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Another Market Crisis? My Survival Manual/Journal!

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I would be lying if I said that I like down markets more than up markets, but I have learned to accept the fact that markets that go up will come down, and that when they do so quickly, you have the makings of a crisis. I find myself getting more popular during these periods, as acquaintances, friends and relatives that I have not heard from in years seem to find me. They are  invariably disappointed by my inability to forecast the future and my unwillingness to tell them what to do next, and I am sure that I move several notches down the Guru scale as a consequence, a development that I welcome. To save myself some repetitions of this already tedious sequence, I think it is best that I pull out my crisis survival journal/manual, a work in progress that I started in the 1980s and that I revisit and rewrite each time markets go into a tailspin. It is more journal than manual, more personal than general, and more about me than it is about markets. So, read on at your own risk!

The Price of Risk

For me, the first casualty in a crisis is perspective, as I find myself getting whipsawed with news stories about financial markets, each more urgent and demanding of attention than the previous one. The second casualty is common sense, as my brain shuts down and my primitive impulses take over. Consequently, I find it useful to step back and look at the big picture, hoping to see patterns that help me make sense of the drivers of market chaos.

It is my view that the key number in understanding any market crisis is the price of risk. In a market crisis, the price of risk increases abruptly, causing the value of all risky assets to drop, with that drop being greater for riskier assets. While the conventional wisdom, prior to 2008, was that the price of risk in mature markets is stable and does not change much over short periods, the last quarter of 2008 changed (or should have changed) that view. I started tracking the price of risk in different markets (equity, bond, real estate) on a monthly basis in September 2008, a practice that I have continued through the present. Getting an a forward-looking, dynamic price of risk in the bond market is simple, since it takes the form of default spreads on bonds, and FRED (the immensely useful Federal Reserve Database) has the market interest rates on a Baa rated (Moody's) bonds going back to 1919, with data available in annual, monthly or daily increments. That default spread is computed by taking the difference between this market interest rate and the US treasury bond rate  on the same date. Getting a forward-looking, dynamic price of risk in the equity markets is more complicated, since the expected cash flows are uncertain (unlike coupons on bonds) and equities don't have a specific maturity date, but I have argued that it can be done, though some may take issue with my approach. Starting with the cumulative cash flow that would have generated by investing in stocks in the most recent twelve months, I estimate expected cash flows (using analysts' top down estimates of earnings growth) and compute the rate of return that is embedded in the current level of the index. That internal rate of return is the expected return on stocks and when the US treasury bond rate is netted out, it yields an implied equity risk premium. The January 2015 equity risk premium is summarized below:

Market Crisis
Implied ERP Spreadsheet (January 2015)

That premium had not moved much for most of this year, with a low of 5.67% on March 1, and a high of 6.01% in early February, and the ERP at the start of August was 5.90%, close to the start-of-the-year number. Given the market turmoil in the last weeks, I decided to go back and compute the implied equity risk premium each day, starting on August 1.

Market Crisis
ERP By Day

Note that not much changes until August 17, and that almost all of the movement have been in the days between August 17 and August 245 During those seven trading days, the S&P 500 dropped by more than 11% and if you keep cash flows fixed, the expected return (IRR) for stocks increased by 0.68%. During the same period, the US treasury bond rate dropped by 0.06%, playing its usual "flight to safety" role, and the implied equity risk premium (ERP) jumped by 0.74% to 6.56%.

I did use the trailing 12-month cash flows (from buybacks and dividends) as my base year number, in computing these equity risk premiums, and there is a reasonable argument to be made that these cash flows are too high to sustain, partly because earnings are at historic highs and partly because companies are returning more of that cash than ever before. To counter this problem, I assumed that earnings would drop back to a level that reflects the average earnings over the last 10 years, adjusted for inflation (i.e., the denominator in the Shiller CAPE model) and that the payout would revert back to the average payout over the last decade. That results in lower equity risk premiums, but the last few days have pushed that premium up by 0.53% as well.

