Risk

When trustees can lose it all

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This blog celebrates Trustees Week.

Trustees have many responsibilities and significant power to guide their charity for good or ill. Occasionally circumstances become so stressful, particularly during a stock market panic, that long held strategies can be quickly abandoned.

In one scenario trustees might have instructed their investment manager with a high earning but high risk mandate, only to find that it falls by 30% (so far). Not knowing how much further it will fall, they change their mandate to one focussed on preserving the remaining capital, usually by selling equities and holding cash. Too often the market then recovers, but the portfolio doesn’t. Only trustees can do this.

We should always remember that being a trustee is very rewarding but can involve a variety of stressful situations: think of safeguarding, expenditure decisions, data and of course investing. It is not as simple as rolling some dice and hoping for the best outcome, as it is rarely that simple. The key is to be prepared and rehearse these situations as far as possible – which is a good use of the Risk Register.

Where organisations have mission critical components it is important to make sure they are resilient and well supported. It is up to senior staff to make sure that their trustees are properly supported so they can exercise their duties and responsibilities as effectively as possible.

Why charities need to engage

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At Yoke, we like to cycle to meetings. It keeps us fit and cuts our carbon footprint. While some say cycling in London or any city is dangerous, we manage the risks and take appropriate time between meetings, keeping within the law. The biggest risk on the road tends to be other cyclists or pedestrians, who do not appear to be aware of the rules of the road. 

We notice that it common for pedestrians at crossings wait for a bike to pass, when it is the person on foot’s right of way. This is because many cyclists think they are in charge and ignore the highway code by crossing red lights and zebra crossings, so pedestrians are naturally confused and avoidable accidents can occur.

An excellent recently published report entitled Time and Money highlights that charities who rely on investments to support their long-term mission can take advantage of their ability to make and spend more money and encourage good corporate behaviour. However, short-term thinking can get in the way.

Trustees can unwittingly be blown off-course and when investing for the long-term. It is important that Trustees should be committed and ambitious, not complacent, continually attending to the proper management of their assets but never losing sight of the main charitable goal.

Why do we link the poor pedestrian to a report about investment management for charities?  In many cases an investment manager attends the charity meeting and for usually 30 minutes, they entertain client with stories from the market. Rarely does the charity engage. Like the pedestrian at the crossing who is used to the cyclist ruling the road, charities tend not to challenge. 

Charities must engage, not be entertained, when it comes to investment. They must understand the risks and investment objectives. While the manager can advise, it is the charity that is in control and they must have the confidence to remind themselves of what they want from these assets, assess whether or not they are getting what they want, and if not, decide what action to take.   

Investment managers should also encourage their clients to be engaged by basing their presentation of how well they are fulfilling the mandate they have been given against the benchmark the charity has set. Fabulous tales of the far east and what’s going on in the Silicon Valley is simply entertainment and adds very little to the Trustees’ understanding of whether they are achieving their long term goals.

Like the pedestrian, trustees need to enforce their right and be in control of where they are going to avoid unnecessary accidents.  

When the Community Chest is empty?

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We know what would happen if every player in a game of Monopoly was given a huge amount of extra money by the bank in the middle of the game. Assets would go up in value, but rent and mortgage values would not change because they are set out on the Title Deed card for each property and can’t be changed.

In this new situation staying in Mayfair and Park Lane hotels had become very affordable because everyone had a lot of cash. The only people struggling were those that had bought too many properties at expensive prices, had less luck than others, and therefore less cash. When they sold their properties they still received inflated prices. 

What happens if the situation is reversed and the bank decides that it wants its money back again? Things would be very different: asset prices would fall, very quickly if the money was to be returned in one tranche, and players would no longer have a fat pile of cash as a cushion. Many would go bankrupt much faster, and these forced sellers would trade in their properties for distressed prices (or even the mortgage value), realising great losses.

The only thing that will save the game will be the discovery of another source of money to replace the money being withdrawn by the bank. What could do that? The plan is for it to be global economic growth but it needs to be a large number. Will enough be available when it is needed? Can we rely on Chance or Community Chest? No one knows.

While they may have some discretion, Trustees with assets and contracts need to have sufficient liquidity to meet their ongoing obligations.