As the world grapples with COVID-19 and the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, global stock markets surpass all-time highs. These conflicting outcomes are cause for both contemplation and caution.

Warren Buffett reminds us that "risk comes from not knowing what you're doing", this message has never been so important.

Nobody knows what is going to happen next.

There is simply no precedent to the major events playing out across the world. There is so much uncertainty, that quantifying the collective impact on financial markets is impossible. In the last 12 months alone, we have experienced: devastating bushfires, the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, an oil price war, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, a global recession, record unemployment, unequalled monetary and fiscal policy, and extreme volatility across currency, debt and equity markets.

Uncertainty is at a peak.

And an uncertain world is the worst possible environment for financial investment. It becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify risk.  

Yet recently we have witnessed widespread risk taking by those unaware of uncertainty’s danger. This is occurring with ever increasing vigour as financial markets dislocate away from fundamentals.

In the last 3 months alone, I have had countless people ask me "how to buy shares". I have heard of ‘financial advisors’ advocating for superannuation withdrawal so that clients can ‘start trading’ (on margin!). And I have had numerous people ask me if they should buy Tesla, Afterpay or Amazon shares as "valuation does not matter in today’s globalised world".

Not one of these people have mentioned price, valuation or risk. In many cases, they don’t even know the stock code to purchase the security. I don’t write this to criticise, I write this to provide insight into how the market is accounting for risk. And today, it frequently isn’t.

As a result, volatility and unpredictably has drastically increased. In March due to Covid-19, we experienced the fastest and deepest stock market fall in history, greater than 40%.

This was followed by an aggressive recovery as over $20 trillion dollars was committed globally to combat the virus’s economic impact.

Never before have governments acted so quickly to provide support to the global economy. This fact, coupled with a decade of declining interest rates has elevated sovereign, corporate and personal debt to extreme levels. The world has not experienced a confluence of events such as these, the impact on our economic system has never been tested.

Ric Kayne famously said that "95% of all financial history happens within two standard deviations of normal, and everything interesting happens outside of two standard deviations". We are now operating many standard deviations away from normal, and strange things are starting to happen.

  • Global markets surpass all-time highs as unemployment skyrockets and businesses face widespread insolvency. The NASDAQ is now 10% above its pre-COVID-19 levels and the Chinese market 12% above.
  • Government bond yields have turned negative, -0.50% pa in Switzerland. Just to be clear, this is not supposed to happen. Society is literally paying banks to hold their money.
  • The US Federal Reserve is buying junk bonds (the debt of failing companies) for this first time in history.
  • Hertz, a company in bankruptcy (essentially worthless) has people wanting to buy $1bn worth of its stock.
  • Tesla, a company that makes zero profit, is now worth more than Toyota. In fact, Tesla is worth more than Ford and General Motors combined, despite delivering less than one-tenth of the vehicle sales in 2019.
  • Internet day traders blindly pick stocks from scrabble bags and amass millions of followers.
  • And, online trading platforms promote and gamify day trading. The Robinhood platform for example, utilises falling confetti to celebrate each new buy transaction.

These events are not normal.

The greatest investors of our time are now sounding the alarm, yet many of us are not listening. Warren Buffet holds more than US$130b in cash reserves and continues to highlight the importance of holding cash in a crisis. Jeremy Grantham of investment giant GMO believes we may be experiencing the "fourth major stock market bubble" in his 40+ year career. And Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital talks to significant global uncertainty in his 2020 series of memos, he also questions the veracity of the current share market recovery.

These investing greats are not calling the next bear market, nor another decade long bull run. They know better than to forecast the madness of markets. Rather, they counsel the need for caution given vast and complex global uncertainty.

Australians should to pay heed to this advice and realise that financial markets today are no place for wide-spread speculation.

The eloquent wisdom of Charlie Munger is well suited to our current age, he reminds us that “nobody knows what’s going to happen”. So perhaps we should all stop trying to predict the unpredictable.

These are uncertain times and extraordinary markets.

*This article was originally published by The Australian Newspaper.

About Michael

Michael Skinner is a portfolio manager at Renaissance Asset Management. He also lectures in finance and engineering for the University of NSW and is a honours supervisor at the University of Adelaide.

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Tim Nelson

Your reference to the 95% of financial history made me chuckle. K factor 3, the everything bubble... silly I know, but fun :):)

Jim Stefani

Don’t agree at all. There IS certainty. We know the Central Banks will do whatever it takes to provide liquidity to, and prop up the market. Systemic risk is bypassed, no organisation to big to fail will be allowed to do so. Trade to your hearts content, buy low-sell high, diversify, and take some profits along the way. Inflation manifests strongly in stock prices and will be allowed to run in the market for goods and services if we ever see it. Interest rates will not be raised for a generation, likely never again.

Roderick Lees

As per the previous comment by Tim Nelson I too am somewhat bemused by Michael Skinner's grasp of Statistics. "We are now operating many standard deviations away from normal...." While I understand this comment is only meant give emphasis to what is being said and perhaps not taken literally it is somewhat questionable. If we were "many standard deviations from normal" we would be in a position that only occurs less that 0.01% of the time, assuming a Gaussian or Normal Distribution. Many of us have Post-nominal or letters denoting the qualifications we have that we can put after our names. But this pedant expects better from someone who seems to have graduated from one or more of Australia's major Universities and holds positions at more than one. Kindest Regards Rod.

Justin Baiocchi

"I have heard of ‘financial advisors’ advocating for superannuation withdrawal so that clients can ‘start trading’ (on margin!). " That is the first time I have heard that. Is there any evidence to support your statement? There is no way that an advisor can make such a statement and not fall foul of the best interests duty. I would be surprised that any adviser would put their career on the line by giving such 'advice'.