Markets hate unpredictability. Yet, since the election of Donald Trump, investors are faced with massive doses of it every day.
Few of us ever conceived of a United States president lashing out in tweets about everything from his "beleaguered" Attorney General to a "Low I.Q. Crazy" TV journalist who was "bleeding badly from a face-lift." Not only does this conduct seem beyond uncharacteristic for the leader of the free world, but it also creates a pervading sense of purgatory while we wait for the next bizarre barrage.
It's not only tweets. The current administration has brought us head-spinning iterations on health care insurance - dismantling, replacing, reinstatement, as well as travel-bans, travel-ban bans, and Supreme Court confirmation of partial travel bans. The gyrations are mindboggling.
As the CEO of an investment company, I have tried hard to adopt an attitude of dispassionate observation in which to regard the sensationalist aspects of each day's pronouncements. While that approach has worked reasonably well for my own state of mind, it fails to assuage the clients who ask us constantly, "How are you responding to such unpredictability?"
Actions that we have carefully chosen based on a range of possible market conditions, government policies, and consumer preferences are suddenly thrown a wild curve ball in the person of Donald Trump. What's a manager to do?
We need to take a deep breath and remember two key points: we are already conditioned to life in a very fast paced world, and many of us have worked with superiors or under CEO's at some point in our careers who are impulsive and unpredictable.
If one of our chief fears is that we are operating today in an environment susceptible to more radical change than ever before, I would suggest that this risk might be overstated. The real world is very messy, with shifting directions, new players, and novel platforms that seem to emerge overnight into dominant forces.
For example, ten years ago, how many sages would have predicted that we would have every player in the auto industry racing to develop a driverless car. Five years ago, who would have predicted that Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google would be devoting over $12 billion a year, collectively, to compete with the existing film and television studios? Those represent game altering moves in transportation, technology, and media. Anyone involved in these industries needed to either anticipate or respond quickly to that shifting sand or sink.
To suggest that the corporate battlefields today contain more unexploded mines than in the past is a clear sign of amnesia. Although there have been countless "Wow" moments, all-cap tweets, headlines and drooling media coverage, there have been virtually no changes when it comes to promised pre-election programs such as tax reform, infrastructure spending, and repatriation of cash hordes held overseas. Successful executives and investors embed unexpected market swerves into their decision-making, so why not plan for a couple more?
The other "comforting" factor to keep in mind is that many of us have operated under wildly unpredictable CEO's and have experience navigating around them. What's more, we and our organizations typically survived that interlude. As in corporate organizations where the structure, processes and teamwork determine strategy outcome, democracies rely on multiple counterbalancing branches with systemic protection against dysfunction in any one leg. We might not be giving ourselves enough credit for managing through irrational behavior.
So how should we react to the threat of impulsive conduct and chaos in Washington and widespread potential changes in programs, prices and market conditions?
- Keep in mind that policy and regulatory change comes very slowly. In the real world, or, more specifically, in the United States, one person in government, even the most powerful person in government, has tremendous constraints in terms of the changes that he or she might actually implement by edict. Without a doubt, dictators can get a lot more done, if they choose, than leaders of democracies.
- Have a flexible plan of action. The greater the number of scenarios you have envisioned, the better. Start with the endgame and plot all the roads there, with all the detours in place that you can imagine. The plan needs to be flexible enough so you can change course on a dime, if necessary. That means asking a lot of "what if" questions and making sure you have an answer.
- Try to pay less attention to the external micro dramas, even when they seem critical at the time. This advice might seem callous and insensitive, but similar to panics, such as Ebola reaching epidemic proportions in the U.S., we can get caught up in extreme anxiety and hyperbole. Whether it is the dismissal of the FBI director or insults aimed at the Senate Majority Leader, these may never affect your business and can be a huge time-suck and distraction. Tunnel vision is not a solution but keeping your eyes clear and above the fray is a solid line of action.
- Finally, remember that when you are calm, or at least, seem calm and sensible, the people around you will be positively influenced, reducing the likelihood that a wave of impulsivity careens across your firm. Just don't listen to political talk radio all day. It will raise your blood pressure, no matter who you are!
Commentary by Karen Firestone, chairman and CEO, Aureus Asset Management.
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