‘What are you doing with Terry’s money?’
This is the most important question I have ever been asked as a professional investor and it seems especially important in an environment where both equity and bond prices have fallen sharply. The reason this question is so significant is it encapsulates three core tenets of investing. Still, before we dig into these tenets, let me tell you more about Terry.
Terry is a retired coalminer who lives in the Midlands and has entrusted his savings to the team at an adviser that has, in turn, invested those savings in a Morningstar managed portfolio. Terry is not a typical client for this adviser but he has been with them for a long time and the team care deeply – and obviously – about making sure he is well looked after. Hence, we were posed this question by the adviser team when reporting on the progress of the portfolios.
The first element of this question that deserves our attention is the fact it is focused on a person’s money. In a world where professional investors tend to spend our time focused on index levels and percentages, comparing our returns with benchmarks and peers, it is vital to remember that we are making decisions about money.
This money has the power to transform lives for better or for worse. Our clients are ultimately unconcerned by our quartile rankings and benchmark-relative returns but are instead rightly focused on whether they are progressing towards their financial goals and will be able to support themselves in retirement.
Aligning ourselves with this view can be challenging – especially when experiencing a valuation bubble, such as the one we have seen in technology stocks over the last couple of years. It is essential, however, if the work we do is to be of benefit to our clients and society as a whole.
As professional investors, we typically manage pools of money on behalf of a large number of investors. This pooling approach has transformed professional investment from a service that was only available to the wealthy and made it accessible to all. The drawback of pooling, however, is it is easy to forget we manage money on behalf of individuals, each of whom has a unique situation.
While we cannot know each of these investors individually, when making decisions about the portfolio, it is essential to keep in mind how these decisions will impact Terry. For our part, we summarise this approach as ‘putting the end investor first’, which forms our first and most important investment principle. By focusing on an individual rather than a group, we can reduce the psychological distance to those we are trying to serve – which in turn can help us make better decisions on their behalf.
The future not the past
Note too that the question is not ‘What have you done with Terry’s money?’ but ‘What are you doing with Terry’s money?’ The importance of the future is implied in the question but, unfortunately, is easy to forget when working with clients.
At the recent Morningstar Investment Conference, more than two-fifths (44%) of the advisers who responded to a poll reported their clients ‘have clear financial goals we are working towards’ – yet less than one-third (30%) of advisers reported spending the majority of their client meetings focused on progress towards those goals. This is a similar proportion (31%) to those who reported spending most of their client meetings focused on markets and past performance.
We know that focusing on the past can trigger the behavioural biases that are so harmful to investors, yet we still tend to focus too much on the things we cannot change in the past and not enough on those we can influence in the future. This latter point is especially relevant in the current environment where the outlook for investment has changed significantly over the last six months and requires us to approach the future with fresh thinking.
As we do this, it is essential to have a clear mental framework for assessing opportunities and avoid being ‘whipsawed’ by changing economic and geopolitical circumstances. Within our own team, we use valuation as our guide. While this is not the only way to invest, we have found it to be the approach that is best aligned to the welfare of our end-investors and helps us avoid accepting risks that are uncompensated by higher expected returns over the long term.
Whatever approach you use yourself, I would encourage us all to remain focused on the first and most important question when making investment decisions – so what are we doing with Terrys’ money?
Dan Kemp is global chief investment officer at Morningstar Investment Management