Tag Archives: expected returns

Caution: Mean Reversion Ahead

If you watch CNBC long enough, you are bound to hear an investment professional urging viewers to buy stocks simply because of low yields in the bond markets. While the advice may seem logical given historically low yields in the U.S. and negative yields abroad, most of these professionals fail to provide viewers with a mathematically grounded analysis of their expected returns for the equity markets.

Mean reversion is an extremely important financial concept and it is the “reversion” part that is so powerful.  The simple logic behind mean reversion is that market returns over long periods will fluctuate around their historical average. If you accept that a security or market tends to revolve around its mean or a trend line over time, then periods of above normal returns must be met with periods of below normal returns.

If the professionals on CNBC understood the power of mean reversion, they would likely be more enthusiastic about locking in a 2% bond yield for the next decade. 

Expected Bond Returns

Expected return analysis is easy to calculate for bonds if one assumes a bond stays outstanding till its maturity (in other words it has no early redemption features such as a call option) and that the issuer can pay off the bond at maturity.

Let’s walk thought a simple example. Investor A and B each buy a two-year bond today priced at par with a 3% coupon and a yield to maturity of 3%. Investor A intends to hold the bond to maturity and is therefore guaranteed a 3% return. Investor B holds the bond for one year and decides to sell it because the bond’s yield fell and thus the bond’s price rose. In this case, investor B sold the bond to investor C at a price of 101. In doing so he earned a one year total return of 4%, consisting of a 3% coupon and 1% price return. Investor B’s outperformance versus the yield to maturity must be offset with investor C’s underperformance versus the yield to maturity of an equal amount. This is because investor C paid a 1% premium for the bond which must be deducted from his or her total return. In total, the aggregate performance of B and C must equal the original yield to maturity that investor A earned.

This example shows that periodic returns can exceed or fall short of the yield to maturity expected based on the price paid by each investor, but in sum all of the periodic returns will match the original yield to maturity to the penny. Replace the term yield to maturity with expected returns and you have a better understanding of mean reversion.   

Equity Expected Returns

Stocks, unlike bonds, do not feature a set of contractual cash flows, defined maturity, or a perfect method of calculating expected returns. However, the same logic that dictates varying periodic returns versus forecasted returns described above for bonds influences the return profile for equities as well.

The price of a stock is, in theory, based on a series of expected cash flows. These cash flows do not accrue directly to the shareholder, with the sole exception of dividends. Regardless, valuations for equities are based on determining the appropriate premium or discount that investors are willing to pay for a company’s theoretical future cash flows, which ultimately hinge on net earnings growth.

The earnings trend growth rate for U.S. equities has been remarkably consistent over time and well correlated to GDP growth. Because the basis for pricing stocks, earnings, is a relatively fixed constant, we can use trend analysis to understand when market returns have been over and under the long-term expected return rate.

The graph below does this for the S&P 500. The orange line is the real price (inflation adjusted) of the S&P 500, the dotted line is the polynomial trend line for the index, and the green and red bars show the difference between the index and the trend.

Data Courtesy Shiller/Bloomberg

The green and red bars point to a definitive pattern of over and under performance. Periods of outperformance in green are met with periods of underperformance in red in a highly cyclical pattern. Further, the red and green periods tend to mirror each other in terms of duration and performance. We use black arrows to compare how the duration of such periods and the amount of over/under performance are similar.  

If the current period of outperformance is once again offset with a period of underperformance, as we have seen over the last 80 years, than we should expect a ten year period of underperformance. If this mean reversion were to begin shortly, then expect the inflation adjusted S&P 500 to fall 600-700 points below the trend over the next ten years, meaning the real price of the S&P index could be anywhere from 1500-2300 depending on when the reversion occurs. 

We now do similar mean reversion analysis based on valuations. The graph below compares monthly periods of Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) versus the following ten-year real returns. The yellow bar represents where valuations have been over the last year.

Data Courtesy Shiller/Bloomberg

Currently CAPE is near 30, or close to double the average of the last 100 years. If returns over the next ten years revert back to historic norms, than based on the green dotted regression trend line, we should expect annual returns of -2% for each of the next ten years. In other words, the analysis suggests the S&P 500 could be around 2300 in 2029. We caution however, valuations can slip well below historical means, thus producing further losses.

