Future Returns From Stocks And Bonds by Brandywine Asset Management

This is an update to the article I originally wrote in mid-2013 (and updated once previously in 2014) that projected the future returns to be earned from stocks and bonds through the remainder of this decade. The article was based on research I conducted in writing my best-selling book, Jackass Investing: Don’t do it. Profit from it [i].

Unfortunately, for people intent on adhering to a conventional 60-40 portfolio, or gambling [ii] their returns on placing money primarily in stocks, future returns continue to look lethargic at best. The projected returns are lower than historical returns and also what most people anticipate for two primary reasons:

  • The stock market rally that has taken place since the financial crisis lows in 2009 has dramatically increased the multiple that people are now paying for stocks and unless “this time is different” has the effect of reducing today’s future return potential, and
  • The dividend rate, although attractive relative to bond rates, is significantly below the level that is embedded in studies of past long-term stock market returns.

But before we get into the basis for my projection, let’s take a look at the three primary return drivers that power stock market returns. I outline these in the first two chapters [iii] of my book:

  1. Corporate earnings growth
  2. Investor sentiment
  3. Dividends

Now I’ll show how each of these returns drivers is projected to contribute to the future returns from stocks.

Return contribution from corporate earnings growth

Since 1900, earnings growth for companies in the S&P 500 (and its predecessor indexes) has averaged 4.58% [iv]. Because we use a 10-year average of earnings (as described in the next section) to calculate the likely level of stocks at the end of the decade, the effect of dropping off the poor earnings during the financial crisis has the effect of increasing the real 10-year average earnings growth rate over the remainder of this decade to above this level. For example, if profit margins remain at today’s level, earnings will grow at 6.10% from year-end 2015 to year-end 2020.

Unfortunately for future returns however, today’s profit margins are approximately 10% above the longer-term average. Depending on the time period measured and companies included in the measurement, a ‘normal’ profit margin is approximately 7% [v], while today’s profit margin on the S&P 500 is in the range of 7.68% [vi]. There are a number of factors that have contributed to today’s higher profit margins, among them low interest rates, constrained payroll costs and capital expenditures, and increased profits (and lower taxes) derived from non-US business. And there are those who contend that these changes are structural and will persist. Perhaps. But to accept this is to believe that “this time is different.”

As a result, I believe that profit margins are likely to decline to the longer-term average of 7% by year-end 2020. As profit margins revert towards their long-term average, earnings growth will be subdued. To expect something different is betting against the odds. The result is that corporate profits on the S&P 500 are likely to grow at a 5.62% annual rate.

Return contribution from investor sentiment

In my book I show that investor sentiment is the dominant return driver for stocks during periods of less than 20 years. A good measure of investor sentiment is the P/E ratio. Specifically, the measure we use, which has the benefit of smoothing earnings to reduce the impact of interim events (such as the financial crisis), is the cyclically-adjusted price-earnings ratio (“CAPE”).

CAPE was popularized by Robert Shiller in his book Irrational Exuberance and compares the S&P 500’s current price to the 10-year average of earnings. Over the past 116 years CAPE has averaged 16.61. As of year-end 2015, due to the strong stock market rally coming out of the financial crisis trough, CAPE has inflated to 25.97.

Unless “this time is different,” to believe that CAPE will remain at a new “permanently high plateau” [vii] is to bet against the odds. Over the remainder of this decade CAPE is more likely to revert to its long-term average. The result will be an annual drag on stock market appreciation of -8.55% [viii].

Return contribution from dividends

The dividend yield on the S&P 500 at year-end 2015 was approximately 2.11%. This represents a dividend payout ratio of 50%. This payout ratio is 15% lower than the 116-year average of 58%. If the payout ratio reverts to its long-term average, this will boost the dividend yield over the remainder of this decade. As a result of this, and assuming that dividends compound this effect while also increasing along with corporate profits, I project the annual return contribution from dividends, between 2015 and the end of 2020, will be +2.80%.

Calculating the S&P 500 total return

We’re now left with a calculation to determine the projected average annual return for the S&P total return index, between year-end 2015 and year-end 2020.

This is the sum of the contribution from each of the three return drivers:

Future Returns From Stocks And Bonds

This performance is dramatically lower than what conventional investment wisdom has led people to expect. Even if profit margins remain at today’s high levels, the total return from stocks will be, at 0.49%. The math is rather straightforward. To expect a different result than what is shown here is to insist that “this time is different.” Unfortunately, for people relying on bonds to salvage their returns, the following analysis is disheartening.

Return contribution from bonds

For the past 40 years the Barclay Aggregate Bond Index averaged annualized returns of 7.61%. Unfortunately, the two primary return drivers that contributed to that performance, although more favorable since I wrote my original article, are both destined to provide much lower returns in the future. They are:

  1. The capital appreciation provided as the high interest rate of 13% that prevailed at the start of the period declined to 1.76% today, [ix] and
  2. The average yield of 6.16% (on the 5-year Treasury note, which approximates the yield on the Index) over the period.

With the Barclay Aggregate Bond Index now yielding just over 2%, the likely return from bonds over the remainder of this decade (based on the fact that historically, the yield on the Barclay Aggregate Bond Index is predictive of total returns over the following 5-10 years) should be similar to the current yield on the Barclay Aggregate Bond Index, which, as represented by the iShares ETF (AGG) is 2.47% (as of December 31, 2015). To believe otherwise would be to believe that “this time is different.”

Calculating the return on the 60-40 portfolio

In summary then, based on the above straightforward analysis, from year-end 2015 through year-end 2020 we can expect the following return from a conventional 60-40 portfolio:

Future Returns From Stocks And Bonds

This is obviously much lower than what people have come to expect from a conventionally-diversified portfolio. It is also likely insufficient to meet most people’s financial needs. It is even worse news for the large pension funds that rely on stocks and bonds for the majority of their returns and which require significantly higher returns in order to meet their obligations to the pensioners.

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