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Investing amid uncertainty

The debt ceiling standoff presents a case study in disciplined investment

Lawmakers finally agreed to suspend the debt ceiling limit last week, putting an end to questions about the federal government’s ability to meet its spending obligations for now. The heightened tension and uncertainty in the weeks prior to this resolution was unnerving for many investors, to say the least.

Our investment team at Alesco Advisors tracked the situation closely as it played out. Now that the acute problem is in the rear-view mirror, taking a look back at the period leading up to the final agreement can provide valuable insight as to how we think about such events and their potential impact on portfolios.

Alesco constructs client portfolios with a focus on broad diversification and resilience to withstand challenging political, economic, and capital market conditions in the long-term. We believe that investors are best served by maintaining discipline to a long-term strategy, especially when faced with potentially threatening but uncertain events.

When these events do emerge, as in the case of the debt ceiling debate, it often triggers a reaction from people who feel the need to do something. This can send investors scrambling and create fluctuations in the market, which further fuels the reactionary cycle.

It’s natural to feel the need to react when something triggers fear. After all, investors are only human, making them subject to cognitive and emotional biases leading to capricious reactions that might not align with long-term goals. That’s because, when threatening but uncertain events do emerge, the immediate consequences of these events and the ways that markets might react are often unclear.

For example, it was impossible to know how markets would have reacted if the “x-date” had been breached. Some had predicted adverse impacts in the market for federal debt, but it was also conceivable that a failure to come to an agreement could have sparked a rally in Treasury bonds in response to heightening concerns about the impact on the U.S. economy.

And no one could have known for sure how the stock market would have responded if a resolution was not achieved in time. While on the surface it seemed like it would have had a negative impact on stock prices, market reactions are often more complex than they first appear. Though unlikely, it is even possible that failure to reach a resolution could have compelled the Federal Reserve to shift monetary policy and boosted stock prices as a result.

When uncertainty abounds and markets waver, investors can feel the need to get out and sell. And when fear recedes and markets rise, investors often feel the desire to get in and buy. These short-term emotional reactions are a sure recipe for buying high and selling low—the exact opposite of what creates returns in an investment portfolio. Those who follow a disciplined investment strategy are far less likely to fall into these short-term decision-making traps that reduce returns.

Throughout the debt ceiling standoff, our investment team believed the long-term prospects for investing in capital markets remained strong despite the short-term uncertainty. Our client portfolios are built to withstand short-term adversity with an eye on long-term returns, so the situation did not present a clear change to be made in long-term strategy. We make necessary adjustments to our portfolios based on substantiated data and valuations, not transient market events. This philosophy, rooted in deep analysis, serves to maintain stability and navigate the complexities of varying market conditions.