Market Commentary

Recent Market Volatility

After a period of relative calm in the markets, in recent days the increase in volatility in the stock market has resulted in renewed anxiety for many investors. From February 1–5, the US market (as measured by the Russell 3000 Index) fell almost 6%, resulting in many investors wondering what the future holds and if they should make changes to their portfolios. While it may be difficult to remain calm during a substantial market decline, it is important to remember that volatility is a normal part of investing. Additionally, for long-term investors, reacting emotionally to volatile markets may be more detrimental to portfolio performance than the drawdown itself.

intra-year declines

Exhibit 1 shows calendar year returns for the US stock market since 1979, as well as the largest intra-year declines that occurred during a given year. During this period, the average intra-year decline was about 14%. About half of the years observed had declines of more than 10%, and around a third had declines of more than 15%. Despite substantial intra-year drops, calendar year returns were positive in 32 years out of the 37 examined. This goes to show just how common market declines are and how difficult it is to say whether a large intra-year decline will result in negative returns over the entire year.


In US dollars. US Market is measured by the Russell 3000 Index. Largest Intra-Year Gain refers to the largest market increase from trough to peak during the year. Largest Intra-Year Decline refers to the largest market decrease from peak to trough during the year. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes.

In US dollars. US Market is measured by the Russell 3000 Index. Largest Intra-Year Gain refers to the largest market increase from trough to peak during the year. Largest Intra-Year Decline refers to the largest market decrease from peak to trough during the year. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes.

Reacting impacts performance

If one was to try and time the market in order to avoid the potential losses associated with periods of increased volatility, would this help or hinder long-term performance? If current market prices aggregate the information and expectations of market participants, stock mispricing cannot be systematically exploited through market timing. In other words, it is unlikely that investors can successfully time the market, and if they do manage it, it may be a result of luck rather than skill. Further complicating the prospect of market timing being additive to portfolio performance is the fact that a substantial proportion of the total return of stocks over long periods comes from just a handful of days. Since investors are unlikely to be able to identify in advance which days will have strong returns and which will not, the prudent course is likely to remain invested during periods of volatility rather than jump in and out of stocks. Otherwise, an investor runs the risk of being on the sidelines on days when returns happen to be strongly positive.

Exhibit 2 helps illustrate this point. It shows the annualized compound return of the S&P 500 Index going back to 1990 and illustrates the impact of missing out on just a few days of strong returns. The bars represent the hypothetical growth of $1,000 over the period and show what happened if you missed the best single day during the period and what happened if you missed a handful of the best single days. The data shows that being on the sidelines for only a few of the best single days in the market would have resulted in substantially lower returns than the total period had to offer.

In US dollars. For illustrative purposes. The missed best day(s) examples assume that the hypothetical portfolio fully divested its holdings at the end of the day before the missed best day(s), held cash for the missed best day(s), and reinvested the entire portfolio in the S&P 500 at the end of the missed best day(s). Annualized returns for the missed best day(s) were calculated by substituting actual returns for the missed best day(s) with zero. S&P data © 2018 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. One-Month US T- Bills is the IA SBBI US 30 Day TBill TR USD, provided by Ibbotson Associates via Morningstar Direct. Data is calculated off rounded daily index values.

In US dollars. For illustrative purposes. The missed best day(s) examples assume that the hypothetical portfolio fully divested its holdings at the end of the day before the missed best day(s), held cash for the missed best day(s), and reinvested the entire portfolio in the S&P 500 at the end of the missed best day(s). Annualized returns for the missed best day(s) were calculated by substituting actual returns for the missed best day(s) with zero. S&P data © 2018 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. One-Month US T- Bills is the IA SBBI US 30 Day TBill TR USD, provided by Ibbotson Associates via Morningstar Direct. Data is calculated off rounded daily index values.

Conclusion

While market volatility can be nerve-racking for investors, reacting emotionally and changing long-term investment strategies in response to short-term declines could prove more harmful than helpful. By adhering to a well-thought-out investment plan, ideally agreed upon in advance of periods of volatility, investors may be better able to remain calm during periods of short-term uncertainty.

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2017 Market Commentary

At the beginning of 2017, a common view among money managers and analysts was that the financial markets would not repeat their strong returns from 2016.  Many cited the uncertain global economy, political turmoil in the US, implementation of Brexit, conflicts in the Middle East, North Korea’s weapons buildup, and other factors.  The global equity markets defied their predictions, with major equity indices in the US, developed ex-US, and emerging markets posting strong returns for the year.

