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David S. Royal
Chief Investment Officer, Thrivent

Investment management during a pandemic

July 08, 2020
By David S. Royal, Chief Investment Officer, Thrivent | 07/08/2020


During a recent virtual question-and-answer event with Thrivent clients, one of the questions was particularly illustrative of this trying period. An individual asked: “How can I think about what’s going on in the markets when I don’t even know how I’m going to pay all my bills this month?”

There wasn’t a lot that I could say in response to this anonymously submitted question, other than to offer sympathy and recommend the assistance of a financial professional.

There are no clear comparisons for the COVID-19 pandemic. When we’ve had discussions among the members of our investment team, the word that comes up over and over is “unprecedented.” We’ve never before seen seven million unemployment claims in a single week. The Federal Reserve (Fed) has taken actions that dwarf any of its activities during the Great Recession of 2008-09. The federal government has provided fiscal support far greater than at any time in history and is running a correspondingly large fiscal deficit.  

And that’s without even mentioning the unprecedented impact to our daily lives of school closures and stay-at-home orders.

Challenging times

While there’s no real comparison for these difficult months, I personally can’t help but think of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that’s part of my answer to the question of how we can even think about markets during times such as these.

In 2001, prior to joining Thrivent, I was practicing law in Chicago at a large international law firm. That awful morning, I happened to be attending board meetings for a large mutual fund complex. Although our meeting was in Chicago, that particular firm had its primary offices in the World Trade Center. We quickly adjourned the meeting so the executives could turn their attention to the safety of their employees in New York.

I knew there was nothing I could do to help those at Ground Zero. But, like many of you, I felt a call to do something. Knowing that markets would be closed for an undetermined period and financial instruments would be impacted, I threw myself into legal research and worked most of the night. With so much uncertainty that would affect every one of the firm’s clients, I found it fulfilling to do whatever I could to contribute to the common well-being.

Just as I wasn’t a firefighter or police officer in 2001, I’m not a doctor or medical researcher either. We have several PhDs on our investment team, but none in medical fields. We have more than 85 individuals with advanced degrees or credentials, even a second lawyer, but no MDs. But just as with 9/11, we as a team, want to do anything and everything we can to help all of you, and society as a whole, during this pandemic. For our investment team, that means managing your money with every bit of care, attention and professionalism possible.

A long way from normal

Another word that’s used a lot these days in the investment community is “dislocation.” There have been many dislocations in various markets and securities. That’s just a fancy way of saying that lots of things aren’t functioning the way they do in normal times, which will come as a surprise to no one.

The actions of the Fed have stabilized markets more quickly than many of us would have expected – not just the stock market but even more importantly the credit markets and banking system that are the lifeblood of the “real” economy. But dislocations still abound, and we’re nowhere near back to normal.

Looking for opportunities

So, as an investment team, we’re doing what we know how to do. Our 20 stock analysts are doing bottom-up, fundamental analysis of companies to try to invest in those stocks that present the best opportunities. Our 17 fixed-income analysts are doing rigorous credit research to seek out bonds that offer good value on a risk-adjusted basis. Our team of 15 quantitative researchers and portfolio managers are using algorithms and technology to look for trends and opportunities.

By seeking out those stocks and bonds that represent good values, we’re working to see that capital is allocated efficiently and goes to those companies that can make best use of it. By looking for market dislocations and trying to find opportunities in such dislocations, we’re helping to make such dislocations go away. As we do our jobs every day, I like to think that our investment team is doing what we can to help move us in some small way back towards normalcy.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact are “unprecedented” and while the markets have certainly suffered significant “dislocations,” this isn’t the first time we’ve experienced unprecedented economic events and dislocations. We’ve had wars and pandemics before, and the markets and the economy can and do recover. The future never looks just like the past, but our long-term investment view is informed by the past in important ways.

Staying vigilant

Our senior investment team meets about once a week for a deep dive into the various types of macroeconomic and market data. We have Thrivent’s own proprietary models that cover a wide range of subjects. A whole team of experienced professionals is responsible for compiling the material we discuss, searching for the best possible data and analytics and preparing our own analysis.

These discussions are perhaps my favorite part of my job. I feel blessed to work with such an experienced team. More than half of our more than 100 investment professionals have at least 20 years of experience in the industry, which means they were working through not just the Great Recession of 2008-09, but also the bursting of the technology bubble in 2000-01 and for many folks much farther back than that.

This experience can bring a valuable perspective in times of heightened uncertainty.

I personally believe that active asset management is especially important during periods of economic and market turmoil. The dispersion in the performance of various stocks and bonds can be greater and an experienced manager has the potential to add significant value through stock selection and credit analysis, both through the companies the manager chooses to own and the companies or securities they choose to avoid. (See: Why active management now? )

Our investment team is working very hard during these difficult times. The vast majority of our work is being done remotely, and I am happy to say that the shift to primarily remote work has gone more smoothly than I might have expected. And we are happy to be serving our investment clients through the COVID-19 pandemic in the best way possible.

All information and representations herein are as of 07/08/2020, unless otherwise noted.

The views expressed are as of the date given, may change as market or other conditions change, and may differ from views expressed by other Thrivent Asset Management, LLC associates. Actual investment decisions made by Thrivent Asset Management, LLC will not necessarily reflect the views expressed. This information should not be considered investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or product. Investment decisions should always be made based on an investor's specific financial needs, objectives, goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

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