A “Balanced Bear” is when both equities and bonds sell off together.
As a result, a Balanced Fund, 60% invested in the stockmarket (equities) and 40% invested in fixed income (bonds), has a larger than normally expected period of underperformance – a Balanced Fund Bear Market.
During these periods the diversification benefits of bonds relative to equities disappears.
As you will know, historically if the stock market is selling off sharply, money is moving into fixed income. This drives up the price of fixed income securities helping to partially offset the negative returns from the stock market. A Balance Fund can come through these periods of equity market uncertainty relatively unscathed.
In a Balance Bear, equities are falling in value and fixed income is also falling in value given interest rates are rising (noting as interest rates rise the price, and therefore value, of a fixed income security falls).
This type of market environment was evident in early 2018 and was a prominent feature of the market volatility in early October 2018.
The thesis of the Balanced Bear has been promoted by Goldman Sachs and their equity analyst Christian Mueller-Glissmann raised the idea on CNBC in February of this year.
Goldman Sachs have written extensively on the Balance bear using historical US financial market data.
Importantly, a Balanced Fund is now into its longest period of outperformance, reflecting the very strong record run in US equities since 2009 and that interest rates, albeit they have risen from their June 2016 lows, are still at historical lows and have provided solid returns over the longer time frames. The same can be said about New Zealand “Balanced Funds”.
The Anatomy of equity bear markets is well documented, not so for a Balanced Fund bear market.
In this regards Goldman Sachs (GS) has undertaken a wealth of analysis.
Requirements for a Balanced Bear – usually a Balance Bear requires a material economic growth or inﬂation shock.
In this regard, the largest Balance Fund declines over the last 100 years have been in or around US recessions (economic growth shock).
Nevertheless, Goldman Sachs also found that the Balance Fund can have long periods of low real returns (i.e. after inflation) without a recession e.g. mid 40s and late 70s. These periods are associated with accelerating inflation.
Naturally, equities dominate the risk within a Balanced Fund, therefore large equity market declines e.g. Black Monday 1987 are associated with periods of underperformance of Balanced Funds.
Not surprisingly, most of the largest Balanced Fund falls in value have been during US recessions, but not all e.g. 1994 Bond market bubble collapsing, stagflation of 1970 (low economic growth and high inflation), 1970’s oil shock. It is worth noting that the 1987 sharemarket crash was not associated with a US recession.
Also of note, the stagflation periods of the 1970’’s and 80’s are periods in which there were large falls in both equities and bonds.
Bond market bears – are usually triggered by Central Banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, raising short term interest rates in response to strong growth and an overheating of the economy. Bond market bears have been less common in modern history given the introduction of inflation targets anchoring inflation expectations.
Equity markets can absorb rising interest rates up to the point that higher interest rates are beginning to restrict economic activity. An unanticipated increase in interest rates is negative for sharemarkets and will lead to higher levels of volatility e.g. 1994 or recent tapper tantrum of May 2013.
As noted in previous blogs, most equity bear markets have been during recessions…but not all.
Goldman Sachs makes this point as well, noting the majority of 60/40 drawdowns of more than 10% have been due to equity bear markets, often around recessions. They note it is very seldom the case that equities deliver positive returns during a 60/40 drawdown (they estimate only in c.5% of cases).
With regards to recessions, Goldman Sachs note that there have been 22 recessions since 1900 and 22 S&P 500 bear markets. However, not every bear market automatically coincided with a recession in the last 100 years – out of the 22 since 1900, 15 were around a recession – 7 due to other factors.
Also, high equity valuations don’t signal a bear market. Nevertheless, they do signal below average returns over the medium to longer term. Albeit, sharemarket bear markets are not associated with low valuations!
Therefore, assessing the risk of a US recession is critical at this juncture. As covered in a recent Post the “warning signs” of recession are not present currently based on a number of US Recession warning indicators.
Lastly, as also noted in a previous Post it is very difficult to predict bear markets and the costs of trying to time markets is very expensive. The maintenance of a truly diversified portfolio and portfolio tilting will likely deliver superior return outcomes over the longer term.
A more robust and truly diversified portfolio reduces portfolio volatility increasing the likelihood of investors reaching their investment goals.
It is a good time to reflect on the diversification of your portfolio at this time in the market cycle. As Goldman Sachs note, both equities and bonds appear expensive relative to the last 100 years.
In a Balanced Bear scenario there are very few places to hide.
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