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.

Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation continues to shock the Global economy and has become a major concern when we discuss investment ideas. This week’s data showed the Consumer Price Index up 9.1% over last year, and the Producer Price Index is up over 11%. These are numbers not seen since 1981.

Today, I’m going to share some thoughts on inflation and get into how we want to respond to this situation. But first, here is an inside look at the government response to inflation.

Federal Reserve Hitting the Brakes

Last week, I attended a breakfast meeting for the Arkansas CFA Society at the Federal Reserve office in Little Rock. Our guest speaker was James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and voting member of the Open Market Committee which sets interest rates.

Bullard said that we were at a profound regime switching moment today, and that this is not just a blip in inflation but a “stunning amount of inflation”. He stated that the Fed would move aggressively to reduce inflation and that they were committed to their inflation target of 2%. He thinks the Fed will continue to raise rates until policy rates are greater than the inflation rate and may need to hold those high rates for years to come to bring inflation down.

Bullard felt that the current inflation levels are not simply a temporary supply shock from the Ukraine War. Output is actually up. In March 2020, the Fed responded very quickly to support an economy crashing from COVID-19 shutdowns. 60 days later, markets recovered and housing boomed. He wishes that they had reduced their asset purchases sooner. Instead, the Fed is only now ceasing to buy bonds and is allowing their holdings to run-off as they mature. The global stimulus response was correct, but has overheated.

He was less concerned about the possibility of a recession. Bullard said that recessions are difficult to predict and that the Fed is going to focus on getting inflation under control first. Inflation remains a global problem, but the US Federal Reserve will lead the way on fighting inflation, as the European Central Bank has other issues making them slower to respond.

Inflation, Rising Rates, Recession

It’s important to understand that even if inflation remains elevated for a couple of years, the impact of inflation may only be part of the story. Our investment ideas cannot simply assume high inflation as the only factor. We have to also consider the likelihood of rising interest rates and a recession. We’d love it if the Federal Reserve can orchestrate a soft landing as they apply brakes to this runaway economy. But they have not been very good at soft landings in the past.

The Fed policies are starting to work. Since the June inflation numbers, we’ve already seen the price of oil down by 20%. Mortgage applications are down and we should start to see housing inventories normalize and home prices stop their double digit increases. Interest rates have doubled compared to last year – 5.5% versus 2.75% for a 30-year mortgage – and this will impact how much home buyers can afford to pay. The Bloomberg Commodity Index was at 130 on June 16th and is now at 113, a drop of 13% in one month.

It is hard to imagine additional inflation shocks or surprises at this point. Despite the headlines, markets already know we have inflation. Inflation remains high, but may have peaked and should be starting to come down. The question is what is next? How will the markets respond to the Fed actions? Here are five thoughts about where to go from here.

Five Inflation Investment Ideas

  1. Rising Rates. Bond investors beware. The Fed is going to continue to raise interest rates for an extended period. Keep your duration short on bonds. Consider floating rate bonds, if you don’t have any. Stay high quality – rising rates may cause defaults in weaker credits.
  2. I-Bonds. These are inflation linked US savings bonds. They’ve been in the news this year, but I’ve been writing about them since 2016. Limited to $10,000 in purchases a year. These could do great for a couple of years.
  3. Recession and Stocks. We might already be in a recession today, but won’t know it until later economic data shows a negative GDP for two quarters. Please resist the temptation to try to time the stock market. Recessions are a lagging indicator; stocks are a leading indicator and stocks will bounce back sooner. If you try to get out of stocks, it will be very difficult to get back in successfully. Instead, focus on diversification, with Value and Quality stocks. Avoid the high-flying growth names, we are already seeing those stocks get pummelled.
  4. Roth Conversions. We are in a Bear Market, with the S&P 500 Index down 20%. This could be a good time to look at Roth Conversions, if you believe as I do that stocks will come back at some point in the future. An index fund that used to be $50,000 is now trading for $40,000. Do the Roth Conversion, pay taxes on the $40,000 and then it will grow tax-free from here. This works best if you anticipate being in a similar tax bracket in retirement as today.
  5. Cash is Trash. Inflation is reducing your purchasing power. Thankfully, rising interest rates means we can now earn some money on Bonds and CDs. We can build laddered bond portfolios from 1-5 years with yields of 3-5%. And we have CDs at 3% as short as 13 months. Those are a lot better than earning 0% on cash. If you don’t need