By Steven Dudash
November 22, 2016
As a wealth manager, more than a few things keep me up at night, including what the election of Donald Trump means for the markets, the country’s economy and how Brexit will ultimately unfold. Perhaps my biggest worry continues to be that investors – both on the retail and institutional side – have not adjusted their expectations in today’s interest-rate and equity market environment.
To illustrate, consider a meeting I had recently with a $250 million university endowment fund. Each year, it uses 5.25% of its assets to award scholarships and at the same time expects to keep pace with a long-term inflation projection of 2.5%. To meet these assumptions and keep the principal intact, basic math says the fund needs to generate returns of just under 8%.
Given that the next 30 years will not be anything like the last 30 years, when investors could rely on a 50/50 portfolio of stocks and bonds to produce that kind of return, that’s pretty implausible. This is not a fun message to deliver to a roomful of stern-face endowment board members. It’s equally unpleasant to have to look a retiree or pre-retiree in the eye and tell them that may be facing a future income shortfall. Nevertheless, it’s the truth. A big reason why can be found in two significant events that occurred over the course of the last three decades – the scale of which are not likely to repeat themselves anytime soon.
The first was the rise of the PC and the Internet during the 1980s and 1990s, which caused productivity to spike, breeding higher corporate profits and boosting stocks. But as technology has permeated more and more areas of the labor market, productivity growth has slowed in recent years, crimping earnings. While equities have hardly suffered, that’s a bit of mirage, having been propped up by an aggressive Federal Reserve.
The second has been the steady decline in bond rates. The U.S. ten-year bond yield hit an all-time high of nearly 16% in September 1981. Earlier this summer, it was 1.36%, and despite a rise in recent since the presidential election, yields are not expected to ramp up meaningfully in the coming years, thanks to interest rates that are all but guaranteed to remain below historical norms for an extended stretch.
Therefore, we now have a stock market that is fully valued and unlikely to repeat past performance (even if corporate tax rates decline under Mr. Trump), combined with a bond market that is depressed, and unlikely repeat past performance. So what should investors do?
Assuming that, unlike an endowment, you can’t adjust your income needs, think about upsizing your level of risk. A 50/50 portfolio simply won’t be enough anymore, period. So my advice, at least in the near term, would be to lower U.S. government bond exposure and look to European equities.
Granted, it will likely be a bumpy ride, riddled with stomach-churning ups and downs. But as the United States seems likely to begin gradually raising interest rates in the coming months, much of Europe is essentially in the middle of QE infinity, still injecting massive amounts of capital into their economies in an attempt to jumpstart lagging growth. Take advantage of this phenomenon.
Cynically, whether those efforts are successful isn’t the concern over the long haul. The more important point is that mainland Europe, for all its issues, is in many ways valued much more favorably than the U.S. market, and there as some opportunities to go bargain hunting. PE ratios aside, Euro markets are likely to appreciate, if for no other reason than the governments are willing to mortgage their futures to make that happen.
Skeptics will point to looming concerns over Brexit. But England was never fully integrated with the rest of Europe in the first place, and as we have seen in the wake of that vote earlier this year, the divorce may not be the nightmare many predicted. What’s almost certain, though, is that the rest of the European Union will remain intact.
The bottom line is that investors need to be realistic about what the next 30 years may hold. This is a case where the past is unlikely to repeat itself, which means you may need to change your outlook and be willing to venture into areas that may not be so popular in the present but offer the opportunity to achieve larger upside potential.