The broad global advance underscores the importance of following an investment approach based on diversification and discipline rather than prediction and timing.  Attempting to predict markets requires investors to not only accurately forecast future events, but also predict how markets will react to those events.  The 2017 markets were a good reminder that there is little evidence suggesting either of these objectives can be accomplished on a consistent basis.

Instead of attempting to make predictions about future events, investors should appreciate that today’s price reflects the expectations of market participants and information about future expected returns. The following quote by the late Merton Miller, Nobel Laureate, describes this view:

“Everybody has some information. The function of the markets is to aggregate that information, evaluate it, and get it incorporated into prices.”   —Merton Miller

The chart above highlights some of the year’s prominent headlines in the context of global stock market performance as measured by the MSCI All Country World Index-Investable Market Index (MSCI ACWI IMI).  These headlines are not offered to explain market returns.  Instead, they serve as a reminder that investors should view daily events from a long-term perspective and avoid making investment decisions based solely on the news.

World Economy

In 2017, the global economy showed signs of stronger growth, with 45 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) all on pace to expand.  Economic outlook and the expected impact on future cash flows are among the many variables markets consider when setting prices.  Therefore, investors should remember that growth in the economy is not always linked to stock market performance.

Equity Market Highlights

Global equity markets posted another positive year of returns in 2017.  The S&P 500 Index recorded a 21.83% total return and small cap stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 Index, returned 14.65%, both above their long-term average return of 11.96% and 11.73%, respectively, since 1979. 

Returns among non-US equity markets were even higher.  The MSCI World ex USA Index, which reflects non-US developed markets, logged a 24.21% return and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index a 37.28% return2, making this the fifth highest return in the index history.

As the S&P 500 and other indices reached all-time highs during the year, a common media question was whether markets were poised for a downturn.  History tells us that a market index being at an all-time high generally does not provide actionable information for investors. 

For evidence, we can look at the S&P 500 Index for the better part of the last century.  From 1926 through 2017, the frequency of positive 12-month returns following a new index high was similar to what is observed following months of any level.  In fact, over this time period, almost a third of the monthly observations were new closing highs for the index. The data shows that new index highs have historically not been useful predictors of future returns.

Global Diversification Impact

Developed ex US markets and emerging markets generally outperformed US equities. As a result, a market cap-weighted global equity portfolio would have outperformed a US equity portfolio. 

The S&P 500 Index’s 21.83% return marked its best calendar year since 2013 and placed 2017 in the top third of best performing calendar years in the index’s history. Despite these returns, the US ranked in the bottom half of countries for the year, placing 35th out of the 47 countries in the MSCI All Country World Index (IMI). 

Delving into individual countries, country level returns were mostly positive. Using the MSCI All Country World Index (IMI) as a proxy, 45 out of the 47 countries posted positive returns. Country level returns were dispersed even among those with positive returns. In developed markets, returns ranged from +10.36% in Israel to +51.39% in Austria. In emerging markets, returns ranged from –24.75% in Pakistan to +53.56% in Poland—a spread of almost 80%. Without a reliable way to predict which country will deliver the highest returns, this large dispersion in returns between the best and worst performing countries again emphasizes the importance of maintaining a diversified approach when investing globally. 

China provides an example highlighting the noise in year-to-year single country returns. After a flat-to-negative return (USD) in 2016, Chinese equities returned more than 50% (USD) in 2017, making China one of the best performing countries for the year.

Currencies

Most major currencies including the euro, the Australian dollar, and the British pound appreciated against the US dollar.  The strengthening of non-US currencies had a positive impact on returns for US investors with holdings in unhedged non-US assets.  This may surprise some investors given that the US dollar has strengthened against many currencies over the past five- and 10-year periods.  However, just as with individual country returns, there is no reliable way to predict currency movements. Investors should be cautious about trying to time currencies based on the recent good or bad performance of the US dollar or any other currency.

Premium Performance

In 2017, the small cap premium4 was generally positive in developed ex US markets and negative across US and emerging markets. The profitability premium5 was positive across US, developed ex US, and emerging markets, while the value premium6 was negative across those markets. 

US Market

In the US, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks and value stocks underperformed growth stocks. On a positive note, high profitability stocks outperformed low profitability stocks as measured marketwide. 

Although US small cap stocks, as described by the Russell 2000 Index, provided a healthy 14.65% return in 2017, the US small cap premium (as measured by the Russell 2000 Index minus the Russell 1000 Index) was negative, ranking in the lowest third of annual return differences since 1979. However, over the 10-year period ending December 31, the small cap premium was positive. 

