March Madness has arrived once again. This NCAA basketball event, which has been around since 1939, begins with a selection committee choosing the top 68 teams in the country. These teams are matched up against each other through a single-elimination tournament until a national champion is throned. The stock market does not have a selection committee that picks teams from conferences like the SEC, Big East, Pac-12, and ACC, but rather millions of investors select the best investments from asset classes like stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, venture capital, and private equity.
In the investment world, there are no win-loss records, but rather there are risk-return profiles. Investors generally migrate towards the asset classes where they find the optimal trade-off between risk and return. Speculators, day-traders, and momentum traders may define risk differently, but regardless, over the long-run, capital goes where it is treated best. And over the last six years, the U.S. stock market hasn’t been a bad place to be (the S&P 500 has about tripled).
Why such outperformance in stocks? Besides a dynamic earnings recovery from the 2008-2009 financial crisis, another major factor has been the near-0% interest rate environment. When investors are earning near nothing in their bank and savings accounts, it is perfectly rational for savers to look for riskier options, if they are compensated for that risk. In addition to loose central bank and quantitative easing policies fueling demand for stocks, rising dividends have increased the attractiveness of the stock market. In fact, as you can see from the chart below, dividends have about doubled from 2008-2009 and about tripled from the year 2000.
Stock prices have moved higher in concert with rising dividends, which, as you can see from the chart below, has kept the dividend yield flat at around 2% over the last few years. Treasury bond yields, on the other hand, have been on steady declining trend for the last 35 years. So, while coupons on newly issued bonds have been declining for virtually the last three and a half decades, stock dividends have been on a steadily upward moving rampage, excluding recessions (up +13% in the most recent reported period).
Declining interest rates have made stocks look attractive relative to investment grade corporate bonds too as evidenced by the chart below. As you can see, over the last half-century, corporate bond yields have predominantly offered higher income yields than the earnings yield on stocks – that is not the case today.
What does all this stock dividend, earnings yield stuff mean? In the grand scheme of things, income starving Baby Boomers and retirees are slowly realizing that stocks in general stack up favorably in an environment in which interest payments are going down and dividend payments are going up. One of the areas highlighting the underlying demand for stocks is the Volatility Index (VIX) – a.k.a., the “Fear Gauge.” Despite Greece, Russia, ISIS, the Fed, and the Dollar dominating the headlines, the hunger for yield and growth in a declining interest rate environment is cushioning the blow during these heightened periods of volatility (see also A Series of Unfortunate Events).
Since the end of 2011, the monthly close of the VIX has stayed above its historical average of approximately 20 only two times (see chart below). In other words, over that timeframe, the VIX has remained below average about 95% of the time. When the VIX has spiked above 20, generally it has only been for brief periods, until cooler heads prevail and bargain hunters come in to buy depressed stock bargains.
I’m not naïve enough to believe the bull market in stocks will last forever, but as long as interest rates don’t spike up and/or corporate earnings crater, underlying demand for yield should provide a floor for stocks during heightened periods of volatility. We may be in the midst of March Madness but volatility blandness is showing us that investors are paying attention to dividend grandness.