Ask the expert: art, science, philosophy and investment management
Investment managers, and financial experts in general, need a mix of humility and assertiveness to deliver the best possible service to their clients, according to Olivier Goemans, head of investment services and innovation at Banque Internationale à Luxembourg. In an extensive interview, Goemans argues that while successful investment requires a willingness to keep learning throughout a career, it also needs the foundation of a philosophy that remains constant amid the inevitable fluctuations of the market and vagaries of the economic cycle, and that can enable clients to understand why, for instance, managers do not simply place all their bets on a booming stock market.
An essential element of the process, he says, is understanding the human factor that plays an important role in the ebb and flow of securities markets – and the foibles and biases which, if not properly recognised and understood, can hinder investors’ ability to realise their goals.
Humility is essential to an investment process that is as much an art as it is a science – and where the science is mostly about understanding human motivations and interactions. “While we use quantitative analysis, at the end of the day it is human behaviour that lies behind it,” Goemans says. “There is a lot of art in our economic models, a lot of assumptions about the future.”
Yet assertiveness in the reading of markets and divining the interplay of economic and political factors is the other side of the coin. “We need convictions without being over-confident about our assumptions, because it is forecasting about what human beings will do in the future,” he says. “Behavioural finance is an important driver of financial market dynamics. Nevertheless, we should have convictions – that’s our job.”
As we seek to generate growth within our portfolios, we have to keep in mind that it is private wealth that has taken a long time to build up.
While Goemans and his colleagues have views on the state of the markets and a perspective on the future, liable to modification according to market dynamics and changes in their assumptions, underlying the bank’s approach is a management philosophy that may not be “written in stone” but shapes the way the investment process and asset allocation are determined. “That doesn’t mean we have to stick with it for the next 50 years,” he says, “but it should be a long-term an anchor for the way we work.”
The investment philosophy reflects lessons learned from the financial crisis a decade ago, and its impact on the bank’s private investor clients: “We defined our philosophy in accordance with the expectations, needs and objectives of our private clients as we understand them. It is a key factor in our differentiation and positioning in the industry.
“As we seek to generate growth within our portfolios, we have to keep in mind that it is private wealth that has taken a long time to build up. For instance, while we espouse active investment, being able to explore the upper and lower limits of our mandates, it’s a common-sense approach. For example, high-frequency trading is no part of it. We are not carrying out active investment simply for its own sake.”
The importance of diversification
As the cornerstone of the investment approach, the philosophy is shared and discussed with the bank’s clients on a regular basis. “Because I can’t predict the future, what I communicate to prospects and clients is our humility, our passion for what we do, and our active approach to managing private wealth,” Goemans says.
“While we are not benchmark-agnostic, I could never be happy telling clients that we performed well by losing only 20% while the market fell by 25%. It also means that in management for private clients, we are also somewhat oriented toward a value style, which is not common in the industry. Naturally we like growth stories, but we also keep in mind the value dimension.”
Following the much-publicised multi-year boom in US stocks, it’s important to convey to clients that the equity markets are not a one-way bet
Following the much-publicised multi-year boom in US stocks until 2020, it was important to convey to clients that the equity markets are not a one-way bet. “A key ingredient in our philosophy is to strike the right balance between conviction and diversification – which is not a ‘nice-to-have’, but a ‘must-have’,” Goemans says. “It’s not always easy to convince clients of the benefits of diversification when stock markets look an easy trade. Since the start of the pandemic, this philosophy has been much better heard”.
Investment power of positive thinking
He adds: “In addition, the idea we can protect capital is largely wishful thinking. Capital protection techniques do exist, such as hedging and deleveraging the portfolio in line with the market’s dynamics, but they are complex and expensive. Diversification is the only free lunch. We cannot time the market, so we have to build a portfolio that can navigate through different market conditions.”
He quotes approvingly the Curious Investor podcast from US quant manager AQR Capital Management: “It turns out superstar geniuses [like] Warren Buffett, Bill Gross, George Soros and Peter Lynch … don’t have a magic touch at all. Each of these winning investors went through bouts of prolonged underperformance. But what made them stand out was that even when the going got tough, they had the conviction to stick to their philosophies.” Says Goemans: “This is really the case for having an investment philosophy.”
He is a great believer in a positive perspective on the world, which makes it easier to avoid carefully thought-out strategies being derailed by negative headlines. “Bad news is more impactful than positive news flow. However, the frequent perception that the past was better than the present is not borne out by careful study, even if positive developments may not be easy to quantify or document. If you look at the world, there are still huge problems of inequality, but objectively the proportion of the global population living below the poverty line has decreased. More people in the world are over-eating than starving.”
An optimistic viewpoint underpins the benefits over the long term of compound interest: “The way I pitch it to clients, at the start compound interest is extremely boring, but as you climb the complexity curve, it gets increasingly exciting.
“If you have long-term investments, the sooner you start the better, as long as you properly manage the balance of risk within your portfolio. We also advise clients to take advantage of dollar cost averaging, to direct part of their savings into an investment scheme on a regular basis. In the event of a market correction, they add to their portfolio at a lower cost.”
A fundamental element in successful portfolio management – one applicable both to investment professionals and to their clients – is curiosity, Goemans says. “I believe it’s vital never to stop educating yourself. It’s a never-ending story: financial markets, the economy and society are living and moving animals.
“It’s not enough to be a geek expert in the technical aspects of the markets – we need to be passionate about educating ourselves. We are increasingly competing with machines and we need to use them, but that does not take away the importance of learning about a lot of things and doing so on a continuous basis.”
We cannot time the market, so we have to build a portfolio that can navigate through different market conditions.