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Moving ahead through uncertainty

The Examiner

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Moneyball.” In the film in which Brad Pitt portrays general manager Billy Beane, who is credited with changing the paradigm of how baseball players are analyzed and assessed for value.

Luke Davis

In a classic scene he gets into an argument with his lead talent scout and tells the scout how tired he is of hearing him say “we know” when determining if a player is going to be a star. Beane makes the argument that they don’t “know” and the sooner they realize this simple fact the sooner their franchise will become successful.

The same can be said for trading in the market. This may be shocking for some of you to hear, especially coming from an investment advisor, but nobody “knows” what will happen next. In fact, my fellow adviser at Stewardship Capital often tells our clients that “the market’s great joy in life is to confound the largest amount of people it can.”

Some advisers will agree with that statement and conclude that therefore “buy and hold” strategies are the only way to go. If you’re young and don’t need the money for decades, this strategy can work. However, if you’re at or near retirement you may not have the time or the temperament to let your balances ebb and flow through an entire market cycle.

That’s why I don’t believe a static investment model is the best way for retirees to be invested. To return to Billy Beane, after coming to the realization that there was no such thing as certainty when it came to major league prospects, he didn’t just throw his hands in the air and say since we can’t know who will succeed and who will fail, we’re just going to keep playing the players we have for the next decade and hope enough of them pan out to win more games than we lose. Instead, with a team of statistical analytics gurus he set forth on a new tactic of measuring probabilities and likelihoods to gain an advantage over opponents.

In stock market investing this technique is called technical analysis. Using statistics, historical data and behavioral principles, firms like ours actively make changes to client accounts based on a variety of factors. I believe this methodology is best equipped to handle times of great uncertainty like the ones we are currently living in.

While it's true that markets are still near record highs, many unknowns could quickly lead us into another massive downturn like the one we experienced this past spring. Many regions both here and abroad are experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases, social unrest has caused waves of violence through many of our major cities, and the presidential election could be close. It’s safe to say uncertainty is at near historic levels.

Given that Wall Street thrives on predictability it’s no surprise to me that market volatility has once again returned. As we move closer to November I believe volatility will only increase. That’s why for the past few weeks we have begun to become more defensive in the accounts we manage. How do we know this is the right move? Simple answer – we don’t. A COVID vaccine could be released to the public tomorrow, unrest could calm, a clear winner could be determined on Nov. 3, and markets could rally.

For us, though, the question is what is the most likely scenario, and for the time being we believe enough danger exists to at least put some money aside just in case.            

Luke Davis is the director of operations and compliance at Stewardship Capital in Independence.