The most unpleasant part of investing in stocks is definitely the periodic pullbacks. Unfortunately, these are part of the price we pay for more money in the long run.
When the stock market is going up, everybody feels good about being a long-term investor. It is the downturns that test all of our nerves and our belief in long-term investing. As one pundit put it – we can then see who the long-term “owners” of stocks are as opposed to the shorter-term “renters.”
Currently the S & P 500 is around 1946, down about 8.6% from its peak in May of 2015. The low point of the current correction was on 2/11/16, when the S & P was down about 14% from its peak. As a refresher, a correction is defined as a -10% to -20% retracement from a previous peak, and a bear market refers to a decline of more than -20%. We are currently in the 35TH correction or bear market since 1945, and during this time these have occurred about every 2 years on average. Prior to the current correction we had gone almost 4 years without a 10% pullback, so our memories of this sort of negative volatility had begun to dim.
Considering market declines of between 10% and 20% since the end of World War II, the average percentage decline is -13.8%. The average time to recover back to the previous peak level was 3.6 months from the low point. The correction we are experiencing is currently about average in magnitude, and if it were to follow historical averages we would expect a recovery sometime in early summer. Nobody knows for sure whether things will get worse before they get better, but studying past market conditions gives us some context as to the range of potential outcomes.
What do we do in the meantime? If your asset allocation is 100% stocks, we recommend that you stay with it or, if you have the ability, take this opportunity to add to your portfolio with monthly deposits (such as to your 401k or Roth IRA), periodic bonuses or other savings. If your chosen asset allocation includes fixed income, then we periodically rebalance to your target mix and add money to stocks at temporarily depressed prices.
In our portfolios that contain individual stocks, our recipe is as follows: start by focusing on high quality companies with the potential for rising earnings and dividends. Combine 35-45 such companies into a well-diversified portfolio. Regardless of what happens in the stock market over the next year, your portfolio income should be higher each subsequent year. The management teams of high quality companies with long track records of dividend increases are very reluctant to cut their dividends. Even in a recessionary environment, more companies should increase their dividends than maintain or cut them. There are many well-known companies that have increased their dividends every year for 25, 35, 50 or even 60 consecutive years. You may already own some of these companies, especially if you are a Parsec client.
Total return is comprised of two components: income and price appreciation. Over long time periods, the income component of total return has represented just under half of the overall return of the stock market. However, the variability of the income return has been much lower than that of the appreciation component. By focusing on those companies that we believe are likely to have consistent dividend growth over time, particularly for those of our clients who are retired and spending from their portfolios, we are setting up a condition where there is less uncertainty about a significant component of their overall return. For our clients with large cap mutual funds instead of individual stocks, the same general premise applies.
The equity portion of our client portfolios also includes small-cap, mid-cap and international companies, which we invest in primarily through pooled vehicles such as mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). The fixed income portion is also well diversified, with a focus on short-to intermediate term, high quality instruments along with some high yield and international bonds for diversification and yield improvement.
We encourage our clients to focus on this concept of rising portfolio income to meet their investment goals and provide peace of mind during the inevitable corrections and bear markets that we will all experience at some point.
William S. Hansen, CFA
Chief Investment Officer