2018 Market Review
After logging strong returns in 2017, global equity markets delivered negative returns in US dollar terms in 2018. Common news stories in 2018 included reports on global economic growth, corporate earnings, record low unemployment in the US, the implementation of Brexit, US trade wars with China and other countries, and a flattening US Treasury yield curve. Global equity markets delivered positive returns through September, followed by a decline in the fourth quarter, resulting in a –4.4% return for the S&P 500 and –9.4% for the MSCI All Country World Index for the year.
The fourth quarter equity market decline has many investors wondering how equities may perform in the near term. Equity market declines of 10% have occurred numerous times in the past. The S&P 500 returned –13.5% in the fourth quarter while the MSCI All Country World Index returned –12.8%. After declines of 10% or more, equity returns over the subsequent 12 months have been positive 71% of the time in US markets and 72% of the time in other developed markets.
Exhibit 1 highlights some of the year’s prominent headlines in the context of global stock market performance as measured by the MSCI All Country World Index (IMI). These headlines are not offered to explain market returns. Instead, they serve as a reminder that investors should view daily events from a long-term perspective and avoid making investment decisions based solely on the news.
Exhibit 2 shows the performance of markets subsequent to declines of 10%, 20%, and 30%. For each decline threshold, returns are shown for US large cap, non-US developed markets large cap, and emerging markets large cap stocks in the following 12-month period. While declines in equity markets may cause investor concern, the data provides evidence that markets generally have positive returns after a decline.
The increased market volatility in the fourth quarter of 2018 underscores the importance of following an investment approach based on diversification and discipline rather than prediction and timing. For investors to successfully predict markets, they must forecast future events more accurately than all other market participants and predict how other market participants will react to their forecasted events.
There is little evidence suggesting that either of these objectives can be accomplished on a consistent basis. Instead of attempting to outguess market prices, investors should take comfort that market prices quickly incorporate relevant information and that information will be reflected in expected returns.
While we cannot control markets, we can control how we invest. As Dimensional’s Co-CEO Dave Butler likes to say, “Control what you can control.”
In 2018, the global economy continued to grow, with 44 of the 45 countries tracked by the Organization for Eco
nomic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on pace to expand. Argentina was the only country expected to contract. While market participants may consider the economic outlook of a region, it is just one of many inputs that determine realized market performance.
2018 MARKET PERSPECTIVE
Equity Market Highlights
Global equity markets, as measured by the MSCI All Country World Index, ended the year down –9.4%, with significant dispersion by country.
US equities generally outperformed other developed markets for the year, although they lagged other developed and emerging markets in the fourth quarter. The S&P 500 Index recorded a –4.4% total return for the year and –13.5% return in the fourth quarter.
Returns among other developed equity markets were negative. The MSCI World ex USA Index, which reflects non-US developed markets, was down –14.1% for the year and –12.8% for the fourth quarter, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index fell –14.6% for the year and
–7.5% for the fourth quarter. US small cap stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 Index, returned –11.0% for the year.
Impact of Global Diversification
While markets around the world generally had negative returns in the fourth quarter, the dispersion in their returns highlights the importance of global diversification during market declines. The MSCI All Country World ex USA Index (IMI) outpaced the S&P 500 for the quarter
(–11.9% vs. –13.5%). Given the strong returns of US markets through September, however, the US equity market was one of the stronger performing markets for the year, ranking seventh out of the 47 countries in the MSCI All Country World Index (IMI).
The S&P 500 Index’s –4.4% return marked the end of nine consecutive positive annual returns. Despite the negative return this year, the S&P 500 has still produced a 13.1% annualized return for the 10 years ending December 31, 2018.
When considering individual countries, 46 out of 47 countries were down for the year. Using the MSCI All Country World Index (IMI) as a proxy, no countries posted positive returns among developed markets, and only Qatar managed a positive return among emerging markets. As is typically the case, country-level returns varied significantly. In developed markets, returns ranged from –24.1% in Belgium to 0.0% in New Zealand. In emerging markets, returns ranged from –41.3% in Turkey to 27.1% in Qatar—a spread of almost 70%. Large dispersion among country returns is common, with the average spread in emerging markets over the past 20 years of 90%. Without a reliable way to predict which country will deliver the highest returns, this large dispersion in returns between the best and worst performing countries again emphasizes the importance of maintaining a diversified approach when investing globally.
