Ascend Investing Column Archive
We believe informed investors make better investment decisions, and our “Ascend Investing” column aims to keep you up to date. You’ll find a collection of robust research that informs our approach and articles on prudent investment strategies and topics that can help you invest for the long term.
Lessons for the Next Crisis
It will soon be the 10-year anniversary of when, in early October 2007, the S&P 500 Index hit what was its highest point before losing more than half its value over the next year and a half during the global financial crisis.
Over the coming weeks and months, as other anniversaries of major crisis-related events pass (for example, 10 years since the bank run on Northern Rock or 10 years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers), there will likely be a steady stream of retrospectives on what happened as well as opinions on how the environment today may be similar or different from the period leading up to the crisis. It is difficult to draw useful conclusions based on such observations; financial markets have a habit of behaving unpredictably in the short run. There are, however, important lessons that investors might be well-served to remember: Capital markets have rewarded investors over the long term, and having an investment approach you can stick with—especially during tough times—may better prepare you for the next crisis and its aftermath.
BENEFITS OF HINDSIGHT
In 2008, the stock market dropped in value by almost half. Being a decade removed from the crisis may make it easier to take the past in stride. The eventual rebound and subsequent years of double-digit gains have also likely helped in this regard. While the events of the crisis were unfolding, however, a future of this sort looked anything but certain. Headlines such as “Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight,”  “Markets in Disarray as Lending Locks Up,”  and “For Stocks, Worst Single-Day Drop in Two Decades”  were common front page news. Reading the news, opening up quarterly statements, or going online to check an account balance were, for many, stomach-churning experiences.
While being an investor today (or during any period, for that matter), is by no means a worry-free experience, the feelings of panic and dread felt by many during the financial crisis were distinctly acute. Many investors reacted emotionally to these developments. In the heat of the moment, some decided it was more than they could stomach, so they sold out of stocks. On the other hand, many who were able to stay the course and stick to their approach recovered from the crisis and benefited from the subsequent rebound in markets.
It is important to remember that this crisis and the subsequent recovery in financial markets was not the first time in history that periods of substantial volatility have occurred.Exhibit 1 helps illustrate this point. The exhibit shows the performance of a balanced investment strategy following several crises, including the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September of 2008, which took place in the middle of the financial crisis. Each event is labeled with the month and year that it occurred or peaked.
Exhibit 1. The Market's Response to Crisis
Performance of a Balanced Strategy (60% Stock / 40% Bond)
Although a globally diversified balanced investment strategy invested at the time of each event would have suffered losses immediately following most of these events, financial markets did recover, as can be seen by the three- and five-year cumulative returns shown in the exhibit. In advance of such periods of discomfort, having a long-term perspective, appropriate diversification, and an asset allocation that aligns with their risk tolerance and goals can help investors remain disciplined enough to ride out the storm. A financial advisor can play a critical role in helping to work through these issues and in counseling investors when things look their darkest.
In the mind of some investors, there is always a “crisis of the day” or potential major event looming that could mean the beginning of the next drop in markets. As we know, predicting future events correctly, or how the market will react to future events, is a difficult exercise. It is important to understand, however, that market volatility is a part of investing. To enjoy the benefit of higher potential returns, investors must be willing to accept increased uncertainty. A key part of a good long-term investment experience is being able to stay with your investment philosophy, even during tough times. A well‑thought‑out, transparent investment approach can help people be better prepared to face uncertainty and may improve their ability to stick with their plan and ultimately capture the long-term returns of capital markets.
Balanced Strategy 60/40
The model’s performance does not reflect advisory fees or other expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. The balanced strategies are not recommendations for an actual allocation.
International Value represented by Fama/French International Value Index for 1975–1993. Emerging Markets represented by MSCI Emerging Markets Index (gross dividends) for 1988–1993. Emerging Markets weighting allocated evenly between International Small Cap and International Value prior to January 1988 data inception. Emerging Markets Small Cap represented by Fama/French Emerging Markets Small Cap Index for 1989–1993. Emerging Markets Value and Small Cap weighting allocated evenly between International Small Cap and International Value prior to January 1989 data inception. Two-Year Global weighting allocated to One‑Year prior to January 1990 data inception. Five-Year Global weighting allocated to Five-Year Government prior to January 1990 data inception. For illustrative purposes only.