My computed increases in ERP, using both trailing and normalized earnings, overstate the true change, because the cash flows and growth were left at what they were at the start of August, a patently unrealistic assumption, since this is also an economic crisis, and any slowing of growth in China will make itself felt on the earnings, cash flows and growth at US companies. That effect will take a while to show up, as corporate earnings, buyback plans and analyst growth estimates are adjusted in the months to come, and I am sure that some of the market drop was caused by changes in fundamentals. The argument that a large portion of the drop comes from the repricing of risk is borne out by the rise in the default spread for bonds, with the Baa default spread widening by 0.17%, and the increase in the perceived riskiness (volatility) of stocks, with the VIX posting its largest weekly jump ever, in percentage terms.

The Repricing of Risky Assets

When the price of risk changes, all risky assets will be repriced, but not by the same magnitude. Within mature markets, you should expect to see a bigger drop in stock prices at more risky companies than at safer ones, though how you define risk can affect your conclusions. If you define risk as exposure to the the precipitating factor in the crisis, I would expect the stock prices of  companies that are more dependent on China for their revenues to drop by more than the rest of the market. Since I don't have data on how much revenue individual companies get from China, I will use commodity companies, which have been aided the most by the Chinese growth machine over the last decade and therefore have the most to lose from it slowing down, as my proxy for China exposure. The table below highlights the 20 industry groups (out of 95) that have performed the worst between August 14 and August 24:

Market Crisis

Notice that commodity companies comprise one quarter of the group, with a few cyclical and technology sectors thrown into the mix.

Looking across markets geographically, changes in the equity risk premium in mature markets will be magnified as you move into riskier countries and thus it is not surprising to see the carnage in emerging markets over the last week has exceeded that in developed markets, with currency declines adding to local stock market drops.

Market Crisis
Percentage Return in US dollar terms

In the picture below, I capture the percentage change in market capitalizations between August 14, 2015, and August 24, 2015 in U.S. $ terms, with the PE ratios as of August 14 and August 24 highlighted for each country:

via chartsbin.com

Note that this phenomenon of emerging markets behaving badly cannot be blamed on China, since it happened in 2008 as well, when it was the banking system in developed markets that triggered the market rout.

A Premium for Liquidity?

There is another dimension, where crises come into play, and that is in the demand for liquidity. While investors always prefer more liquid assets to less liquid ones, that preference for liquidity and the price that they are willing to pay for it varies across time and tends to surge during market crisis. To see if this crisis has had the same effect, I looked at the drop in market capitalization, in US $ terms, between August 14 and 24 for companies classified by trading turnover ratios (computed by dividing the annual dollar trading value by the market capitalization of the company):

Market Crisis
Liquidity classes, based on turnover ratio = $ Trading Value/ $ Market Cap

Surprisingly, it is the most liquid firms that have seen the biggest drop in stock prices, though the numbers may be contaminated by the fact that trading halts are often the reactions to market crises in many countries, that are home to the least liquid stocks. If this is the reason for the return divergence, there is more pain waiting for investors in these stocks as the market drop shows up in lagged returns.

To the extent that market crises crimp access to capital markets, the desire for liquidity can also reach deeper into corporate balance sheets, creating premiums for companies that have substantial cash on their balance sheets and fewer debt obligations. To test this proposition, I classified firms globally, based upon the net debt as a percent of enterprise value, and looked at the price drop between August 14 and August 24:

Market Crisis
Net Debt/EV = (Total Debt- Cash)/ (Debt + Market Cap - Cash)

The crisis seems to have spared no group of stocks, with the pain divided almost evenly across the net debt classes, with the largest price decline being in the stocks that have cash balances that exceed their debt. Note, however, that the multiples at which these companies trade at both prior and after the drop, reflect the penalty that the market is attaching to extreme leverage, with the most levered companies trading at a PE ratio of 3.11 (at least across the 15.76% of firms in this group that have positive earnings to report). If your contrarian strategy for this market is to screen for and buy low PE stocks, this table suggests caution, since a large portion of the lowest PE stocks will come with high debt ratios.

As the public markets drop, the question of how this crisis will affect private company valuations has risen to the surface, especially given the large valuations commanded by some private companies. Since many of these private businesses are young, risky startups and that investments in them are illiquid, I would guess they will be exposed to a correction,  larger than what we observe in the public marketplace. However, given that venture capitalists and public investors in these companies will be self appraising the value of their holdings, the effect of any markdown in value will take the form of fewer high-profile deals (IPO and VC financing).

