in the more speculative end which includes crypto currencies, is a salutary lesson and a reminder that in the end it is the responsibility of the individual investor to build a ‘safety net’ for their portfolios and not central banks. It is also worth noting that rampant inflation means that it is very difficult to flood global markets with money or cut interest rates.

In general, we are now in reverse and those who listen to the sounds of the markets will hear the ‘suction noise’ as liquidity is withdrawn. Unlike before, where bad news was seen as good news as it triggered more quantitative easing or rate cuts – now, bad news is just that, bad news. We are in difficult markets with very accommodative monetary policy and rock bottom interest rates in most parts behind us.

There will be exceptions on the way, for example the European Central Bank’s new ‘anti-fragmentation instrument’ – a mechanism that will prevent eurozone governments paying substantially different financing costs.

But managing and taming inflation is the main focus for central banks as seen with the Federal Reserve’s increase in rates by 0.75 percentage points. This is challenging and opens the way for one of my major concerns - policy failure or mismanaging the interest rate / inflation conundrum and damaging economies, consumers and financial markets. Take the United Kingdom – the last time we saw this sort of inflation was during the 1970s, which means the current decision makers are on new ground.

As I review the last 12 months, I have found that the subject of Moral hazard, basic risk management, downside protection or making money when markets decline has been largely ignored. These are viewed as esoteric subjects for the ‘hedge funders’ and some institutional investors or just not thought about at all, and that buy the dip is the underlying strategy.

To add to this, wealth managers in general have not prepared their retail clients for these highly challenging markets. This is a missed opportunity and an increasingly expensive one as retail investors review the performance of their portfolios. Perhaps the market shocks we are seeing now will encourage retail investors to explore this more thoroughly with a focus on – diversification, active risk management, low leverage and a greater understanding of all the gears the portfolio has.

I would encourage retail investors to be demanding of their wealth managers and to ensure they have access to the ‘different gears’ of a portfolio at a fair price. Ignore the rhetoric that the risk management process is too complex – it is not, especially if delivered and presented well.

This message also applies to those investors who are heavily weighted to the UK biased FTSE 100, which has recently outperformed global markets. It’s not difficult to paint a challenging picture for the UK – significant inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, a stretched consumer, a heavily indebted government, high taxes, and the interest rate / inflation conundrum.

Therefore, the lesson should be not to rely on central banks to bail out markets. We are in a period of sustained volatility and how investors manage this ‘risk’ will be key to how their portfolios will perform.

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