US value stocks returned 13.19% in 2017, as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index. While double-digit returns from value are appealing, US growth stocks performed even better, with a 29.59% return as represented by Russell 3000 Growth Index. The difference between value and growth returns, as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index minus Russell 3000 Growth Index, made 2017 the fourth lowest year for value since 1979 and pulled the five-year rolling premium return into negative territory. 

Even over extended periods, underperformance of the value premium or any other premium is within expectation and not unusual. Over a 10-year period ending in March 2000, value stocks underperformed growth stocks by 5.61% per year, as measured by the Russell 1000 Value and Russell 1000 Growth indices.

This underperformance quickly reversed course and by the end of February 2001, value stocks had outperformed growth stocks over the previous one-, three-, five-, 10-, and 20-year periods. Premiums can be difficult if not impossible to predict and relative performance can change quickly, reinforcing the need for discipline in pursuing these sources of higher expected returns. 

The profitability premium was positive in 2017, with US high profitability stocks outperforming low profitability stocks. Viewing profitability through the lens of the other premiums, high profitability stocks outperformed low among value stocks while underperforming among growth stocks.

The complementary behavior of premiums in 2017 is a good example of the benefits of integrating multiple premiums in an investment strategy, which can increase the reliability of outperformance and mitigate the impact of an individual premium underperforming, as was the case with value among US stocks in 2017. 

Developed ex US Markets

In developed ex US markets, small cap stocks outperformed large cap stocks while value stocks underperformed growth stocks. High profitability stocks outperformed low profitability stocks.

Over both five- and 10-year rolling periods, the small cap premium, measured as the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Index, continued to be positive.

Similar to the US equity market, value stocks posted a healthy 21.04% return for 2017 as measured using MSCI World ex USA Value Index. However, growth stocks performed even better with a 27.61% return, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Growth Index.

The profitability premium was positive in developed ex US markets viewed marketwide. Looking within size and style segments of the market, high profitability outperformed low profitability in all but the large growth segment. 

Emerging Markets

In emerging markets, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks and value stocks underperformed growth stocks.  Similar to the US equity market, high profitability stocks outperformed those with low profitability.

Value stocks returned 28.07% as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Value Index, but growth stocks fared better returning 46.80% using the MSCI Emerging Markets Growth Index.  The value premium, measured as MSCI Emerging Markets Value Index minus MSCI Emerging Markets Growth Index, was the lowest since 1999.

Though 2017 generally marked a positive year for absolute equity returns, it marked a change in premium performance from 2016 when the size and value premiums were generally positive across global markets.  Taking a longer-term perspective, these premiums remain persistent over decades and around the globe despite recent years’ headwinds. It is well documented that stocks with higher expected return potential, such as small cap and value stocks, do not realize these returns every year.  Maintaining discipline to these parts of the market is the key to effectively pursuing the long-term returns associated with the size, value, and profitability premiums. 

Fixed Income

Both US and non-US fixed income markets posted positive returns in 2017.  The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 3.54%.  The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD) gained 3.04%.

Yield curves were upwardly sloped in many developed markets for the year, indicating positive expected term premiums.  Realized term premiums were indeed positive both globally and in the US as long-term maturities outperformed their shorter-term counterparts.

Credit spreads, which are the difference between yields on lower quality and higher quality fixed income securities, were relatively narrow during the year, indicating smaller expected credit premiums.  Realized credit premiums were positive both globally and in the US, as lower-quality investment-grade corporates outperformed their higher-quality investment-grade counterparts.  Corporate bonds were the best performing sector, returning 6.42% in the US and 5.70% globally, as reflected in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD). 

In the US, the yield curve flattened as interest rates increased on the short end and decreased on the long end of the curve. The yield on the 3-month US Treasury bill increased 0.88% to end the year at 1.39%.  The yield on the 2-year US Treasury note increased 0.69% to 1.89%.  The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note decreased 0.05% for the year to end at 2.40%.  The yield on the 30-year US Treasury bond decreased 0.32% to end the year at 2.74%.

In other major markets, interest rates increased in Germany while they were relatively unchanged in the United Kingdom and Japan.  Yields on Japanese and German government bonds with maturities as long as eight years finished the year in negative territory.