John Hussman, of Hussman Funds, takes a similar but more analytically rigorous approach. Instead of using a scatter plot as we did above, he plots his profit margin adjusted CAPE alongside the following twelve-year returns. In the chart below, note how closely forward twelve-year returns track his adjusted CAPE. The red circle highlights Hussman’s expected twelve-year annualized return.

If we expect this strong correlation to continue, his analysis suggests that annual returns of about negative 2% should be expected for the next twelve years. Again, if you discount the index by 2% a year for twelve years, you produce an estimate similar to the prior two estimates formed by our own analysis.  

None of these methods are perfect, but the story they tell is eerily similar. If mean reversion occurs in price and valuations, our expectations should be for losses over the coming ten years.

Summary

As the saying goes, you can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it. As investors, we can form expectations based on a number of factors and adjust our risk and investment thesis as we learn more.

Mean reversion promises a period of below average returns. Whether such an adjustment happens over a few months as occurred in 1987 or takes years, is debatable. It is also uncertain when that adjustment process will occur. What is not debatable is that those aware of this inevitability can be on the lookout for signs mean reversion is upon us and take appropriate action. The analysis above offers some substantial clues, as does the recent equity market return profile. In the 20 months from May 2016 to January 2018, the S&P 500 delivered annualized total returns of 21.9%. In the 20 months since January 2018, it has delivered annualized total returns of 5.5% with significantly higher volatility. That certainly does not inspire confidence in the outlook for equity market returns.

We remind you that a bond yielding 2% for the next ten years will produce a 40%+ outperformance versus a stock losing 2% for the next ten years. Low yields may be off-putting, but our expectations for returns should be greatly tempered given the outperformance of both bonds and stocks over the years past. Said differently, expect some lean years ahead.

Wait for the Fat Pitch : Buy and Hold vs Active Management

Ted Williams described in his book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ that the most important thing – for a hitter – is to wait for the right pitch. And that’s exactly the philosophy I have about investing – wait for the right pitch, and wait for the right deal. And it will come… It’s the key to investing.” – Warren Buffett

Many investment managers tempt investors with historical returns by using them as indicators of future return expectations. Unfortunately, even if they are clairvoyant, a buy and hold strategy based on a “known” long term return is likely not in a client’s best interest. Buy and hold strategies that are solely focused on a long-term total return fail to consider the current state of valuations, the risk reward profile, and therefore the path of returns the market may take between now and the future. Importantly, they also ignore investor circumstances and whether he or she is a young worker in savings mode or a retiree who must draw living expenses from their account.

Even with a “known” return, it may be comforting to think one can buy and hold without any reservations. The reality is that, in many circumstances, such a strategy leaves a lot to be desired. On the path between today and tomorrow, there will inevitably be periods where returns are well above original expectations accompanied by a lower level of risk. There will also be periods where returns are lower than expected and the risk is greater.

This paper is theoretical in nature, but the simple message underlying the article is, as stated in the opening quote, you do not have to swing at every pitch. Patience rewards the prudent.

Destination vs Path

Let’s take a time machine back to January 1st 2005. Given that we are coming from the future, we know the following facts about the S&P 500:

  • January 1, 2005 price: 1181.41
  • 2015 Cyclically-adjusted P/E (CAPE): 26.49
  • Earnings growth 2005-2015: 7.68%
  • Dividend yield 2005-2015: 2.04%:
  • Dec 31, 2015 price: 1524.53
  • Annualized total return 2005-2015: 7.59%

In 2005, most investors would have considered the prospect of a 7.59% annualized return as favorable on a nominal basis as well as in comparison to U.S. ten-year Treasury notes, which yielded 4.22% at the time. Armed with that information, we guess that many investors would elect to buy and hold and earn 7.59%.

Let’s add a few more facts to the story. In January 2005, market valuations as measured by CAPE were at 26.59, which was a premium of 67% to the average (15.93) up to that time using data since 1900. In 2005, investors knew that if prices reverted to valuation means over the course of the ensuing ten year period, with earnings and dividends constant, the total return over the entire period would be -0.21%. Such a return compares poorly to the 4.22% annualized, risk-free returns offered by the ten-year U.S. Treasury note in 2005.

