Category Archives: Asset Allocation

Investing: What the heck is a Larry Portfolio?

PortfolioGuest post by Contributing Editor, Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com.

Recently, I wrote a three-part series on how to start investing.

Today, I want to look at an advanced topic. Generally, I avoid advanced topics in investing, for two reasons:

  1. Most people don’t even have a grasp of beginner-level investing yet.
  2. The vast majority of “advanced” investing techniques can’t beat a simple, diversified portfolio over time.

Today, I want to look at a possible exception. It’s called the Larry Portfolio, developed by a guy named (you guessed it) Larry Swedroe and presented in his short and readable new book, Reducing the Risk of Black Swans, cowritten with Kevin Grogan.

Like momentum investing, which I explored last week, the Larry Portfolio is a way to attempt to capture more return from your portfolio without taking more risk—the holy grail of investing. Spoiler alert: it’s a promising idea that may or may not be appropriate—or possible—to implement in your own investments.

This is fairly technical stuff, although I’ll leave the math out of it. If you’re interested in investing as a hobby, read on. If you just want a simple portfolio that will beat your stock-picking friends, that’s fine. Go back to my original series.

One kind of risk

Smart investors like to take smart risks.

Investing in just one company is a dumb risk. That company might go bankrupt in any number of unexpected ways. Investing in lots of companies (aka diversification) is a smart risk: you’re no longer exposed to the risk of one company flaming out.

You’re still exposed to the risk of the market as a whole, and that’s the risk that investors can expect to get paid for over time.

Investors call this total-market risk beta. Beta measures the volatility of the stock market as a whole. Generally speaking, to get more return, you have to take more risk: Treasury bonds have low beta and low expected returns; stocks have high beta and higher expected returns. A total stock market portfolio has a beta of 1. (Let’s talk about low-beta stocks another time, please!)

So you might imagine that the best possible portfolio would look something like this:

  • Low-risk bonds (Government bonds from stable governments, high-quality corporate bonds, CDs)
  • A total world stock market fund

Mix them in whatever proportion suits your risk tolerance. One popular formula is 60/40: 60% stocks, 40% bonds.

Many kinds of risk

Then, in the early 1990s, two professors at the University of Chicago, Kenneth French and Eugene Fama, took another look at the data. They found that beta couldn’t explain all of a portfolio’s returns.

Two other factors seemed to be important, too. A portfolio taking these factors into account could, some of the time, beat a total-market portfolio without being riskier. These factors are:

Size. Small company stocks tend to have higher returns than large company stocks.

Value. “Value” stocks, essentially stocks with low prices, tend to have higher returns than growth stocks. How do you decide which stocks are value stocks? Use a measure like price-to-earnings ratio.

Value stocks are essentially stocks in mediocre, boring companies. This seems like an odd way to make money, but it’s a highly persistent effect. (Value is believed to be a stronger effect than size.)

You can now easily buy mutual funds concentrating on small or value stocks, and many investors choose to “tilt” their portfolios toward these factors, hoping for bigger returns without bigger volatility.

It’s a reasonable hope, because beta, size, and value have low historical correlation. When you have multiple stocks in your portfolio that are exposed to different risks, we call that diversification. The same can be said for having multiple factors in your portfolio.

The Larry Portfolio

Now, what if the stock portion of the portfolio was made up of entirely small value stocks?

That would give plenty of exposure to beta (because small value stocks are still stocks, and correlate with the wider stock market), and also maximum exposure to the small and value premiums. It’s also reasonably well-diversified, because there are thousands of stocks that fit the profile.

This sounds like a risky stock portfolio, and it is: high risk, high expected return.

Larry Swedroe’s insight was: what if we mix a little of this very risky (but intelligently risky) stock portfolio with a lot of very safe bonds? Say, 30% small value stocks and 70% bonds?

The result is the Larry Portfolio, a portfolio with similar expected return to to 60/40 portfolio I described, but lower risk, because the portfolio is mostly bonds—the kind of bonds that did just fine during the Great Depression and the recent financial crisis.

Swedroe warns in the book that there are no guarantees in investing. “[A]ll crystal balls are cloudy—there are no guarantees,” he writes. The research behind the Larry Portfolio may be sound, but “we cannot guarantee that it will produce the same returns as a more market-like portfolio with a higher equity allocation.”

Is it for you?

I took a look at my portfolio. It looks almost exactly like the portfolio Swedroe describes in the first part of the book, a diversified 60/40 portfolio with plenty of exposure to beta but no exposure to the size or value premiums.

