Category Archives: Volatility

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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Am I Saving Enough to Reach My Goals?

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

Am I saving enough to reach my goals?The starting point for any discussion of a household’s financial health is to evaluate current savings and savings rates in the context of financial goals.  The three largest expenses that most families will face are buying a home, paying for college, and providing income in retirement. Setting specific savings targets and timelines is a key step in increasing your ability to meet these goals.

To determine whether you are saving enough to pay for one or more of these goals, consider the following factors:

  • Expected total cost of goal
  • When the money is needed
  • Current amount saved for the goal
  • Expected annual rate of saving towards the goal
  • How much risk to take in investing to meet the goal

Retirement

A good first step for estimating how much you’ll need for retirement—and how you’re doing so far—is to try Morningstar’s Retirement Savings Calculator.  This tool uses a range of sensible assumptions (which you can read about in the study from which it was developed) to estimate whether you are saving enough to retire.  The study accounts for the fact that Social Security represents a different fraction of retirement income for households at different income levels and assumes that investments are consistent with those of target date mutual funds.  The calculator scales income from your current age forward, based on historical average rates of wage growth.

Are you saving enough for retirement?

The calculations assume that you will need 80% of your pre-retirement income after subtracting retirement contributions, and that you will retire at age 65.  The estimated future returns for the asset allocations are provided by Ibbotson, a well-regarded research firm (and wholly owned subsidiary of Morningstar).

The final output of this model is a projected savings rate that is required for you to meet the target amounts of income.  If this is less than you currently save, you are ahead of the game.

College

There are enormous variations in what a college education costs, depending on whether your child goes to a public or private institution and whether those who choose public schools stay in-state.  There is also a trend towards spending two years at a community college before transferring to a larger comprehensive university.    estimates that the average annual all-in cost of attending a public four-year university is $23,000 per year, while the cost of attending a private four-year university averages $45,000 per year.  This includes tuition, room, board, books and other incidentals.  It is worth noting, however, that the all-in cost of private universities are often far above $45,000 per year.  The University of Chicago has an all-in cost of $64,000 per year.  Yale comes in at $58,500.

Every college and university has information on current costs to attend, as well as a calculator that estimates how much financial aid you can expect to be given, based on your income and assets.  There are a variety of ways to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of college including work-study, cooperative education programs, and ROTC.  There are also scholarships, of course.

College tuition and fees have been rising at about 4% per year beyond inflation for the past three decades.  With inflation currently at about 2%, the expected annual increase in college costs is 6%.

To be conservative, assume that money invested today in a moderate mix of stocks and bonds will just keep up with inflation in college costs.  Vanguard’s Moderate Growth 529 plan investment option has returned an average of 6.9% per year since inception in 2002 and 6.4% per year over the past ten years.  In other words, $23,000 invested today will probably pay for a year at a public four-year university in the future.  You can invest more aggressively to achieve higher returns, but taking more risk also introduces an increased exposure to market declines.

Using the simple assumption that money invested today in a moderately risky 529 plan or other account is likely to just keep pace with cost inflation makes it easy to figure out how you are doing in terms of saving.  If you plan to pay the cost of your child’s four-year in-state education and you have $46,000 invested towards this goal, you are halfway there.

Buying a Home

A house is a major financial commitment—one of the most significant that most people make.  Unlike retirement or education, there is an alternative that provides the same key benefits: renting.

For people who decide to buy, a key issue is how much to save for a down payment.  The amount that a lender will require depends on your income, credit score, and other debts.  Zillow.com provides a nice overview, along with an interactive calculator of down payment requirements. This tool can help estimate how all of the factors associated with obtaining a mortgage can vary with the down payment.

In general, the goal is to have a down payment ranging from 5% to 20% of what you plan to spend on a home.  By experimenting with the calculator at Zillow, you can determine how much house you can afford and how much you will need to put down.  A down payment of 20% or more is the most cost-effective route because smaller down payments require that you buy mortgage insurance, which adds to the monthly payment.

There are several alternatives for investing a down payment fund.  The primary consideration, however, is whether you are willing to adjust your timeframe based on how the market performs.  If you are committed to buying a house within one to three years, you really cannot afford to take on much risk.  If you are looking at a timeframe of five years or more—or if you hope to buy in one to three years but you are comfortable delaying if market returns are poor—you can afford to take more risk.  There is no single answer for everyone.

If you are investing only in low-risk assets, however, estimating how much you need to save each month for a required down payment is straightforward enough, because the current expected rate of return on safe assets is close to zero.

