The majority of the country's wealthy would reallocate their investable assets to safer positions, according to a survey by Lake Forest, Illinois-based consulting firm Spectrem Group. The largest percentage, 36%, would go to cash, followed by 16% of millionaires who say that gold is their best option. Other potential safe havens such as bonds, real estate and international products, in that order, ranked lower at around 10%.
"Anyone that's in our high-net-worth category doesn't think that there are some things getting better even in a year or two; [they think] that we're really heading down a different path," Jaleigh White, director of wealth services at Hilliard Lyons, says. "I don't think anyone in the high-net-worth category thinks this is short term or is going to have a quick turnaround."
Adding to concerns, a jittery market could compound year-end declines as nervous investors pull out of riskier stock positions.
"You have a nervous patient," Allan Flader, a senior vice president, investments at RBC Wealth Management's Phoenix, Arizona, office says. "So there is something to momentum. The bottom line is that when the market starts to go down, a lot of people will jump on the band wagon and start to push it down further."
At Hilliard Lyons, the preparations for some kind of impact from the fiscal cliff began months ago. In the past quarter, the Louisville, Kentucky-based firm has implemented some new practice management strategies as advisors have been contacting all of the firm's clients with $3 million or more in investable assets.
Moreover, since the presidential election ended, the firm is running a "full court press" to make sure all of their advisors and clients have access to information and can plan for possible scenarios, according to Chambers Moore, vice president of corporate communications at Hilliard Lyons.
White, for instance, has been fielding calls from clients throughout the day, even while she is on vacation (theoretically, anyway) because two of her major clients are looking to sell their businesses now rather than wait the expected three to five years. "A lot of my calls today have been two of those people to help them figure out what to do with the funds once they get proceeds before the end of the year," White says. "They're worried about capital gains going away."
And when they do receive the money from the sale, those clients will be very conservative with those funds, White predicts. "They're going to be very slow to move that into the market and instead are looking at very safe, liquid investments," she says.
In addition, clients at Hilliard Lyons who are liquidating some of their funds already are taking out a little bit extra or speeding up recognition of their gains even if they are comfortable with the sectors in which they are invested.
"For all of our clients, we're having them keep in cash a much bigger percentage of what they're going to need for living expenses for a longer period of time than what we have in the past," White says.
Some clients, however, should not jump out of a position too early, she warns. In addition to taking a holistic look at the portfolio, White believes that an investor's time horizons can be a key factor. A client with a short-term outlook, meaning someone who will be looking to cash out on some of his gains within three to five years for living or other expenses, has more reason to take out more cash or move into option that offer more liquidity than someone with a 10-year, long-term horizon, according to White.
For example, a client who had significant capital gains recently contacted White wanting to recognize those before 2013, but as the conversation progressed, it was clear that staying the course was the right move. "His health is great and he doesn't think he's going to spend through any of those assets in his lifetime," White explains. "So for a lot of [his investments] we decided that they would never be subject to capital gains tax because they'd eventually go through the estate. That's why every situation is different."
It's also important not to take money out as a temporary solution. "When you start getting in and out of the market you're starting to roll the dice," Flader cautions. "When you're trying to predict the stock market you're trying to predict people's opinions of the economy, but if you sell you could miss out on the upside."
For those looking to stay in the game, there are some alternatives, says RBC's Flader, who is about to enter his 27th year as an advisor. He has confidence in managed futures strategies that incorporate covered calls and puts as well as tactical funds.
"It limits the upside, but also limits the downside," Flader says. "When the market starts to look ugly they have the flexibility to go into cash and some have the ability to go short; giving managers [the] flexibility to get out of the market completely if they don't like it."
Convertible bonds and commodities can also be decent places to look going into 2013, according to Flader. "It's not like a safety valve, but they would have substantially less risk," he says. "[And] we do think commodity prices are going to be helpful going forward."
When clients watching the markets call in with knee-jerk reactions to bad news, Flader offers a level-headed reminder: "I'm almost sarcastic: 'What paper do you have that no one else has?'" he asks clients. "If you're reading the same information as guys who manage Yale's pension endowment and pension plans across the country, you don't know anything they don't know. How do you know that the news that you're reading isn't already factored in?"
No matter what the allocation looks like at the end of 2012, the key is that the client is comfortable. "A lot boils down to what helps them sleep at night," White says. "While on paper something may look like the logical right thing to do, if that client is going to worry [himself] to death over it, we might alter that recommendation to something that might give him a comfort level that he can live with."