To emphasize this point, Israel went from being the worst performer in developed markets in 2017 (10.4%) to the second-best performer in 2018, returning –3.6%. Likewise, Qatar went from being the second worst performing emerging market country (–12.5%) in 2017 to being the best performer in 2018.
When considering investing outside the US, investors should remember that non-US stocks help provide valuable diversification benefits, and that recent performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns. It is worth noting that if we look at the past 20 years going back to 1999, US equity markets have only outperformed in 10 of those years—the same expected by chance. We can examine the potential opportunity cost associated with failing to diversify globally by reflecting on the period in global markets from 2000-2009, commonly known as the “lost decade” among US investors. While the S&P 500 recorded its worst ever 10-year cumulative total return of –9.1%, the MSCI World ex USA Index returned 17.5%, and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 154.3%. In periods such as this, investors were rewarded for holding a globally diversified portfolio.
Currency movements detracted from US dollar returns in 2018 for non-US dollar assets. The strengthening of the US dollar vs. weakening of non-US currencies had a negative impact on returns for US dollar investors with holdings in unhedged non-US dollar assets, and detracted 3.5% from the returns as measured by the difference in returns between the MSCI All Country World ex USA IMI Index in local returns vs. USD. The US dollar strengthened against most currencies, including the euro, the British pound, and the Canadian dollar, and weakened against the Japanese yen.
As with individual country returns, there is no reliable way to predict currency movements. Investors should be cautious about trying to time currencies based on the recent strong or weak performance of the US dollar or any other currency.
Broad Market Index Performance
In 2018, the MSCI Emerging Markets Value Index (IMI) outperformed its growth counterpart (–11.5% vs.
–18.4%). In developed markets, however, this was not the case. The Russell 3000 Value Index underperformed the Russell 3000 Growth Index (–8.6% vs. –2.1%) and the MSCI World ex USA Value Index (IMI) underperformed its growth index counterpart (-15.6% vs. –13.8%). Small cap stocks generally underperformed large cap stocks globally. For example, the Russell 2000 Index returned –11.0% relative to –4.8% for the Russell 1000 Index. Similarly, the MSCI World ex USA Index outperformed its small cap counterpart (–14.1% vs. –18.1%), and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index outperformed its small cap counterpart (–14.6% vs. –18.6%).
The mix of relative performance of value vs. growth stocks within and across regions this year serves as a reminder of the importance of integrating premiums when designing and managing portfolios. Within US equity markets, when at least one of the size, value, and profitability premiums has been negative in a given year, at least one of the other factors was positive 81% of the time. Positive premiums can contribute to relative returns during time periods when other premiums are negative.
In the US, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks, and value stocks underperformed growth stocks using Russell indices. The Russell 2000 Index declined –11.0% for the year vs. –4.8% for the Russell 1000. The Russell 3000 Value Index returned -8.6% in 2018 vs. –2.1% for the Russell 3000 Growth Index. The variation in returns between these indices is within historical norms. Since 1979, there has been an annual return difference of 6% or greater 60% of the time.
Developed ex US Markets
In developed ex US markets, small cap stocks underperformed large cap stocks and value stocks underperformed growth stocks. Despite underperformance in 2018, over both five- and 10-year periods, small cap stocks, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index, have outperformed large caps, as measured by the MSCI World ex USA Index. Growth stocks, as measured by MSCI World ex USA Growth Index (IMI), returned –13.8%, outperforming value stocks, which returned –15.6% in 2018, as measured using the MSCI World ex USA Value Index (IMI).
In emerging markets, small cap stocks, as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Small Cap Index, underperformed large cap stocks, as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. However, over the past 10 years, small caps returned an annualized 9.9%, outperforming large caps, which returned 8.0%.
Value stocks returned –11.5% as measured by the MSCI Emerging Markets Value Index (IMI), outperforming growth stocks, which returned –18.4% using the MSCI Emerging Markets Growth Index (IMI). This was the sixth largest outperformance of value over growth in emerging markets since 1999.
The complementary behavior of size (small vs. large) and relative price (value vs. growth) in emerging markets in 2018 is a good example of the benefits of diversification. While small cap stocks underperformed, diversified portfolios were buoyed by outperformance among value stocks. This integration can increase the reliability of outperformance and mitigate the impact of an individual asset group’s underperformance.
