Should I Still Invest in a Crappy Economy?

20 09 2011

By Jon Castle, CFP®, ChFC®

It does not seem to matter who the potential investor is – whether they are already retired, are nearing retirement, or are a younger person with quite a bit of time until retirement… the question is often the same.  With interest rates being so low… with the markets unpredictible and volatile – what should I do?  The questions aren’t even really so straight forward as, “why should I invest my money now,” or “should I pay off debt first,” or even any of the other questions that, as a financial advisor for more than 15 years now, I’m used to getting.  The questions I am hearing now seem to have taken on the tone of confusion, despair, and a lack of direction, versus the questions I used to get such as “how should I invest,” or”what type of account – a Roth or a traditional IRA – should I have?”

Yesterday, when talking to a rather successful, nearly retired client on the telephone, she mentioned that she feels that she always has to take two steps backward for every three steps forward, and ideally, she would rather not see her account fluctuate at all once she retires next year.  “Isn’t there just something we can do with our money to earn a steady 6-8% or so with no risk?”  Unfortunately, the answer is NO.  While there might be many product salesmen out there who will try to convince you otherwise – the answer is still NO.   If there were -then all the institutions and large organizations in the world, who spend millions and millions of dollars trying to find or design such assets would have already found them.  A classic example of people and institutions trying to get outsized returns with no perceived risk is the recent mortgage debacle, and we saw how that turned out.

So – back to the original question – With the Economy on shaky footing (to say the least) and with the markets being… unusually volatile, to put it lightly – what should I do?

To answer this question, I had to turn to the history books, tenured academic research, and even some new research – but I think I found the answer.  Do EXACTLY what you have been told to do throughout the years.  Live below your means – save a portion of your income (assuming you are working and saving for retirement) and invest in a fully diversified portfolio designed specifically for your risk tolerance.  In fact – it is having the GUTS to invest during times like these that separate the winners from the… folks who wish they had as much money as the winners.

Last year, Dimensional Fund Advisors tapped into the database held at the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP) at the University of Chicago – the nexus of more Nobel-Prize winning research in economics than any other institution on the planet – to identify IF there was a direct correlation between a poor economy (as defined by low GDP) and poor investor returns.  In other words – SHOULD I STILL INVEST IN A CRAPPY ECONOMY?”

The Dimensional Study started by taking all of the world’s developed economies, examining their annual GDP growth from 1971 – 2008, and dividing them into two groups – High Growth, or Low Growth – for each year.  Clearly, much of what we hear on the news is about GDP growth – is our economy growing or not?  The higher the economic growth, the better – as this means reductions in unemployment, increases in personal wages, and, generally, a feeling of well-being, versus the cloud of general malaise that seems to have decended upon the world as of late.

Once the economies were divided into High Growth and Low Growth – the performance of their stock market indices was compared to their GDP Growth.  The question:  Does a poor economy (low GDP Growth) accurately predict poor investor returns?  The question was not – can an investor perform poorly during low-growth times (of course, we know that is possible) – but is there a clear and determinable correlation between a bad economy and a bad investor experience?

Oddly enough – the answer is NO.

                              AVG GDP                      AVG RETURN              Risk (Std Dev)

High Growth               0.92                             12.90%                          23.07

Low Growth               -4.02                            13.52%                          23.04

The data for Emerging Markets was similar, but quite honestly, the data for Emerging Markets only went back to 2001, and I felt this was just too short a time period to draw any reasonable conclusions.

When I first saw the data, I thought… well… this might be a sales pitch just to keep investors invested… we are still looking back only as far as 1971.  What about other periods of lousy growth?  And what about for the US in particular?  I wanted to check the data myself.  So, I delved into the CRSP database myself, using the French and Fama indices that go back as far as 1926, and to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA.GOV) and compared hypothetical investor returns to the GDP growth (or lack thereof) during the 1970’s and during the Great Depression.

One particular period of interest to me was the years from 1972 to 1982.  Yes, this was after 1971, but I wanted to look at it further and in more depth from a portfolio manager perspective instead of just looking at the stock market.  How did it feel?  Remember the oil embargo?  Our defeat in Vietnam? The Cold War?  Carter’s “Misery Index?”  Double Digit Inflation?  During this period of time, the average GDP Growth was only 2.7% – well below the historical average of 3.4%.

The second period of interest was the period of the Great Depression.  Now the Great Depression itself lasted from 1929 to 1941 – but for this particular exercise, I wanted to look at the period starting about 2 and a half years AFTER the crash – starting with the summer of 1932 until the attack on Pearl Harbor, or December 1941 – the long, grinding years of the Depression.  During that period of time, our average GDP Growth was only 2.0% – the longest and weakest period of below-average growth on record for the United States.

My question was – how could today’s investors, using a properly designed, diversified portfolio,  have done during that time?  Were these two periods of time – arguably the worst periods (economically) in the past hundred years – a bad time to be invested?

Assume a relatively simple, domestic portfolio:  T-Bills (15%), 5-Year Treasuries (15%), US Large Stocks (11%), US Large Value, or underpriced, dividend paying stocks (21%), US Small Value Stocks (18%), US Small Stocks (10%), and Very Small, or Micro-Cap Stocks (10%).

Looking at the indices only (remember – there were VERY few mutual funds at the time of the Depression, and certainly no ETF’s,) we can get an idea of how an investor might have done.  The following numbers do NOT account for any fees, commissions, taxes, etc – but we can still draw conclusions.

From the period of 1932 – 1941, the above, simple, diversified portfolio (indices only) would have achieved an AVERAGE ANNUAL return of… wait for it… 19.29%!!  In fact one dollar invested as described above in the summer of 1932 would have grown to about $4.50 by December of 1941.  During the Great Depression!!

From the period of 1972 to 1982, the above, simple, diversified portfolio (indices only) would have achieve an AVERAGE ANNUAL return of… 14.82%!!  One dollar invested as described above in December of 1972 would have grown to about $3.49 by December of 1982.  During the Carter Years and the Misery Index!!

Were there periods of volatility, market corrections, and even stagnation in the investor’s portfolio?  Absolutely – in particular, a sharp market correction in 1936 would have scared out many undisciplined investors, and a particularly unpleasant 18 month bear market from 1973-1974 would have tested investor mettle.  But the facts remain – a fully diversified, properly balanced investor would have been able to achieve significant returns during those times.  In fact – there are a number of economic theories that suggest that investors who have the GUTS to invest (and remain invested) during these uncertain times are the ones who enjoy the GREATEST rewards.  These are the riskiest, most emotionally draining times to invest – as a result, the Capital Markets reward those investors more readily and more predictibly than the comparatively “timid” investors who only remain invested during the “good” times.

Today, the Fed and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are projecting the US economy’s GDP growth to be about 2.7% for the next two years.  The media harps daily on the miserable shape of our economy, and politicians are using the economy as opportunities to further their agendas.  These are things that we must endure as a people, or change with our votes.

However – it is critical to SEPARATE our concerns about the economy – from our own INVESTMENT POLICY.  The two are NOT necessarily correlated.  A miserable economy – historically – does NOT mean miserable returns for an investor who is disciplined, creates a sound, diversified, low-cost investment STRATEGY with strict risk controls, and then implements it with courage and discipline.  In fact – it is EXACTLY these types of investors who have historically been the winners over the long term.

___________________________________________________________________________

This blog article does not constitute legal, tax, or personal financial advice.  Please consult your own financial professional for personal, specific information.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP(R), CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm) and federally registered CFP (with flame logo) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

Investment advisory services provided by Paragon Wealth Strategies, LLC., a registered investment advisor.

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