 

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How Am I Doing? An 8-Point Financial Checklist

How am I doing?A question that nags at many people is whether they are on track financially.  Even an average financial life can seem remarkably complex.  How does anyone know whether he or she is doing the right things?  A range of studies on how people manage their money suggests that many, if not the majority, are making choices that look decidedly sub-optimal.  Americans don’t save enough money and when they do save and invest, they often make basic mistakes that substantially reduce their returns.  More than 60% of self-directed investors have portfolios with inappropriate risk levels.  Almost three quarters of Americans have little or no emergency savings.  The solution to these problems starts with an assessment of where you are and where you need to be.

The key, as Einstein once said, is to make things as simple as possible but no simpler.  In an attempt to provide a checklist that’s in line with this edict, I offer the following questions that each person or family needs to be able to answer.

The first three questions focus on consumption and saving:

  1. Am I saving enough for to meet personal goals such as retirement, college education, and home ownership?
  2. Am I saving enough for contingencies such as a job loss or an emergency?
  3. Am I investing when I should be paying down debt instead, or vice-versa?

The next five questions deal with how you invest the money that you save:

  1. Is my portfolio at the right risk level?
  2. Am I effectively diversified?
  3. Am I aware of how much am I paying in expenses?
  4. Are my financial decisions tax efficient?
  5. Should I hire an investment advisor?

Anyone who can answer all eight of these questions satisfactorily has a strong basis for assessing whether he or she is on track. Odds are there are more than a few questions here that most of us either don’t have the answer to or know that we are not addressing very well.

Part of what makes answering these questions challenging is that the experiences of previous generations are often of limited relevance, especially when it comes to life’s three biggest expenditures: retirement, college, and housing.

For example, older people who have traditional pensions that guarantee a lifetime of income in retirement simply didn’t need to worry about choosing how much they had to save to support themselves during retirement.

The cost of educating children has also changed, increasing much faster than inflation or, more crucially, household income.  For many in the older generation, college was simply not a consideration. It has become the norm, however, and borrowing to pay for college is now the second largest form of debt in America, surpassed only by home mortgages.  Children and, more often their parents, must grapple with the question of how much they can or should pay for a college education, along with the related question of whether a higher-ranked college is worth the premium cost.

The third of the big three expenses that most families face is housing costs. Following the Second World War, home buyers benefitted from an historic housing boom.  Their children, the Baby Boomers, have also seen home prices increase substantially over most of their working careers.  Even with the huge decline in the housing crash, many Boomer home owners have done quite well with real estate.    Younger generations (X, Y, and Millenials), by contrast, have experienced enormous volatility in housing prices and must also plan for more uncertainty in their earnings.  And of course, what you decide you can afford to spend on a home has implications for every other aspect of your financial life.

In addition to facing major expenses without a roadmap provided by previous generations, we also need to plan for the major known expenses of everyday life. It’s critically important to determine how much to keep in liquid emergency savings and how to choose whether to use any additional available funds to pay down debts or to invest.  There are general guidelines to answering these questions and we will explore these in a number of future posts.

The second set of questions is easier to answer than the first.  These are all questions about how to effectively invest savings to meet future needs.  Risk, diversification, expenses, and tax exposure can be benchmarked against professional standards of practice.

What can become troubling, however, is that experts disagree about the best approach to addressing a number of these factors.  When in doubt, simplicity and low cost are typically the best choices.  Investors could do far worse than investing in a small number of low-cost index funds and choosing the percentages to stocks and bonds based on their age using something like the ‘age in bonds’ rule.  There are many ways to try for better returns at a given risk level, and some make far more sense than others.  Even Warren Buffett, arguably the most successful investor in the world, endorses a simple low-cost index fund strategy.  Upcoming posts will provide a number of straightforward standards for addressing these questions.

Investors who find these questions  too burdensome or time consuming to deal with may wish to spend some time on the eighth and final question: whether they should hire an investment advisor to guide them.  Investors may ultimately choose to manage their own finances, search out a human advisor, or use an online computer-driven advisory service.

While financial planning can seem complex and intimidating, our series of blog posts on the key issues, as outlined in the eight questions above, will provide a framework by which individuals can effectively take control and manage their financial affairs.

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Investing Implications of Trends in Household Wealth

Shifting Wealth

A new study released by the Russell Sage Foundation analyzes trends in household wealth over the last twenty years, with a focus on the years surrounding the ‘great recession’ of 2008.  The study examines changes in household net worth for the median household, as well as for the 95th percentile of households by wealth (the richest 5%), the poorest 25% of households (the 25th percentile) and tiers in between.

