Category Archives: financial planning

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.

How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

In the financial advisory business, one of the most pressing and controversial topics is how much money people need to save during their working years in order to provide for long-term retirement income.  The research on this topic has evolved quite a lot in recent years, and a recent issue of Money magazine features a series of articles representing the current view on this critical topic.  These articles, based around interviews with a number of the current thought leaders on this topic, deserve to be widely read and discussed.

The series of articles in Money kicks off with perspectives by Wade Pfau.  Pfau’s introductory piece suggests a difficult future for American workers.  A traditional rule-of-thumb in retirement planning is called the 4% rule.  This rule states that a retiree can plan to draw annual income equal to 4% of the value of her portfolio in the first year of retirement and increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.  Someone who retires with a $1 Million portfolio could draw $40,000 in income in the first year of retirement and then increase that by 2.5%-3% per year, and have a high level of confidence that the portfolio will last thirty years.  It is assumed that the portfolio is invested in 60%-70% stocks and 30%-40% bonds.  The 4% rule was originally derived based on the long-term historical returns and risks for stocks and bonds.  The problem that Pfau has noted, however, is that both stocks and bonds are fairly expensive today relative to their values over the period of time used to calculate the 4% rule.  For bonds, this means that yields are well below their historical averages and historical yields are a good predictor of the future return from bonds.  The expected return from stocks is partly determined by the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, and the P/E for stocks is currently well-above the long-term historical average.  High P/E tends to predict lower future returns for stocks, and vice versa.  For a detailed discussion of these relationships, see this paper.  In light of current prices of stocks and bonds, Pfau concludes that the 4% rule is far too optimistic and proposes that investors plan for something closer to a 3% draw rate from their portfolios in retirement.  I also explored this topic in an article last year.

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Economic Inequality

Income inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a key economic issue for the world.  The topic is a major theme at Davos this year.  Economic inequality is also an increasingly common topic in U.S. politics.

A new study has found that economic mobility does not appear to have changed appreciably over the past thirty years, even as the wealth gap has grown enormously.   The authors analyzed the probability that a child born into the poorest 20% of households would move into the top 20% of households as an adult.  The numbers have not changed in three decades.

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial accumulation of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  The richest 1% of Americans now own 25% of all of the wealth in the U.S.  The share of national income accruing to the richest 1% has doubled since 1980.  In contrast, median household income has shown no gains, adjusted for inflation, since the late 1980’s and has dropped substantially from its previous peak in the late 1990’s.

Why is this happening?

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Planning for College Costs, Part II

In part 1 of this article, I explored how you can estimate how much college will cost and how much you need to save, going forward, to accumulate enough savings to cover the amount that you plan to contribute towards your child’s college costs.  One of the major variables in this calculation is what you assume about how you will invest the money that you save.  While you can design a portfolio yourself, it is also worth looking at funds that combine the major asset classes into portfolios at various risk levels.  Continue reading

Planning for College Costs, Part I

As we enter autumn, the leaves start to change and students arrive at college campuses across the country.  For parents, as well as for students, the start of the academic year raises the specter of some of the largest costs that a family incurs.  Hopefully, families have started to prepare for college costs far ahead of the years of attendance, but the sheer size of the expenses may be pretty daunting even for those who have saved since their children are very young. Continue reading

Financial Literacy: State of the Union in 2013

April is financial literacy month.  I believe that lack of financial knowledge is one of the most critical problems that our country faces. Continue reading

Choosing and Paying for Higher Education

I am now at an age at which many of my friends have kids preparing for, or going to, college.  I have a few more years to figure out the details, but this is an issue that I have followed for a long time.  My local in-state university, the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU), estimates the all-in cost of attendance at $26,000 per year.  This varies a bit, based on which program you choose.  Tuition, fees, and books cost about $14,000 per year (though this varies by program) and the estimated cost of room and board is about $12,000 per year.  Continue reading