As it turned out, CAPE valuations did revert to their mean and even slightly below by March 2009. However, they expanded afterwards and by 2015 closed at levels nearly identical to 2005. The variation in the multiples investors were willing to pay for earnings (CAPE) factored largely into returns from 2005 to 2015. As a result, the actual path of annual returns was quite different from the straight line 7.59% many were expecting.

For anyone who was fully invested, and like today many were, that volatility imposed terrific stress. Furthermore, because of the reversion to the mean, there were opportunities to grow wealth at a faster rate than 7.59%, but it required having some cash on hand in order to take advantage of those opportunities.

The following graph compares the expected price of the S&P 500, assuming a market return of 7.59% every year for the ten-year period, to actual prices. Despite the same final price, note the wide price differences that occurred over the period. These divergences represented opportunities to change your investment posture, to increase or reduce risk, and better your realized total returns.

The following illustration adds bars to the graph above to highlight the expected returns in 2005 and the revised annual expectations in each ensuing year.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know an investor did not need to settle for the 7.59% guaranteed 10-year annualized return in 2005. In 2009, the expected return until 2015 would be more than double the original 7.59%.

Let’s consider an alternative way an investor might have invested over the ten year period.

The following table and graph compares a hypothetical, actively-managed portfolio versus a rigid buy and hold portfolio. The active investor, in our example, used a more conservative allocation when equity valuations were high. Conversely, when valuations normalized, the investor takes more risk by reallocating to a predominately equity-oriented portfolio.

As shown in the graph above, the actual dollar returns of the active versus buy and hold portfolios differed from the dotted straight line expected return. The table above the graph shows that the active portfolio beat the buy and hold portfolio by approximately 1.50% a year, and importantly, did so while taking less risk. The Sharpe ratio in the table, measuring returns as a percentage of risk, clearly favors the active approach.

The premise here is illustrative, and we urge you not to take the data too literally. We could have made the active allocations look a lot better by reducing equities to zero before the financial crisis, or we could have made them worse by not increasing the allocation to equites in the post-crisis era. The point of this exercise is not to play Monday morning quarterback, but to provide a simple example of how a more thoughtful active approach can use valuations to reduce risk and increase returns.   

The Path for the Next Ten Years

In Stocks versus Bonds: What to own over the next decade, we showed that under three optimistic scenarios in which valuations remain historically rich but mean revert to a still high level, (CAPE 24.80 = +1 standard deviation from the mean) annualized equity returns are likely to range from 0.71% to 4.62%. Under what we deem to be an average scenario, investors with a ten-year holding period should weak total returns. As such, a buy and hold strategy currently provides poor return expectations when compared to historical equity returns.

Given that the odds favor CAPE regressing towards its mean, or possibly below it, within the next ten years, logic and reason argue that better opportunities likely lie ahead. Why not take the conservative approach today when valuations stand at historically high levels?  Doing so may allow you the opportunity to swing at the fat pitch tomorrow.

By some measures, as shown below, equity valuations are at levels never witnessed in the modern era. Whether “this time is different” or valuations are sharply out of line and will correct, is up for debate. We simply urge you to consider that there are potential future opportunities that can only be seized by exhibiting caution today.

Summary

The point being made here is essential; risk management is generous. Based on the past 100 years of market data, there is no evidence that long-term returns are penalized by taking a defensive investment posture at high valuations. Investors today do not need to buy and hold stocks and remain heavily invested when expected returns are paltry. The historical record, though imprecise, affords an excellent map for navigating and managing risk.

Patience is an investor’s friend, and time has a habit of delivering better opportunities to those inclined to exercise it.  Each investor can determine his own “strike zone” and is well-served to exercise patience until a fat pitch comes along.

The Two Rules Of “Stockbroker Economics”

How an advisor should talk to clients and what rhetoric leads to big sales are often at odds. It can be death to an advisory business if the advisor is negative. Clients tend to want reassurance from an optimistic advisor. That’s why economist Andrew Smithers refers to broker happy talk asstockbroker economics.”