CONCLUSION

The year of 2017 included numerous examples of the difficulty of predicting the performance of markets, the importance of diversification, and the need to maintain discipline if investors want to effectively pursue the long-term returns the capital markets offer.  The following quote by David Booth provides useful perspective as investors head into 2018:

“The key is to have the correct view of markets and how they work. Once you accept this view of markets, the benefits go way beyond just investing money.”   —David Booth

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Lessons For The Next Crisis

It will soon be the 10-year anniversary of when, in early October 2007, the S&P 500 Index hit what was its highest point before losing more than half its value over the next year and a half during the global financial crisis. Over the coming weeks and months, as other anniversaries of major crisis-related events pass (for example, 10 years since the bank run on Northern Rock or 10 years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers), there will likely be a steady stream of retrospectives on what happened as well as opinions on how the environment today may be similar or different from the period leading up to the crisis. It is difficult to draw useful conclusions based on such observations; financial markets have a habit of behaving unpredictably in the short run. There are, however, important lessons that investors might be well-served to remember: Capital markets have rewarded investors over the long term, and having an investment approach you can stick with—especially during tough times—may better prepare you for the next crisis and its aftermath.

BENEFITS OF HINDSIGHT

In 2008, the stock market dropped in value by almost half. Being a decade removed from the crisis may make it easier to take the past in stride. The eventual rebound and subsequent years of double-digit gains have also likely helped in this regard. While the events of the crisis were unfolding, however, a future of this sort looked anything but certain. Headlines such as “Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight,”1 “Markets in Disarray as Lending Locks Up,”2 and “For Stocks, Worst Single-Day Drop in Two Decades”3 were common front page news. Reading the news, opening up quarterly statements, or going online to check an account balance were, for many, stomach-churning experiences.

While being an investor today (or during any period, for that matter), is by no means a worry-free experience, the feelings of panic and dread felt by many during the financial crisis were distinctly acute. Many investors reacted emotionally to these developments. In the heat of the moment, some decided it was more than they could stomach, so they sold out of stocks. On the other hand, many who were able to stay the course and stick to their approach recovered from the crisis and benefited from the subsequent rebound in markets.

It is important to remember that this crisis and the subsequent recovery in financial markets was not the first time in history that periods of substantial volatility have occurred. Exhibit 1 helps illustrate this point. The exhibit shows the performance of a balanced investment strategy following several crises, including the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008, which took place in the middle of the financial crisis. Each event is labeled with the month and year that it occurred or peaked.

Although a globally diversified balanced investment strategy invested at the time of each event would have suffered losses immediately following most of these events, financial markets did recover, as can be seen by the three- and five-year cumulative returns shown in the exhibit. In advance of such periods of discomfort, having a long-term perspective, appropriate diversification, and an asset allocation that aligns with their risk tolerance and goals can help investors remain disciplined enough to ride out the storm. A financial advisor can play a critical role in helping to work through these issues and in counseling investors when things look their darkest.

CONCLUSION

In the mind of some investors, there is always a “crisis of the day” or potential major event looming that could mean the beginning of the next drop in markets. As we know, predicting future events correctly, or how the market will react to future events, is a difficult exercise. It is important to understand, however, that market volatility is a part of investing. To enjoy the benefit of higher potential returns, investors must be willing to accept increased uncertainty. A key part of a good long-term investment experience is being able to stay with your investment philosophy, even during tough times. A well-thought-out, transparent investment approach can help people be better prepared to face uncertainty and may improve their ability to stick with their plan and ultimately capture the long-term returns of capital markets.

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Quit Monkeying Around!

In the world of investment management there is an oft-discussed idea that blindfolded monkeys throwing darts at pages of stock listings can select portfolios that will do just as well, if not better, than both the market and the average portfolio constructed by professional money managers. If this is true, why might it be the case?

THE DART BOARD

Exhibit 1 shows the components of the Russell 3000 Index (regarded as a good proxy for the US stock market) as of December 31, 2016. Each stock in the index is represented by a box, and the size of each box represents the stock’s market capitalization (share price multiplied by shares outstanding) or “market cap” in the index. For example, Apple (AAPL) is the largest box since it has the largest market cap in the index. The boxes get smaller as you move from the top to the bottom of the exhibit, from larger stocks to smaller stocks. The boxes are also color coded based on their market cap and whether they are value or growth stocks. Value stocks have lower relative prices (as measured by, for instance the price-to-book ratio) and growth stocks tend to have higher relative prices. In the exhibit, blue represents large cap value stocks (LV), green is large cap growth stocks (LG), gray is small cap value stocks (SV), and yellow is small cap growth stocks (SG).