The Dimensional Indices used have been retrospectively calculated by Dimensional Fund Advisors LP and did not exist prior to their index inceptions dates. Accordingly, results shown during the periods prior to each Index’s index inception date do not represent actual returns of the Index. Other periods selected may have different results, including losses.
When Rates Go Up, Do Stocks Go Down?
Should stock investors worry about changes in interest rates?
Research shows that, like stock prices, changes in interest rates and bond prices are largely unpredictable . It follows that an investment strategy based upon attempting to exploit these sorts of changes isn’t likely to be a fruitful endeavor. Despite the unpredictable nature of interest rate changes, investors may still be curious about what might happen to stocks if interest rates go up.
Unlike bond prices, which tend to go down when yields go up, stock prices might rise or fall with changes in interest rates. For stocks, it can go either way because a stock’s price depends on both future cash flows to investors and the discount rate they apply to those expected cash flows. When interest rates rise, the discount rate may increase, which in turn could cause the price of the stock to fall. However, it is also possible that when interest rates change, expectations about future cash flows expected from holding a stock also change. So, if theory doesn’t tell us what the overall effect should be, the next question is what does the data say?
Recent research performed by Dimensional Fund Advisors helps provide insight into this question . The research examines the correlation between monthly US stock returns and changes in interest rates . Exhibit 1 shows that while there is a lot of noise in stock returns and no clear pattern, not much of that variation appears to be related to changes in the effective federal funds rate .
Exhibit 1. Monthly US Stock Returns against Monthly Changes in Effective Federal Funds Rate,
August 1954–December 2016
For example, in months when the federal funds rate rose, stock returns were as low as –15.56% and as high as 14.27%. In months when rates fell, returns ranged from –22.41% to 16.52%. Given that there are many other interest rates besides just the federal funds rate, Dai also examined longer-term interest rates and found similar results.
So to address our initial question: when rates go up, do stock prices go down? The answer is yes, but only about 40% of the time. In the remaining 60% of months, stock returns were positive. This split between positive and negative returns was about the same when examining all months, not just those in which rates went up. In other words, there is not a clear link between stock returns and interest rate changes.
There’s no evidence that investors can reliably predict changes in interest rates. Even with perfect knowledge of what will happen with future interest rate changes, this information provides little guidance about subsequent stock returns. Instead, staying invested and avoiding the temptation to make changes based on short-term predictions may increase the likelihood of consistently capturing what the stock market has to offer.
Footnotes:  See, for example, Fama 1976, Fama 1984, Fama and Bliss 1987, Campbell and Shiller 1991, and Duffee 2002;  Wei Dai, “Interest Rates and Equity Returns” (Dimensional Fund Advisors, April 2017);  US stock market defined as Fama/French Total US Market Index;  The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which depository institutions lend funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another depository institution overnight.
Discount Rate: Also known as the “required rate of return,” this is the expected return investors demand for holding a stock.
Correlation: A statistical measure that indicates the extent to which two variables are related or move together. Correlation is positive when two variables tend to move in the same direction and negative when they tend to move in opposite directions.
Fama/French Total US Market Index: Provided by Fama/French from CRSP securities data. Includes all US operating companies trading on the NYSE, AMEX, or Nasdaq NMS. Excludes ADRs, investment companies, tracking stocks, non-US incorporated companies, closed-end funds, certificates, shares of beneficial interests, and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (Permco 540)
Evolution of Financial Research: The Profitability Premium
Since the 1950s, there have been numerous breakthroughs in the field of financial economics that have benefited investors.
One early example, resulting from research in the 1950s, is the insight that diversification can increase an investor’s wealth. Another example, resulting from research in the 1960s, is that market prices contain up-to-the-minute, relevant information about an investment’s expected return and risk. This means that market prices provide our best estimate of asecurity’s value. Seeking to outguess market prices and identify over- and undervalued securities is not a reliable way to improve returns.
This long history of innovation in research continues into the present day. As academics and market participants seek to better understand security markets, insights from their research can enable investors to better pursue their investment goals. In this article, we will focus on a series of recent breakthroughs into the relation between a firm’s profitability and its stock returns. As we will see, an important insight Dimensional drew from this research is how profitability and market prices can be used to increase the expected returns of a stock portfolio without having to attempt to outguess market prices.
