Like the phoenix, the 60/40 portfolio will rise again
July 1, 2022
July 1, 2022
Periodically, pundits declare the death of the 60% stock/40% bond portfolio. Their voices have grown louder lately, amid sharp declines in both stock and bond prices. But we've been here before. Based on history, balanced portfolios are apt to prove the naysayers wrong, again.
Approaching the midpoint of 2022, market, economic, and geopolitical conditions all appear fraught. Inflation is hitting 40-year highs, the Federal Reserve is sharply reversing monetary policy, the pandemic hasn't gone away, and supply chain woes have been exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns in China and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with the latter putting the Western bloc the closest to a war footing in decades.
Not surprisingly, this perfect storm of negative market drivers has pushed stock and bond prices south in lockstep, impairing the normal diversification of risks in a balanced portfolio.
Brief, simultaneous declines in stocks and bonds are not unusual, as our chart shows. Viewed monthly since early 1976, the nominal total returns of both U.S. stocks and investment-grade bonds have been negative nearly 15% of the time. That's a month of joint declines every seven months or so, on average.
Extend the time horizon, however, and joint declines have struck less frequently. Over the last 46 years, investors never encountered a three-year span of losses in both asset classes.
As our chart shows, drawdowns in 60% stock/40% bond portfolios have occurred more regularly than simultaneous declines in stocks and bonds. This is due to the far-higher volatility of stocks and their greater weight in that asset mix. One-month total returns were negative one-third of the time over the last 46 years. The one-year returns of such portfolios were negative about 14% of the time, or once every seven years or so, on average.
But we need to remind ourselves of the purpose of the traditional balanced portfolio.
Catchy phrases like the "death of 60/40" are easy to remember, don't require complex explanations, and may even seem to have a ring of truth in the difficult market environment we are in today. But such statements ignore basic facts of investing, focus on short-term performance, and create a dangerous disincentive for investors to remain disciplined about their long-term goals.
Keep in mind:
I've focused here on the 60/40 portfolio because of its touchstone status. In our view, 60/40 is a sound benchmark for an investment strategy designed to pursue moderate growth.
Prominent and useful as a benchmark though it is, 60/40 is not magical. And talk of its demise is ultimately a distraction from the business of investing successfully over the long term.
The broader, more important issue is the effectiveness of a diversified portfolio, balanced across asset classes, in keeping with the investor’s risk tolerance and time horizon. In that sense, "60/40" is a sort of shorthand for an investor’s strategic asset allocation, whatever the target mix.
For some investors with a longer time horizon, the right strategic asset allocation mix may be more aggressive, 80/20 or even 90/10. For others, closer to retirement or more conservative-minded, 30/70 may do it. The suitability of alternative investments for a portfolio depends on the investor's circumstances and preferences.
Whatever one calls a target asset mix and whatever one includes in the portfolio, successful investing over the long term demands perspective and long-term discipline. Stretches like the beginning of 2022—and some bear markets that have lasted much longer—test investors' patience.
This isn't the first time the 60/40 and the markets in general have faced difficulties—and it won't be the last. Our models suggest that further economic travails lie ahead and that market returns will still be muted. But the 60/40 portfolio and its variations are not dead. Like the phoenix, the immortal bird of Greek mythology that regenerates from the ashes of its predecessor, the balanced portfolio will be reborn from the ashes of this market and continue rewarding those investors with the patience and discipline to stick with it.
1 Vanguard calculations using data from Standard & Poor’s, Dow Jones, MSCI, CRSP, Morningstar, and Bloomberg. U.S. stock returns are represented by the S&P 90 beginning in 1926; the S&P 500 Index from March 1957 through 1971; Dow Jones U.S. Total Stock Market Index (formerly known as the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Index) from January 1972 through April 22, 2005; MSCI US Broad Market Index through June 2, 2013; and CRSP US Total Market Index thereafter. U.S. bond returns are represented by the Dimson-Marsh-Staunton database from Morningstar, Inc., beginning in 1926; Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index from January 1976 through December 31, 2009; and Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Float Adjusted Index thereafter.
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