Investing, whatever the weather

Published: 22 March 2019

With markets around the world feeling choppier in recent times, investors would be forgiven for eyeing the prospect of a downturn.

We know though that trying to predict all the ins and outs of any storm that might be on the horizon is likely a futile exercise. Even investment banks and professionals find it challenging to know what to expect and will have different views about how the world economy could shake out this year.

A more practical and realistic approach might be to make sure your portfolio is well positioned to stay on course whatever the weather brings.

It starts with diversification

When some assets or markets go up in value, it’s generally the case that others will go down. This is where effective diversification has an important role to play. The idea is to maintain your ability to take advantage of good market performance while naturally limiting any damage from exposure to areas of the market that aren’t doing so well.

At its most simple, this means checking your investments are spread across a range of asset classes, sectors and regions of the world so that the risk of being over-exposed to one market area is reduced. For example you might invest in a combination of shares, bonds, funds, cash, property and perhaps some alternative assets (such as hedge funds and private equity).

Consider investment styles too

There’s another factor to think about that wasn’t a prominent feature the last time investment markets went into a sustained slide. It’s only since the 2008 financial crisis that we have really seen the emergence into the mainstream of passive investments.

There is much debate about whether an active or passive fund management style is best for investors, particularly when markets become turbulent. And each has its merits.

While passive investments (such as trackers and exchange traded funds (ETFs)) seek to follow or replicate a certain index, actively managed funds have the flexibility to make decisions with the aim of outperforming a benchmark index and/or their peers.

On the other hand, passive funds don’t have the flexibility to beat the market and boost returns that way, but they do have lower charges that reduce the size of the bite these might otherwise take out of your long-term returns.

A recent surge in popularity means passive investments now account for some 26% of assets under management in the UK, up from 17% just a decade ago, according to the Investment Association’s 2017/18 Annual Survey1. This comes at a time when regulators are increasingly focused on improving customers’ understanding of the impact charges can have on their investment returns.

The best of both worlds?

Unless you have a strong preference for one style over the other, there’s no reason that active and passive investments can’t both play a key role in portfolios. Indeed, certain differences in the way they are managed and structured can allow them to play complementary roles.

For example, one widely used approach is the core-satellite strategy2. This uses low-cost passive investments at the diversified core of the portfolio, to move in line with indices, and active investments as ‘satellite’ or additional holdings that offer the potential for outperformance.

There are also certain areas of investment markets that can be easier and/or cheaper to access with passive investments. One example is frontier and emerging markets. These tend to be at the more volatile and higher risk end of the investing spectrum but can offer the potential for higher growth too. Take small companies across emerging markets as a specific area you might want to target. One way of achieving this could be to invest in an ETF that tracks the MSCI Emerging Markets Small Cap index3. Whether an investment like this would be right for you would always depend on your own individual circumstances and attitude to risk. We’re just using it for illustration here.

There are other advantages of using both approaches that might depend on your objectives.

If you take a long-term view of investing and are comfortable with riding out volatility, the impact on passive funds of sharp market falls may not be a concern.

If you have shorter term objectives - such as saving for a particular goal – you might be more comfortable with active investments that give you a chance of mitigating the worst of any falls and take advantage of specific opportunities that appear to represent good value.

Investment will always involve risk. But diversification can help you to manage this risk and diversifying investment styles is another string to that bow.

Both active and passive funds can have a role to play in a portfolio, helping you to ensure you’re as well placed as possible to meet your investment objectives, whatever the weather.

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Support for you

Our Morningstar Investment Selector can help you find the active and passive options offered by each fund company on our platform, and within each of the Morningstar or IMA fund sectors.

For passive options, the clue is often in a fund’s name, which may include ‘tracker’ or ‘index’ for example. But if you’re not sure the KIID or PRIIP KID shown in the ‘snapshot’ tab of your screening results should make the fund’s investment style clear.

Important information

This is provided for general information only and takes no account of personal circumstances. It is not a recommendation to buy or sell. It is provided solely to support you in making your own investment decisions. If you have any doubts as to their suitability you should seek expert advice. Alliance Trust Savings does not give financial or investment advice.

Laws and tax rules may change in the future without notice.

Please be aware that the value of investments can fall as well as rise so you could get back less than you invest.


1 Investment Association - ASSET MANAGEMENT IN THE UK 2017-2018 The Investment Association Annual Survey - September 2019 (Pg 50)
2 Investopedia - A Guide to Core-Satellite Investing - 4 May 2018
3 MSCI Emerging Markets Small Cap

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Alliance Trust Savings Limited is a subsidiary of Alliance Trust PLC and is registered in Scotland No. SC 98767, registered office, PO Box 164, 8 West Marketgait, Dundee DD1 9YP; is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority, firm reference number 116115. Alliance Trust Savings gives no financial or investment advice.