Category Archives: Market Outlook

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.

Is It Worth Betting on the ‘September Swoon’?

People have an understandable interest in patterns in stock market returns.  As we head into September, we can expect the inevitable articles about the so-called ‘September swoon.’  If you look at the period since 1926, the average return in September has been negative.  A 2011 paper in the Journal of Applied Finance concluded that the historical occurrence of negative returns for the stock market in September is so strong and consistent that it cannot easily be explained away.  There are a range of other so-called ‘calendar effects’ in which a specific time of the year, month, or week has historically delivered returns that are markedly different from the average across all periods.  There are no conclusive explanations for these effects and, in a rational world, these types of anomalies should not persist—but they do.  If they expect stock prices to decline in September, savvy speculators should start to sell in August in anticipation of this drop and this selling should dilute the eventual drop in September.  Over time, this type of effect should, in theory, disappear to investor anticipatory buying or selling.  Nonetheless, these effects remain prominent in historical stock prices. Continue reading

A Thoughtful Outlook for 2013

In general, I ignore the spate of market predictions that experts issue at the start of each year.  There are exceptions, and after reading Jason Hsu’s outlook for this year, I am pleased to recommend it to readers.  Dr. Hsu is the Chief Investment Officer at global money management firm, Research Affiliates.  I found his article both insightful and appropriately skeptical of all forecasts.  How can you not appreciate a money manager who starts his prediction for the year ahead with John Galbraith’s quip that “the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”?

I am going to mention a few of the elements of Hsu’s outlooks and add some thoughts.  Hsu first examines the drivers for bonds and then equities.  I will follow this structure. Continue reading

Managing Your Portfolio’s Exposure to Interest Rates

Today, the yields on ten-year Treasury bonds are at a fifty-year low, and no period prior to the last few years reflects yields that even come close.  From 1962 to 2005, the lowest the 10-year Treasury bond yield ever got to was just below 4%, more than twice the current yield.

The chart below shows how unusual our current environment is.  The vertical axis is the yield from 10-year Treasury Bonds and the horizontal axis is time and we are looking at a period from 1962 to present.  From 1980 to today, we have seen the yield of 10-year Treasury bonds go from about 12% per year to below 2%.  The 10-year Treasury yield is considered a benchmark measure of bond yield and interest rates.  The Fed funds rate and the 10-year bond yield are very closely tied to one another.  For another illustration of how interest rates, the Fed funds rate and 10-year bond yield are related, see here. Continue reading

Cheap Money + Share Buybacks = Bull Market?

The market rally of the past twelve months may appear somewhat baffling in light of the fact that individual investors have been pulling money out of the market.  The S&P 500 is up 22.5% in the last year, while September marks the 17th consecutive month during which investors took money out of equity mutual funds.  The outflows from equity mutual funds are not simply due to investors moving from mutual funds to ETFs.  A recent analysis by Bianco Research demonstrates that including ETF flows does not change the results. Continue reading

Sector Watch: Retail REITs

Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are companies that own and, typically, manage real estate investments to generate income.  REITs may also invest in mortgage securities (these are called mortgage REITs or mREITs).  REITs may specialize in specific types of properties.  The Folio Investing Retail REIT Folio holds equal-weight allocations to the largest publicly-listed REITs that own and manage shopping centers, outlet malls, and urban retail property.  Retail stores lease space from the REITs and the leases are the primary source of income. Continue reading

Unemployment: Part of the Economic Cycle or Secular Shift?

Bob Huebscher just published an outstanding article on the sustained high level of unemployment in the United States.  The question that he seeks to address is whether we are in the recovery phase of a major recession or we are actually in the midst of a long-term shift in the economy.  The article calls these two possible explanations ‘cyclical’ and ‘structural.’  It is worth understanding the key factors that have resulted in the current persistent unemployment levels in order to put the recent modest reduction in unemployment into context.  Are we seeing signs of the long-awaited recovery that will bring us back to full employment or is the recent growth in employment simply variability around a long-term shift in the U.S. economy in which unemployment will remain well-above historical levels? Continue reading

Sector Watch: Spotlight Telecommunications Stocks

The telecommunications industry is evolving quickly.  Recent data suggests, for example, that half of all adults in the United States have a tablet or smartphone.  There are many countries that have an average of more than one cell phone line per person.  In the developing economies, cell phones have allowed much broader access to voice and data services than would have been possible if the traditional fixed-line infrastructure needed to be built.  Ten years ago, Nigeria had only 100,000 phone lines.  Today, Nigeria has 100 Million cell phone accounts.  The ways that people use telecommunications are also expanding.  For people with little or no access to banking, mobile money services can provide the essential roles of banking.  The continued convergence of banking with telecommunications has substantial implications for both. Continue reading

The End of ‘The Cult of Equity’?

One of the defining features of the last twenty years has been a persistent and fairly continuous belief that investing in the stock market was something of a sure road to wealth.  The downturns in the stock market in the aftermath of the Tech bubble and, more recently, in the financial crisis, have shaken investors’ faith in the maxim that stocks are inevitably a good bet.  The tendency of people to take it as an article of faith that equities will, ultimately, deliver high returns has been referred to as ‘the cult of equity.’  Two recent articles by experts that I respect propose that this phenomenon is dead or dying. Continue reading

The Power of Effective Diversification: Part II

Last week, I posted an article discussing how diversification is one of the most misunderstood concepts in investing. In today’s post I continue with the second half of this two-part series titled, “The Power of Effective Diversification.”

In Part I of this article, I discussed the difference between naive diversification (holding lots of stuff in a portfolio) and real diversification (combining assets in a portfolio to create risk offsets).  I also showed how a well-diversified portfolio can maintain the ability to participate in market rallies while still mitigating risk.  In Part II, we will explore what an effectively diversified portfolio looks like today. Continue reading