Category Archives: Asset Allocation

Is the Fed Really “Stealing from Savers”?

Federal ReserveIn a recent article on MarketWatch, Chris Martenson asserts that the Fed’s low interest rate policy and quantitative easing in recent years is deliberately stealing from savers. This article has elicited a big response, with almost 800 comments and almost 2000 likes on Facebook. The key point of the article is that the Fed’s policy of holding down interest rates to stimulate the economy has reduced the income provided by Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs) to extremely low levels. In this way, the Fed’s policy can certainly be viewed as harmful to people trying to live on the income from bonds and other very low risk investments. This Fed-bashing rhetoric is far from the whole story, though.

The total impact of very low interest rates on savers and conservative investors is somewhat more complex than the MarketWatch piece suggests. Subdued inflation in recent years, one of the reasons that the Fed cites for keeping interest rates low, also means savers are seeing lower rates of price increase in the goods and services they buy. With very low current inflation, you simply don’t need as much yield as when inflation is higher. It would be wonderful for conservative investors to have low inflation and high yields from risk-free accounts, but that situation is effectively impossible for extended periods of time.  All in all, low inflation is typically a good thing for people living in a fixed income.

Another effect of continued low interest rates is that bond investors have fared very well. The trailing 15-year annualized return of the Vanguard Intermediate bond Index (VBMFX) is 5.4%, as compared to 4.5% for the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX).  Falling rates over this period have driven bond prices upwards, which has greatly benefitted investors holding bonds over this period.

One interesting related charge leveled by the MarketWatch piece (and also in a recent New York Times article) is that the Fed policy has exacerbated income inequality and that the wealthy are benefitting from low rates while less-wealthy retirees living on fixed incomes are being hurt. Low interest rates have helped the stock market to deliver high returns in recent years and it is wealthier people who benefit most from market gains. In addition, wealthier people are more likely to be able to qualify to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of low rates. The implication here is that less wealthy people cannot afford to take advantage of the benefits of low rates and that these people, implicitly, are probably holding assets in low-yield risk-free assets such as savings accounts or CDs. This is, however, somewhat misleading.  Poorer retired households receive a disproportionate share of their income from Social Security, which provides constant inflation-adjusted income.

While investors in Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and CDs are seeking riskless return, money held in these assets does not help to drive economic growth, and this is precisely why the Fed policy is to make productive assets (in the form of investments in corporate bonds and equity) more attractive than savings accounts and certificates of deposit. So, the Fed is attempting to drive money into productive investments in economic growth that will create jobs and should, ultimately, benefit the economy as a whole. One must remember that the Fed has no mandate to provide investors with a risk-free after-inflation return.

It is certainly understandable that people trying to maintain bond ladders that produce their retirement income are frustrated and concerned by continued low interest rates and the subsequent low yields available from bonds.  Given that inflation is also very low, however, low bond yields are partly offset by more stable prices for goods and services. It is true that the Fed’s policies are intended to get people to do something productive with their wealth like investing in stocks, bonds, or other opportunities. It is also the case that older and more conservative investors world prefer to reap reasonable income from essentially risk-free investments. Substantial yield with low risk is something of a pipe dream, though.  Investors are always trying to determine whether the yield provided by income-generating assets is worth the risk. We may look back and conclude that the Fed’s economic stimulus was too expensive, ineffective, or both, but this will only be clear far down the road.

 

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Am I Effectively Diversified?

This is the sixth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

Diversified FolioDiversification is a perennial topic among investors, and if it seems controversial at times, that may be due to the fact that people don’t always share the same understanding of what it means. But diversification isn’t about investing in a certain number of securities or funds. And it’s not about investing in every possible security under the sun.

 

Diversification and Risk

Simply put, diversification is the process of combining investments that don’t move in lockstep with each other. For example, Treasury bonds tend to do well when stocks are falling, and vice versa.  Combining stocks and bonds thus helps to limit risk.  Bonds also reduce the risk of a portfolio because they tend to be less risky on a standalone basis than stocks.

This brings us to an important point: the aggregate risk/return properties of a portfolio depend not only on the risk and return of the assets themselves, but also on the relationships between them.  Determining the right balance among these three factors (asset risk, asset return, and diversification benefit) is the challenge of diversification.

