Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Sep 30, 2021

Taking the Temperature of Individual Investors

with Andrew Sheets and Lisa Shalett


Andrew Sheets: Welcome to Thoughts of the Market. I'm Andrew Sheets, Chief Cross Asset Strategist for Morgan Stanley Research.

Lisa Shalett: And I'm Lisa Shalett, Chief Investment Officer for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

Andrew Sheets: And today on the podcast, we'll be discussing the retail investing landscape and the impact on markets. It's Thursday, September 30th, at 2p.m. in London.

Lisa Shalett: And it's 9:00 a.m. here in New York City.

Andrew Sheets: Lisa, I wanted to have you on today because the advice from our wealth management division is geared towards individual investors, what we often call retail clients instead of institutional investors. You tend to take a longer-term perspective. As chief investment officer, you're juggling the roles of market analyst, client adviser and team manager ultimately to help clients with their asset allocation and portfolio construction.

Andrew Sheets: Just to take a step back here, can you just give us some context of the level of assets that Morgan Stanley Wealth Management manages and what insight that gives you potentially into different markets?

Lisa Shalett: Sure. The wealth management business, especially after the most recent acquisition of E-Trade, oversees more than four trillion dollars in assets under management, which gives us a really extraordinary view over the private wealth landscape.

Andrew Sheets: That’s a pretty significant stock of the market there we have to look at.  I'd love to start with what you're hearing right now. How are private investors repositioning portfolios and thinking about current market conditions?

Lisa Shalett: The individual investor has been important in terms of the role that they're playing in markets over the last several years as we've come out of the pandemic. What we've seen is actually pretty enthusiastic participation in in markets over the last 18 months with folks, you know, moving, you know, towards their maximum weightings in equities. Really, I think over the last two to three months, we've begun to see some profit taking. And that motivation for some of that profit taking has as kind of come in two forms. One is folks beginning to become concerned that valuations are frothy, that perhaps the Federal Reserve's level of accommodation is going to wane and, quite frankly, that markets are up a lot. The second motivation is obviously concern about potential changes in the U.S. tax code. Our clients, the vast majority of whom manage their wealth in taxable accounts, even though there is a lot of retirement savings, many of them are pretty aggressive about managing their annual tax bill. And so, with uncertainty about whether or not cap gains taxes are going to go up in in 2022, we have seen some tax management activity that has made them a little bit more defensive in their positioning, you know, reducing some equity weights over the last couple of weeks. Importantly, our clients, I think, are different and have moved in a different direction than what we might call overall retail flow where flows into ETFs and mutual funds, as you and your team have noted, has continued to be quite robust over, you know, the last three months.

Andrew Sheets: So, Lisa, that's something I'd actually like to dig into in more detail, because I think one of the biggest debates we're having in the market right now is the debate over whether it's more accurate to say there's a lot of cash on the sidelines, so to speak, that investors are still overly cautious, they have money that can be put into the market. You know, kind of versus this idea that markets are up a lot, a lot of money has already flowed in and actually investors are pretty fully invested. So, you know, as you think of the backdrop, how do you think about that debate and how do you think people should be thinking about some of the statistics they might be hearing?

Lisa Shalett: So our perspective is, and we do monitor this on a month-to-month basis has been that that, you know, somewhere in the June/July time frame, you know, we saw, you know, our clients kind of at maximum exposures to the equity market. We saw overall cash levels, had really come down. And it's only been in the last two to three weeks that we've begun to see, you know, cash levels rebuilding. I do think that that's somewhat at odds with this thesis that there's so much more cash on the sidelines. I mean, one piece of data that that, you know, we have been monitoring is margin debt and among retail individual investors, we've started to see margin debt, you know, start to creep up. And that's another indication to us that perhaps this idea that there's tons of cash on the sidelines may, in fact, not be the case, that people are, "all in and then some," you know, may be something worth exploring in the data because we're starting to see that.

Andrew Sheets:  So, Lisa, the other thing you mentioned at the onset was a focus on the tax environment, and that's the next thing I wanted to ask you about. You know, I imagine this is an issue that's at the top of minds of many investors. And your thoughts on both what sort of reactions we might get to different tax changes and also your advice to how individuals and family offices should navigate this environment.

Lisa Shalett: Yeah, so that's a fantastic question, because in virtually every meeting, you know, that I'm doing right now, this question, you know, comes up of, you know, what should we be doing? And we usually talk to clients on two levels. One is on it in terms of their personal strategies. And what we always talk about is that they should not be making changes in anticipation of changes in the law unless they're really in need of cash over the next year or two. It's really a 12-to-18-month window. In which case we would say, you know, consult with your accountant or your tax advisor. But typically, what we say is, you know, the changes in the tax law come and go. And unless you have an imminent, you know, cash flow need, you should not be making changes simply based on tax law. The second thing that we often talk about is this idea or this mythology among our client base that changes in the tax law, you know, cause market volatility. And historically that there's just no evidence for that. And so, like so many other things there's, you know, headline risk in the days around particular news announcements. But when you really look at things on a 3-month, 6-month, you know, 12- and 24-month, you know, trailing basis on some of these things, they end up not really being the thing that drives markets.

Andrew Sheets: Lisa, one of the biggest questions—well, you know, certainly I'm getting but I imagine you're getting as well—is how to think about the ratio of stocks and bonds together within a portfolio. You know, there's this old rule of thumb, kind of the 60/40, 60% stocks, 40% bonds in portfolio construction. Do you think that's an outdated concept, given where yields are, given what's happening in the stock market? And how do you think investors should think about managing risk maybe differently to how they did in the past?

Lisa Shalett: Yeah, look, that's a fantastic question. And it's one that we are confronted with, you know, virtually every day. And what we've really tried to do is take a step back and, you know, make a couple of points. Number one, talk about, you know, goals and objectives and really ascertain, you know, what kinds of returns are necessary over what periods of time and what portion of that return, you know, needs to be in current cash flow, you know, annualized income. And try to make the point that perhaps generating that combination of capital appreciation and an income needs to be constructed, if you will, above and beyond the more traditional categories of cash, stocks and bonds given where we are in terms of overall valuations and how rich the valuations are in both stocks and bonds, where we are in terms of cash returns after inflation, and with regards to whether or not stocks and bonds at the current moment are actually behaving in a way that, you know, you're optimizing your diversification.

Lisa Shalett: So with all those considerations in mind, what we have found ourselves doing is speaking to the stock portion of returns as being comprised not only of, you know, the more traditional long-only strategies that we diversify by sector and by, you know, global regions. But we're including thinking about, you know, hedged vehicles and hedge fund vehicles as part of those equity exposures and how to manage risk. When it comes to the fixed income portion of portfolios, there's a need to be a little bit more creative in hiring managers who have a mandate that can allow them to use things like preferred shares, like bank loans, like convertible shares, like some asset backs, and maybe even including some dividend paying stocks in, you know, their income generating portion of the of the portfolio. And what that has really meant to your point about the 60-40 portfolio is that we're kind of recrafting portfolio construction across new asset class lines, really. Where we're saying, OK, what portion of your portfolio and what products and vehicles can we rely on for some equity like capital appreciation and what portion of the portfolio and what strategies can generate income. So it's a lot more mixing and matching to actually get at goals.

Andrew Sheets: Tomorrow I’ll be continuing my conversation with Lisa Shalett on retail investing and the implications for markets. As a reminder, if you enjoy Thoughts of the Market, please take a moment to rate and review us on the Apple Podcasts App. It helps more people find the show. 

On part one of this Special Episode, Lisa Shalett, Chief Investment Officer for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, discusses the new shape of retail investing and the impact on markets.

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