Stocks Versus Bonds Today

Stocks Versus Bonds Today

Where is the best opportunity – in stocks or bonds? I’ve been enthusiastic about the rising interest rates in 2022 and this has impacted the relative attractiveness of stocks versus bonds today. What do we expect from stocks going forward?

Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group publishes their projected return for stocks for the next 10 years. And while no one has a crystal ball to know exactly how stocks will perform, this is still valuable information. They look at expected economic growth, dividend yield, and whether stock values (P/E ratios for example) might expand or contract.

Their median 10-year expected return for US stocks is 5.7%, with a plus or minus 1% range, for a range of 4.7% to 6.7%. This is actually up from the beginning of the year. As stocks have fallen by 20%, we are now starting from a less expensive valuation. But a projected return of 5.7% for the next decade would be well below historical averages, and most investors are hoping for better.

Is Vanguard being too pessimistic? No, many other analysts have similar projections which are well below historical returns. For example, Northern Trust forecasts a 6% return on US stocks over the next five years. And of course, these are just projections. Returns could be better. Or worse!

Bonds Are An Alternative

Last week, I bought some investment grade corporate bonds with a yield to maturity of 6% over three to five years. Bonds have much less risk than stocks and have only a fraction of the volatility of stocks. As long as the company stays in business, you should be getting your 6% return and then your principal back at maturity.

If we can buy a good bond with a return of 5.5% to 6.0%, that completely matches the projected stock returns that Vanguard expects. Why bother with stocks, then? Why take the risk that we fall short of 6% in stocks, if we can get a 6% return in bonds? Today, bonds are really attractive, even potentially an alternative to stocks.

For many of our clients, bonds look better than stocks now. And so we may be trimming stocks by year end and buying bonds, under two conditions: 1. The stocks market remains up. We are not going to sell stocks if they fall from here. 2. We can buy investment grade bonds, 3-7 years, with yields of at least 5.5% and preferably 6%. And we have to find different bonds, because we aim to keep any one company to no more than 1-2% of the portfolio.

We won’t be giving up on stocks – not at all. But we may look to shift 10-20% of that US stock exposure to bonds.

Three Paths for the Market

I think there are three scenarios, all of which are okay.

  1. Stocks do way better than 6%. The risk here is that stocks could perform much better than the 5.7% estimate from Vanguard. Maybe they return 8% over the next five years. Well, this is our worst scenario: we make “only” 6% and are kicking ourselves because we could have made a little bit more if we had stayed in stocks.
  2. Stocks return 6% or less. In this case, it is possible we will get the same return from bonds as the expected return from stocks. And if stocks do worse than expected, our bonds might even outperform the stocks. That’s also a win for bonds.
  3. Stocks decline. What if the economy goes into recession, and stocks drop? If stocks are down 10% and we are up 6% a year on bonds, we will be really happy. In a recession, it’s likely that yields will drop and the price of bonds will increase. The 6% bond we bought might have gone up in value from 100 to 104. Then, our total return on the bond might be 10%, and we could be 20% ahead relative to stocks’ 10% drop. And in this scenario, we don’t have to hold the bonds to maturity. We could sell the bonds and buy stocks while they are down.

Smoother is Better

I’m happy with any of those three scenarios. Many investors are feeling some PTSD from the market performance since 2020. Many will be happy to “settle” for 5.5% to 6% from bonds, versus the 5.7% expected return from stocks. And of course, stocks won’t be steady. They may be up 20% one year and down 20% the next. It is often a roller coaster, and so increasing bonds may offer a smoother ride while not changing our expected return by much at all.

Should everyone do this? No, I think if you are a young investor who is contributing every month to a 401(k) or IRA, don’t give up on stocks. Even if the return ends up being the same 6%, you will actually benefit from the volatility of stocks through Dollar Cost Averaging. When stocks are down, you are buying more shares. So, if you are in accumulation, many years from retirement (say 10+), I wouldn’t make any change.

But for investors with a large portfolio, or those in or near retirement, I think they will prefer the steady, more predictable return of bonds. When the yield on bonds is the same as the 5-10 year expected return on stocks, bonds make a lot of sense. The risk/reward comparison of stocks versus bonds today is clear: bonds offer the same expected return for less risk. We will be adding to bonds and adjusting our portfolio models going into 2023.

Q3 Portfolio Results

Q3 Portfolio Results

Q3 Portfolio Results are in and no surprise, it’s ugly. Today we are going to dive into the numbers and give a realistic overview of the situation. More importantly, we are going to share some reasons for optimism, or at least patience. And we will discuss the remarkable situation being created from currencies and interest rates.