Despite recent years’ headwinds, the size, value, and profitability premiums remain persistent over the long term and around the globe. It is well documented that stocks with higher expected return potential, such as small cap and value stocks, do not realize outperformance every year. Maintaining discipline to these parts of the market is the key to effectively pursuing the long-term returns associated with size, value, and profitability.
Over the full year, the return on the US fixed income market was relatively flat; the Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index returned 0.0%. Non-US fixed income markets posted positive returns in 2018, contributing to the return of the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD) at 1.8%.
Yield curves were upwardly sloped in many developed markets for the year, indicating positive expected term premiums. Realized term premiums were negative in the US as long-term maturities underperformed their shorter-term counterparts and positive in developed markets outside the US. For example, the FTSE Non-USD World Government Bond Index 10+ (hedged to USD) returned 4.4% for the year vs. 3.0% for the 1-10 Index.
Credit spreads, which are the difference between yields on lower quality and higher quality fixed income securities, widened during the year, as measured by the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Option Adjusted Spread. Realized credit premiums were negative both globally and in the US, as lower-quality investment-grade corporates underperformed their higher-quality investment-grade counterparts. Treasuries were the best performing sector globally, returning 2.8%, while corporate bonds returned –1.0%, as reflected in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index (hedged to USD).
In the US, the yield curve flattened as interest rates increased more on the short end of the yield curve relative to the long end. The yield on the 3-month US Treasury bill increased 1.06% to end the year at 2.45%. The yield on the 2-year US Treasury note increased 0.59% to 2.48%. The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note increased 0.29% during the year to end at 2.69%. The yield on the 30-year US Treasury bond increased 0.28% to end the year at 3.02%.
In other major markets, interest rates decreased in Germany and Japan, while they increased in the United Kingdom. Yields on Japanese and German government bonds with maturities as long as 10 years finished the year in negative territory.
2018 included numerous examples of the difficulty of predicting the performance of markets, the importance of diversification, and the need to maintain discipline if investors want to effectively pursue the long-term returns the capital markets offer. The following quote by John “Mac” McQuown, a Dimensional Director, provides useful perspective as investors head into 2019:
“Modern finance is based primarily on scientific reasoning guided by theory, not subjectivity and speculation.”
Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. S&P and Dow Jones data © 2019 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. MSCI data © MSCI 2019, all rights reserved. ICE BofAML index data © 2019 ICE Data Indices, LLC. Bloomberg Barclays data provided by Bloomberg. Indices are not available for direct investment; their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This information is provided for educational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice or a solicitation to buy or sell securities. There is no guarantee an investing strategy will be successful. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of market loss.
Investing risks include loss of principal and fluctuating value. Small cap securities are subject to greater volatility than those in other asset categories. International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability. Investing in emerging markets may accentuate these risks. Sector-specific investments can also increase these risks.
Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed income investments are subject to various other risks, including changes in credit quality, liquidity, prepayments, and other factors. REIT risks include changes in real estate values and property taxes, interest rates, cash flow of underlying real estate assets, supply and demand, and the management skill and creditworthiness of the issuer.
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- Declines are defined as points in time, measured monthly, when the market’s return since the prior market maximum has declined by at least 10%. Declines after December 2017 are not included, but subsequent 12-month returns can include 2018 returns. Compound returns are computed for the 12 months after each decline observed and averaged across all declines for the cutoff. US markets (1926–2018) are represented by the S&P 500 and Developed ex US markets (1970–2018) are represented by the MSCI World ex USA Index. ↑
- OECD Real GDP Forecast, 2019. Accessed Jan. 4, 2019.
