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Lessons Learned in a Pandemic

In the Spring of 2020, I was on a conference call with a market strategist that had always been a beacon of clarity during periods of uncertainty in the economy. At the time of this call, the impact and understanding of COVID was still evolving, lockdowns had just begun, and the S&P 500 had dropped 31% in about 6 weeks. The advice and guidance being offered by this analyst and his firm simply made no sense. It was as if I was listening to another person. As time passed in 2020 it had become painfully clear that many financial resources I had come to rely on for decades did not seem equipped or willing to deviate from a product-oriented message. In fact, over the past year it has become the norm. To illustrate this point, below are headlines to articles, commentary, and reports that currently appear on the market insight and product section websites of 6 major financial firms:


“Investing in the Green Economy”[1]

“The Historic Journey to a Clean Energy World”[2]

“The Burning Question on Sustainability”[3]

“Net zero: What opportunities arise from a carbon neutral world?”[4]

“Sustainable Investing: Past, Present and Future”[5]                            

“Sustainable Investing Perspectives”[6]


Sustainability has become the “hot topic” of the moment in this industry. Most of the daily communications I receive from investment companies is related to ESG (environmental, social, and governance) commentary and investment solutions.

My purpose in pointing this out has nothing to do with the subject matter of each headline. The issue is that there is clearly a uniformity and consistency of message, which is particularly odd considering each of these firms is ostensibly competing with the others for assets. There is no attempt to differentiate or offer another perspective. Why? The answer for one firm, and likely others, was published by Bloomberg a few months ago: “Blackrock Wagers on ESG. Now it Needs the Bet (emphasis mine) to payoff.” [7] ESG is a marketing opportunity to sell more product.  JP Morgan cites on the sustainable investing section of its website (and they all have a sustainable investing/ESG section now), “sustainability is a growing concern for our clients.”[8] Truthfully, this has not been my experience. In fact, the trend du jour has never been the focus of my clients.

A mentor of mine shared a thought with me many years ago: “In business, if both partners always agree, one of them is unnecessary”. This lesson would seem to apply to these firms; if they all have the same views, it renders most of them as irrelevant.

So, a dilemma has arisen- where does an advisor go for an unbiased and fresh look at the financial markets and investment ideas? Nick Murray has always talked about the need to invest for the long term. That has not changed, and it is a principle I wholeheartedly embrace. But what if there is a better way to do this?  What if there are more effective ways to manage risk to facilitate staying invested for the long term? With interest rates at historic lows and inflation clearly on the rise, taxable bonds do not offer the same diversification opportunity they once did. In fact, my 35-year career in financial services has corresponded with a bull market in bond prices (long term trend of falling interest rates)[9], which as a result has made bonds an obvious choice to manage portfolio risk. But with a federal budget running at 103% of GDP[10], the 30-year Treasury Bond below 2%[11] and inflation running at 5% year over year[12], new ideas to manage risk are needed. In that regard, ESG is not the only answer, and in the context of risk management, may not be one at all.

In coming posts, I will dig further into why these larger firms offer a similar message and share where the quest for new and fresh ideas has led.

Thank you for your time!




[3] Blackrock Advisor Insights Guide, Spring 2021


[5] Anderson, Jennifer and Nikita Singhal. November 2020, Lazard Investment Research.


[7] Kaissar, Nir. February 19, 2021.




[12] Bureau of Labor Statistics.