Looking Beyond the 60/40 Portfolio in an Era of Low Returns

I wrote earlier this year that the 60/40 portfolio is dead. Well, rumors of its death were not greatly exaggerated. The 60/40 portfolio that served retired investors so well over the past 30 years is gone… and it’s not coming back any time soon. As investors, we have to move on.

Rest in Peace 60/40 Portfolio

6280175374_e9d75ea505_z

While it’s true that a simple 60/40 portfolio of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the iShares Core US Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG) is actually enjoying a nice run in 2016, up a little more than 3% for the year, don’t get used to it. The math simply doesn’t work out going forward.

Let’s play with the numbers. Back in 1980, the 10-year Treasury yielded a fat 11.1%, and stocks sported an earnings yield (calculated as earnings / price, or the P/E ratio turned upside down) of 13.5%. This implied a back-of-the-envelope portfolio return of about 12.5% per year going forward, and for much of the 1980s and 1990s that proved to be a conservative estimate. Both stocks and bonds were priced to deliver stellar returns, and both most certainly did.

But what about today? The 10-year Treasury yields a pathetic 1.6% and the S&P 500 trades at an earnings yield of just 4%. That gives you a blended portfolio expected return of an almost embarrassing 2.8%. [Note: The usual disclaimers apply here. These are not intended to be precise market forecasts.]

You know the refrain: past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee, at least with respect to stocks, that expensive assets can’t get even more expensive. It’s possible that the great bull run in stocks could continue indefinitely, however unlikely it might be.

But I can’t say the same for bonds. Starting at a 1.6% yield to maturity (or even the 4% you might find on a mid-grade corporate bond) you cannot have returns going forward that are anything close to the returns of the past several decades. Bond yields would have to go negative, and I don’t mean the (0.15%) we see today on the Japanese 10-year bond. I’m talking (5%) or (10%) or even more.

That’s not going to happen. Or if somehow it did — if investors got so petrified that they piled into bonds to the extent that yields went negative to that degree — then I would assume the stock portion of your portfolio effectively fell to zero at that point.

The bottom line here is that even under the most optimistic scenario, investors are looking at disappointing returns in a standard 60/40 portfolio.

So, what are investors supposed to do about it? They can’t just stuff their cash in a mattress for the next 5-10 years. Most of us actually need to earn a return on our money.

I’d offer the following suggestions:

Consider taking a more active approach to investing.

To the extent you invest in traditional stocks and bonds, don’t be a buy and hold index investor. Yes, low fees are great. But the fact that you paid Vanguard only 0.09% per year in management fees won’t really matter if you’re returns are still close to zero.

Instead, try a more active strategy, perhaps focusing on value or momentum. Or perhaps try a dividend focused strategy. With a dividend strategy, you can realize a cash return even if the market goes nowhere for years at a time.

Consider investing outside of the market.

If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, consider starting your own business or investing in a cash flowing rental property. Yes, there is more work involved, and there is the risk of failure. But there is also risk in trusting your savings to a fickle market when both stocks and bonds are both expensive by historical standards.

Consider a truly alternative asset allocation.

This final point is really my specialty. To the extent I can, I am eliminating traditional bonds from the portfolios of most of my clients and replacing them with non-correlated (or at least minimally-correlated) alternative investments. A standard 60/40 stock / bond portfolio might instead become a 50/50 dividend stocks / alternative investments portfolio.

“Alternative investments” is a generic term that can mean just about anything. In practice, for me it has meant a combination of long/short strategies, options writing strategies, absolute return hedge funds, and liquid alternative portfolios. I’ve even incorporated a liquid alternative robo advisor into the mix.

Will a non-traditional portfolio like this outperform over time?

Frankly, I don’t know. No one does. We’ve never seen a market like today’s.

But to me, it’s the only move that makes sense. Taking the traditional path is a virtual guarantee of disappointment. Incorporating alternatives into the portfolio at least give us the potential for solid returns.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA is the principal of Sizemore Capital, an investments firm in Dallas, Texas.

Photo credit: Pheonix149

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

  • Pingback: 06/16/16 – Thursday’s Interest-ing Reads | Compound Interest-ing!()

  • wesmouch

    I believe dividend paying stocks are quite overpriced. International markets offer much better value as do commodities.

    • I share your enthusiasm for overseas stocks, though their correlation with US stocks tends to approach 1 during a market rout. On commodities, I’m a little less enthusiastic, though I would concede that a decent CTA can add diversification to a portfolio.

  • It’s really tough to think that you can make money when the 10-year is paying 1.6%. I agree with the idea of using dividend stocks, there are several low-cost dividend ETFs available today. However, I also with wesmouch… many individual stocks are overpriced.

    • I agree, actually. A lot of dividend-paying stocks, particularly in consumer staples, are prohibitively expensive right now. You really need to pick and choose.

  • John Richards

    I think the 60/40 portfolio is alive and well, but I think your core point about future returns is worth exploring. I don’t end up in the same place you do, but I appreciate the creativity your blog post brings to the topic. I think I’d go overseas equity before some of those more exotic solutions, though, it would take me a ton of work to get comfortable with some of those approaches.

    • I tell ya, I would agree that the 60/40 still had value if even one of the two was reasonably priced. But both are exceptionally rich right now. Though you could credibly argue that the stocks will eventually offer a decent return if held long enough. You really can’t say that about bonds…
      Best of luck,
      CLS

  • Jerry

    You say, “Will a non-traditional portfolio like this outperform over time? Frankly, I don’t know. No one does. We’ve never seen a market like today’s.” Well with that approach, I sure don’t want you managing my money!!!

  • Jerry

    You say, “Will a non-traditional portfolio like this outperform over time? Frankly, I don’t know. No one does. We’ve never seen a market like today’s.” Well with that approach, I sure don’t want you managing my money!!!