Investors are still watching which way the market is ready to turn after yesterday’s 600-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial average, the biggest one-day drop in over two months. While world markets appeared to be reacting to the prospect of loan defaults by the Evergrande Group – China’s second largest real estate company and the world’s largest property developer –retail investors, and retirees in particular, should keep in mind that this might be the beginning of something bigger. Given that U.S. equities remain at historic highs, portfolios still have a long way to fall. It is still unclear what ripple effect Evergrande will have even within China, as the Chinese government has yet to formally decide on whether it will bail out Evergrande or let it fail. But both scenarios are fueling fears of contagion within the U.S. and world markets. Some are calling this China’s “Lehman’s moment,” despite Evergrande’s debt only being about roughly half of the $600 billion in liabilities that Lehman had when it defaulted. There are rumblings, however, that Evergrande is the canary in the coal mine for China’s numerous other property companies, representing an outsized portion in driving China’s economy and GDP. The net effect on retail investors in the U.S., thus, depends to some degree on the level of Chinese investment and debt holdings by U.S. companies and financial institutions.
HSBC, BlackRock, and J.P. Morgan have been said to have significant exposure to the Chinese market generally, as do many individual U.S. companies, ranging from Wynn Resorts to Apple. As always, retail investors who are overconcentrated in any single company or market sector face the biggest risk. While the stock of many of these companies might seem relatively “safe” over the long term, not every investor can wait for the stock market to rebound. Seniors and retirees are a prime example, as this is a group regularly identified by U.S. regulators (e.g., FINRA and the SEC) as being vulnerable because they are typically saddled with higher expenses (e.g., medical and age-related expenses) at a time when they need liquidity and are no longer working or earning an income. For this reason, stockbrokers and financial advisors have a legal duty to retirees to recommend investments and an investment strategy that is suitable for this stage of life and the possibility that the stock market will not just continue to rise in perpetuity.
For retirees, overconcentration of an investment portfolio is often the culprit of an investment strategy or recommendation gone wrong. As we have written in this space before, brokers and financial advisors have long been required to have a reasonable basis for recommending an investment or strategy. And as of June 30, 2020, brokerage firms have had to comply with a new SEC rule, Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), which further requires every recommendation to be in a customer’s best interests. Overconcentrating a retiree’s investment portfolio in largely equities (or worse, a single equity) is typically not in a retiree’s best interests and is what makes a portfolio most vulnerable to significant market events like Evergrande. Even though regulators do their best to raise the public’s awareness of this fact, retail enthusiasm during a bull market often drowns out the well-worn refrain to not put all your eggs in one basket. FINRA’s “Concentrate on Concentration Risk” publication is just one such warning.