Market Returns YTD

We use two benchmarks to design and evaluate our portfolios. For stocks, we look at the MSCI World Index, using the ETF ticker ACWI. For bonds, we use the Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index, or AGG. Year to date through September 30, the total return of ACWI was -25.72% and the total return of AGG was -14.38. (Source: Morningstar.com)

Our portfolios are a blend of stocks and bonds. For example Moderate is 60/40, which has a benchmark of 60% stocks in ACWI and 40% bonds in AGG. Your hypothetical, benchmark returns YTD are as follows:

  • Conservative 35/65: -18.35%
  • Balanced 50/50: -20.05%
  • Moderate 60/40: -21.18%
  • Growth 70/30: -22.32%
  • Aggressive 85/15: -24.02%
  • Ultra Equity 100/00: -25.72%

Category Performance

This has been a difficult environment. We are doing a couple of points better than our benchmarks across our portfolios, net of fees. Our move to shorter duration bonds and floating rate at the beginning of the year was a positive. And our Value funds have lost less than the overall market. No doubt, it has been a tough year for investors and I am not happy with our results.

Q3 deepened the Bear Market in stocks and extended losses in bonds with rising interest rates. Commodities, which were up dramatically in Q1, reversed in Q3. Thankfully, we have been well positioned in our bonds which has been our primary area of defense.

International stocks are down more than US Stocks and this has detracted from our returns. A large component of the loss in International stocks is due to the currency exchange. The dollar is up 16% to the Euro, and the dollar is up 25% to the Japanese Yen. So, even if a European stock was flat on its price in Euros, it would be a 16% loss in dollars.

Don’t Time The Market

When the market is up, and I say that we don’t time the market, everyone nods in agreement. But when stocks are down 25%, even the steeliest investor may want to throw in the towel. It’s natural and it’s human nature. It’s also the worst thing an investor can do.

But Scott, this time is different!

The economic outlook is terrible. The Federal Reserve is determined to crush inflation regardless of the short-term pain it inflicts on the economy. The 30-year mortgage hit 7% this week. Corporate earnings are starting to decline and consumer confidence is plunging.

Yes, all this is true. But, the stock market is a leading indicator. Stocks move ahead of economic data and investors aim to predict what will happen. Even if markets are not perfectly efficient, it is possible that a lot of the future economic woes are already priced into stocks. Stocks typically rebound before we fully exit a recession.

I am not making light of the severity of the current market impact or the economic situation which faces the world. But when we see the historic graphs of when the stock market was down 25% and where it was a few years later, it is pretty obvious that we should to stay on course. 

In fact, I have spent a lot of time kicking myself for not being more aggressive in March of 2020, when we had such an amazing buying opportunity. But these opportunities are only obvious in hindsight. In real time, these feel like horrible, painful times to be an investor. Selling didn’t work in 2002, 2008, or 2020. Those were years to stay invested, so you could recover in 2003, 2009, or the second half of 2020.

International Stocks Improving

Q3 has been especially tough for international stocks and they’ve fared even worse than US stocks. Shouldn’t we focus more on the high-quality US companies then? After all, the dollar continues to go up. Why fight that trend?

There are going to be future ramifications of the strong dollar. Besides that it’s a great time to go visit Europe or Japan, let’s think through the implications of a strong dollar. For US companies, a strong dollar hurts us. It makes our exports more expensive to the rest of the world. And it makes the foreign profits of US companies look smaller. (Almost half of the profits from the S&P 500 index comes from foreign sales.) Over time, a strong dollar will hurt the US stock market.

On the other hand, the strong dollar can benefit foreign companies. As US imports become more expensive, they can gain local market share. Their products are now cheaper to US consumers and we buy more imported goods. They sell more and have higher profits.

This creates a leveling mechanism where currencies may tend to pull back towards each other rather than continue to widen apart. A stronger dollar will help Europeans (including through our increased tourism), and those international companies will see their profits grow. When the dollar eventually weakens, that currency headwind will become a tailwind, pushing foreign stocks higher. I don’t know when the dollar will reverse, but based on their improving fundamentals, I don’t think now is the time to give up on international stocks.

No More ZIRP, Bye Bye TINA

In 2008, central banks reduced interest rates to zero to save the global economy. For the next 11 or so years, we had a Zero Interest Rate Policy, nicknamed ZIRP. The US had just begun to test the waters of moving up from 0%, when COVID-19 hit. And we went right back to 0% and piled on unprecedented stimulus to the economy.

The stimulus worked. It worked so well, in fact, that we created 8-10% inflation around the world this year. And so now, central banks are raising rates around the world. Last week, I wrote about being able to buy a 5% US government agency bond for the first time in over a decade. It’s a game changer.

For the past 14 years, 0% interest rates meant that There Is No Alternative to stocks. You simply could not invest in bonds. It became such a reality, that it became its own acronym. Like FOMO or LOL, every advisor knew TINA meant There Is No Alternative. Well, bye bye TINA, because bonds are back.

Bond yields are up and we can now buy high quality bonds with 4-6% yields. At those rates, we have a very real alternative to stocks. While we patiently wait for an eventual stock market recovery, we can buy attractive bonds right now. We are laddering our bonds from 1 through 5 years and will hold bonds to maturity. For clients with established withdrawals or Required Minimum Distributions, we are buying bonds to meet those needs over the next five years.