For the purposes of this analogy you can think of Exhibit 1 as a proxy for the overall stock market and therefore similar to a portfolio that, in aggregate, professional money managers hold in their competition with their simian challengers. Because for every investor holding an overweight to a stock (relative to its market cap weighting) there must also be an investor underweight that same stock, this means that, in aggregate, the average dollar invested holds a portfolio that looks like the overall market.

Exhibit 2, on the other hand, represents the dart board the monkeys are using to play their game. Here, the boxes represent the same stocks shown in Exhibit 1, but instead of weighting each company by market cap, the companies are weighted equally. For example, in this case, Apple’s box is the same size as every other company in the index regardless of its market cap. If one were to pin up pages of newspaper stock listings to throw darts at, Exhibit 2 would be much more representative of what the target would look like.

When looking at Exhibits 1 and 2, the significant differences between the two are clear. In Exhibit 1, the surface area is dominated by large value and large growth (blue and green) stocks. In Exhibit 2, however, small cap value stocks dominate (gray). Why does this matter? Research has shown that, historically over time, small company stocks have had excess returns relative to large company stocks. Research has also shown that, historically over time, value (or low relative price) stocks have had excess returns relative to growth (or high relative price) stocks. Because Exhibit 2 has a greater proportion of its surface area dedicated to small cap value stocks, it is more likely that a portfolio of stocks selected at random by throwing darts would end up being tilted towards stocks which research has shown to have had higher returns when compared to the market.

SO…THROW AWAY?

This does not mean, however, that haphazardly selecting stocks by the toss of a dart is an efficient or reliable way to invest. For one thing, it ignores the complexities that arise in competitive markets.

Consider as an example something seemingly as straightforward as a strategy that holds every stock in the Russell 3000 Index at an equal weight (the equivalent of buying the whole dart board in Exhibit 2). In order to maintain an equal weight in all 3,000 securities, an investor would have to rebalance frequently, buying shares of companies that have gone down in price and selling shares that have gone up. This is because as prices change, so will each individual holding’s respective weight in the portfolio. By not considering whether or not these frequent trades add value over and above the costs they generate, investors are opening themselves up to a potentially less than desirable outcome.

Instead, if there are well-known relationships that explain differences in expected returns across stocks, using a systematic and purposeful approach that takes into consideration real-world constraints is more likely to increase your chances for investment success. Considerations for such an approach include things like: understanding the drivers of returns and how to best design a portfolio to capture them, what a sufficient level of diversification is, how to appropriately rebalance, and last but not least, how to manage the costs associated with pursuing such a strategy.

THE LONG GAME

Finally, the importance of having an asset allocation well-suited for your objectives and risk tolerance, as well as being able to remain focused on the long term, cannot be overemphasized. Even well-constructed portfolios pursuing higher expected returns will have periods of disappointing results. A financial advisor can help an investor decide on an appropriate asset allocation, stay the course during periods of disappointing results, and carefully weigh the considerations mentioned above to help investors decide if a given investment strategy is the right one for them.

CONCLUSION

So what insights can investors glean from this analysis? First, by tilting a portfolio towards sources of higher expected returns, investors can potentially outperform the market without needing to outguess market prices. Second, implementation and patience are paramount. If one is going to pursue higher expected returns, it is important to do so in a cost-effective manner and to stay focused on the long term.

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The Uncertainty Paradox

 Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.    — Voltaire

“The market hates uncertainty” has been a common enough saying in recent years, but how logical is it? There are many different aspects to uncertainty, some that can be measured and some that cannot. Uncertainty is an unchangeable condition of existence. As individuals, we can feel more or less uncertain, but that is a distinctly human phenomenon. Rather than ebbing and flowing with investor sentiment, uncertainty is an inherent and ever-present part of investing in markets. Any investment that has an expected return above the prevailing “risk-free rate” (think T-Bills for US investors) involves trading off certainty for a potentially increased return. 

Consider this concept through the lens of stock vs. bond investments. Stocks have higher expected returns than bonds largely because there is more uncertainty about the future state of the world for equity investors than bond investors. Bonds, for the most part, have fixed coupon payments and a maturity date at which principal is expected to be repaid. Stocks have neither. Bonds also sit higher in a company’s capital structure. In the event a firm goes bust, bondholders get paid before stockholders. So, do investors avoid stocks in favor of bonds as a result of this increased uncertainty? Quite the contrary, many investors end up allocating capital to stocks due to their higher expected return. In the end, many investors are often willing to make the tradeoff of bearing some increased uncertainty for potentially higher returns. 

