How Big is Your Stock Allocation

No marathon post today. Also, I am not planning to maintain my schedule of bi-weekly posts until the end of August. Vacation and family time will be taking priority!

For the last pre-vacation post, I thought I would toss out a question that I often think about.

If we Canadians were not living next door to the most successful and most free economy of the 20th century, would we be infected with buy-and-hold investment philosophy?

Contributors to the Prevailing Wisdom

Passive investing, particularly of the stock index and bond index variety, is a recent American phenomenon. It has only existed since the 1970s and was popularized in the past 20 years. Although the origins are a bit more nuanced than this, it is essentially a combination of Modern Portfolio Theory (academically published in the 1950s) and passive index funds (started in the early 1970s).

These were both great innovations! Modern Portfolio Theory provided a mathematical model for benefits of diversification and passive index funds were the answer to a long problem: managed mutual funds consistently underperformed the broad stock indices.

Index funds also blew a hole in the whole fee structure of global investments. Trailing management fees have come down massively, fund load fees have all but vanished, and financial adviser fees changed to transparent direct fees instead of opaque commissions.

All of this translated to less trading and lower costs for investors. Something many great investors figured out long before.

Even in the 1910s era, the great speculator Jesse Livermore observed that frequent trading killed profits: "Money is made by sitting, not trading".

Thanks to these innovations, if you are paying any load fees on mutual funds in your personal portfolio, or if you are paying a portfolio averaged trailing fee of more than 0.5% on funds, or if you are paying an investment advisor more than 1%, you need to move on.

Risks of Stock Heavy Portfolios

All of the innovations that I mentioned above are great for investors. Lower fees and a reluctance towards heavy trading being huge!

But I do believe there is a hidden danger in the current prevailing wisdom of "stocks for the long run".

Many self-directed investors are way too comfortable with a passive stock index dominated portfolio. This is something I was guilty of myself!

Looking at simple backtests, it appears obvious that an investor who can withstand a few hiccups here and there should be at least 80% invested in stocks with maybe a small amount of bonds for "fresh powder" in downturns. Even 100% stocks for the long run looks nice on paper.

However, this philosophy assumes that stocks inevitably climb over the medium term and long term. That ignores a significant number of real world examples where this did not happen.

Living next door to the country that came roaring into the 20th century, usurped Britain as the financial market capital, effectively took the wealth of Britain and France (war is not cheap), became the risk-free bond issuer and dominant world fiat currency, and is the largest industrial and innovation powerhouse the world has ever seen can be a bit numbing.

The Dow Jones and the S&P 500 have killed it since their inceptions! Annual returns of approximately 10% gross (6% inflation-adjusted) make for massive returns with a heavy dose of time.

But we conveniently ignore the trauma investors in other markets experienced during the same time period.

The complete collapses of the German, Russian and Argentine financial markets. Germany was a manufacturing and innovation leader with a strong economy just a few years earlier. Russia and Argentina were promising markets and resources powerhouses.

We also ignore the more recent, devastating collapse of the Japanese market. The Japanese stock market is a highly diversified market that compares well with the U.S. by sector diversification.

It has been nearly 30 years since the market peak of the Nikkei 225 and we are no where near a new market high (still down over 40%). I would be surprised if we see a new high at 40 years following the collapse. In fact, it's entirely realistic to believe that it would take 50 years—half a century—to see a new high in Japanese stocks. Thanks to dividends, an investor would be a little under break-even now.

Despite the market turmoil, Japan is still a powerful economic nation that has maintained a free market capitalist economy. Their currency has held up strongly, saving many investors from completely catastrophic loss. Companies are innovating, producing new goods and services, and creating wealth for Japanese people. Entrepreneurship is alive and well!

Dealing With Risk

My point is simple. Stocks do not always go up over time. Even broad and passive stock portfolios can experience total collapses.

We have seen a diversified, free market stock index fall 80% or more and take a lot longer to recover than you think.

Questions that come to mind:

Should you really be comfortable with the vast majority of your wealth in stocks?

What would happen to your portfolio if your stock allocation fell 80%?

What would happen to your financial dreams if it took 30 years to recover? What if it took 50 years to recover?

What are some ways you can cope with a massive and broad stock decline?

How can you protect your portfolio better?

Is it enough to diversify across countries, or through a global passive stock index?

If it is the current prevailing wisdom that a smart investor puts their money in a passive, stock dominated portfolio, should you bet along with that prevailing wisdom?

Comments & Questions

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Exaggerated Tracking Error Fears for Leveraged Funds

Daily leveraged funds are still quite new to the retail investor. The first 2x leveraged ETFs tracking broad market indices started trading in the middle of the last decade.

