In an episode of "The Simpsons," Lisa tells her dad that the Chinese use the same word for both "crisis" and "opportunity"--to which Homer replies, "Yes! Crisitunity!" While many Chinese language experts dispute those prime-time linguistics, I think Homer is onto something.
From a macro standpoint, we're in the midst of massive change everywhere. Laws are being rewritten, regimes are being upended, new technologies are displacing the old, and societal norms reworked at a dizzying pace--much like the systemic shocks induced by such events as the invention of the printing press around 1440, or the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 that connected West to East through the Transcontinental Railroad.
But in those changes as well as those we face today, opportunities abound. Remember that such torrid growth didn't happen seamlessly. It's a story that involved the financing of countless start-ups. A few made it. Most did not. Sources of capital were created and then dried up. New rules were written as profit-seeking investors, speculators, and financiers moved quickly to gain advantage. Then regulators came in afterward to clean up abuses in the boom and bust. Rinse. Cycle. Repeat.
So what's an investor to do at inflection points that are, by nature, murky, unpredictable, and uncomfortable? First, remember that volatility isn't the same thing as risk. Stocks rise and fall, but companies keep selling things--generating cash flow and paying dividends.
Technologies, trends, laws, and politicians come and go while some companies and industries flourish as others fade. In short, no matter how we feel about it, the world marches on... and on... and on. The choice? Sit on the sidelines and watch, or steel your stomach and figure out where the opportunities amidst the "crisis" may lie. Several opportunities come to mind.
- Â Emerging markets. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global GDP contributions of emerging markets (on a purchasing power parity basis) will overtake those of developed countries within the next year or so. Numerous stock index, bond, and currency funds give each of us a way to participate.
- Equity bargains. Low-fee exchange traded funds (ETFs) and notes that mimic everything from broad to very specific stock and fixed-income sectors to currencies and bank loans are among the diamonds in the rough left by those giving up on equities over frustration with Wall Street and a constant string of scandals. So many people have washed their hands of European equities and fixed income that these and other legitimate investments are at once-in-a-lifetime valuations.
- Innovation-inducing demography. Our nation's magnanimous immigration policies have helped give the U.S. a younger population on average than any of the other developed countries. A crop of smart, technologically savvy folks could continue to drive innovation--especially as waves of Baby Boomers start to retire and clear the decks--with long-term positive implications for a wide range of small cap domestic stocks, growth, technology, marketing, communications, and health care discovery industries, to name a few.
- Energy. All sorts of people and businesses already are profiting from the extraction boom in the Dakotas and other states--whether it's building contractors, tradesmen, or farmers in Wisconsin looking to sell "fracking sand." Substantially reducing the cost of energy and transporting goods has broad implications, as does the work of firms exploring ways to minimize the environmental impacts of these activities.
These are only a few of many opportunities and don't even include what would happen if businesses reported by the Wall Street Journal to be sitting on a whopping $1 trillion in cash would come off the sidelines and start spending again. Pretty typical Wall Street stuff, I know, but nearly 30 years in the business have taught me to think broadly, act nimbly, expect the unexpected--and, as Homer Simpson reminds us, to look for Crisitunity!
Carol M. Schleif, CFA, is a managing director in asset management at Abbot Downing, a Wells Fargo business that provides products and services through Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and its affiliates and subsidiaries. She welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.