A Diversification Self-Assessment

The starting point in the determining whether your portfolio is properly diversified is to come up with a risk level that matches your needs.  I discussed risk estimation in last week’s blog.  Assuming you have a target risk level for your portfolio, you can then attempt to determine how to combine assets so as to achieve the maximum expected return for this risk.

The word “expected” is crucial here.  It is easy to look back and to see, for example, that simply holding 100% of your assets in U.S. stocks would have been a winning strategy over the past five years or so.  The trailing five year return of the S&P 500 is 15.7% per year and there has not been a 10% drop in over 1,000 days.  Over this period, holding assets in almost any other asset class has only reduced portfolio return and risk reduction does not look like a critical issue when volatility is this low.  The problem, of course, is that you invest on the basis of expected future returns and you have to account for the fact that there is enormous uncertainty as to what U.S. stocks will do going forward. Diversification is important because we have limited insight into the future.

Many investors think that they are diversified because they own a number of different funds.  Owning multiple funds that tend to move together may result in no diversification benefit at all, however.  A recent analysis of more than 1,000,000 individual investors found that their portfolios were substantially under-diversified.  The level of under-diversification, the authors estimated, could result in a reduction of lifetime wealth accumulation of almost one fifth (19%).

Additional Diversifiers

Aside from a broad U.S. stock index (S&P 500, e.g., IVV or VFINX) and a broad bond index (e.g., AGG or VBMFX), what other asset classes are worth considering?

  • Because the S&P 500 is oriented to very large companies, consider adding an allocation to small cap stocks, such as with a Russell 2000 index (e.g. IWM or NAESX).
  • There is also considerable research that suggests that value stocks—those stocks with relatively low price-to-earnings or price-to-book values—have historically added to performance as well. A large cap value fund (e.g. VTV, IWD, VIVAX) or small cap value fund (e.g. VBR, RZV) may be a useful addition to a portfolio.
  • In addition to domestic stocks, consider some allocation to international stocks (e.g. EFA or VGTSX) and emerging markets (e.g. EEM or VEIEX).
  • Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) invest in commercial and residential real estate, giving investors share in the rents on these properties. There are a number of REIT index funds (e.g. ICF, RWR, and VGSIX).
  • Utility stock index funds (e.g. XLU) can be a useful diversifier because they have properties of stocks (shareholders own a piece of the company) and bonds (utilities tend to pay a stable amount of income), but have fairly low correlation to both.
  • Preferred shares (as represented by a fund such as PFF) also have some properties of stocks and some of bonds.
  • Another potential diversifier is gold (GLD).

 

Diversification Example

To help illustrate the potential value of diversification, I used a portfolio simulation tool (Quantext Portfolio Planner, which I designed) to estimate how much additional return one might expect from adding a number of the asset classes listed above to a portfolio that originally consists of just an S&P 500 fund and a bond fund.

Diversification

Risk and return for a 2-asset portfolio as compared with a more diversified portfolio (source: author’s calculations)

The estimated return of a portfolio that is 70% allocated to the S&P 500 and 30% allocated to an aggregate bond index fund is 6.4% per year with volatility of 13%.  (Volatility is a standard measure of risk.)  Compare that to the more diversified portfolio I designed, which has the same expected volatility, but an expected return of 7.3% per year, as estimated by the portfolio simulation tool.  The diversified portfolio is not designed or intended to be an optimal portfolio, but rather simply to show how a moderate allocation to a number of other asset classes can increase expected return without increasing portfolio risk.[1]

The process of analyzing diversified portfolios can get quite involved and there are many ideas about how best to do so.  But the range of analysis suggests that a well-diversified portfolio could add 1%-2% per year to portfolio return.

Conclusions

I have observed that the longer a bull market in U.S. stocks goes on, the more financial writers will opine that diversifying across asset classes is pointless.  We are in just that situation now, as witnessed by a recent article on SeekingAlpha titled Retirees, All You Need is the S&P 500 and Cash.

On the other hand, there is a large body of research that demonstrates that, over longer periods, diversification is valuable in managing risk and enhancing returns.  That said, a simple allocation to stocks and bonds has the virtue of simplicity and can be attained with very low cost.  Diversifying beyond these two assets can meaningfully increase return or reduce risk, but an increase in average return of 1%-2% per year is not going to take the sting out of a 20%+ market decline.  What’s more, a diversified portfolio is quite likely to substantially under-perform the best-performing asset class in any given time period.

