‘We didn’t know how to navigate the virus and chose not to because we didn’t think we had an edge in trading it. So, we stayed in our positions and in retrospect we should have cut all risk.’
Ray Dalio’s deft navigation of the financial crisis 12 years ago helped to burnish his image—and bankroll—as a legendary investor.
However, the current situation with COVID-19 that has infected thousands of people across more than 100 countries, snuffing out a record-setting bull-market run in U.S. stocks in the process, has befuddled the billionaire investor who co-founded Bridgewater Associates about 45 years ago, he told the Financial Times (paywall), in a recent interview.
“We’re disappointed because we should have made money rather than lost money in this move the way we did in 2008,” he told the publication.
In truth, Dalio, who helps oversee the $160 billion hedge fund, has been ringing alarm bells about what he has described as a market where investors are flush with cash because of monetary policy but haven’t been discerning about investment strategies.
Last November, he said the system is broken and warned that investors were “buying dreams rather than earnings and stocks.”
Those are the types of declarations that might imply that Dalio would be ideally positioned for what has played out over the past three weeks on Wall Street.
However, that has not been the case.
Bloomberg News (paywall) on Saturday reported that Dalio’s macro fund has lost 20% so far this year.
By comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +9.36% is off 18.8% so far in 2020, the S&P 500 index SPX, +9.29% is down more than 16% in the first three months of the year and the Nasdaq Composite Index COMP, +9.35% is off 12.2%. Those year-to-date losses would have been a lot worse if not for stocks on Friday putting in their best one-day advance since 2008, with rises of at least 9%, after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, unleashing $50 billion in funds to help limit the economic damage from the viral outbreak of COVID-19.
Markets have been almost unhinged as the coronavirus disease, which was first identified in Wuhan, China in December, has infected 156,400 people and claimed 5,833 lives, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, as of midday Sunday.
The pandemic has altered behaviors across the globe, forcing major businesses to compel their staff to work from home and threatening to bring parts of the economy close to a halt. The uncertainty around the length and severity of the impact of the illness on global industries also has injected unprecedented volatility into markets that have left many investors reeling.
Monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, which has already cut benchmark federal-funds rates, is expected at the conclusion of the central bank’s two-day policy meeting on March 18, after the Fed took emergency action earlier in the month to alleviate growing market tumult. On March 3, the first intermeeting interest-rate cut in 12 years put the target rate in a range between 1% and 1.25%, and Wall Street is anticipating that it is likely to head to levels near 0%.
However, that might not be enough to stem the financial fallout from the disease.
An exogenous event like a viral outbreak presents a far different challenge to investors than, say, a financial crisis wrought by the distribution of troubled assets or the collapse of a financial institution.
It is no wonder that even investors like Dalio have been left thunderstruck, lately.
That said, rival investors may be harboring some degree of schadenfreude at the hedge-fund luminary’s losses.
Back in January, he told CNBC “cash is trash,” on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. His urging for investors to buy stocks echoed badly timed comments he made in 2018 that preceded another sharp tumble for stocks.
However, this current downturn has been far more severe than most expected, driving a spike in the heart of a record-setting bull-market run that marked 11 years on March 9. All three stock benchmarks have now fallen 20% or more from their recent peaks, doing so at a historic pace. Those declines put the Dow, the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 in a bear market.
There’s, perhaps, also a modicum of irony in the fact that Bridgewater has suffered so badly this year. The Wall Street Journal reported in November (paywall) that Bridgewater was putting on a $1.5 billion bet that global stock markets would drop precipitously by March 2020.
However, Dalio took to Twitter to vigorously dispute the Journal’s characterization of his investments as bearish bets:
Right about now, Dalio may be hoping those bearish bets were a reality.
A spokeswoman for the hedge-fund investor declined to comment.