The two rules of stockbroker economics are:

1. All news is good news, and;

2. It’s always a good time to buy stocks.

On the role of news, a strong economy fills clients will all the optimism and willingness to buy that they need. A weak economy simply prompts a broker to say that falling interest rates and future rising profits are good for stocks, never mind that profits and prices had only moved in tandem 54% of the time when Smithers wrote his 2006 article. On the second rule, nothing has succeeded as well as what Smithers calls the “bond yield ratio,” another name for which is the “Fed Model.” That model compares bond yields to the earnings yield of the stock market (the reciprocal of the P/E ratio or E/P). This ratio worked from 1977 to 1997, but didn’t from 1948 to 1968. Using the full dataset shows no relationship between bond yields and earnings yields, according to Smithers.

Other forms of nonsense used to support the second rule include using a current P/E ratio to appraise stocks. Of course, a current P/E ratio has little ability to forecast long-term returns. It sometimes shows stocks are expensive when they are actually cheap, and vice versa.

A third piece of nonsense that Smithers doesn’t mention is the assertion that all forecasting is bunk. While forecasting next year’s returns might be bunk, metrics like the Shiller PE and Tobin’s Q have strong records in forecasting future long-term returns. Even if the Shiller PE has been elevated for the past 25 years, the S&P 500 Index has delivered tepid returns (5.4% annualized) from 2000 through 2017 with the entirety of that return occurring only in the last 5-years.

All of this means the first rule for investors judging their advisors is whether their advisors engage in too much happy talk – especially about future returns. If an advisor says a balanced portfolio should deliver a 7% annualized return for the next decade with starting 10-year U.S. Treasury yields at 3% and stocks at a 32 CAPE, be wary.

Second, investors should avoid advisors who avoid making forecasts to the point where they disparage anyone who does. That’s because it’s not hard to make a bond forecasts. With high-quality bonds, yield-to-maturity will get you close to the total return. Although stocks are harder, the Shiller PE can help. And, the more it’s stretched by historical standards, the more accurate it gets. No advisor should be dogmatic about pinpointing future returns; anyone who thinks they can be precise is crazy. But it’s also outlandish to expect long term historical returns from the stock market when valuations are as stretched as they are today. Stock market forecasts are hard, but don’t let your advisor squirm out of them completely.

Making a forecast is also necessary for constructing a financial plan. And, while it’s true that an accurate forecast doesn’t have to be available just because advisors and clients need one, decade-long projections are easier, if imperfect, than guessing what next year’s market move might be. When the Shiller PE stretches to more extreme levels, low future returns become more likely. So, when you hear an advisor making fun of something, that should raise warning flags.

We think advisors with integrity aren’t afraid to tell clients stocks are expensive even when it might hurt the advisor’s business. An advisor constructing a financial plan owes you an honest assessment of future returns. Currently, the Shiller PE is at 32. And while nothing is impossible, it’s very unlikely that stocks will deliver more than a 2% real annualized return for the next decade.

Third, consider if your advisor goes beyond the risk questionnaire he gives you. Nearly every financial advisory firm has a risk questionnaire that it gives to prospects and clients. The questionnaire often has many questions about how much risk the investors think they can handle and what portion of their assets they’d like to put at risk in exchange for possibly getting a higher return than a low risk investment will deliver. But risk questionnaires ask about percentages, and most people don’t think in percentages. Consider if your advisor asks you how you might feel if you opened up your statement and your account was down by a certain dollar amount. That’s more meaningful than a percentage question. Consider it a positive thing if your advisor pursues this line of questioning a bit, including asking you how you felt and how you reacted to the market plunge in 2008.

Risk often boils down to how much of a portfolio decline a client can tolerate before selling out, and everyone has a point at which they sell. This is important because it shows how investors do themselves damage. The tendency should be to buy stocks when they get cheaper, not sell them. But investors rarely think of buying when the prices of their holdings are declining.

Advisors have other ways of trying to train clients about how to treat price declines in their portfolios. Many advisors focus on long–term asset class returns, trying to persuade investors that they can overcome declines if they have the willpower to stay the course and not be discouraged. Other advisors do the opposite, focusing on how severe declines can be and trying hard to get clients into allocations that they can live with at the outset and to prepare them for the difficulty that lies ahead in the inevitable downturns.