But over long periods of time, the gain of 1%-2% from diversification is likely to increase your wealth accumulation over 30 years by 20%-30%.  This is consistent with the analysis of 1,000,000 individual investors cited above, from which the authors concluded that under-diversified portfolios were likely to reduce lifetime wealth accumulation by 19%.

For investors seeking to diversify beyond a low cost stock-bond mix, there are a number of simple portfolios that include a range of the asset classes discussed here and that have fairly long track records.  These are worth exploring as a template for further diversifying your own portfolio.

[1] For details on how the model estimates risk and return for different asset classes and for portfolios, see the whitepaper I wrote on the subject.

 

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Is My Portfolio at the Right Risk Level?

This is the fifth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

RiskAt every stage of investing, you should periodically ask yourself how much risk you can realistically tolerate. The primary way to measure the risk level of your portfolio is to look at its allocation of stocks vs. bonds.  Although some stock and bond ETFs  are riskier than others, your first decision has to be how much of your investments to put in stocks and how much in bonds.

One standard rule of thumb that’s a good place to start is the “age in bonds” axiom. According to this guideline, you invest a percentage of assets equal to your age in a broad bond index, and the balance of your portfolio in a diversified stock portfolio.  The idea here is that your portfolio should become more conservative as you get older. This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. You tend to get wealthier as you age, so any given percentage loss from your portfolio represents an increasingly larger dollar value.
  2. You are gradually converting your human capital (your ability to work and earn money) into financial capital (investments) as you age. And as you get older, your financial assets represent a larger and larger fraction of your lifetime wealth potential.

For these reasons, it makes sense  to manage this pool of assets more conservatively as time goes by.

Beyond “Age in Bonds” – Choosing Your Allocation of Stocks and Bonds

The past decade provides a powerful example of the tradeoffs between risk and return.  The table below shows the year-by-year returns for portfolios comprising different mixes of an S&P 500 ETF (IVV) and a broad bond ETF (AGG).  The returns include the expense ratios of the ETFs, but no adjustment is made for brokerage fees.

2004-2013 Allocation Performance

Source: Author’s calculations and Morningstar

Over the 10-year period from 2004 through 2013, a portfolio that is entirely allocated to the S&P 500 ETF has an average annual return of 9.2%.  In its worst year over this period, 2008, this portfolio lost almost 37% of its value.  As the percentage of the portfolio allocated to stocks declines, the average return goes down. But the worst 12-month loss also becomes markedly less severe.

We cannot say, with any certainty, that these statistics for the past ten years are representative of what we can expect in the future, but they do provide a reasonable basis for thinking about how much risk might be appropriate.

Ask yourself: If these figures are what you could expect, what allocation of stocks vs. bonds would you choose?  Would you be willing to lose 37% in a really bad year to make an average of 9.2% per year?  Or would you prefer to sacrifice 1.5% per year to reduce the potential worst-case loss by one third?  If so, the 70% stock / 30% bond portfolio provides this tradeoff.

Planning around Improbable Events

One might object that 2008 was an extreme case, and that such a bad year is unlikely to recur with any meaningful probability.  One way to correct for this potential bias towards extreme events is to assume that returns from stocks and bonds follow a bell curve distribution, a common way to estimate investment risk.  Using the data over the last ten years to estimate the properties of the bell curve (also known as the “normal” or Gaussian distribution), I have estimated the probabilities of various levels of loss over a 12-month period.

9-30-2014b

Estimated 12-month loss percentiles for a ‘normal’ distribution (Source: author’s calculations)

When you look at the figures for the 5th percentile loss, you can see what might be expected in the worst 5% of 12-month periods for each of the five portfolio types. For example, the 100% stock portfolio has a 1-in-20 chance of returning -21% or worse over the next twelve months. Note that a loss of 35% for stocks, similar to 2008, is estimated to have a probability of 1-in-100.

It’s important to point out that the ability to calculate the probability of very rare events is very poor.  Perhaps 2008 really was a 1-in-100 probability event, but we don’t know that with any certainty.  The most catastrophic events (what Nassim Taleb has famously dubbed “Black Swans”) are so severe and outside our normal range of experience that they tend to catch us totally off guard.

