COVID-19 has been responsible for significant changes in the way we live and work, but it is also influencing the ways we invest. After significant volatility in March, Australian markets posted gains in April with the S&P/ASX 200 returning 8.7%, the largest monthly gain in its history. Investment activity increased too, with even largely dormant investors returning to the fold.
Kanish Chugh, co-Head of Sales at ETF Securities, spoke to Anastasia Anagnostakos, Business Development Manager in the Investment Products Division of the ASX, on her views about how COVID-19 is changing the investment space.
Changing investment behaviour
Activity in April has been a contrast to the fears and defensive activity seen in March, as investors responded to global lockdowns and market volatility.
“Last month, we saw a flight to safety through precious metal ETFs or broad-based market ETFs, whereas this month, investors, rightly or wrongly, are reading into the signs of a recovery, with Australian equity and property ETFs being the main beneficiaries, both being up by almost 12% on the month,” says Ms Anagnostakos.
On the flip side, oil was a particular concern in April with prices becoming depressed and the futures market even turning negative for the first time.
While the type of investments sought has switched, the volume of activity generally has remained high.
According to ASIC, average retail trading increased from $1.6bn pre the COVID-19 crisis to $3.3 billion at the end of April 2020, with many dormant accounts recommencing trading activity.
Ms Anagnostakos says, “in terms of the ETF market, a usual day, pre-crisis, accounted for about 4% of total trades on the S&P/ASX 200, but during this time it has ballooned to about 10% of total trades.”
Trading on conviction
Ms Anagnostakos believes that this increase in activity comes down to an increasingly aware and educated retail base compared with the past.
“Many investors have learnt from our most recent crisis, the GFC, such times often present a good price point to buy into the market, and have been doing so with long-term and short-term ideas in mind,” she says.
According to Ms Anagnostakos, the ASX has noted an increase in shorter term trade activity on a retail front, with the cash equities market one such area which has experienced trading spikes, along with commodity and geared funds.
In terms of the cash equities market, an example of investors trading based on expectations is through the US dollar, which some anticipate strengthening compared to the Australian dollar. There are a range of ways to trade for exposure to the US dollar, from cash holdings to using ETFs such as the ETFS Enhanced USD Cash ETF (ASX code: ZUSD), and many such corresponding investments may have experienced activity increases in April.
Some activity in investor demographics such as retirees may be a response to the change in the status quo. That is, their dependence on fully franked dividends for an income which is under threat in the current environment.
“With the big banks either deferring or cutting their dividends altogether in their most recent announcements, one of the most common discussions advisers are having with their clients is about mobilising capital within their portfolio to sustain their income streams… so these kinds of discussions we have with advisers are around the different income options that are available to them via the ASX investment products through the vast amount of fixed income ETFs, fixed income and private credit LICs, LITS available for steady income flow,” Ms Anagnostakos says.
A more diverse market in crisis
While the GFC and COVID-19 crises are vastly different events, the increased trading activity in this situation may also be related to the broader and more diverse investments available this time around.
“You just have to look at the sheer size and the growth of the ASX product suite just to see how many different options are now available to investors. Let’s look at the market at the height of the GFC, June 2008. There were only 198 products for investors to choose from after buying individually listed companies on the ASX. As at the end of April 2020, investors have over 614 products to choose from, on top of all the individually listed companies on the ASX. So you could most definitely say that investors are spoiled for choice these days,” Ms Anagnostakos says.
As an example, the Australian ETF market was barely existent during the GFC, with only 19 available in December 2007 compared to the more than 211 now available on the ASX. Ms Anagnostakos notes the increase in ETF trading activity during this crisis may be in part due to their ability to offer diversification.
“If you want to diversify and lower your overall portfolio risk, ETFs are a classic way to do this as they are a pure beta play. If you believe in the long-term direction of certain asset classes, strategies, sectors or geographies, and they represent good value to you in this crisis, then investors can seize the opportunity to invest in and potentially lower their overall portfolio volatility, while still achieving good long-term returns,” she says.
Some slowdown in product launches
Despite the increased April activity, there has been some slowdown in the issue of new products on the ASX, with only one new investment product released in April.
Ms Anagnostakos suggests it is too early to determine whether the pipeline of ETFs coming to market has really slowed down but in the case of LIC or LIT investments, it has made more sense for issuers to delay given the volatility in asset prices.
On the whole though, she believes this is an unusual time so a slowdown in new products wouldn’t be entirely surprising.
Ms Anagnostakos says, “there’s volatility because people are working from home, which is another reason that we may not have seen any products made…. And it might be safe to say that issuers in this space will be wanting to see some stability before bringing some new products to the market.”
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