DIFFERENCES IN EXPECTED RETURNS
The price of a stock depends on a number of variables. For example, one variable is what a company owns minus what it owes (also called book value of equity). Expected profits, and the discount rate investors apply to these profits, are others. This discount rate is the expected return investors demand for holding the stock. The impact of market participants trading stocks is that market prices quickly find an equilibrium point where the expected return of a stock is commensurate with what investors demand.
Decades of theoretical and empirical research have shown that not all stocks have the same expected return. Stated simply, investors demand higher returns to hold some stocks and lower returns to hold others. Given this information, is there a systematic way to identify those differences?
OBSERVING THE UNOBSERVABLE: CURRENT AND FUTURE PROFITABILITY
Market prices and expected future profits contain information about expected returns. While we can readily observe market prices as stocks are traded (think about a ticker tape scrolling across a television screen), we cannot observe market expectations for future profits or future profitability, which is profits divided by book value. So how can we use an unobserved variable to tell us about expected returns?
A paper by Professors Eugene Fama and Kenneth French published in 2006  tackles this problem. Fama and French have authored more than 160 papers. They both rank within the top 10 most-cited fellows of the American Finance Association  and in 2013, Fama received a Nobel Prize in Economics Science for his work on securities markets.
Fama and French explored which financial data that is observable today contain information about expected future profitability. They found that a firm’s current profitability contains information about its profitability many years hence. What insights did Dimensional glean from this? Current profitability contains information about aggregate investor’s expectations of future profitability.
The next academic breakthrough on profitability research was done by Professor Robert Novy-Marx, a world-renowned expert on empirical asset pricing. Building on the work of Fama and French, he explored the relation of different measures of current profitability to stock returns.
Profits equal revenues minus expenses. One particularly important insight Dimensional took from Novy-Marx’s work is that not all current revenues and expenses have information about future profits. For example, firms sometimes call a revenue or expense “extraordinary” when they do not expect it to recur in the future. If those revenues or expenses are not expected to recur, should investors expect them to contain information about future profitability? Probably not.
This is what Novy-Marx found when conducting his research. In a paper published in 2013  , he used US data since the 1960s and a measure of current profitability that excluded some non-recurring costs so that it could be a better estimate for expected future profitability. In doing so, he was able to document a strong relation between current profitability and future stock returns. That is, firms with higher profitability tended to have higher returns than those with low profitability. This is referred to as a profitability premium.
Around the same time, the Research team at Dimensional was also conducting research into profitability. They extended the work of Fama and French and found that in developed and emerging markets globally, current profitability has information about future profitability and that firms with higher profitability have had higher returns than those with low profitability. They also found that this observation held true when using different ways of measuring current profitability. These robustness checks are important to show that the profitability premiums observed in the original studies were not just due to chance.
Their research indicated that when using current profitability to increase the expected returns of a real-world strategy, it is important to have a thoughtful measure of profitability that provides a complete picture of a firm’s expenses while excluding revenues and expenses that may be unusual and therefore not expected to persist in the future.
THE SIZE OF THE PROFITABILITY PREMIUM
So how large has the profitability premium been historically? Large enough that investors who want to increase expected returns in a systematic way should take note. Exhibit 1 shows empirical evidence of the profitability premium in the US and globally. In the US, between 1964 and 2016, the Dimensional US High Profitability Index and the Dimensional US Low Profitability Index had annualized compound returns of 12.55% and 8.23%, respectively. The difference between these figures, 4.32%, is a measure of the realized profitability premium in the US over the corresponding time period. The non-US developed market realized profitability premium was 4.51% between 1990 and 2016. In emerging markets, the realized profitability premium was 5.21% between 1996 and 2016.
. Eugene Fama and Kenneth French, “Profitability, Investment, and Average Returns,” Journal of Financial Economics, vol. 82 (2006), 491–518.
. G. William Schwert and Renè Stulz, “Gene Fama’s Impact: A Quantitative Analysis,” (working paper, Simon Business School, 2014, No. FR 14-17).
