Why So Stock Market Focused?

Most investors and their advisors seem to speak mostly about the stock market. When they mention “the market” and I ask “what market?” they always reply “the stock market”.

Why so stock market centric?

It must be that it gets the most media attention or stocks seem more exciting?. After all, other markets like bonds may seem boring and few know much about the many commodities markets or the foreign exchange markets. There are many different markets and two sides to them all.

If it’s risk-adjusted returns you want, you may be surprised to find where you should have invested your money the past 15 years. To make the point, below is a comparison of the total return of the Vanguard S&P 500 stock index (the orange line) compared to the Vanguard Bond Index (the blue line). Yes, you are seeing that correctly. Using these simple index funds as a proxy, bonds have achieved the same total return as stocks, but with significantly less volatility and drawdowns. This is why we never look at just “average” return data without considering the path it took to get there. A total return percentage gain chart like this one presents a far more telling story. Take a close look at the path they took.

stocks vs. bonds

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

I showed the chart to one investment advisor who commented “It looks like the stock market is catching up”. If that’s what you think of when you view the chart, you may have a bias blind spot: ignoring the vast difference in the risk between the two markets.

Looking at the total return over the period identifies the obvious difference in the path the two return streams took to achieve their results, but below we see the true risk difference. Drawdowns are declines from a higher value to a low value and a visual representation of how long it took to recover the lose of capital. When we observe a drawdown chart like the one below, it’s like a lake. These charts together also help illustrate the flaw of averages. The average return of the stock and bond index have ended at about the same level and have the same average return, but the bond index achieved it with much less drawdown. You wouldn’t know that if you only looked at average returns. If you tried to walk across the stock market lake, you may have drowned if you couldn’t handle swimming in 40′ of water for so long. If that one didn’t get you, the 55′ may have. The stock index declined about -40% from 2000 – 2002 and took years to recover before it declined -55%.

stock and bond market risk historical drawdowns

Created with http://www.ycharts.com

You have to be wondering: why didn’t you just invest in bonds 15 years ago? Maybe you were focused on the prior period huge average returns in stocks?

Before I continue, let me place a very bold disclaimer here: PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE RESULTS. Another way that is stated is that PAST PERFORMANCE IS NO ASSURANCE OF FUTURE RESULTS. One more version is PAST PERFORMANCE MAY NOT BE AN INDICATION OF FUTURE RESULTS. If you remember, the 1990’s were a roaring bull market in stocks. People focus on the past expecting it to continue. That’s probably why you never thought to invest in bonds instead of stocks.

Some of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world have done that very thing over this period and longer. But, they didn’t just invest in bonds. They leveraged bonds. We’ve seen in this example that a bond index fund has achieved just as much total return as stocks. If you are a stock market centric investor: one that likes the stock market and makes it your focus, then you necessarily had to be willing to endure those -40% to -55% declines and wait many years to recover from the losses. If you are really willing to accept such risk, imagine if you had used margin to leverage bonds. The bond index rarely declined -10% or more. It was generally a falling interest rate period, so bonds gained value. If you were willing to accept -40% to -55% declines in stocks, you could have instead leveraged the bonds 400% or 500%. If you had done that, your return would be 4 or 5 times more with a downside more equal to that of stocks.

Why so stock centric?

Of course, at this stage, the PAST PERFORMANCE IS HIGHLY UNLIKELY TO REPEAT INTO THE FUTURE. Just as the roaring stocks of the 1990’s didn’t repeat. To see why, read Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market and Bonds: The Final Bubble Frontier?.

From my observations of investors performance and their advisors, most people seem to have poor results the past decade or so, even after this recent bull market. An investment management consultant told me recently that investors and their advisors who are aware of the current stage of stocks and bonds feel there is no place to turn. I believe it’s a very important time to prepare to row, not sail. For me, that means focus on actively managing risk and look for potentially profitable trends across a very global universe of markets; currency, bonds, stocks, commodities, and alternatives like volatility, inverse, etc . That’s my focus in ASYMMETRY® | Managed Accounts.

Stage and Valuation of the U.S. Stock Market

In The REAL Length of the Average Bull Market last year I pointed out different measures used to determine the average length of a bull market. Based on that, whether you believe the average bull market lasts 39 months, 50 months, or 68 months, it seems the current one is likely very late in its stage at 73 months. It’s one of the longest, ever.

I normally don’t consider valuations levels like P/E ratios, but they do matter when it comes to secular bull and bear markets (10 to 20 year trends). That’s because long-term bull markets begin at low valuation levels (10 or below) and have ended at historically high levels (around 20). Currently, the S&P 500 is trading at 27. That, along with the low dividend yield, suggests the expected return for holding that index going forward is low.

Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research explains it best:

The stock market gyrated since the start of the year, ending the first quarter with a minimal gain of 0.4%. As a result, normalized P/E was virtually unchanged at 27.3—well above the levels justified by low inflation and interest rates. The current status remains near “significantly overvalued.”

In addition, the forecast by Standard and Poor’s for 2015 earnings per share (EPS) recently took a nosedive, declining 17% during one week in the first quarter. Volatility remains unusually low in its cycle. The trend in earnings and volatility should be watched closely and investors should remain cognizant of the risks confronting an increasingly vulnerable market.

Source: The P/E Report: Quarterly Review Of The Price/Earnings Ratio By Ed Easterling April 4, 2015 Update

It’s always a good time to actively manage risk and shift between global markets rather than allocate to them. To see what that looks like, visit: http://www.asymmetrymanagedaccounts.com/global-tactical/