- Source: MSCI country investable market indices (net dividends) for each country listed. Does not include Greece, which MSCI classified as a developed market prior to November 2013. Additional countries excluded due to data availability or due to downgrades by MSCI from emerging to frontier market. MSCI data © MSCI 2019, all rights reserved. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Indices are not available for direct investment; therefore, their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. ↑
- Measured from 1964 through 2017. In US dollars. Size premium: Dimensional International Small Cap Index minus the MSCI World ex USA Index (gross dividends). Relative price premium: Fama/French International Value Index minus the Fama/French International Growth Index. Profitability premium computed by Dimensional using Bloomberg data: Dimensional International High Profitability Index minus the Dimensional International Low Profitability Index. Profitability is measured as operating income before depreciation and amortization minus interest expense, scaled by book. Dimensional indices use Bloomberg data. Fama/French indices provided by Ken French. MSCI data copyright MSCI 2019, all rights reserved. The information shown here is derived from such indices. Index descriptions available upon request. Eugene Fama and Ken French are members of the Board of Directors of the general partner of, and provide consulting services to, Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. Indices are not available for direct investment. Their performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. ↑
- Source: The US Department of the Treasury ↑
- Dimensional Director refers to the Board of Directors of the general partner of Dimensional Fund Advisors LP. ↑
In 2017, we were again reminded of the importance of following an investment approach based on discipline and diversification vs. prediction and timing. As we gear up for the new year, we can look at several examples during 2017 that provide perspective on what guidance investors may
want to follow, or not follow, in order to achieve the long-term return the capital markets offer.
Each January, a well-known financial publication invites a group of experienced investment professionals to New York for a lengthy roundtable discussion of the investment outlook for the year ahead. The nine panelists have spent their careers studying companies and poring over economic statistics to find the most rewarding investment opportunities around the globe.
Ahead of 2017, the authors of the publication’s report were struck by the “remarkably cohesive consensus” among the members of the group, who often find much to disagree about. Not one pro expressed strong enthusiasm for US stocks in the year ahead, two expected returns to be negative for the year, and the most optimistic forecast was for a total return of 7%. They also found little to like in global markets, citing “gigantic geopolitical issues,” including a Chinese “debt bubble” and a “crisis” in the Italian banking system.
The excerpts below summarizing the panel’s outlook presented a less than optimistic view of the year ahead in January 2017.
“This could be the year when the movie runs backwards: Inflation awakens. Bond yields reboot. Stocks stumble. Active management rules. And we haven’t even touched on the coming regime change in Washington.”1
The outcome of these predictions: Zero-for-four, although some might point out that at least they got the direction right regarding the inflation rate.
Inflation barely budged, moving to 2.17% for the January–November 2017 period, up from 2.07% for the year in 2016.2
The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note did not move up but instead slipped from 2.45% to 2.40%.
Stocks moved broadly higher around the world, in some cases dramatically. Twenty out of 47 countries tracked by MSCI achieved total returns in excess of 30%.3
According to Morningstar, the average large blend mutual fund underperformed the S&P 500 Index by 1.39 percentage points, and the average small company fund underperformed the S&P 600 Index by 1.35 percentage points.
The above-mentioned panel was no aberration. Among 15 prominent investment strategists polled by USA TODAY, the average prediction for US stocks for 2017 was 4.4%, while the most optimistic was 10.4%.4 Expert or not, there is little evidence that accurate predictions about future events, as well as how the market will react to those events, can be achieved on a consistent basis.
What do you get when you combine a tumultuous year for a new US president and divisive political trends in many global markets? Answer: a new record. For the first time since 1897, the total return for the US stock market (the CRSP 1-10 Index and, prior to 1926, the Dow Jones Industrial Average) was positive in every single month of the year. During the year, a great deal of media coverage was focused on markets at all-time highs, and some investors braced themselves for a sharp drop in stock prices. Not only did the much anticipated “correction” never occur, financial markets remained remarkably calm. Out of 254 trading days in 2017, the total return of the S&P 500 Index rose or fell over 1% only eight times. By comparison, in a more rambunctious year such as 1999, it did so 92 times.5
North Korea issued threats of a nuclear missile strike throughout the year and boasted that even mainland US cities were vulnerable to its newest warheads. Next-door neighbor South Korea would seem to have the most to lose if such a catastrophe occurred, but Korean stocks were among the top performers in 2017, with a total return of 29.5% in local currency and 46.0% in US dollar terms.6
To many experienced researchers, Chinese stocks appeared alarmingly vulnerable. A gloomy November 2016 article7 warned that “China’s debt addiction could lead to a financial crisis.” In the article, a prominent Wall Street strategist observed: “It’s scary that China seems to be continuing its debt binge to achieve its unrealistic growth targets.” And a global fund manager noted: “We are the most underweight China we have been since launching the fund five years ago.” The outcome: China was the third best-performing stock market in 2017 with a total return of 51.6% in local currency and 50.7% in US dollar terms.8
The seven-year string of increasing US auto sales finally ended in 2017. Domestic sales fell 1.0% at Ford Motor, 1.3% at General Motors, and 10.7% at Fiat Chrysler.9 Anticipating the sales slump, a Wall Street Journal columnist warned investors in January 2017 to avoid the stocks.10 Good advice? Ford Motor had a total return of 8.7%, which was in fact below the 21.8% return of the S&P 500 Index. However, General Motors returned 22.5%, and Fiat Chrysler’s total return came in at an impressive 96.3%, even with more than a 10% drop in sales.11
While some of these examples may seem counterintuitive, the above “surprises” from 2017 reinforce the challenge of drawing a direct link between positive or negative events in the world and positive or negative returns in the stock market.
