The average investor’s guide to war
Markets don't like uncertainty, and there is nothing more volatile than a looming war, let alone a war in the Middle East, where the potential ripple effects and fear of an oil supply disruption can wreak havoc on the global economy.
But is war an event that the long-term investor can profit from, or in the least, is it an event that the average investor needs to prepare for, akin to a military campaign within the portfolio?
Financial advisors caution against investors putting too much, if any, stake in the current showdown between the United States and its allies, and Syria. It comes back to the most basic impulse that financial advisors warn investors against confusing for an investment principle: trying to time the market.
That slippery slope doesn't change whether the timing relates to a Fed taper, a fiscal cliff or a fighter jet getting prepped on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria.
For day traders and tactical investors flipping the switch on leveraged and inverse exchange-traded fund positions daily, every new day, even millisecond, is an opportunity.
The double bull oil ETF may be a great bet within a 24-hour window, multiple times, and the shrewd day trader may have gotten in on the 2 percent gains in shares of ExxonMobil earlier this week, but financial advisors and institutional investors also say that those are opportunities long-term investors are well advised to let pass, and staying the course, at least at this point, is probably the wisest strategy.
(Read more: Attack on Syria: The worst and least bad scenarios)
Nick Denefrio, vice president of asset management at Lenox Advisors, said the company is paying attention to events, but has not felt the need to rebalance. He said a small percentage of clients have asked about Syria and the potential impact on commodities, specifically, oil and gold.
Yet the firm is waiting to see if events escalate before making any decision. With big gains in the equity markets this year, financial advisors and investors would like to know if a 5 or 10 percent correction is coming, but only if the events in the Middle East escalate would Lenox consider whether to re-evaluate its underweight position in commodities.
Financial advisors also note that with the huge equity gains in recent years, volatility is something that investors should already be prepared for within their portfolios. The Syrian crisis hasn't changed the game, though for investors who have been thinking that it's onward and upward with stock gains, it is an opportunity to think twice.
"We are generally staying the course, in that we have adjusted our portfolios to handle volatility like this," said David Zier, CEO of Convergent Wealth Advisors, in an email. "Since 2009, the S&P 500 has gained roughly 145 percent. That is the largest advance in the shortest period of time without a correction of 20 percent or more. So, the U.S. market is overdue for a correction. The Syrian crisis is just the excuse the market needed."
Corrections are a normal and expected part of investing in the markets, Zier said, and as a result, the real opportunity may come when volatility gives investors a new opportunity to take advantage of dislocations and mispricing in securities.
"I'm hesitant to make any big moves right now," said Philip Silverman, managing partner of money management firm Kingsview Capital, which operates a commodity trading pool. "I would caution people against getting into oil and gold. The volatility on a day-to-day basis is only great for traders."
Silverman said one of the biggest mistakes an investor can make is assuming the worst-case scenario is a likely event.
"People tend to get caught up on outlier scenarios and typically that does not happen. … Don't go modify your whole portfolio seeking this outlier scenario," Silverman said. "Sometimes it's better to step aside as you get close to certain events," he added.
There's a reason why the terms "war of attrition" and "zero-sum game" exist. Silverman said that investing in war can be even worse for the average investor who gets caught up in it: heavy losses. "I caution people about getting too far ahead of themselves," he said.
For the average investor, there is no edge to be gained by trading on these events. "Really much more of almost a coin flip. As opposed to taking a shot on making money, I find it better to avoid losing on events like this," he said.
As an example, he cited trading in oil, the most obvious bet on geopolitical risk in the Middle East. Silverman said he wouldn't want to short oil in the current environment, but he wouldn't chase oil up either. "You can make a case for it being up or down $5 in the next week."
About an hour after we spoke on Thursday night, oil dropped by $3, after the British Parliament voted down its prime minister's call for supporting a strike against Syria.
On Friday afternoon, President Obama said no final decision on Syria has been made, and he is looking at limited action, not an open-ended commitment. Before the president spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry called Assad a "thug and a murderer" in a televised briefing, but made no unequivocal statement about military action. Oil went down by one percent. Based on Silverman's comments, I know that's one short bet he was happy to let pass.
The alternative would have meant incorporating into his investment strategy analysis of British parliamentary politics and American polling numbers on support among the public for a go-it-alone strike by President Barack Obama—trading in the world of CNBC for C-Span. Is that really a good bet for an investor to be making?
Financial advisors suggest the chances of making out as a war profiteer are not worth the risk of becoming one more casualty of conflict.
—By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com.