MANAGING EMOTIONS

While the statement “the market hates uncertainty” may not be totally logical, it doesn’t mean it lacks educational value. Thinking about what the statement is expressing allows us to gain insight into the mindset of individuals. The statement attempts to personify the market by ascribing the very real nervousness and fear felt by some investors when volatility increases. It is recognition of the fact that when markets go up and down, many investors struggle to separate their emotions from their investments. It ultimately tells us that for many an investor, regardless of whether markets are reaching new highs or declining, changes in market prices can be a source of anxiety. During these periods, it may not feel like a good time to invest. Only with the benefit of hindsight do we feel as if we know whether any time period was a good one to be invested. Unfortunately, while the past may be prologue, the future will forever remain uncertain. 

STAYING IN YOUR SEAT

In a recent interview, David Booth was asked about what it means to be a long-term investor: 

“People often ask the question, ‘How long do I have to wait for an investment strategy to pay off? How long do I have to wait so I’m confident that stocks will have a higher return than money market funds, or have a positive return?’ And my answer is it’s at least one year longer than you’re willing to give. There is no magic number. Risk is always there.”

Part of being able to stay unemotional during periods when it feels like uncertainty has increased is having an appropriate asset allocation that is in line with an investor’s willingness and ability to bear risk. It also helps to remember that, during what feels like good times and bad, one wouldn’t expect to earn a higher return without taking on some form of risk. While a decline in markets may not feel good, having a portfolio you are comfortable with, understanding that uncertainty is part of investing, and sticking to a plan that is agreed upon in advance and reviewed on a regular basis can help keep investors from reacting emotionally. This may ultimately lead to a better investment experience. 

New Market Highs & Positive Expected Returns

There has been much discussion in the news recently about new nominal highs in stock indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500.

When markets hit new highs, is that an indication that it’s time for investors to cash out? History tells us that a market index being at an all-time high generally does not provide actionable information for investors. For evidence, we can look at the S&P 500 Index for the better part of the last century. Exhibit 1 shows that from 1926 through the end of 2016, the proportion of annual returns that have been positive after a new monthly high is similar to the proportion of annual returns that have been positive after any index level. In fact, over this time period almost a third of the monthly observations were new closing highs for the index. Looking at this data, it is clear that new index highs have historically not been useful predictors of future returns.

Given that the level of an index by itself does not seemingly have a bearing on future returns, you may ask yourself a more fundamental question: What drives expected returns for stocks?

POSITIVE EXPECTED RETURNS

One way to compute the current value of an investment is to estimate the future cash flows the investment is expected to deliver and discount them back into today’s dollars. For an investment in a firm’s stock, this type of valuation method allows expectations about a firm’s future profits to be linked to its current stock price through a discount rate. The discount rate equals an investor’s expected return. A simple, but important, insight we glean from this is that the expected return from holding a stock is driven by the price paid for it and what its investors expect to receive.

Stock prices are the result of the interaction of many willing buyers and sellers. It is extremely unlikely that in aggregate, those willing buyers apply negative discount rates to the expected profits of the firms they are purchasing. Why? Because there is always a risk that expected profits will not materialize or that the price might decline because of unanticipated future events. If investors apply positive discount rates to the cash flows they expect to receive from owning a stock, we should expect the price of that stock to represent a level such that its expected return is always positive. Unless the expected cash flows are persistently biased downward or upward, we can expect this to be the case.

There is little evidence, though, that the aggregate expectations of investors that set market prices have been persistently biased downward or upward. Many studies document that professional money managers have been unable to deliver consistent outperformance by outguessing market prices. In the end, prices set by market forces are difficult to outguess. The market does a good job setting prices, and we can assume that the expected return investors have applied when setting prices are not biased.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the price of a stock, or the price of a basket of stocks like the S&P 500 Index, should be set to a level such that its expected return is positive, regardless of whether or not that price level is at a new high. This helps explain why new index highs have not, on average, been followed by negative returns. At a new high, a new low, or something in between, expected returns are positive.

EXPECTED RETURNS, REALIZED RETURNS, AND HOLDING HORIZONS

Today’s prices depend on expected returns and expectations about future profits. If either expected returns or expectations about future profits change, prices will also change to reflect this new information. Changes in risk aversion, tastes and preferences, expectations about future profits, or the quantity of risk can all drive changes in expected returns. All else equal, an increase in expected returns is reflected through a drop in prices. A decrease in expected returns is reflected through a rise in prices. Thus, realized returns can differ from expected returns.

This means there is a probability that the realized return on any stock, an index like the S&P 500, or the market as a whole can be negative even when expected returns are positive. But what can we say about the relation between the probability of a negative realized return and an investor’s holding horizon?

