We recently met Frank and Vanessa, two hypothetical investors in global equities but with very different performance over a two-decade time frame. Frank turned a million dollars into $4 million, but in the same time Vanessa’s account grew to $11 million – all by avoiding the handful of down years in global equity markets from 1997 to 2017. So how can you limit the downturns when investing in global equities?
One such solution to the problem is simply to own less equities (or less equity exposure). This can be achieved in two ways which for our purposes move on average in similar ways. Firstly, an investor might decide to place a portion of his or her wealth in equities, let’s say just 40 per cent, and the rest in cash, the remaining 60 per cent. Alternatively, an investor might just choose to invest all his money in a “low-beta” equity portfolio, where the broad index of stocks might only be 40 per cent sensitive to market movements for example.
In times when the equity market falls either version of the “40/60” portfolio described will only fall four-tenths of the market’s fall. So take those years in the early 2000s by way of example, where equity markets fell almost 20 per cent in any given year (the red outlined bars in the chart below). In such a year our “40/60” portfolio would only be down 8 per cent – much better than the market, and saving the investor from another 12 per cent downside. Good job!
The rub is on the way up. In the half-dozen or so years where the market runs up at least 20 per cent our “40/60” will only achieve four-tenths of the gain, or 8 per cent. Even though we avoid the majority of the brunt of the bad times we also don’t get to join the party in the good times, of which there are many more (as you can see by the bold red bars) and a key driver of wealth over time. In fact, all we have done is dampened yearly volatility. All up following this strategy over the 20-year horizon shown would see a million dollars turn into just $2 million. Even Frank would be having a laugh at us.
What we are looking for is a strategy that has the demonstrated ability to pay off “asymmetrically”. That is, we get less of the “downs” while capturing more of the “ups”. Take a look at the following chart.
Annual return comparison: global equities, Montaka and a low-risk exposure portfolio*
The black bars show the returns of the global equity market over the last 3 years (less one month) broken into two one-year periods ending June 30 2016, 2017, and an eleven-month period ending May 31 2018 (we will be able to make this a full year in less than a week from now). You can see that the market was down in year 1, then strongly up in years 2 and 3. In total the market returned around 29 per cent over this period.
Now look at the red bars. They show the returns for our Montaka strategy in each period. You should notice that when the market turned down in year 1, Montaka not only avoided the dip, but actually made a tidy profit. Then in the next two years, Montaka was able to “run with the bulls” as they might say on Wall Street – and even nicely outperformed global equities. All up Montaka returned about 38 per cent which is materially superior to the market. But most importantly Montaka has created more wealth than the market by protecting the downside AND at the same time capturing the upside.
Contrast this with the experience illustrated by the grey bars. They represent returns of a portfolio with similar equity market exposure (on a beta basis for the finance junkies) to Montaka. Said another way, the grey bars are roughly the equivalent of the hypothetical “40/60” portfolio we discussed earlier. Of course in the down year this portfolio saved a lot of the loss the market experienced. But it also crimped returns in the next two years of strong market performance. All up this simple low-beta or low-exposure hypothetical portfolio returned just 14 per cent in the past 35 months. Sure, it felt good avoiding some of the losses in the first year, but it wasn’t so good missing the gains in the market that were to come.
The point is not just to run a low-volatility or low-exposure portfolio for the sake of smoothing returns. That won’t get you as far in the long run. The point is that the strategy required to avoid (most of) the downside should also be structured to capture (most of) the upside, much like Montaka has done for our clients over the past 3 years(well 3 years less a few days, but who’s counting?!).