Mark Weaver: Five years on, why we can't forget the GFC?

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The experience of the GFC has sharpened the skills of New Zealand's institutional investors, although the practical lessons of the crisis have been predictably dull, says Mark Weaver
The experience of the GFC has sharpened the skills of New Zealand's institutional investors, although the practical lessons of the crisis have been predictably dull, says Mark Weaver

Late last year the world celebrated, witnessed the fifth anniversary of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Traditionally, the birth of the GFC is dated as at the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 (the Obama administration certainly sensed a PR opportunity at the five-year commemoration of the event) but clearly the seeds of the financial disaster formed much earlier.

The collapse of US investment bank Bear Stearns six months before Lehman's went belly up, for instance, might serve just as well as the GFC-starter. Or perhaps the August 2007 implosion of three hedge funds, run by French banking giant BNP Paribas, specialising in US mortgage bonds, marks the true genesis of the financial crisis.
Maybe even New Zealand - quite often the canary-in-the-mine of the global economy - can stake a claim as the harbinger of the GFC, with our series of finance company collapses beginning in 2006.

But we have to draw the line somewhere, and the last quarter of 2008 is a logical dividing point between 'normality' and 'crisis'. At any rate, the 'Global Financial Crisis' phrase itself, quickly reduced to the three-letter acronym form, only entered public consciousness late in 2008 - where it lingers still.

In a note sent out to our clients recently, Melville Jessup Weaver (MJW) contrasted key market data across the five-year time gap, comparing the relative cheer of December 2013 to the miserable low-point half a decade previously.

(In fact, the real market nadir wouldn't be reached until 6th March the following year, an anniversary that a very few prescient, or lucky, investors may honour by raising a glass of Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck champagne.)

Following the trajectory of markets since December 2008 we concluded: "Over the five-year period both equity and bond markets both fell and subsequently rose. There was a delay of nearly three years between the period when the share market started to recover and the bond market bottomed-out, providing a period when an investor could make money in both markets."

And, yes, if investors had timed the markets perfectly during the GFC-induced volatility they would've made serious money - the sad truth is almost no-one would've achieved such perfection. Rather more investors, though, probably bailed out at the bottom and are still playing catch-up.

As the MJW client note puts it: "With hindsight possibly the best and safest strategy was that pursued by investors who not only stayed invested but also topped up their allocation to shares as markets fell. But this strategy needed courage to implement even if one had a prescriptive approach already in place for such an event."

At the time our advice to clients was to stick to their strategies, even if that meant investing more in equities as prices fell to maintain asset allocation ratios: some listened; some didn't.

MJW provides asset consulting including fund manager selection advice to many clients who are usually described as 'institutional' investors. In some ways this is a misleading term as the 'institutions' in question typically represent the interests of a multitude of underlying individual investors, community groups or charities.

The investment decisions of these 'institutions', therefore, have a material effect on, say, the retirement plans of ordinary New Zealanders or the ability of charities to distribute funds to worthy community causes.

Without a doubt, the experience of the GFC has sharpened the skills of New Zealand's institutional investors, although the practical lessons of the crisis have been predictably dull: keep diversified; manage liquidity.

The challenge will be to remember the lessons of the GFC as it fades into history to ensure we all keep evolving into better fund managers and investors.

Mark Weaver is principal of Melville Jessup Weaver, a consulting actuarial firm that advises a wide range of financial institutions and investors on asset allocation and fund selection.

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