March 2022 IssueLong scroll reading

The case for a stock-light portfolio, version 4.0

By David Snowball

Update from the MFO archive

“Stocks for the long-term!” goes the mantra. That chant has two meanings: (1) in the (very) long-term, no asset outperforms common stock. And (2) in any other term, stocks are too volatile to the trusted so if you’re going to buy them, be sure you’re doing it with a long time horizon.

Your financial adviser hates this article. They’ll explain that following a lower equity, lower volatility strategy will absolutely kill your long-term returns. Over 20 years, $1,000 earning 6% returns will grow to $3,200. Over the same time, $1,000 earning 12% will grow to $9,600. That’s vast. No argument.

Our argument is that if your investment horizon is not measured in decades, the risk-return calculus is vastly different. For a five-year horizon, for instance, the difference is a high certainty of $1300 (the equity-lite portfolio) and high uncertainty around a potential $1700 return (the equity-heavy portfolio).

My own non-retirement portfolio, everything outside the 403(b), embeds a healthy skepticism about stocks. The strategic asset allocation is always the same: 50% equity, 50% income. Equity is 50% here, 50% there, as well as 50% large and 50% small. Income tends to be the same: 50% short duration/cash-like substances, 50% riskier assets, 50% domestic, 50% international. It is, as a strategy, designed to plod steadily.

In the past, 2004, 2010, and 2014, we’re shared research from T. Rowe Price that illustrates the dramatic rise in risk that accompanies each increment of equity exposure. Below is the data from the most recent of those articles, which looks at 65 years of market history, from 1949 to 2013.

Performance of Various Portfolio Strategies

December 31, 1949, to December 31, 2013

500 USD
20 Bonds
0 Cash
30 Bonds
10 Cash
40 Bonds
20 Cash
50 Bonds
30 Cash
Return for Best Year 52.6 41.3 30.5 22.5 22.0
Return for Worst Year -37.0 -28.7 -20.4 -11.5 -1.9
Average Annual Nominal Return 11.3 10.5 9.3 8.1 6.8
Number of Down Years 14 14 12 11 4
Average Loss (in Down Years) -12.5 -8.8 -6.4 -3.0 -0.9
Annualized Standard Deviation 17.6 14.0 10.5 7.3 4.8
Average Annual Real (Inflation-Adjusted) Return 7.7 6.8 5.7 4.5 3.2

T. Rowe Price, October 30, 2014. Used by permission.

Over those 65 years, periods that included devastating bear markets for both stocks and bonds, a stock-light portfolio returned 6.8% annually. That translates to receiving about 60% of the returns of an all-equity portfolio with about 25% of the volatility. Going from 20% stocks to 100% increases the chance of having a losing year by 350%, increases the average loss in down years by 1400%, and nearly quadruples volatility.

A fascinating real-world experiment in asset allocation points to the same conclusion. Fidelity Investments run a series of Asset Manager funds, run by the same team, which differ only in the degree of their exposure to the stock market. Asset Manager 20% has … well, 20% in stocks while Asset Manager 70% has 70% in stocks. Otherwise, the same strategy from the same manager.

The youngest of the funds in the Asset Manager series is 12 years old and the oldest is twice that. If we look at raw returns, we see a familiar and predictable pattern: more stock exposure, more total return.

Raw Returns, through January 2022

Fidelity Asset Manager 3 year 6 year 9 year 13 year 20 year 25 year
20% 6.1 5.3 4.3 5.9 4.9 5.2
30% 7.9 6.8 5.5 7.4
40% 9.6 8.1 6.6 8.5
50% 11 9.2 7.6 9.7 6.0 6.6
60% 12.4 10.4 8.5 10.7
70% 13.8 11.5 9.4 11.7 6.6 6.8
85% 15.8 13.3 10.8 13 7.4

In rough terms, increasing your equity exposure by 10% increases your annual returns by 1%. Over 13 years, the most stock-heavy fund returned 2.2 times what the most stock-light fund did.

