Planning matters

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

 

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  • The “traditional” 60/40 balanced fund underperformed both stocks and bonds during Q1 2018, a phenomenon rarely seen in over 35 years.
  • Core bonds, a typical safe haven during periods of stock market volatility, declined along with stocks, suggesting rising correlation between the two asset classes.
  • Emerging and frontier markets represent over 35% of global GDP, yet the largest balanced fund by assets, Vanguard’s Wellington, holds nearly zero exposure.

Back in 1980, the United States’ share of global GDP was about 21.1%, with the U.K., Germany and France holding 13.2% in aggregate, Japan at 7.8%, while India and China represented 8.4%. Fast forward to today, and the United States’ share has grown only marginally, while the big three of Europe as well as Japan have actually declined over a 37-year period. So, where was the bulk of the growth?

China and India now represent 19.1% of global GDP, a 227% increase, with emerging markets in aggregate holding in excess of 35%. Yet, the classic “balanced” stock-bond fund, such as Vanguard’s highly popular Wellington Fund, holds no emerging market (EM) equities and only 11% in non-U.S. shares, primarily located in the UK and Canada. Keep in mind, Wellington holds $103 billion in total assets, and is the thirteenth largest mutual fund in the world. [1]

If you recall my recent memo, “The World is Still Flat”, then you’ll likely recognize the drivers of global growth are in emerging markets, specifically in Asia. Because these balanced funds are void of this exposure and represent an old world map, they aren’t really balanced at all.

Data: IMF, Statista.com. Knoema.com

At this point, you might be wondering what the title of the article actually means. Before we get to that, let’s focus on the bond component of a balanced fund. In September 1981, the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond (UST) peaked at a yield of 15.32%, and continued to decline in yield (with prices moving higher as prices move inverse to interest rates) until July 2016, when the yield hit bottom at 1.38%. Since that time, yields have more than doubled to 2.84%. So, what’s changed is “core bonds” that are highly correlated to the 10-year UST, and are the bond component of a balanced fund, no longer provide the safe haven they once did when equity markets become volatile, such as now. In other words, when stocks declined, core bonds also declined in price.

For example, during Q1 2018, the S&P 500 declined 0.76%, while the widely recognized Barclays Aggregate Bond Index declined by 1.46%. Vanguard’s Wellington Fund, the largest balanced fund by asset size, declined by 1.88%, [2] underperforming both U.S. stocks and bonds.

To recap, what’s changed is that U.S. stocks and bonds have become more positively correlated, meaning their price movements have tended to move in the same direction. This change in price behavior is a phenomenon markets haven’t seen with any regularity over the course of a 35-year bull market in interest rates that likely ended in the summer of 2016.

We live in a world where both U.S. stocks and bonds are expensive. BlackRock, for example, is forecasting a muted 3.6% return for U.S. large cap stocks, and a 1.8% return for U.S. aggregate bonds. With highly compressed return projections here domestically, it makes sense to look beyond home bias [3] and focus on the drivers of global growth, while playing defense in bond markets.

“The next decade could see a faster expansion of the middle class than at any other time in history” – Homi Kharas, Brookings Institute

Source: Brookings.edu

Emerging market equities are forecast to return 6.9%, [4] nearly double that of U.S. large cap stocks, due largely to favorable demographics and a rising middle class in emerging Asian economies. So, a modern balanced fund includes EM equities in addition to shares of U.S. and other developed economies.

“U.S. budget deficit to hit $2 trillion in 2020, two years ahead of previous forecast” [5]

With core bonds projected to return 1.8% and headline inflation running at 2.5%, the sum of the two provide little margin for safety if and when the trend in rates continues higher.

Consider that government debt sales are forecast to more than double to $1.3 trillion in 2018, to help pay for the recent tax cuts, [6] while the Fed continues to unwind its balance sheet after years of bond buying. Add to that, six Fed rate hikes since 2015 with an additional two quarter point increases forecast for the remainder of 2018, and three in 2019. And when you add it all up, there’s a lot of pressure on interest rates, both on the short and long end of the yield curve spectrum. So, it makes sense to supplement core bonds with higher credit quality ultra-short duration bonds that help reduce interest rate risk, while allowing for interest payments to adjust to reflect changes in interest rates.

Source: SPDR.com, Bloomberg

The chart above illustrates the high correlation between the U.S. investment grade, floating rate index (FRN) to both 3-month LIBOR and the Fed Funds rate. As the Fed pushes short rates higher, as they are now, FRN’s move in the same direction.

“Human society is facing a major choice to open or close, to go forward or backward” – Chinese President Xi Jinping, April 2018

In closing, as I identify and translate changes in both global economics and financial market relationships, perhaps the best analogy is the radically different initiatives seen in the U.S and China:

The “America First” policy of protectionism, closed borders and isolationism of the U.S. versus China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy of massive investment in and development of global trade routes to facilitate regional collaboration, and ultimately fuel growth. The latter’s potential reach covering 65% of the world’s population, and 33% of global GDP. [7]

The old-school balanced fund is perhaps more aligned with the “America First” policy, having recognized the U.S. as the driver of world growth, and supported by a downhill slide in interest rates from a double digit peak in the 1980’s. Alternatively, the modern balanced fund represents the “One Belt, One Road” policy, realizing the true drivers of global growth are in Asia with its vibrant emerging consumer, and China at its core helping to foster and not impede global growth.

As the legendary David Bowie wrote, “ch-ch-ch-changes … are takin’ the pace …”, [8] and yet behavioral finance suggests many investors will ignore obvious overseas opportunities, and instead, opt to stay at home and invest in companies and strategies that are familiar. [9] While this may have felt good for a long time, it comes with potential negative consequences.

Instead, whether you’re an investor or advisor alike, take note of these broad secular trends and embrace fundamental shifts in global growth dynamics while positioning for the current and next generation of growth.

 

April 2018

[1] Data: Morningstar, marketwatch.com. Excludes money market mutual funds. Assets: $103.1 billion, as of 4.9.2018

[2] Data: Morningstar, Vanguard.com

[3] Home country bias is a tendency for individual investors to buy the securities of familiar companies that do business in the country where they reside.

[4] BlackRock, 2.2018

[5] Data: Congressional Budget Office. Source: Bloomberg.com – 4.9.2019

[6] Data: Bloomberg.com, JP Morgan Chase

[7] Source: McKinsey & Co.

[8] Lyrics from “Changes”, David Bowie – 1.1972

[9] Source: Charles Schwab IM, Omar Aguilar – The comforts of home, Winter 2017

 

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