Moshe Milevsky, a well-known retirement planning expert, suggests that rather than thinking in terms of probabilities, it’s sensible to set your portfolio’s risk to a level that ensures that the worst case outcomes are survivable. Based on that, it’s prudent to choose a portfolio risk level that won’t ruin you if there’s another year like 2008. If you can survive a 12-month loss of 23% (the average of the worst loss for this allocation over the past ten years and the estimated worst-case 1st percentile return), for example, you can afford to hold a 70% equity portfolio.

Final Thoughts

If your investments in stocks don’t approximate the S&P 500, the stock portion of your portfolio may be considerably riskier than the table above implies.  Allocations to emerging markets, small companies, and technology stocks can be very volatile. The examples shown here provide a starting point in determining risk.  Combining a wider range of asset classes can provide important diversification benefits beyond their individual risk levels, but this topic is beyond my scope here.

The past ten years have provided examples of very high returns and very low returns from stocks. This period gives us a useful basis for testing our tolerance for volatility.  Many readers, I imagine, will find that their risk tolerance—self-diagnosed from looking at the tables above—corresponds reasonably well to the “age in bonds” rule. If your choice of risk levels is too far from these levels, a closer look is needed—and perhaps a talk with an investment advisor.

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Goldman Sachs Predicts 4.5% 10-year Treasury Yields

Treasury BondGoldman Sachs just came out with a prediction that 10-year Treasury bond yields will rise to 4.5% by 2018 and the S&P 500 will provide 6% annualized returns over that same period.  The driver for this prediction is simply that the Fed is expected to raise the federal funds rate.

Because rising yields correspond to falling prices for bonds, Goldman’s forecast is that equities will substantially outperform bonds over the next several years.  If you are holding a bond yielding 2.5% (the current 10-year Treasury yield) and the Fed raises rates, investors will sell off their holdings of lower-yielding bonds in order to purchase newly-issued higher-yielding bonds.  If Goldman’s forecast plays out, bondholders will suffer over the next several years, while equity investors will enjoy modest gains.

Historical Perspective

This very long-term history of bond yield vs. the dividend yield on the S&P 500 is worth considering in parsing Goldman’s predictions.

Bond Yield vs. Dividend Yield

Source: The Big Picture blog

Prior to the mid 1950’s, the conventional wisdom (according to market guru Peter Bernstein) was that equities should have a dividend yield higher than the yield from bonds because equities were riskier.  From 1958 to 2008, however, the 10-year bond yield was higher than the S&P 500 dividend yield by an average of 3.7%.

Then in 2008, the 10-year Treasury bond yield fell below the S&P 500 dividend yield for the first time in 50 years.  Today, the yield from the S&P 500 is 1.8% and the 10-year Treasury bond yields 2.5%, so we have returned to the conditions that have prevailed for the last half a century. But the spread between bond yield and dividend yields remains very low by historical standards.  If the 10-year Treasury yield increases to 4.5% (as Goldman predicts), we will have a spread that is more consistent with recent decades.

Investors are likely to compare bond yields and dividend yields, with the understanding that bond prices are extremely negatively impacted by inflation (with the result that yields rise with inflation because yield increases as bond prices fall), while dividends can increase with inflation.  During the 1970’s, Treasury bond yields shot up in response to inflation. Companies can increase the prices that they charge for their products in response to inflation, which allows the dividends to increase in response to higher prices across the economy.  The huge spread between dividend yield and bond yield in the late 70’s and early 80’s reflects investors’ rational preference for dividends in a high-inflation environment.

What Has to Happen for Goldman’s Outlook to Play Out?

To end up with a 4.5% 10-year Treasury yield with something like a 2% S&P 500 dividend yield, the U.S. will need to see a sustained economic recovery and evidence of higher prices (inflation) driven by higher employment and wage growth.  In such an environment, investors will be willing to accept the lower dividend yield from equities because dividends grow over time and tend to rise with inflation.  This has been the prevailing state of the U.S. economy over the last fifty years.  Most recently, we had 10-year Treasury yields in the 4%-5% range in the mid 2000’s.  If, however, we continue to see low inflation and stagnant wages in the U.S. economy, bond yields are likely to remain low for longer.