THE MILLION DOLLAR BET
Last year saw the conclusion of a 10-year wager between Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and Ted Seides, a New York hedge fund consultant. Seides responded to a public challenge issued by Buffett in 2007 regarding the merits of hedge funds relative to low-cost passive vehicles. The two men agreed to bet $1 million on the outcome of their respective investment strategies over the 10-year period from January 1, 2008, through December 31, 2017. Buffett selected the S&P 500 Index, Seides selected five hedge funds, and the stakes were earmarked for the winner’s preferred charity. The terms were revised midway through the period by converting the sum invested in bonds to Berkshire Hathaway shares, so the final amount is reported to be in excess of $2.2 million.
The 10-year period included years of dramatic decline for the S&P 500 Index (–37.0% in 2008) as well as above-average gains (+32.4% in 2013), so there was ample opportunity for clever managers to attempt to outperform a buy-and-hold strategy through a successful timing strategy. For fans of hedge funds, however, the results were not encouraging. For the nine-year period from January 1, 2008, through December 31, 2016, the average of the five funds achieved a total return DIMENSIONAL FUND ADVISORS 3 of 22.0% compared to 85.5% for the S&P 500 Index.12 (Results for 2017 have not yet been reported.)
Having fallen far behind after nine years, Seides graciously conceded defeat in mid-2017. But he pointed out in a May 2017 Bloomberg article that in the first 14 months of the bet, the S&P 500 Index declined roughly 50% while his basket of hedge funds declined less than half as much. He suggested that many investors bailed out of their S&P 500-type strategies in 2008 and never participated in the recovery. Hedge fund participants, he argued, “stood a much better chance of staying the course.”
Seides makes a valid point—long run returns don’t matter if the strategy is abandoned along the way. And there is ample evidence that some mutual fund investors sold in late 2008 and missed out on substantial subsequent gains. But do hedge funds offer the best solution to this problem? We think educating investors about the unpredictability of capital market returns and the importance of appropriate asset allocation will likely prove more fruitful than paying fees to guess where markets are headed next. A hypothetical global diversified allocation of 60% equities and 40% fixed income13 still outperformed the hedge fund basket over the same nine years (56.6% vs. 22.0% in total returns).
Over any time period some managers will outperform index-type strategies, although most research studies find that the number is no greater than we would expect by chance. Advocates of active management often claim that this evidence does not concern them, since superior managers can be identified in advance by conducting a thorough assessment of manager skills. But this 10-year challenge offers additional evidence that investors will most likely find such efforts fail to improve their investment experience.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Financial markets surprised many investors in 2017, but then again they have a long history of surprising investors. For example, from 1926–2017, the annualized return for the S&P 500 Index was 10.2%. But returns in any single year were seldom close to this figure. They fell in a range between 8% and 12% only six times in the last 92 years but experienced gains or losses greater than 20% 40 times (34 gains, six losses). Investors should appreciate that many times realized returns may be far different from expected returns.
For a number of investors, 2017 was a paradox. The harder they tried to enhance their results by paying close attention to current events, the more likely they failed to capture the rate of return the capital markets offered.
New Year’s resolution: Keep informed on current events as a responsible citizen. Let the capital markets decide where returns will be generated.
