RENEW Strategies

Financial Services Over the Longhaul: Lessons from Recessions

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Joshua Weissburg
| January 8, 2009

There’s no question that portfolios managed by financial services and wealth management firms have taken a nearly unrelenting beating in the past six months. That bodes ill for everyone, from retirees to entrepreneurs just starting out. In some ways, all the red ink can make impact investing seem like an indulgence–an idea only fit for flush times. But as Kevin Jones at Good Capital writes, “When the existing system is at risk, people are willing to ask a new set of questions and take a look at new ways of doing things. For the people who believe you never could divorce economic from social value, the new reality creates a window of opportunity.”

As social value becomes more “real” to investors, RENEW sees a window of opportunity opening for wealth managers, who can now offer to capture and present social returns as part the portfolios they build for clients. The prospect of capturing social value in client portfolios provides a distinct competitive edge at a time when wealth managers are reeling from losses and defending their value to clients. Social value, approached with the same thoughtful, measured method that financial firms are now re-emphasizing in their portfolios, amounts to a new service offering that can help investors capture and enjoy all the value their investments are creating.

Not only is the economic crisis forcing investors to consider the social impact–positive and negative–of finance; we’re also learning that a range of investments, particularly those outside of sectors and regions traditionally regarded as “safe,” can actually insulate investors against downturns. This was one of three findings in a study published in the December 2008 Harvard Business Review, titled “Lessons from the Past for Financial Services.”

Authors Matthew Sebag-Montefiore and Nuno Monteiro analyzed seven downturns affecting 600 North American and Western European companies in banking, asset management, consumer finance, insurance, investment, and specialty finance over the past 28 years. Among the recommendations that emerge from this research: “Banks that were high performers in the early phases of the current downturn drew, on average, nearly 10% of their revenues from outside North America and Western Europe prior to the softening. That’s compared with 4% for low performers.”

Investments in small and medium-sized businesses in emerging economies certainly come with their own set of risks. But if the recent financial collapse is teaching us anything, it’s clear that creatively diversified portfolios are more valuable than ever.