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Low Beta Market Sectors

With U.S. equity markets near their record highs and a bull market run that is starting its sixth year, the potential for a correction is a growing concern.  In addition, U.S. equity prices look fairly high when viewed in terms of the PE10 ratio.  Another factor that concerns some market watchers is that volatility (as measured by VIX) is at very low levels, reminiscent of 2007.  This type of complacency has historically been followed by increasing volatility, as levels return to their historical average, accompanied by a sell-off in higher-risk assets as investors adjust their portfolios to mitigate the effects of higher volatility.

Investors seeking to remain invested in equities at a target level but who want to reduce their exposure to market swings and to mitigate the impact of a rise in market volatility have historically been well-served by increasing their allocations to low-beta market sectors.  In this article, I will review the defensive value of low-beta allocations as well as examining the consistency of beta over time.

Beta measures the degree to which a security or a portfolio responds to a move in a benchmark index such as the S&P500.  A portfolio with beta equal to 80% (also written as 0.8) tends to go up 0.8% when the market rises 1.0% and vice versa.  Beta may be thought of as showing whether a security amplifies the moves in the benchmark (beta greater than 100%) or damps the moves in the benchmark (beta less than 100%).

How Beta Varies by Sector

The SPDR Select Sector ETFs provide a convenient way to break out the sectors of the U.S. equity markets by dividing the S&P500 into nine sectors.  These sectors illustrate how much beta varies.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 1

Betas and 10-year average annual returns for major sectors and indexes

The S&P500 has a beta of 100%, by definition.  Some readers may be surprised that emerging market stocks have beta of almost 140%, which means that emerging market equities tend to go up (down) 1.4% for every 1% gain (drop) in the S&P500.  Even before the market crash of 2008, emerging market stocks were high beta—this is not a new phenomenon.

There are three U.S. equity sectors with betas well below 100%: consumer staples (XLP), healthcare (XLV), and utilities (XLU).  It is often believed that low-beta equities have very low average returns.  In fact, a well-known but now widely-discounted model of equity returns (the Capital Asset Pricing Model, CAPM) assumes that beta of an equity or asset class corresponds directly to expected return.  High-beta asset classes have high expected return and vice versa.  Low-beta equities have historically substantially out-performed what would be expected on the basis of CAPM, however, and the past ten years is no exception.  These three sectors have all out-performed the S&P500 over the past ten years.  The return numbers shown here are the arithmetic averages, including reinvested dividends.

Low Beta Asset Classes in 2007-2008

The first question that is worth asking about beta is the degree to which beta corresponds to losses in really bad market conditions.  In the table below, I have tabulated beta calculated using three years of data through 2007 for each of the funds above, as well as the returns for each of these in 2008.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 2

Beta calculated through 2007 vs. 2008 returns

The three sectors with the lowest betas going into 2008 (consumer staples, healthcare, and utilities) had an average return of -22.3% in 2008, as compared to -36.8% for the S&P500.  An equity tilt towards these lower beta sectors could have reduced losses in that year.

Consistency of Beta through Time

The astute reader may notice that the betas calculated using ten years of data through May of 2014 (shown in the first table) are, in some cases, quite different from the betas calculated using three years of data through December of 2007 (shown in the second table).  Beta varies through time.  The betas calculated using three years of data through May 2014 provide an interesting contrast to the three-year betas through the end of 2007.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 3

Comparing betas for two 3-year periods

We are looking at two distinct 3-year periods, separated by almost six and a half years and, in general, low-beta sectors at the end of 2007 remain low-beta today and high-beta sectors back then are still high-beta.  The two most notable exceptions are international equities (EFA) and the technology sectors (XLK).  These changes notwithstanding, the three sectors with the lower betas in 2007 also have the lowest betas in 2014.

There are a number of factors that will determine whether any sector will weather a broad market decline better than others.  Beta is one important factor, but there are others.  In 2008, the financial sector suffered disproportionately large losses—well beyond what would have been expected on the basis of beta alone.  The underlying drivers of the 2008 market crash were most severe in the financial sector.  Small-cap stocks, by contrast, fell considerably less than the beta value of this sector would have suggested.

