When the elements speak, elemental forces are unleashed, and it is important, in the middle of this storm, to capture the right tone of voice. Any false attempt to give reassurance, to boast about early success, to bury oneself in clichés, is unhelpful – even worse, it is historic: by the time these words are read, events will have unfolded which make them, as the CD music reviews have it, ‘of historic interest only’. We are a long way from terra firma; at the time of writing, it’s a case of ‘so far, so good’. If this were a tennis match, all we could say is that we’ve had a decent first set.
We have been writing for a long time – too long? – about the cataclysm ahead. If our judgement has been sound, then the maelstrom cannot be put down to a pandemic – utterly unforeseeable, and certainly not predicted by us. The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg; the Ark Royal by a torpedo – both were great surprises, as coronavirus has been. Another way of looking at the fate of the Titanic and Ark Royal is that the former sank because of inadequate bulkheads, the latter because of a flaw in the siting of the engine exhausts. In the long run-up to market dislocation, we were preoccupied with the ship, not the icebergs or torpedoes. The instruments of destruction are always out there. If markets are resilient, they cope with them. The danger comes when they are not, and this has been the centre of our earnest enquiry: where were things going wrong? Where were they headed?
This is a far harder market to navigate than the crisis of 2008 – or the one before it at the turn of the century; in both cases the market dropped by 50%. In the first, you needed to observe just one rule of the road: avoid the tech and media stocks completely. In the second, you needed to know one thing – that loads of borrowing would give way, dislocatively, to loads of de-gearing. In 2008, we had a single insight: that the many people who had borrowed in Swiss francs and Japanese yen, to take advantage of low interest rates, would in a crisis compete to buy these currencies back, to pay off their loans. As that bloody meerkat says, ‘simples’.
This time round, it is neither ‘simples’ nor ‘easyies’. The problem can be condensed into a single idea – where there is borrowing, there is danger – but this does not come with an obvious solution. Leverage has flooded into every asset class. In the world’s portfolios, the most exposed positions have been the first to tumble. But as investors have struggled to re-establish an even keel, they have had to sell the things which are not obviously wrong, simply because these things are capable of being sold. This is not a surprise, of course, but it does mean that there has been, ahead of this rough water, a good reason for not owning any type of asset at all. In many ways, the battle has been less frightening than the eve of battle, when there seemed no certainties of safety.
Here’s an account of our battle units. At the forefront was our catastrophe insurance. In a world in which most people didn’t want to spend good money on protecting against what might go wrong, we chose to buy insurance that would benefit from an abrupt fall in the markets. We felt the micro structure of markets left them vulnerable to ‘gap risk’ (something our Chief Investment Officer Henry Maxey highlighted in the 2019 and 2020 Ruffer Reviews). Insuring against deep trouble in the very near future was relatively cheap, because there were many people who were happy to enter into the other side of the trade – they saw the risk of a tremendous fall in the near future as vanishingly unlikely. Our preferred insurance was in volatility – when markets are racked with fear, they become more volatile, and this is measurable through an index called the VIX. We had a tranche of options which expired, worthless, ten days before the action began. But the next tranche were winners – multiplying in four weeks by around 100 times. We sold (within inches, again, of being time-expired) when they had yet to put in their final double. We also had puts on the American and European stock markets, which did very well. And we held currency and interest rate swaptions (our positioning that long-dated interest rates would rise more sharply than short-dated rates worked, while our judgement that the Japanese yen would do better than the US dollar didn’t work).
In sum, the catastrophe insurance did absolutely everything that might be expected of it. And it is now spent. It is likely to be some time before this insurance again prices at levels that makes it attractive as a defensive investment.
The next defence was – and still is – a position in credit spreads. These spreads reflect the difference in yield between, say, a government bond, and a high-quality corporate bond. For years the spreads had been falling – a phenomenon which occurred in the UK in 1936 – and for exactly the same reason. As interest rates came down, the reality of the diminishing income was more eloquent than the shadow of the fear that a less-sound borrower might default. Victorian grandees wanted to know what their future daughters-in-law were worth – worth was expressed as an income figure, not as capital – and her Ladyship would want a second question answered: was this income from government Consols, or something flakier?
Our investments in credit spreads have protected the overall values of the portfolios, as conventional asset prices have tumbled. As I write, there still seems a good deal more mileage in this idea – we had positioned ourselves just outside the ‘safest’ corporates, as these could be the beneficiaries of Federal Reserve intervention. The Fed has intervened, and it will be interesting to know whether this does in fact stabilise the corporate bond market.