Discouraging but not Discouraged

Q3 has been rough, especially September. All the expectations about weak Septembers and mid-cycle election years certainly came true in 2022. I know the markets are incredibly disappointing right now, looking back over the last nine months. Both the stock and bond markets have double digit losses for 2022. I don’t think that has ever happened before and it means diversification hasn’t been much help.

We did make a few beneficial choices at the beginning of the year, with short-term bonds and Value stocks. Looking forward, there are reasons to be optimistic. Historically, after a 25% drop, stocks are usually higher 12 months later, and often see a double digit gain. Our international stocks have been hammered by the strong dollar. But that may ultimately be beneficial for foreign companies and the dollar may even reverse. Bonds yields are up and now there is a real alternative to stocks. (Can I coin TIARA, there is a real alternative? You heard it here first…)

No doubt these are frustrating times. I feel your pain and I am in the same boat, personally invested in our Aggressive Model. We’ve seen this before – Bear Markets in 2020, 2008, and 2000, and many before that. In fact, before 2000, Bear Markets were about once every four years. And one of three years in the market is down, historically. Every one of these drops feels unique and like the sky is falling. And in time, they work out eventually. I am looking at the markets daily and am ready to make adjustments. But sometimes, the sailor has to sail through the storm to reach their destination and it’s all part of the journey. We need patience, but also to keep asking questions and thinking long-term.

5 Percent Bond Yields

5 Percent Bond Yields

They’re back – 5 percent bond yields are here. For the first time in over a decade, I bought a high quality bond with a 5 percent yield this week. It was a Freddie Mac bond maturing in five years, with a 5% coupon and selling for a few pennies under par. That’s a AAA government agency bond at 5%.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, we’ve lived with very low interest rates, which has penalized savers and conservative investors. When I started as an advisor, some 18 and a half years ago, 5% yields were readily available. We could make a balanced portfolio with half in 5% bonds and half in dividend stocks. The stocks offered a dividend yield of 3% or more. And that portfolio would provide a 4% withdrawal rate for retirees – without touching their principal.

I am happy to see 5 percent bond yields return and to me it is a remarkable threshold. We have many clients who will be quite happy with these bonds in their portfolio. And at 5%, the return from bonds is high enough that the risk/reward of stocks will become less appealing. To many, a sure 5% return is more attractive than a potential 7-8% stock return that can go down 20% over a couple of months.

It’s Complicated

So, should you sell all your existing bonds (or stocks) and buy some 5% bond yields? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are some things to keep in mind.

First, you probably already own 5% bond yields, if you have any bonds. As interest rates rise, bond prices fall. Here is an example of how two one-year bonds could have 5% yields:

  • 5% coupon and price is 100 = 5% yield to maturity
  • 2% coupon and price is 97 = 5% yield to maturity

The reality is that 5% yields are available today because the price of bonds has gotten crushed in 2022. If you have individual bonds or bond funds, it’s likely some of those bonds are already priced to 5% yields. You might not need to do anything to achieve 5% returns over the remaining life of those bonds.

Second, the Fed is not done raising interest rates. As interest rates increase, bond prices will go down. Even though we are buying 5% yields today, it is possible that these bonds will be worth less than we paid six months from now. And when you look at the cover page on your statement, you will be disappointed that your portfolio is still “losing money”. More about this later.

Third, selling stocks when they are down 20% has been a poor choice historically. Yes, the stock market is not out of the woods yet and it is likely there is more pain to come. Still, it is possible that stocks could recover their 20% losses faster than switching to bonds now. Even at 5%, you’d need 5 years to make back the 20% loss in stocks. Market timing is usually a worse choice than sticking to a long-term plan. Be cautious about making big changes.

Lastly, inflation is still 8-9 percent. Even though I am excited about 5 percent bond yields, it remains a negative real return. You are still not keeping up with today’s inflation. It’s better than making 0% in your checking account, but let’s not forget that you aren’t actually growing your purchasing power.

Three Things We Are Doing

We started the year having moved to short-term bonds in expectation of rising interest rates. This worked well and greatly reduced losses. Now that higher rates are here, we are taking a three-part approach.

  1. Individual bonds over funds. Where practical, we prefer to own individual bonds over funds. Then we can hold the bonds to maturity and receive back our principal. It is simple. With funds, there are a lot of moving parts and many funds are constantly buying and selling bonds. If the price of our bond drops to 97, at least we know we plan to hold it and eventually receive 100.
  2. Laddered 1-5 years. We build laddered bond portfolios from 1-5 years, so each year we have bonds maturing. Clients can take cash or reinvest. In some cases, we are buying 6 month bonds and waiting to buy longer bonds later.
  3. We are adding to core bonds and reducing other categories of bonds and alternatives, given the yields available today. Cash and dividends are getting reinvested into bonds now.

Although inflation is high right now, it will likely be coming down in 2023. The Federal Reserve is raising rates and is planning to put the economy into recession and increase unemployment. The magnitude of the reversal from the Pandemic stimulus of 2020 is unlike anything the world has ever seen. The economy and the stock market may be in for a wild ride. And in this environment, I think 5 percent bond yields have never looked better.

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