Just a few years later, anyone investing in these ETFs who was not sure about their performance in all market conditions was rudely woken. The largest 2x fund tracking the S&P 500 suffered from an 85% drawdown in the 2008-09 Financial Crisis. That's correct, every $1,000 in this ETF shrank to a mere $150.

Since that time, the you've heard the warnings over and over. From the financial news, your run-of-the-mill financial advisor, most financial blogs and online sources, and even the large and prominent disclaimers on fund provider websites.

Like this one directly from Horizons Canada's website:

"The ETF uses leverage and is riskier than funds that do not. The ETF seeks a return, before fees and expenses, of +200% or - 200% of its Referenced Index for a SINGLE DAY. The returns of the ETF over periods longer than ONE DAY will likely differ in amount, and possibly direction (of the performance, or inverse performance, as applicable) of the Referenced Index. Longer periods AND/OR greater volatility will make the possible divergence more pronounced. Investors should monitor their investment in this ETF daily. Please read the prospectus and ensure you understand this ETF before investing in it."

The prevailing wisdom is simplified to this: leveraged ETFs are very, very risky. They are only for use by a professional day trader who watches their brokerage account throughout every trading day. Do not hold leveraged ETFs unless you want to lose your money.

What Does the Data Say

For a few years now I've been quite skeptical of these claims. It is only logical that daily leveraged funds of reasonably stable indices should outperform their underlying index over longer periods of time, even after adjusting for fees.

I believe the argument made by the crowds is an oversimplified one. Certainly a leveraged daily fund will not provide an exact specified multiple return over the underlying index for any period greater than one day. Volatility guarantees that. Large down days do damage, while positive returns over numerous days compounding each day provide outsized returns.

However, it's time to debunk the myth of danger surrounding these funds. Over the past weeks I've compiled a large spreadsheet of daily returns for the S&P 500 since the beginning of 1950. Then I simulated the annual performance of daily leveraged funds from 1950 to 2017.

In the 68 calendar years of data I compiled, a 3x daily leveraged fund would have returned a 2.5x or higher multiple of the S&P 500 in 53 of those years. Further, an another 11 years would have still been a positive multiple of the index, although less than 2.5x.

This means in 95% of all years in more than one-half of a century, a 3x daily leveraged fund would have returned a positive multiple of the S&P 500.

In just four years the annual return was negatively correlated to the underlying index: 1960, 1987, 2011, and 2015. The pattern in each of these four cases is quite similar. In 1987, 2011, and 2015 the stock market had a correction which occurred near the end of the calendar year. In 1960, the market was just very up and down from start to finish. In 1960, 2011, and 2015 the S&P 500 was just barely positive on the calendar year, so the negative multiple return of the leveraged fund would not have had a substantial impact on the investor.

The only year where the 3x leveraged fund would have a large negative impact was 1987. As most investors with some knowledge of market history know, 1987 was a memorable year. In a single day, October 19, the U.S. stock market experienced its largest daily fall ever with a -20.47% return. On a 3x daily leveraged fund, that translates to a single day return of -61.41%. As you would expect, a large daily loss of this magnitude takes time to recover.

However, if it's any consolation, in four years since 1950 a 3x leveraged fund would have returned more than 4x the underlying S&P 500 index thanks to the power of daily compounding of positive returns: 1953, 1954, 1958, and 1990.

Summary

The data shows that a daily leveraged fund performs according to its expected return over the course of an entire calendar year more than 80% of the time. This is a high rate of success and shows that in the vast majority of market conditions daily leveraged funds on broad market indices are not significantly impacted by the historic market volatility.

In the past 67 years, there was only a single year where holding daily leveraged funds of the S&P 500 would have negatively impacted a investor to a substantial degree because of volatility induced tracking error. I believe it's safe to say 1987 was a unique year in stock market history that is not likely to be frequently repeated in the future.

While all investing with leverage carries risks that are amplified when not used properly, the common wisdom that leveraged ETFs should be used for short-term or day trading only is misplaced. Under the vast majority of market conditions throughout history, the divergence of daily leverage when held for longer periods of time is not substantial.

Always remember when the underlying index enters an extended drawdown, the effects of that drawdown will be amplified with daily leveraged ETFs. This is common and should be expected. Despite their simulated tracking history over long time periods being better than commonly held beliefs suggest, it would be reckless to allocate the majority of your portfolio or tax-advantaged account within your broader portfolio to a leveraged ETF.

Comments & Questions

All comments are moderated before being posted for public viewing. Please don't send in multiple comments if yours doesn't appear right away. It can take up to 24 hours before comments are posted.

Comments containing links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.