The advisors who emphasize long term returns often come close to shaming clients into owning stocks. In my experience, such has made some clients feel inadequate for not wanting to assume more risk – or have encouraged clients to take more risk than they would have for fear of being deemed inadequate in the eyes of the advisor. Make sure your advisor isn’t shaming you into owning more stocks than you can handle.

At Clarity Financial, we focus on the growth of savings and on the minimization of emotional duress that can lead to poor investment decision-making.

Two Key Indicators Show the S&P 500 Becoming the New ‘Cash’

Pension plan administrators do it. Their actuaries and consultants do it. Professional endowment and foundation investors do it. Financial advisors do it. Private investors may or may not do it, but they probably should.

Do what?

All of these folks already are or should be asking themselves the following question: What’s a reasonable expectation for the long-term return on a broad-market equity investment?

Professionals usually answer the question using complex models, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we’ll keep it simple here. Simple often beats the snot out of a long white paper, and two recent developments beg for simple.

First, on Thursday the Fed released its flow-of-funds data, which includes an estimate for the household sector’s overall asset allocation. Data show allocations to corporate equities reaching 25.1% of total household (and nonprofit) assets, a level only before seen between Q4 1998 and Q3 2000. Here’s the full history:

spy returns chart 1

Now, you may say 25% is just a number, and we would agree, but only to a point. We don’t think the household sector’s current allocations tell us anything about the market’s near-term direction. In fact, we don’t detect any of the most common precursors to major market turning points, as discussed here. But we do think household equity allocations offer clues to long-term returns. Consider the next chart, which compares the allocation data to the corresponding S&P 500 returns over subsequent periods of six, eight and ten years:

spy returns chart 2

You’ll decide for yourself, of course, how to interpret the chart, but we’ll entertain three possibilities. First, you might rely on a few instances in which S&P 500 returns reached almost 4% after the equity allocation was 25% or more. Compared to today’s minuscule bond yields, 4% looks respectable. If stocks do, indeed, return 4% over the next six to ten years, that could be higher than the return on any other major asset class, which probably explains how stocks got so expensive in the first place.

Second, you might mentally project the scatter plot’s downward trend out to the current equity allocation. Doing that, returns appear to spread evenly around today’s cash rate of about 1%. So, whereas optimistically you might expect a return of 4% or thereabouts, more realistically a negative return is almost as likely.

Third, you might look at the data and say, “So what? We should really use a traditional indicator—one that compares prices to earnings—not an asset allocation measure.” Which brings us to another recent development that might alter future returns—the S&P 500 busting through 2500. To account for that latest market milestone, the next chart updates one of our favorite S&P 500 indicators, the price–to–peak earnings multiple or P/PE. (Unlike a standard price-to-earnings multiple that places the past year’s earnings in the denominator, P/PE uses the highest four-quarter earnings to date, mitigating distortions that occur when earnings fall in recessions.)

spy returns chart 3

At a price–to–peak earnings multiple of 23.6, we’re currently at about the same valuation as in December 1997. Once again, you might find an optimistic interpretation—that is, the long bull market that finally ended in 2000 suggests there could still be room to bubble up from here. But the implications for long-term returns aren’t nearly as optimistic, as shown in our final chart:

spy returns chart 4

If you stare at the chart long enough, you might see a less bearish picture than in the first scatter plot above. (Stare even longer and you might see the King of France.) But the difference isn’t especially large. On either chart, the downward slope points to a meager long-term return. In fact, if we use only the scatter plots above to make our estimate, while also accounting for the Fed’s predicted interest rate path, the S&P 500 appears to offer a similar return to cash.

Conclusions

To be clear, we’re encouraging long-term bulls to reconsider their assumptions, but we’re not advising them to dismantle carefully diversified portfolios (meaning those that are spread sensibly among multiple asset classes). We would be more likely to recommend a major portfolio shift if the usual bear-market catalysts—sharply rising inflation, high interest rates and poor credit conditions—were present.

More to the point, it seems a good time for investors to check their expectations and risk levels. Investors should develop reasonable expectations informed by data such as those in the scatter plots above. And they shouldn’t take more risk than they’ll be able to tolerate as the next bear market plays out. As always, only a small percentage of investors will accurately time the next market cycle, and we shouldn’t bet too heavily on being among those fortunate few.