Dimensional 60/40 Balanced Strategy Index Rebalanced monthly. For illustrative purposes only. The balanced strategy index is not a recommendation for an actual allocation. All performance results are based on performance of indices with model/backtested asset allocations; the performance was achieved with the benefit of hindsight; it does not represent actual investment strategies, nor does it reflect fees associated with investing. Actual results may vary significantly. The underlying Dimensional indices of the balanced strategy index have been retrospectively calculated by Dimensional Fund Advisors LP and did not exist prior to their inceptions dates. Other periods selected may have different results, including losses. Backtested index performance is hypothetical, is not actual performance and is provided for informational purposes only. Backtested performance results assume the reinvestment of dividends and capital gains. Additional information is available upon request.
Lauren R. Rublin, “Stocks Could Post Limited Gains in 2017 as Yields Rise,” Barron’s, January 14, 2017. 2. Inflation data © 2018 and earlier, Morningstar. All rights reserved. Underlying data provided by Ibbotson Associates via Morningstar Direct. 3. As measured by the MSCI All Country World IMI Index (net dividends). 4. Adam Shell, “How Will Stocks Make Out in 2017?” USA TODAY, December 24, 2016. 5. S&P data © 2018 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. 6. As measured by the MSCI Korea IMI Index (net dividends). MSCI data © MSCI 2018, all rights reserved. 7. Jonathan R. Laing, “China’s Debt Addiction Could Lead to Financial Crisis,” Barron’s, November 5, 2016. 8. As measured by the MSCI China IMI Index (net dividends). MSCI data © MSCI 2018, all rights reserved. 9. Neal E. Boudette, “Car Sales End a 7 Year Upswing, With More Challenges Ahead,” New York Times, January 3, 2018. 10. Steven Russolillo, “Yellow Flag Waves Over Auto Stocks,” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2017. 11. Ford Motor, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler returns provided by Bloomberg Finance LP. 12. Hedge fund data from Chairman’s Letter, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. 2016 annual report. 13. Global diversified allocation is the Dimensional 60/40 Balanced Strategy Index. Indices cannot be invested into directly. See Appendix for index description. Past performance is no guarantee of future investment results
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and Cambridge are not affiliated. Indices mentioned are unmanaged, do not incur fees, and cannot be invested into directly. Past performance is no
guarantee. When you access other linked websites, you assume total responsibility and risk of the websites you are linking to caveat emptor. All
expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. All materials presented are compiled from sources
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As investors ring in the new year, some may see the occasional headline about the “January Indicator” or “January Barometer.” This theory suggests that the price movement of the S&P 500 during the month of January may signal whether that index will rise or fall during the remainder of the year. In other words, if the return of the S&P 500 in January is negative, this would supposedly foreshadow a fall for the stock market for the remainder of the year, and vice versa if returns in January are positive.
Rather than trying to beat the market based on hunches, headlines, or indicators, investors who remain disciplined can let markets work for them over time.
So have past Januarys’ S&P 500 returns been a reliable indicator for what the rest of the year has in store? If returns in January are negative, should investors sell stocks? Exhibit 1 shows the monthly returns of the S&P 500 Index for each January since 1926, compared to the subsequent 11-month return (i.e., the return from February through December). A negative return in January was followed by a positive 11-month return about 60% of the time, with an average return during those 11 months of around 7%.
This data suggests there may be an opportunity cost for abandoning equity markets after a disappointing January. Take 2016, for example: The return of the S&P 500 during the first two weeks of this year was the worst on record for that period, at -7.93%. Even with positive returns toward the end of the month, the S&P 500 returned -4.96% in January 2016, the ninth-worst January return observed from 1926 to 2017. But a subsequent rebound of 18% from February to December resulted in a total calendar year return of almost 13%. An investor reacting to January’s performance by selling out of stocks would have missed out on the gains experienced by investors who stuck with equities for the whole year. This is a good example of the potential negative outcomes that can result from following investment recommendations based on an “indicator.”
Over the long term, the financial markets have rewarded investors. People expect a positive return on the capital they supply, and historically, the equity and bond markets have provided meaningful growth of wealth. As investors prepare for 2018 and what the year may bring, we should remember that frequent changes to an investment strategy can hurt performance. Rather than trying to beat the market based on hunches, headlines,
or indicators, investors who remain disciplined can let markets work for them over time.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are receiving intense media coverage, prompting many investors to wonder whether these new types of electronic money deserve a place in their portfolios. Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin emerged only in the past decade. Unlike traditional money, no paper notes or metal coins are involved. No central bank issues the currency, and no regulator or nation state stands behind it.
