January 1, 2023
by Stephen Stofka
This week’s letter is about an unusual year and the lessons we can and can’t learn from it. As I wrote last week, we must carefully sift through the unique circumstances in a time series to learn any lessons that we can carry into the future. Sometimes we bray at the passing of an unusual year and continue on our course. Other times, like 9-11 and the 2008 financial crisis, we sort through the debris of an unusual year to understand how we can avoid a repeat occurrence.
What made this year so unusual was the bond market’s loss of almost 13% in addition to the stock market’s loss of 18%. Normally, bonds zig when stocks zag but not this year. This year’s loss in the bond market was the steepest drop ever. This year has been a good test of an investor’s allocation but a long term perspective is encouraging.
During our working years we accumulate assets. In retirement we distribute the price appreciation and income from those assets. In a down market like this past year, a younger investor must balance the opportunity to buy assets at lower prices with the probability they will need liquidity, i.e. cash for living expenses. A basic recommendation is to have six month’s income in cash for emergencies and loss of job. Someone in an executive position might store up to two years of cash or highly liquid investments in anticipation of a much longer job search to find a comparable position.
This past year has tested retired investors who have relied on the historical stability of bond prices. An aggregate bond mix lost 12.8%, surprising investors who may have used bond funds as a substitute for cash funds that paid little interest in the previous years. A bit of historical perspective – in 1994, after five years of relatively low rates, the Fed began raising rates. An intermediate term bond fund lost 4.2%, while an average treasury bond lost 8% that year. The Fed has kept rates far lower and far longer than that five year period and the market reaction has been greater as well. A 60-40 portfolio (60% stocks, 40% bonds) has moderate risk and good long term returns, making it a choice of many money managers. That typical portfolio weighting lost 16.5% this year.
An asset’s ultimate value is measured in the goods and services that they can buy. Today’ retiree might live 20 – 25 years or more, tapping their assets for their income needs. A few months ago, Gupta et al (2022), researchers at McKinsey & Company, found that the SP500 index has returned about 9% since 1994, including the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s. To measure the purchasing power of the SP500 index over a 23 year period, I adjusted the index by the CPI index in January 2000, near the height of the dot-com bubble. In that span of time, we have endured a dot-com meltdown, the Great Financial Crisis and its slow recovery, followed by a once-in-a-century pandemic and a disruption of the global supply chain. The wide adoption of the internet in commerce has prompted a fundamental shift in jobs and revenue. Despite those disruptions, the purchasing power of stocks has increased 1.8% above annual inflation since 2000. Including an average dividend return of 2.02%, the broad stock market has grown in purchasing power almost 4% every year.
The SP500 index is a compilation of companies that have survived tough economic conditions. Companies that fail the adversity test are discarded from the index and replaced by another company. It is like a game of “King of the Hill” that we played as kids but the stakes and price volatility are far higher. A broad index of bonds usually offsets that volatility, sacrificing a little return for a big reduction in the value of a portfolio. In the past 23 years, a 500 index fund had a standard deviation – or wag of the tail – of more than 15%. According to Portfolio Visualizer (2022), a simple 60-40 portfolio had less than 10% deviation. That lack of volatility cost .25% per year in return, about the same as the annual cost to insure a house. Investors with a 6-30-10 portfolio, setting aside 10% in cash, paid an additional .25% less return in exchange for a slight reduction in price volatility.
For the first time since records began, bonds did not offset the volatility of stock prices this past year. Depending on their age, health, location and available resources, some investors have a greater tolerance for risk than others. Investors with exactly the same circumstances may perceive their risk differently and comparisons between individuals are difficult and ill-advised. Some investors feel more fragile, giving greater weight to unique outcomes like this past year. Others give more weight to average trends, taking comfort in the probability that this year was an anomaly.
Photo by Mary Farrell on Unsplash
Backtest portfolio asset allocation. Portfolio Visualizer. (2022). Retrieved December 31, 2022, from https://www.portfoliovisualizer.com/backtest-portfolio#analysisResults. Stocks: an SP500 index fund. Bond: an intermediate term broad bond fund. Cash: money market.
Gupta , V., Kohn, D., Koller, T., & Rehm, W. (2022, August 4). Markets will be markets: An analysis of long-term returns from the S&P 500. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved December 31, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/prime-numbers/markets-will-be-markets-an-analysis-of-long-term-returns-from-the-s-and-p-500