What now?

A market crisis bring out my worst instincts as an investor. First out of the pack is fear pushing me to panic, with the voice yelling "Sell everything, sell it now", getting louder with each bad market day. That is followed quickly by denial, where another voice tells me that if I don't check the damage to my portfolio, perhaps it has been magically unaffected. Then, a combination of greed and hubris kicks in, arguing that the market is filled with naive, uninformed investors and that this is my time to trade my way to quick profits. I cannot make these instincts go away, but I have my own set of rules for managing them. (I am not suggesting that these are rules that you should adopt, just that they work for me..)

  1. Break the feedback loop: Being able to check your portfolio as often as you want and in real time, with our phones, tablets and computers, is a mixed blessing. I did check my portfolio this morning for the damage that the last week has done, but I don't plan to check again until the end of the week. If I find myself breaking this rule, I will consider sabotaging my wifi connection at home, going back to a flip phone or leaving for the Galapagos on vacation.
  2. Turn off the noise: I read the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times each morning, but I generally don't watch financial news channels or visit financial websites. I become religious about this avoidance during market chaos, since much of the advice that I will get is bad, most of the analysis is after-the-fact navel gazing and all of the predictions share only one quality, which is that they will be wrong.
  3. Rediscover your faith: In my book (and class) on investment philosophies, I argue that there is no "best' investment philosophy that works for all investors but that there is one for you, that best fits what you believe about markets and your personality. My investment philosophy is built on faith in two premises, that every business has a value that I can estimate, and that  the market price will move towards that value over time. During a crisis, I find myself returning to the core of that philosophy, to make sense of what is going on.
  4. Act proactively and consistently: It is natural to want to act in response to a crisis. I am no exception and I did act on Monday, but I tried to do so consistently with my philosophy. I revisited the valuations that I have done over the past year (and you can find most of them on my website, under my valuation class) and put in limit buy orders on a half a dozen stocks (including Apple, Tesla and Facebook), with the limit prices based on my valuations of the companies. If the crisis eases, none of the limit orders may go through, but I would have protected myself from impulsive actions that will cost me more in the long term. If it worsens, all or most of the of the limit buys will be executed, but at prices that I think are reasonable, given the cash flow potential of these companies.

Will any of these protect me from losing money? Perhaps not, but I did sleep well last night and am more worried about whether the New York Yankees will score some runs tonight than I am about what the Asian markets will do overnight. That, to me, is a sign of health!

The Silver Linings

Just as recessions are a market economy's way of cleansing itself of excesses that build up during boom periods, a market crisis is a financial market's mechanism for getting back into balance. I know that is small consolation for you today, if you have lost 10% or more of your portfolio, but there are seedlings of good news, even in the dreary financial news:

  1. Live by momentum, die by it: In trading, momentum is king and investors who play the momentum game make money with ease, but with one caveat. When momentum shifts, the easy profits accumulated over months and years can be wiped out quickly, as commodity and currency traders are discovering.
  2. Deal or no deal? If you share my view that slowing down in M&A deals is bad news for deal makers, but good news for stockholders in the deal-making companies, the fact that this crisis may be imperiling deals is positive news.
  3. Rediscover fundamentals: My belief that first principles and fundamentals ultimately win out and that there are no easy ways to make money is strengthened when I read that carry traders are losing money, that currency pegs do not work when inflation rates deviate, and mismatching the currencies in which you borrow and generate cash flows is a bad idea.
  4. The Market Guru Handoff: As with prior crises, this one will unmask a lot of economic forecasters and market gurus as fakes, but it will anoint a new group of prognosticators who got the China call right as the new stars of the investment universe.

If a market crisis is a crucible that tests both the limits of my investment philosophy and my  faith in it, I am being tested and as with any other test, if I pass it, I will come out stronger for the experience. At least, that is what I tell myself as I look at the withered remains of my investments in Vale and Lukoil!


  1. Implied Equity Risk Premium Spreadsheet (August 2015)
  2. Returns (8/14-8/24) and PE ratios (before & after), by Industry Group
  3. Returns (8/14-8/24) and PE ratios (before & after), by Country

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