So I asked him the obvious question: should I have a Larry Portfolio?

“There is no one right portfolio,” Swedroe told me via email. “The biggest risk of the LP strategy is the risk called Tracking Error Regret.”

Tracking Error Regret is a nasty thing. Here’s what it means.

Inevitably, the Larry Portfolio will sometimes underperform a 60/40 portfolio. If the stock market is soaring, it might underperform it for years at a time. A Larry Portfolio holder might look around and say, “Dang, everyone is making a ton of money but me. This portfolio sucks.”

Then you jump off the Larry train and back into a 60/40 portfolio—probably right before a market crash that decimates your stock portfolio. (That’s the Black Swan in the book title.) “Oh no—Larry was right!” you conclude, and buy back in, but it’s too late: now you’re selling cheap stocks to buy expensive bonds.

There really isn’t any cure for Tracking Error Regret. You can write an investment policy statement (IPS) to remind yourself that you’re a long-term investor and shouldn’t be watching the market too closely, because it’ll only raise your blood pressure.

The worst way to address the problem is to assume that you’re too smart or tough to experience it.

Can we build it? Maybe we can

Finally, there’s one other reason the Larry Portfolio might not be for you: it requires using mutual funds that might not be available in your retirement plan.

If most of your money is in a 401(k) plan, and that plan doesn’t have a US small value fund and an international small value fund, you can’t really build a Larry Portfolio. You might be able to build a watered-down version, but it won’t have the same risk-return characteristics as the real thing.

I haven’t decided yet whether the Larry Portfolio is for me. If you’ve read this far, however, you’ll probably enjoy Swedroe’s book. And if you already use a Larry Portfolio or are considering one, please let me know in the comments.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Mint.com is not affiliated with Folio Investing or The Portfolioist.

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Oil, Markets, Volatility

Guest post by Contributing Editor, David R. Kotok, Cumberland Advisors.

Oil, Markets, VolatilitySharply lower oil prices have occasioned a huge discussion about their impact. We see it play out daily in newspapers, on TV and radio, at websites, on blogs, and in market letters. The range of forecasts runs from one extreme to another.

On one side, pundits predict a recession resulting from a US energy sector meltdown that leads to credit defaults in energy-related high-yield debt. They predict trouble in those states which have had high growth from the US energy renaissance. These bearish views also note the failures of Russian businesses to pay foreign-denominated debt held by European banks. And they point to sovereign debt risks like Venezuela.  These experts then envision the geopolitical risk to extend to cross-border wars and other ugly outcomes.

Geopolitical high-oil-price risk has morphed to geopolitical low-oil-price risk. That’s the negative extreme case.

The positive forecasts regarding oil are also abundant. American’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) drops robustly due to energy-price ripple effects of $50 oil. We are still in the early stages of seeing these results in US inflation indicators. There is a lot more to come as the lower energy price impacts a broad array of products and service-sector costs.

A big change in the US trade balance reflects the reduced imported oil price. We are also seeing that appear in the current account deficit plunge. In fact, both of those formerly strongly negative indicators are reaching new lows. They are the smallest deficits we have seen in 15 years. Action Economics expects that the current account deficit in the first quarter of 2015 will be below $80 billion. That is an incredible number when we think about gross flows history.

Remember that the current account deficit is an accounting identity with the capital account surplus.  Net $80 billion goes out of the US and turns around and comes back.  These are very small numbers in an economy of $18 trillion in size.

Think about what it means to have a capital account surplus of $80 billion, driven by a current account deficit of $80 billion. That means that the neutral balancing flows into the United States because of transactional and investment activity are now small. Therefore the momentum of US financial markets is driven by the foreign choices that are directing additional money flows into the US.

In the end the equations must balance. When there is an imbalance, it affects asset prices. In the present case, those asset prices are denominated in US dollars. They are desired by the rest of the world.  They are real estate, bonds, stocks, or any other asset that is priced in dollars and that the world wants to accumulate. In the US, where the size of our economy is approaching $18 trillion, the once-feared current account deficit has become a rounding error.

How bad can the energy-price hit be to the United States? There are all kinds of estimates. Capital Economics says that the decline in the oil price (they used a $40 price change, from $110 to $70 per barrel) will “reduce overall spending on petroleum-related liquids by non-oil-producing businesses and households by a total of $280 billion per year (from $770 billion to $490 billion).” Note that the present oil price is $20 a barrel lower than their estimated run rate.

