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As Trump thunders, investors watch for rain

By Ross Kerber

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) - A dizzying stream of market-moving tweets and policy talk by President Donald Trump is finding a hopeful but anxious audience among professional investors looking to make stockpicking great again.

After years of losing ground to index funds, portfolio managers and wealth advisers say Trump's assertive moves, like singling out individual companies, may create a chance to set their investment strategies apart - even if they think some of Trump's verbal assaults are just bluster. "If he’s going to create volatility, we're going to take advantage of it," said Ross Gerber, president of California wealth management firm Gerber Kawasaki Inc.

Professional stockpickers are under pressure to improve returns as investors increasingly turn to cheaper passive investments – redirecting tens of billions of dollars each month.

Trump's pledge to shake up regulations affecting sectors such as finance, autos and healthcare, as well as his promise to cut taxes, could create big corporate winners and losers. That could give active fund managers an opportunity, in theory, to showcase their skills.

"This administration was elected with many people hoping for change, and that's going to upset the apple cart with old losers coming back in favor," said Scott Schermerhorn, chief executive of Granite Investment Advisors in New Hampshire.

So far, Schermerhorn has made few changes to his portfolios, like the Granite Value Fund <GVFIX.O>. With Trump in office less than two weeks, he is waiting for clearer signs on what new policies will be introduced.

Schermerhorn also said he has talked some clients out of bailing on stocks such as Boeing <BA.N> or drugmakers after Trump criticized them publicly on Twitter - tweets Schermerhorn said he read as simply negotiating positions.

Gerber has already acted on Trump. After the then-president-elect slammed Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet program as too expensive on Dec. 12, Gerber bought Lockheed shares.

Trump said on Monday his administration was able to cut $600 million from its latest contract for the jet, but Gerber said the case for the stock remains its longer-term outlook.

"Bullying companies ultimately won't change the economics," he said.

DISPERSION

The turn to passive management reflects how many active managers have failed to produce the higher returns that would justify their more costly fees.

In theory, if Trump produces winners and losers in corporate America, then active managers could be helped by a rise in "dispersion," a measure of the gap in returns among stocks. During December, dispersion in the S&P 500 index was 14 percent, the lowest in two years, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

"The friend of active management is high dispersion, and transitions. We think we have both of those," said Collin Bell, a managing director at Goldman Sachs' <GS.N> asset management division. But dispersion is a double-edged sword if fund managers wind up on the wrong side of a trade – a distinct possibility given Trump's willingness to talk policy on social media and re-evaluate key foreign policy principles. His recent move to curb immigration has sent major U.S. stock indexes plummeting.

"Trying to react to his tweets, for a long-term investor, I think is a very dangerous game to play," said John Linehan, portfolio manager of the $23 billion T. Rowe Price Equity Income Fund. <PRFDX.O>

He said he spends more time following policy discussions, after years in which Washington's actions did not affect particular stocks so much. Linehan cited the on-again, off-again talk of a "border adjustment tax" as the sort of issue to keep an eye on.

A recent jump in volatility has been a boon for day traders, who have a short-term horizon. But Trump's tweets are too sporadic for many of the quantitative strategists from hedge funds and banks, who track patterns and trends.

Indeed, higher dispersion could provide a business opportunity for active stockpickers' arch-rivals, the passive funds. To shield investors from stock gyrations, Michael LaBella, portfolio manager at Legg Mason Inc's <LM.N> QS Investors unit, said it encourages investors to consider diversification products like its Low Volatility High Dividend ETF <LVHD.O> in case promised policy changes do not actually emerge.

"Because there is so much policy uncertainty, you can't differentiate what's policy and what's just bluster," he said.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Dan Grebler)

 

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