Investors are more worried than ever that market volatility means a downturn is on the horizon and are looking for ways to protect their money, Allianz Life's most recent quarterly market-perceptions survey found.
Nearly half of those surveyed said they feared a major recession, marking a troublesome uptick in worried responses from both the first quarter of 2019 and last year. Investors also said they were less comfortable with market conditions as volatility has risen and were looking for ways to hedge against risk.
The survey was conducted online in May and recorded responses from 1,006 people over 18.
The numbers did not come as a surprise, after the S&P 500 posted its worst month of the year in May and then made that loss up entirely in June. Experts at Allianz noted that such market swings capture the cautious attention of investors, even as stocks climb to new highs.
"We've been running for a long time with a good market, so it's almost natural when even small things occur and volatility goes up that people get apprehensive," Kelly LaVigne, the vice president of advanced markets at Allianz Life, told Markets Insider.
The US economic expansion is now the longest on record, at over 10 years. While longevity is not what ends economic expansions, consumer sentiment can definitely factor into market performance in the long term.
Right now, there are a few market drivers that have contributed to whiplash. For instance, stocks fall whenever there is negative news about the trade war between the US and China but rise at any sign of encouragement.
And with the stock and bond markets pricing in a Federal Reserve rate cut at July's meeting, any development to the contrary — or disruption to that status quo — could quickly whipsaw either asset class.
This comes as investors are grappling with unique market conditions. Both stocks and bonds are rallying, which is unusual, as bonds are generally seen as safe-haven assets and stocks as a riskier investment. As the S&P 500 has soared above 3,000, bond prices have soared as well, as 10-year yields fall below 2%.
That means a downturn could affect both equities and bonds, which some industry watchers are calling a "correlation trap," said Olivier Marciot, a senior vice president and investment manager at Unigestion SA. Because stocks and bonds are moving in the same direction, it makes hedging — or protecting assets with balanced investments — more difficult.
In response to this mounting threat, Marciot's firm has lightened exposure to equities and bonds. He told Markets Insider that Unigestion is now only slightly overweight stocks and underweight bonds going forward.
"There is a good environment for a carry trade," Marciot said, referring to the practice of borrowing at a low interest rate and investing in something with a higher rate of return. "We are being very prudent in the medium term."
Marciot also said that all the positive news around dovish central banks was already priced into markets, meaning that room for growth may be capped or slow going forward. This means different things for investors with different timelines, especially as good opportunities for making money in the market have become less obvious.
The Allianz study found that older investors, baby boomers, were the most nervous about the state of their portfolios. This makes sense, because as investors near retirement age, conventional wisdom suggests they should carefully watch the market to protect their investments.
By that same logic, younger investors don't need to worry quite as much, as they would have more time to recover from a downturn in the market now. And there are some upsides to cyclical market downturns — stocks become a lot cheaper, meaning it's often a good chance to buy.
LaVigne said it's important for investors to remember that investing in the market is a long-term game, not just about the amount gained or lost in between statements. That's why it's best to have an adviser who can help take some of the emotion out of investing.
"Without professional advice, most consumers do the opposite of what you're supposed to do — they buy high and sell low," LaVigne said.