7-30-2014

Source: Russell Sage Foundation

The results, adjusted for inflation (values are shown in 2013 dollars), show that the median U.S. household remains substantially poorer in terms of total net worth than it was before the recession and is actually now poorer than it was in the mid 1980’s.  What’s more, median household net worth has not recovered at all since the great recession.  The same trends are evident even for the wealthiest quarter of households (the 75th percentile), although the gains in wealth by this tier of households in the 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s were sufficiently great that the top quarter of households by wealth is more than 25% wealthier today than in the mid 80’s.

The most striking feature of this chart is the spread in wealth levels.  While the median and 25th percentiles of households by wealth are substantially poorer today than they were twenty years ago, the wealthiest 10% (the 90th percentile) and the wealthiest 5%, in particular, are substantially richer today.  The increasing spread between the percentiles through time is evidence of growing inequality.  The study concludes that much of the divergence between wealthier and poorer households reflects the proportion of their wealth held in homes vs. stocks and bonds.  Housing prices remain well below their previous peaks in 2007, while the equity markets have regained their previous levels.  For poorer households, homes represents the vast majority of their net worth.  This is not the case for wealthier households.  The results of this study are consistent with other analysis—this is confirmation rather than being surprising.  Nonetheless, each new set of results that are consistent adds weight.

Implications for Investors

The implications of the trends in the table above are substantial.  If the median household is seeing declining or stagnant wealth levels—with more extreme declines for poorer households—this will ultimately reduce their capacity to buy and consume goods and services.  Indeed, the Russell Sage study concludes that declining household wealth shows that poorer households, unable to support their current consumption with income, are gradually depleting their assets.  At the other end of the spectrum, the wealthiest 10% of households has seen a substantial decline in net worth as well, even though this tier enjoyed huge gains in the past twenty years.

Aside from the fact that declining household wealth reduces the ability to spend, there is also the problem of the wealth effect.  Households that have disposable income are less likely to spend it if they feel less wealthy and even the 95th percentile of households by wealth is less wealthy than it was just five years ago.

The simplest interpretation of these data are that mid-market retail products and retailers are going to suffer, while the budget products and retailers and the luxury markets will perform relatively better.  So, for example, Family Dollar stores (FDO), WalMart (WMT), Costco (COST) and other discount retailers should do well.  More broadly, however, the declining disposable incomes for the middle tier of investors suggests that the companies that provide the basic products and services that people depend upon are good bets.  Utilities (IDU), oil companies (IGE), and pharmaceutical companies (JNJ, BMY, GSK, PFE) are fairly well insulated from changes in wealth distribution.

The more challenging questions involve discretionary goods and services that are higher-priced and easier to do without or that can be displaced by lower-cost competitors.  Companies like Bed, Bath, and Beyond (BBBY), Whole Foods (WFM), Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF), and Express (EXPR) sell products for which there are cheaper and largely indistinguishable alternatives.  The winners in this mid-market business are those companies that provide fairly low-cost products while retaining brand appeal to wealthier customers (SBUX, CMG, NKE).

Another theme that looks promising is consumer products that are expensive relative to peers but that represent a low-cost substitution as compared to other types of conspicuous consumption.  Apple (AAPL) has successfully capitalized on this trend.  The new iPhone may be expensive compared to other phones, but it is fairly cheap as a prestige object.   Smart phones also provide low-cost entertainment via product offerings such as Facebook (FB).  People who spend their time surfing Facebook or watching Netflix (NFLX) are likely to see cable TV as expensive.  This realization is already expressed in the high prices of these firms relative to their earnings, however.

The Take-Away

The latest data on growing wealth inequality add support to the conclusion that the middle tier of American families is getting squeezed.  The long-term implications for how people spend their money are worth considering.  The ultimate losers will be companies that sell fairly high-cost goods or services to the middle class for which there are low-cost alternatives and for which there are up-market competitors that appeal to wealthier families.  One class of winners will be low-cost ‘prestige’ brands such as smart phones and Starbucks coffee.  It is hard to imagine the average urban millennial substituting his iPhone for generic pay-as-you-go hardware or rushing to the office with a cup of gas station coffee rather than the iconic Starbucks cup.  As discretionary wealth gets tighter for the middle tier, low-cost mobile entertainment looks like a winner at the expense of cable and satellite TV.

The discount retailers and providers of basic goods such as fuels and pharmaceuticals are likely to hold up well simply because changing wealth distributions will have little impact on their businesses.

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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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