That is a massive change and very stimulative to the US non-energy sector. The amount involved is more than double the 2% payroll-tax-cut amount of recent years. In fact it adds up to about 3/4 of the revised US federal budget deficit estimate in the fiscal year ending in 2015.

Let me repeat. That estimate from Capital Economics is based on an average price of $70 a barrel in the US for all of 2015. The current price of oil is lower. Some forecasts estimate that the oil price is going much lower. We doubt that but the level of the oil price is no longer the key issue.  It is the duration of the lower price level that matters.  We do not know how long the price will fall, but there is some thought developing that it will hover around $55 to $60 for a while (average for 2015).

There is certainly a negative impact to the oil sector. Capital spending slows when the oil price falls. We already see that process unfolding. It is apparent in the anecdotes as a drilling rig gets canceled or postponed, a project gets delayed, or something else goes on hold.

How big is the negative number? Capital Economics says, “The impact on the wider economy will be modest. Investment in mining structures is $146 billion, with investment in mining equipment an additional $26 billion. Altogether investment in mining accounts for 7.7% of total business investment, but only 1% of GDP.”

At Cumberland we agree. The projections are obvious: energy capital expenditures will decline; the US renaissance in oil will slow, and development and exploration will be curtailed. But the scale of the negative is far outweighed by the scale of the positive.

Let’s go farther. Fundstrat Global Advisors, a global advisory source with good data, suggests that lower oil will add about $350 billion in developing-nation purchasing power. That estimate was based on a 28% oil price decline starting with a $110 base. The final number is unknown. But today’s numbers reveal declines of almost 50%.  Think about a $350 billion to $500 billion boost to the developing countries in North America, Europe, and Asia. Note these are not emerging-market estimates but developing-country estimates.

It seems to us that another focal point is what is happening to the oil-producing countries. In this case Wells Fargo Securities has developed some fiscal breakeven oil prices for countries that are prominent oil producers. Essentially, Kuwait is the only one with a positive fiscal breakeven if the oil price is under $60 per barrel. Let’s take a look at Wells Fargo’s list. The most damaged country in fiscal breakeven is Iran. They need a price well over $100 in order to get to some budgetary stability. Next is Nigeria. Venezuela is next. Under $100 but over $60 are Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Let’s think about this oil battle in a geopolitical context. BCA Research defines it as a “regional proxy war.” They identify the antagonists as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is that simple when it comes to oil. Saudis use oil as a weapon, and they intend to weaken their most significant enemy on the other side of the water in their neighborhood. But the outcome also pressures a bunch of other bad guys, including Russia, to achieve some resolution of the situation in Ukraine.

There are victims in the oil patch: energy stocks, exploration and production, and related energy construction and engineering. Anything that is tied to oil price in the energy patch is subject to economic weakness because of the downward price pressure. On the other hand, volumes are enhanced and remain intact. If anything, one can expect consumption to rise because the prices have fallen. Favoring volume-oriented energy consumption investment rather than price-sensitive energy investment is a transition that investing agents need to consider. At Cumberland, we are underweight energy stock ETFs. We sold last autumn and have not bought back.  We favor volume oriented exposures, including certain MLPs.

We believe that the US economic growth rate is going to improve. In 2015, it will record GDP rate of change levels above 3.5%. Evidence suggests that the US economy will finally resume classic longer term trend rates above 3%. It will do so in the context of very low interest and inflation rates, a gradual but ongoing improvement in labor markets, and the powerful influences of a strengthening US dollar and a tightening US budget deficit. The American fiscal condition is good and improving rapidly. The American monetary condition is stabilizing. The American banking system has already been through a crisis and now seems to be adequately protected and reserved.

Our view is bullish for the US economy and stock market. We have held to that position through volatility, and we expect more volatility. When interest rates, growth rates, and trends are normalized, volatilities are normalized. They are now more normal than those that were distorted and dampened by the ongoing zero interest rate policy of the last six years.

Volatility restoration is not a negative market item. It is a normalizing item. We may wind up seeing the VIX and the stock market rise at the same time. Volatility is bidirectional.

We remain nearly fully invested in our US ETF portfolios. We expect more volatility in conjunction with an upward trend in the US stock market.

High volatility means adjustments must be made, and sometimes they require fast action. This positive outlook could change at any time. So Cumberland clients can expect to see changes in their accounts when information and analysis suggest that we move quickly.

Disclosure:

The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Cumberland Advisors is not affiliated with FOLIOfn or The Portfolioist.

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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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