To say that 2020 has been an eventful year would be an understatement.
A once-in-a-century worldwide pandemic led to unprecedented levels of government and central bank intervention.
In turn, the combination of a macro shock with the fiscal and monetary response has led to some pretty interesting developments in the capital markets.
While my own portfolio primarily consists of US equities, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at the performance of some of the other assets the “mainstream” investor might find in his / her portfolio.
It’s no secret that the equity market, in particular the US one, has been on fire (no pun intended!) lately.
I am still shocked to see the S&P 500 starting with a “3”, let alone something approaching the ~3,500 territory. And yet, this is the world we find ourselves in:
However, the overall market performance masks a clear bifurcation between large-cap and small-cap stocks.
Large caps (Portfolio 2 below) have performed remarkably well.
In contrast, small caps (Portfolio 3), have suffered a disproportionate drawdown at the depths of the market shock, and have lagged in performance since.
Portfolio 1 represents the overall US stock market performance. Given it’s essentially a weighted average of the two, it’s not surprising it has tracked the large caps.
We are clearly in an economic environment that favours scale. Large enterprises remain resilient while SMEs are suffering, or so the argument goes.
The large-cap performance, however, hides a bifurcation of its own.
The largest stocks in the S&P 500 (Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook) have had an incredible run. They now represent just under 25% of the index and are the real reason the S&P has held up so well.
For all the other stocks, it’s a different story. As they say, the S&P 494 is still deep in the bear market.
What I find fascinating (and not in a good way) about small-cap performance this year is that not only they underperformed in absolute terms, but they also had a much higher standard deviation (41% vs 30% for large caps).
Proponents of small-cap investing (i.e. French-Fama), acknowledge the higher volatility, but argue that higher returns more than compensate for the increased risk.
This year, we’ve certainly had the risk – but not the returns.
Anyone believing in American exceptionalism can certainly point to the stock market as a proof point this year.
US equities, as denoted by the blue line below (Portfolio 1) have been the clear winner this year:
Global equities (Portfolio 2 – red line) are still deeply underwater.
And European stocks, which haven’t exactly had an auspicious decade, have fallen even further behind this year.
Only time will tell when the tide will turn.
Let’s now have a look at the performance of portfolios with a fixed income component. Have bonds come through with the investor protection they are supposed to offer?
Portfolio 1 below denotes the US Stock Market index.
Portfolio 2 assumes a 75% allocation to US stock with 25% in US bonds.
Finally, Portfolio 3 assumes a relatively conservative 50 – 50 mix between the two asset classes.
As you can see, investors with bond holdings are in a good place this year.
Not only their absolute returns are higher, but the volatility (as denoted by standard deviation) is also significantly lower than that of a 100% equity portfolio.
To the extent you get jittery when the markets get choppy, it may well make sense to have an allocation to bonds in your portfolio.
Just remember that it isn’t a free lunch. Over long periods of time, equity returns trump bonds by a wide margin:
Here’s a detailed post that reviews the performance of stock and bond portfolios over the past 30 years.
I don’t invest in gold and I don’t recommend that others do, either.
There’s probably a whole post I could do on this topic, but instead, I’ll refer you to an excellent write up from Dollars and Data which summarizes all the key points nicely.
The gold investment thesis has certainly proven out this year.
A 50 – 50 equity and gold portfolio (#3 – orange line below) has beaten both the US stock market (portfolio #1 – blue line) and a 50 – 50 equity and bond portfolio (#2 – red line):
It’s not surprising to see an influx of money into gold at times like these. And to be fair, the bet would have been warranted, this year.
Make no mistake, however, long-term returns present a different picture:
Portfolio 1 above is the US stock market, Portfolio 2 is gold.
It’s clear, over long periods of time, holding gold is likely to be detrimental to your investment returns.
And anyone waxing lyrical about gold today should also acknowledge that it has underperformed for most of the past decade.
That being said, it may well have a place in one’s portfolio, though I’d still prefer bonds for diversfication.
If anything, the market’s performance this year is a very helpful reminder of how unpredictable it is in the short run.
Long-run performance, however, is nothing short of consistent. It requires no commentary:
So unless you are one of the people who can beat the stock market, the only option you have is to follow the steps below:
Step 1: Construct a portfolio that reflects your investment horizon and risk appetite.
Remember – if you are going to lose money in the stock market over long periods of time, it is because you’ve sold after a correction.
Step 2: Invest in a broadly diversified, low-cost equity and bond tracker funds.
Fees can and will decimate your investment returns. Pay attention to them.
Buy yourself a nicely diversified world index tracker, supplement with bonds as appropriate, and set up an automatic top-up program.
Step 3: Prosper
That’s all there is to it.