Instead, cryptocurrencies are a form of code made by computers and stored in a digital wallet. In the case of bitcoin, there is a finite supply of 21 million, of which more than 16 million are in circulation. Transactions are recorded on a public ledger called blockchain. People can earn bitcoins in several ways, including buying them using traditional fiat currencies or by “mining” them—receiving newly created bitcoins for the service of using powerful computers to compile recent transactions into new blocks of the transaction chain through solving a highly complex mathematical puzzle.
For much of the past decade, cryptocurrencies were the preserve of digital enthusiasts and people who believe the age of fiat currencies is coming to an end. This niche appeal is reflected in their market value. For example, at a market value of $16,000 per bitcoin, the total value of bitcoin in circulation is less than one tenth of 1% of the aggregate value of global stocks and bonds. Despite this, the sharp rise in the market value of bitcoins over the past weeks and months have contributed to intense media attention.
What are investors to make of all this media attention? What place, if any, should bitcoin play in a diversified portfolio? Recently, the value of bitcoin has risen sharply, but that is the past. What about its future value? You can approach these questions in several ways. A good place to begin is by examining the roles that stocks, bonds, and cash play in your portfolio.
Companies often seek external sources of capital to finance projects they believe will generate profits in the future. When a company issues stock, it offers investors a residual claim on its future profits. When a company issues a bond, it offers investors a promised stream of future cash flows, including the repayment of principal when the bond matures. The price of a stock or bond reflects the return investors demand to exchange their cash today for an uncertain but greater amount of expected cashin the future. One important role these securities play in a portfolio is to provide positive expected returns by allowing investors to share in the future profits earned by corporations globally. By investing in stocks and bonds today, you expect to grow your wealth and enable greater consumption tomorrow.
Government bonds often provide a more certain repayment of promised cash flows than corporate bonds. Thus, besides the potential for providing positive expected returns, another reason to hold government bonds is to reduce the uncertainty of future wealth. And inflation-linked government bonds reduce the uncertainty of future inflation-adjusted wealth.
Holding cash does not provide an expected stream of future cash flow. One US dollar in your wallet today does not entitle you to more dollars in the future. The same logic applies to holding other fiat currencies — and holding bitcoins in a digital wallet. So we should not expect a positive return from holding cash in one or more currencies unless we can predict when one currency will appreciate or depreciate relative to others.
The academic literature overwhelmingly suggests that short-term currency movements are unpredictable, implying there is no reliable and systematic way to earn a positive return just by holding cash, regardless of its currency. So why should investors hold cash in one or more currencies? One reason is because it provides a store of value that can be used to manage near-term known expenditures in those currencies.
With this framework in mind, it might be argued that holding bitcoins is like holding cash; it can be used to pay for some goods and services. However, most goods and services are not priced in bitcoins. A lot of volatility has occurred in the exchange rates between bitcoins and traditional currencies. That volatility implies uncertainty, even in the near term, in the amount of future goods and services your bitcoins can purchase. This uncertainty, combined with possibly high transaction costs to convert bitcoins into usable currency, suggests that the cryptocurrency currently falls short as a store of value to manage near-term known expenses. Of course, that may change in the future if it becomes common practice to pay for all goods and services using bitcoins. If bitcoin is not currently practical as a substitute for cash, should we expect its value to appreciate?
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
The price of a bitcoin is tied to supply and demand. Although the supply of bitcoins is slowly rising, it may reach an upper limit, which might imply limited future supply. The future supply of cryptocurrencies, however, may be very flexible as new types are developed and innovation in technology makes many cryptocurrencies close substitutes for one another, implying the quantity of future supply might be unlimited. Regarding future demand for bitcoins, there is a non-zero probability that nothing will come of it (no future demand) and a non-zero probability that it will be widely adopted (high future demand).