Low-Beta and Asset Allocation

Low-beta asset classes have historically provided some protection from market declines and increasing volatility.  There are a range of other considerations that potential investors should consider, however when creating a portfolio.  The selection of individual asset classes should be made with consideration of the characteristics of the total portfolio, including desired risk level, interest rate exposure, and income generation.  The target for total portfolio beta is primarily determined by an investor’s total risk tolerance.  A target beta level can be achieved both by choosing how to allocate the equity portion of a portfolio among sectors and by varying the balance between equity (stocks) and fixed income (bonds) investments.  Fixed income asset classes tend to have very low—even negative—values of beta.  In my next blog entry, I will explore these two approaches to managing beta at the portfolio level.

History suggests that low-beta sectors can provide some protection from market downturns.  The length of the current equity rally, and the substantial increases in equity valuations in recent years, are motivating some investors to consider their best defensive alternatives to protect against the inevitable reversal.  The question for investors to ask themselves is whether they are best-served by reducing portfolio beta by reducing their exposure to equities, by shifting some portion of assets from high-beta to low-beta sector, or both.

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REITs and the Rally of 2014

There have been a number of surprises for investors in 2014.  Bonds have markedly out-performed stocks for the year-to-date.  The S&P500 is up 2.4% since the start of 2014, as compared to the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, which is up by 3.5%.  Even more striking, the iShares 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT) is up by 12.5% YTD and the Vanguard Long-Term Bond fund (VBLTX) is up by 11.4% YTD.  Interestingly, REITs have been also experienced a substantial run-up in 2014 so far.  The Vanguard REIT Index fund (VGSIX) is up 16.1% YTD and the iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR) is up by 14.4% YTD.

To understand the rally in REITs, it is useful to start with an overview of this asset class.  REITs are neither stock (equity) nor bond (fixed income).  A REIT uses investor money, combined with borrowed money, to acquire real estate.  The properties that they acquire can be office buildings (BXP, SLG), apartment buildings (EQR, UDR), healthcare facilities (HCP, HCN), or even digital data centers (DLR).  The returns vary between the specific types of property owned.  REITs make money from renting their facilities out.  Please note that I am discussing only equity REITs (those which own property).  There is a secondary form of REITs that buy baskets of mortgages.  These are called mortgage REITS (mREITs).

REITs are classified as ‘pass-through’ or ‘flow-through’ entities and pass at least 90% of their taxable income to their shareholders each year.  For this reason, REITs are often favored by income-oriented investors.

REITs have their own unique measures of value and drivers of performance.  Rather than price-to-earnings ratio, a measure of the valuation of stocks, the preferred measure of valuation for REITs is price-to-funds from operations (FFO).  A notable feature of REITs is their exposure to interest rates.  In general, stocks go up when interest rates rise, while bonds fall.  When interest rates decline, the reverse tend to be true: stocks decline and bonds rise in value.  REITs tend to have a fairly neutral response to changes in interest rates, although this varies.  To the extent to which REITs need to borrow in the future due to rolling credit or new financing, their costs rise when interest rates rise.  REITs often also have the ability to raise rents, however, so that their revenue can also rise when the costs of residential or commercial real estate rise with inflation.  In addition, because REITs own a physical asset (property), the value of the assets owned by the REIT tend to go up with inflation.

An examination of the performance statistics of REIT funds illustrates their properties quite clearly.

Chart 1

REIT funds vs. major asset classes (10 years through April 2014)—Source: Author’s calculations

The returns above are the arithmetic average of returns over the past ten years, including reinvested dividends.  Beta measures the degree to which an asset tends to amplify or mute swings in the S&P500.  The betas for VGSIX and IYR show that these funds tend to rise 1.3% for every 1% rise in the S&P500 (and vice versa).  These broad REIT funds tend to do well in rising stock markets and will also tend to perform worse than the S&P500 when the market crashes.  The S&P500 fell 36.8% in 2008, for example, and IYR fell 39.9%, for example.  The high beta is only one factor that determines the returns from these REIT index funds, however.  Despite a massive decline in real estate in 2008, the average annual return for these two REIT funds has been very high over the past ten years.  The volatility levels exhibited by these REIT funds is, however, very close to that of emerging market stocks, as shown above.