Exhibit 2 shows rolling 10-year performance of the equity market premium (equity returns minus the return of one-month US Treasury bills, considered to be short-term, risk-free investments). In most periods it was positive, but in several periods it underperformed.

There is uncertainty around how long periods of underperformance like this may last. Historically, however, the probability of equity returns being positive increases over longer time periods compared to shorter periods. Exhibit 3 shows the percentage of time that the equity market premium was positive over different time periods going back to 1928. When the length of the time period measured increases, so does the chance of the equity market premium being positive. So to answer our question from before: as an investor’s holding period increases, the probability of a negative realized return decreases. This is why it is important to choose a level of equity exposure that you can stay invested in over the long term.

CONCLUSION

By themselves, new all-time highs in equity markets have historically not been useful predictors of future returns. While positive realized returns are never guaranteed, equity investments have positive expected returns regardless of index levels or prior short-term market returns. The collective wisdom of market participants and their competitive assessment of expected returns and risks allow investors to rely on the information contained in prices to inform their investment decisions and assume positive expected returns from stocks. Historically speaking, over longer time horizons, the odds of realized stock returns being positive have increased. This is one reason why investors should consider investing a long-term commitment: Staying invested and not making changes based on short-term predictions increases your likelihood of success.

2016 Market Commentary

In 2016, the US market reached new highs and stocks in a majority of developed and emerging market countries delivered positive returns. The year began with anxiety over China’s stock market and economy, falling oil prices, a potential US recession, and negative interest rates in Japan. US equity markets were in steep decline and had the worst start of any year on record. The markets began improving in mid-February through midyear. Investors also faced uncertainty from the Brexit vote in June and the US election in November.

Many investors may not have expected global stocks and bonds to deliver positive returns in such a tumultuous year. This turnaround story highlights the importance of diversifying across asset groups and regional markets, as well as staying disciplined despite uncertainty. Although not all asset classes had positive returns, a globally diversified, cap-weighted portfolio logged attractive returns in 2016.

Consider that global markets are incredible information-processing machines that incorporate news and expectations into prices. Investors are well served by staying the course with an asset allocation that reflects their needs, risk preferences, and objectives. This can help investors weather uncertainty in all of its forms. The following quote by Eugene Fama describes this view.

“If three or five years of returns are going to change your mind [on an investment], you shouldn’t have been there to begin with.” ―Eugene Fama

The chart above highlights some of the year’s prominent headlines in context of broad US market performance, measured by the Russell 3000 Index. These headlines are not offered to explain market returns. Instead, they serve as a reminder that investors should view daily events from a long-term perspective and avoid making investment decisions based solely on the news.

The chart below offers a snapshot of non-US stock market performance (developed and emerging markets), measured by the MSCI All Country World ex USA Index (in USD, net dividends). The headlines should not be viewed as determinants of the market’s direction but as examples of events that may have tested investor discipline during the year.

Equity Market Highlights

After a rocky start, the US stock market had a strong year. The S&P 500 Index logged an 11.96% total return and small cap stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 Index, returned 21.31%.

Overall, performance among non-US markets was also positive: The MSCI World ex USA Index, which reflects non-US developed markets, logged a 2.75% return and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index an 11.19% return.

Global Diversification Impact

Overall, US equities outperformed equities in the developed ex US markets and emerging markets. As a result, a market cap-weighted global equity portfolio would have underperformed a US equity portfolio. Investors generally benefited from emphasizing value stocks around the world, as well as US small cap stocks.

Returns at the country level were dispersed. In developed markets, returns ranged from –24.87% in Israel to +24.56% in Canada. In emerging markets, returns ranged from –12.13% in Greece to +66.24% in Brazil.

Strong performance in the US placed it as the 17th best performing country out of the 46 countries in the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), which represents both developed and emerging markets. Although the S&P 500 Index had a positive return in 2016, the year was not in the top half of the index’s historical annual returns.

Brazil offers a noteworthy example of market prices at work and the difficulty of trying to forecast and time markets. Despite a severe recession, Brazil was the top performing emerging market country in 2016. Brazil’s GDP was projected to shrink 3.4% in 2016, according to the OECD in November, yet its equity market logged strong performance. The lesson is that prices incorporate a rich set of information, including expectations about the future. One must beat the aggregate wisdom of market participants in order to identify mispricing. The evidence suggests that this is a very difficult task to do consistently. 