Future regulation adds to this uncertainty. While recent media attention has ensured bitcoin is more widely discussed today than in years past, it is still largely unused by most financial institutions. It has also been the subject of scrutiny by regulators. For example, in a note to investors in 2014, the US Securities and Exchange Commission warned that any new investment appearing to be exciting and cutting-edge has the potential to give rise to fraud and false “guarantees” of high investment returns. Other entities around the world have issued similar warnings. It is unclear what impact future laws and regulations may have on bitcoin’s future supply and demand (or even its existence). This uncertainty is common with young investments.
All of these factors suggest that future supply and demand are highly uncertain. But the probabilities of high or low future supply or demand are an input in the price of bitcoins today. That price is fair, in that investors willingly transact at that price. One investor does not have an unfair advantage over another in determining if the true probability of future demand will be different from what is reflected in bitcoin’s price today.
WHAT TO EXPECT
So, should we expect the value of bitcoins to appreciate? Maybe. But just as with traditional currencies, there is no reliable way to predict by how much and when that appreciation will occur. We know, however, that we should not expect to receive more bitcoins in the future just by holding one bitcoin today. They don’t entitle holders to an expected stream of future bitcoins, and they don’t entitle the holder to a residual claim on the future profits of global corporations.
None of this is to deny the exciting potential of the underlying blockchain technology that enables the trading of bitcoins. It is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way, which has significant implications for banking and other industries, although these effects may take some years to emerge.
When it comes to designing a portfolio, a good place to begin is with one’s goals. This approach, combined with an understanding of the characteristics of each eligible security type, provides a good framework to decide which securities deserve a place in a portfolio. For the securities that make the cut, their weight in the total market of all investable securities provides a baseline for deciding how much of a portfolio should be allocated to that security.
Unlike stocks or corporate bonds, it is not clear that bitcoins offer investors positive expected returns. Unlike government bonds, they don’t provide clarity about future wealth. And, unlike holding cash in fiat currencies, they don’t provide the means to plan for a wide range of near-term known expenditures. Because bitcoin does not help achieve these investment goals, we believe that it does not warrant a place in a portfolio designed to meet one or more of such goals.
If, however, one has a goal not contemplated herein, and you believe bitcoin is well suited to meet that goal, keep in mind the final piece of our asset allocation framework: What percentage of all eligible investments do the value of all bitcoins represent? When compared to global stocks, bonds, and traditional currency, their market value is tiny. So, if for some reason an investor decides bitcoins are a good investment, we believe their weight in a well-diversified portfolio should generally be tiny.
Because bitcoin is being sold in some quarters as a paradigm shift in financial markets, this does not mean investors should rush to include it in their portfolios. When digesting the latest article on bitcoin, keep in mind that a goals-based approach based on stocks, bonds, and traditional currencies, as well as sensible and robust dimensions of expected returns, has been helping investors effectively pursue their goals for decades.
1. Source: Bitcoin.org.
2. As of December 14, 2017. Source: Coinmarketcap.com.
3. A currency declared by a government to be legal tender.
4. Per Bloomberg, the end-of-day market value of a bitcoin exceeded $16,000 USD for the first time on December 7, 2017.
5. Describes an outcome that is possible (or not impossible) to occur.
6. “Investor Alert: Bitcoin and Other Virtual Currency-Related Investments,” SEC, 7 May 2014
7. Investors should discuss the risks and other attributes of any security or currency with their advisor prior to making any investment.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are subject to change. The commentary above pertains to bitcoin cryptocurrency. Certain bitcoin offerings may be considered a security and may have different attributes than those described in this paper. Dimensional does not offer bitcoin. This material is not to be construed as investment advice or a recommendation to buy or sell any security or currency. Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal. Stocks are subject to market fluctuation and other risks. Bonds are subject to increased risk of loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates and other risks. There is no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful. Diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss. Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is a registered investment advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Registered Representative, Securities offered through Cambridge Investment Research, Inc., a Broker/Dealer, Member FINRA / SIPC. Investment Advisor Representative, Cambridge Investment Research Advisors, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Lighthouse Services Insurance & Investments and Cambridge are not affiliated. Indices mentioned are unmanaged, do not incur fees, and cannot be invested into directly. Past performance is no guarantee. When you access other linked websites, you assume total responsibility and risk of the websites you are linking to caveat emptor. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. All materials presented are compiled from sources believed to be reliable and current, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Article are provided for informational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. No offers may be made or accepted from any resident outside the specific state(s) referenced.Read More
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