The best way to understand the unique features of REITs is to look at the correlations in the returns between asset classes, bond yields, and the returns from a traditional 60/40 portfolio (60% stocks, 40% bonds).

Chart 2

Correlations between monthly returns over the past ten years (through April 2014) for major asset classes, 10-year Treasury bond yield, and the returns from a 60/40 portfolio—Source: Author’s calculations

Equity indexes tend to have positive correlations to Treasury bond yields (because yield goes up when bond prices go down, and vice versa).  This effect is evident in the table above.  S&P500 stocks (represented by SPY) have a +30% correlation to the 10-year Treasury yield.  The same relationships hold for the other major equity classes in the table above (EFA, EEM, QQQ, and IWM), with correlations to the 10-year Treasury yield ranging from 20% (EFA) to 36% (IWM).  In 2013, Treasury bond yields rose and stock indexes gained substantially.  By contrast, the returns of bond funds (AGG, TLT) are negatively correlated to the 10-year Treasury bond yield.  The returns from these funds tend to be positive when Treasury yields are falling and vice versa.

Treasury bond yields follow interest rates and inflation.  When rates or inflation rise, bond yields rise because investors sell Treasury bonds to avoid getting caught with relatively low-yield bonds in a higher rate environment.  The selling continues until the yield on the bonds is in line with new rates.  This is why returns on the two bond funds are so negative correlated to Treasury yield.  When yields go up, bond prices fall and vice versa.

VGSIX and IYR have 6% and 7% correlations to the 10-year Treasury yield—which means that these REIT funds are not highly sensitive to movements in bond yields.  While investors were betting on rising yield in 2013, opinion seems to have shifted in 2014.  If you are looking for asset classes that don’t require a bet on whether interest rates will go up or down, REITs look pretty attractive.

The correlations between the returns from each asset class and the returns from a 60% stock / 40% bond portfolio show the degree to which adding these asset classes to a simple stock-bond mix is likely to provide diversification benefits.  The higher the correlation, the less diversification benefit you can expect.  The key idea in diversifying a portfolio is to combine assets with low correlations so that when one is losing money, others are likely to be doing something different (hopefully rising in value).  As compared to the major equity asset classes, the REIT funds have a lower correlation to the 60/40 portfolio.  This, in turn, suggests that REITs can provide more diversification benefit than equities to a portfolio that currently holds stocks and bonds.

In summary, the basic narrative to explain the rally in REITs goes something like this.  REITs provide substantial income compared to bonds and equities, as well as being essentially interest rate neutral.  While REITs are a volatile asset class, the relatively low correlation between REITs and equities provides diversification benefit to a portfolio of domestic stocks and bonds, as well as providing some modest protection from rising interest rates.  REITs appear have come back into favor after being sold off during and after the so-called taper tantrum of 2013, with yield-hungry investors leading the charge.  In a slow-growth environment, with the Fed indicating that they foresee an extended period of low rates, REITs look quite attractive.  The caveat to the positive view on maintaining an allocation in REITs is that there are substantial differences between the yield, risk, and interest rate exposure and that REITs have historically been a volatile asset class.  Unless you firmly believe that you can outsmart the broader market, REITs should be thought of as a long-term income producer and diversifier.  For those investors who have maintained a strategic allocation to REITs, the gains in 2014 YTD have helped to bolster portfolio returns as equities have provided very little to investors beyond their dividends.  The downside to this positive narrative, however, is that increased prices for REITs translate to lower yields for today’s buyers.

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Understanding How Fund Performance Comparisons Overstate Returns

May 13, 2014

Every investor has, I hope, read the standard disclaimer on mutual fund and ETF performance documents that ‘past performance does not predict future performance,’ or other text to that effect. Still, when you read a fund company’s statement that ‘x% of our funds have out-performed their category average’ or that ‘x% of our funds are rated 4- and 5-star by Morningstar,’ this seems meaningful. Similarly, if you read that the average small value fund has returns ‘y’% per year over the last 10 years, this also seems significant. There is a major factor that is missing in many of these types of comparisons of fund performance, however, that tend to make active funds look better than they really are (as compared to low-cost index funds) as well as making a mutual fund family’s managers look more skillful than they might actually be.

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