. Robert Novy-Marx, “The Other Side of Value: The Gross Profitability Premium,” Journal of Financial Economics, vol. 108 (2013), 1–28.
Exhibit 1. The Profitability Premium
In summary, there are differences in expected returns across stocks. Variables that tell us what an investor has to pay (market prices) and what they expect to receive (book equity and future profits) contain information about those expected returns. All else equal, the lower the price relative to book value and the higher the expected profitability, the higher the expected return.
What Dimensional has learned from its own work and the work of Professors Fama, French, Novy-Marx, and Wahal, as well as others, is that current profitability has information about expected profitability. This information can be used in tandem with variables like market capitalization or price-to-book ratios to extract the differences in expected returns embedded in market prices. As such, it allows investors to increase the expected return potential of their portfolio without trying to outguess market prices.
New Market Highs and Positive Expected Returns
There has been much discussion in the news recently about new nominal highs in stock indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500.
When markets hit new highs, is that an indication that it’s time for investors to cash out? History tells us that a market index being at an all-time high generally does not provide actionable information for investors. For evidence, we can look at the S&P 500 Index for the better part of the last century. Exhibit 1 shows that from 1926 through the end of 2016, the proportion of annual returns that have been positive after a new monthly high is similar to the proportion of annual returns that have been positive after any index level. In fact, over this time period almost a third of the monthly observations were new closing highs for the index. Looking at this data, it is clear that new index highs have historically not been useful predictors of future returns.
Given that the level of an index by itself does not seemingly have a bearing on future returns, you may ask yourself a more fundamental question: What drives expected returns for stocks?
Exhibit 1. S&P Total Return Index Highs: 1926-2016
Percent of Months With Positive Return Over Next 12-Month Period
POSITIVE EXPECTED RETURNS
One way to compute the current value of an investment is to estimate the future cash flows the investment is expected to deliver and discount them back into today’s dollars. For an investment in a firm’s stock, this type of valuation method allows expectations about a firm’s future profits to be linked to its current stock price through a discount rate. The discount rate equals an investor’s expected return. A simple, but important, insight we glean from this is that the expected return from holding a stock is driven by the price paid for it and what its investors expect to receive.
Stock prices are the result of the interaction of many willing buyers and sellers. It is extremely unlikely that in aggregate, those willing buyers apply negative discount rates to the expected profits of the firms they are purchasing. Why? Because there is always a risk that expected profits will not materialize or that the price might decline because of unanticipated future events. If investors apply positive discount rates to the cash flows they expect to receive from owning a stock, we should expect the price of that stock to represent a level such that its expected return is always positive. Unless the expected cash flows are persistently biased downward or upward, we can expect this to be the case.
There is little evidence, though, that the aggregate expectations of investors that set market prices have been persistently biased downward or upward. Many studies document that professional money managers have been unable to deliver consistent outperformance by outguessing market prices. In the end, prices set by market forces are difficult to outguess. The market does a good job setting prices, and we can assume that the expected return investors have applied when setting prices are not biased.
Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the price of a stock, or the price of a basket of stocks like the S&P 500 Index, should be set to a level such that its expected return is positive, regardless of whether or not that price level is at a new high. This helps explain why new index highs have not, on average, been followed by negative returns. At a new high, a new low, or something in between, expected returns are positive.
EXPECTED RETURNS, REALIZED RETURNS, AND HOLDING HORIZONS
Today’s prices depend on expected returns and expectations about future profits. If either expected returns or expectations about future profits change, prices will also change to reflect this new information. Changes in risk aversion, tastes and preferences, expectations about future profits, or the quantity of risk can all drive changes in expected returns. All else equal, an increase in expected returns is reflected through a drop in prices. A decrease in expected returns is reflected through a rise in prices. Thus, realized returns can differ from expected returns.
This means there is a probability that the realized return on any stock, an index like the S&P 500, or the market as a whole can be negative even when expected returns are positive. But what can we say about the relation between the probability of a negative realized return and an investor’s holding horizon?
Exhibit 2 shows rolling 10-year performance of the equity market premium (equity returns minus the return of one-month US Treasury bills, considered to be short-term, risk-free investments). In most periods it was positive, but in several periods it underperformed.