The question is, how much risk are you taking for the sake of a 1% gain in returns? Are the additional returns a free lunch (that is, 1% more gain with less than 1% more pain) or are you being taken to the cleaners?

Here’s the data on risk and risk-adjusted returns:

Risks and return-return measures over the longest possible period, 13 years

Fidelity Asset Manager Maximum drawdown Standard deviation Capture ratio Sharpe ratio Martin ratio Ulcer Index
20% -6.2 4.3 1.4 1.3 5.3 1.0
30% -8.3 5.7 1.2 1.2 4.6 1.5
40% -10.2 7.1 1.1 1.1 4.0 2
50% -12.2 8.6 1.1 1.1 3.6 2.6
60% -14.2 10.1 0.99 1.0 3.3 3.1
70% -16.2 11.6 0.95 0.96 3.0 3.8
85% -19.2 13.8 0.91 0.91 2.7 4.7

Data through January 30, 2022

How do we read that table? First, the most stock-heavy fund earned 2.2x what you got with the most stock-light fund but that came at the price of tripling the maximum drawdown and volatility. All four risk-return measures – capture ratio, Sharpe ratio, Martin ratio (a sort of “Sharpe ratio for risk-conscious investors”), and Ulcer Index (“how much of an ulcer is this fund going to give you?” A metric computed from the depth and length of a fund’s worst drawdowns) – deteriorated steadily with the addition of equity exposure. Every little bit of added equity saw a worsening of the funds’ long-term performance.

Just looking at the current market cycle – the Covid bear market in the first quarter of 2020 and the insane gains that followed and the swoon in January 2022 that saw broad averages end 6% down – shows a similar pattern. The losses in the bear were 3.5 times as great in the stock-heavy fund though the returns were almost as great: 3.4 times. The highest capture ratio and the highest Martin ratio were held by the stock-light fund, while the highest Sharpe ratio came with a 30-40% exposure to equities.

Risks and return-return measures during Recent Rocket Ride

Fidelity Asset Manager 2020 meltdown 2020 melt up January 2022 Full cycle Capture ratio Sharpe ratio
20% -5.4 14.6 -2.1 7.1 1.3 0.88
30% -7.7 20.3 -2.6 9.5 1.2 0.90
40% -9.7 25.7 -3.1 11.5 1.2 0.91
50% -11.9 31.1 -3.6 13.2 1.1 0.88
60% -14.1 36.5 -4.0 14.7 1.1 0.85
70% -16.2 41.9 -4.3 16.0 1.1 0.82
85% -19.0 50.1 -5.0 18.3 1.1 0.81

What would have happened if you bought exactly five years ago, but were freaked out by the Covid bear? Oops. The blue field represents the five-year growth of FAM 20, each succeeding line is the performance of sibling fund with more stock exposure.

At the bear trough, all of the excess returns were effectively wiped out. FAM 20 sat at $11,000. FAM 85 at $11,200. In one 16-day stretch, the five-year gains of FAM 85 went from $16,200 to $11,200.

Bottom line

Valuations in the US stock market, measured by the Shiller 10-year CAPE ratio, are at their second-highest level in over 150 years and climbing. As we note in this month’s Publisher’s Letter, more and more investors are taking more and more rash, perhaps irrational, and sometimes almost-laughable, actions. Many pundits and others paid to convince you to buy stocks see the coming Biden Bull, most especially in sectors that might benefit from reopening and government spending on green infrastructure.

You should hope they’re right, and plan your investments around the possibility that they’re wrong. In general, that might mean dialing down your exposure to equities (a portfolio with 30% equities has, historically, returned 7% annually), shortening by a bit your bond portfolio duration, adding some strategic cash to your holdings – just in case you encounter a sudden, dramatic sale – and looking beyond recent winners and stocks beloved by the day-trading crowd.

There are no guarantees but, on average and over time, slow and steady wins, risk-conscious wins, quality wins, dividends win. You should, too.

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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.