Volatility

In 2016, equity market volatility, as measured by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), was below average. There were, however, several spikes—as you might expect—as new information was incorporated into prices. The high was reached in early February, and spikes occurred following the Brexit vote in June and again in November preceding the US election.

Premium Performance

In 2016, the small cap and value premiums were mostly positive across US, developed ex US, and emerging markets, while the profitability premium varied by market segment. Though 2016 marked a generally positive year, investors may still be wary following several years of underperformance for value and small cap stocks. Taking a longer-term perspective, the premiums remain persistent over decades and around the globe despite recent years’ headwinds. The small cap and value premiums are well-grounded in financial economics and verified using market data spanning decades, but pursuing those premiums requires a consistent, long-term approach.

US Market

In the US market, small cap stocks outperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. High profitability stocks outperformed low profitability stocks in most market segments. Over 2016, the US small cap premium marked the seventh highest annual return difference since 1979 when measured by the Russell 2000 Index minus Russell 1000 Index. Most of the performance for small caps came in the last two months of the year, after the US election on November 8. This illustrates the difficulty of trying to time premiums and the benefit of maintaining consistent exposure. Through October, US small cap stocks had outpaced large company stocks for the year by only 0.35%. By year-end, the small cap premium had increased to 9.25%, as shown below.

US value stocks outperformed growth stocks by 11.01% following an extended period of underperformance. Over the five-year rolling period, the value premium, as measured by the Russell 3000 Value Index minus Russell 3000 Growth Index, moved from negative in 2015 to positive in 2016.

Developed ex US Markets

In developed ex US markets, small cap stocks outperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. Over both the five- and 10-year rolling periods, the small cap premium, measured as the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Index, continued to be positive. The five- and 10-year rolling periods for the small cap premium have been positive for the better part of the past decade.

Value stocks outperformed growth stocks by 9.26%, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Value Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Growth Index. Similarly to US small caps, most of the outperformance occurred in the fourth quarter, reinforcing the importance of consistency in pursuing premiums. Despite a positive year, the value premium remains negative over the five- and 10-year rolling periods.

Emerging Markets

In emerging markets, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks and value stocks outperformed growth stocks. Despite the underperformance of small cap stocks, small cap value stocks fared better than small cap growth stocks and performed similarly to large cap value stocks. Investors who emphasized small cap value stocks over small cap growth stocks benefited.

Fixed Income

Both US and non-US fixed income markets posted positive returns. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 2.65%. The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD) gained 3.95%.

Yield curves were generally upwardly sloped in many developed markets, indicating positive expected term premiums. Indeed, realized term premiums were positive in the US and globally as longer-term maturities outperformed their shorter-term counterparts.

Corporate bonds were the best performing sector, returning 6.11% in the US and 6.22% globally, as reflected in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD). Credit premiums were also positive in the US and globally as lower quality investment grade corporates outperformed their higher quality investment grade counterparts.

While interest rates increased in the US, they generally decreased globally. Major markets such as Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom all experienced decreases in interest rates. In fact, yields on Japanese and German government bonds with maturities as long as eight years finished the year in negative territory.

In the US, interest rates increased the most on the short end of the yield curve and were relatively unchanged on the long end. The yield on the 3-month US Treasury bill increased 0.35% to end the year at 0.51%. The yield on the 2-year US Treasury note increased 0.14% to 1.20%. The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note closed at a record low of 1.37% in July yet increased 0.18% for the year to end at 2.45%. The yield on the 30-year US Treasury bond increased 0.05% to end the year at 3.06%. 

Currencies
The British pound, euro, and Australian dollar declined relative to the US dollar, while the Canadian dollar and Japanese yen appreciated relative to the US dollar. The impact of regional currency differences on returns in the developed equity markets was minor in most cases. US investors in both developed and emerging markets generally benefited from exposure to certain currencies.

 

“There’s no information in past returns of three to five years. That’s just noise. It really takes very long periods of time, and it takes a lot of stick-to-it-iveness. You have to really decide what your strategy is based on—long periods of returns—and then stick to it.”

―Eugene Fama

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Market Returns During Election Years

Every 4 years during the presidential elections, investors often ask these two questions.

  1. "How do the presidential elections impact market returns?"
  2. "Is there any kind of pattern that could help predict future market returns?"

On average, market returns have been positive in election years and the subsequent year.  It is also difficult to identify systematic return patterns in election years.  Market expectations associated with election outcomes are immediately embedded in security prices which is why trying to get ahead of that curve is such an uphill battle.

Experienced investors understand that successful investing is more about participating in long-term growth versus gambling to predict short-term market movements.