Exhibit 2. Historical Observations of 10-Year Premiums
Market minus one-month Treasury bills: US markets
There is uncertainty around how long periods of underperformance like this may last. Historically, however, the probability of equity returns being positive increases over longer time periods compared to shorter periods. Exhibit 3 shows the percentage of time that the equity market premium was positive over different time periods going back to 1928. When the length of the time period measured increases, so does the chance of the equity market premium being positive. So to answer our question from before: as an investor’s holding period increases, the probability of a negative realized return decreases. This is why it is important to choose a level of equity exposure that you can stay invested in over the long term.
Exhibit 3. Historical Performance of Equity Market Premium over Rolling Periods
US markets overlapping periods: January 1928–December 2015
By themselves, new all-time highs in equity markets have historically not been useful predictors of future returns. While positive realized returns are never guaranteed, equity investments have positive expected returns regardless of index levels or prior short-term market returns. The collective wisdom of market participants and their competitive assessment of expected returns and risks allow investors to rely on the information contained in prices to inform their investment decisions and assume positive expected returns from stocks. Historically speaking, over longer time horizons, the odds of realized stock returns being positive have increased. This is one reason why investors should consider investing a long-term commitment: Staying invested and not making changes based on short-term predictions increases your likelihood of success.
Negative Real Returns
Nominal interest rates are currently below zero in many countries, including Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Japan.
These levels have turned the common belief that zero is the lower bound for such rates on its head. While negative nominal rates are a relatively new phenomenon, periods of widespread negative real returns across countries have been quite common.
WHY CARE ABOUT REAL RATES OF RETURN?
In 1970, a loaf of bread cost 25 cents. A gallon of gas cost 36 cents. Today, an average loaf of bread and a gallon of gas each cost around two dollars. When the prices of goods and services increase, consumers can buy fewer of them with every dollar they saved. This is called inflation, and it eats into investors' returns.
Real rates of return are adjusted for inflation, so they account for changes in the purchasing power of a dollar over the life of an investment. Because inflation affects the cost of living, investors must consider the inflation-adjusted—or real—return of their investments. When inflation outpaces the nominal returns on an investment, investors experience negative real returns and actually lose purchasing power.
BRIEF HISTORY: TREASURY BILL RETURNS
Exhibit 1 shows the annual real returns on one-month US Treasury bills. From 2009 to 2015, the annual real return was negative. This circumstance is not unprecedented. Since 1900, the US has had negative real returns in over a third of those years. And negative real returns on government bills are not exclusive to the US. All countries listed in Exhibit 2 have had negative real returns on their respective government bills in at least one out of every five years from 1900 to 2015.
Exhibit 1. Annual Real Returns of One-Month US Treasury Bills
Exhibit 2. Percent of Years with Negative Real Returns on Government Bills, 1900-2015
BOND INVESTORS MAY GET MORE THAN THE BILL RETURN
In the current low-yield environment, rolling over short-term bills may not seem appealing to investors keen on protecting their purchasing power. Exhibit 3 shows that the return of one-month US Treasury bills has not kept pace with inflation  over the past 10 years. But even when the real return on bills is negative, a relatively common occurrence, bond investors may still achieve positive expected real returns by broadening their investment universe. The bond market is composed of thousands of global bonds with different characteristics. Many of those bonds allow investors to target global term and credit premiums, which in turn may provide positive real returns even in low interest rate environments. Exhibit 3 also shows that the Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index has outpaced inflation while maintaining low real return volatility of 3.4% annualized over the past 10 years.
Exhibit 3. Trailing Annualized Returns
Global diversification is often thought of as a tool for reducing risk. However, when it comes to fixed income, global portfolios can also play an important role in the pursuit of increased expected returns. Even if the expected real returns of bonds in one country are negative, another yield curve may provide positive expected real returns. The flexibility to pursue higher expected returns by investing in bonds around the world can be an important defense against low, and even negative, yields.
The goal of many investors is to grow some (or all) of their savings in real terms. Even in a low interest rate environment, there may be bond investments that can still achieve this goal. In particular, investors who target global term and credit premiums should be better positioned to pursue higher expected returns.
 Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics;  Measured as changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is defined by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
For more information, please email Mark Bourguignon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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