Kate Rogers: Be ready for the next downturn - it will come

Having a conversation while the waters are calmer will make managing any storm easier

Kate Rogers
Kate Rogers

History tells us growth is cyclical, investment markets don’t go up in straight lines and there are periods when stock markets fall dramatically. Unfortunately, what history doesn’t provide is a crystal ball, a way to forecast future downturns. We know these downturns will come along periodically, but not when or why.

It is now more than 10 years since the last global financial crisis, a period that was painful for many charity investment portfolios. In 2008 the average charity investment portfolio fell by 20 per cent.

Since then, markets have been kinder and asset values have rebounded, bolstering charity balance sheets. But is there a danger that we become complacent, that we begin to expect the friendly upward markets and aren’t ready for the next bump in the road?

According to our research last year, the average trustee tenure is five to nine years, suggesting that many trustees won’t have experienced a downturn in markets.

The good news is that your investment managers should be ready. That is because we build the most appropriate long-term investment strategy for each charity, using history as a guide. This history includes downturns – indeed, the analysis assumes they happen. But it also assumes that trustees and investment committees are able to stick with their investment strategies when the going gets tough.

Research consistently tells us that the worst possible time to sell is the time of maximum pessimism, and that the best thing to do in a crisis is to remain rational – which might even mean buying more. For example, in 2009 the average charity investment portfolio was up 19 per cent.

So how can we ensure that happens? How can we build the financial resilience of our organisations and people to be ready for the next downturn? We know that sharp falls in markets provoke emotional responses such as anxiety and panic. Perhaps having a conversation ahead of time, when the waters are calmer, would make managing in the storm easier.

How about asking "what-if" questions of your investment committee to help identify the core principles that you’ll use to guide you through challenging market conditions? Such as: "What would happen if the portfolio value fell by 20 per cent?"; "How would the investment committee react?"; and "What would be the impact on the organisation’s broader finances?" These should help identify pinch points.

For what it is worth, these are my top three suggestions. First, identify the likely cash-flow needs from your investments. Make sure there is enough cash at the bank to meet expected outgoings and examine the implications of a multi-year decline in asset values.

Second, where possible, hold your nerve, and resist the urge to run for the exit in tough times. This can be helped by all trustees understanding the investment strategy and knowing that downturns are a normal part of investing. Third, be open to opportunities: with the right mindset, downturns in markets can provide wonderful opportunities to buy good assets at cheap prices.

I’m not predicting the timing or the cause of the next downturn – I can’t do that. But I can encourage my clients to be prepared, so that they are resilient when the storm hits and emotions run high.

Kate Rogers is head of policy at Cazenove Charities

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