Is the 60/40 Portfolio Broken?
Challenges to the Traditional Portfolio
For decades the standard representation for a balanced portfolio has been the 60/40: 60% equities with 40% bonds. Although most investors are diversified beyond this model with small caps, foreign stocks, high yield bonds, and maybe even REITs or commodities, a simple mix of 60% S&P 500 and 40% Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond is often the shorthand definition of a balanced portfolio. This standard allocation provided just the right amount of risk and conservative investments to reach a targeted return.
The Attraction of the 60/40
For a generation, this simple approach worked well. Stocks provided capital appreciation and dividends, albeit with a dose of volatility. Bonds produced yield and provided capital appreciation, acting as a volatility dampener when stocks went south. One could have met actuarial demands of 6%, 7%, or even 8% via this simple portfolio.
The traditional portfolio has consistently provided decent returns for the average investor.
Looking at the above numbers, one might be tempted to say, “If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.” But such an approach is dangerously naïve.
This simple approach may not meet these expectations going forward and the main culprit is the 40 in the portfolio: bonds.
With rates at historic lows, the likelihood of bonds posting returns anywhere near their historic levels is close to zero. Since yields and bond prices are inversely related, the upside potential of bonds is essentially capped.
With the current yield curve, an investor purchasing 10, 20, or 30-year bonds will be hard-pressed to outperform inflation.
So what does this mean for the traditional 60/40 components?
Impact of Low Yields on Portfolio Return
Low bonds yields will ask more of the equities portion of the portfolio, which may require riskier positions.
Assume we have a standard 60/40 portfolio mix and the target return for the overall portfolio is 8%. If we assume that the 40% position in fixed income will return 2%, what would the remaining 60% in equities have to return to lift the portfolio up to 8%?
The answer may come as a nasty surprise: 12%.
A forecasted return of 2% on bonds might be too generous. Should rates rise, bonds could suffer losses damaging the return of the portfolio.
Rising Rates means Losing Value
The average duration of several Morningstar fixed income categories is listed below. Should rates rise the average fund in these categories would be expected to lose the following amounts.
In one of Bill Gross’s newsletters from a few years ago, Gross mentions that in order to generate a level of return equal to the 7.5% return bonds have delivered over the past 40 years, yields would need to drop to negative 17%.
In other words, bonds will NOT be delivering return similar to its long-term average over the past four decades.
Unappealing Set of Options
Given these circumstances, investors and advisors are left with an unappealing set of options:
- Lowering the return expectation for the overall portfolio.
- Increase the equity portion and take on more risk.
- Simply hoping that the capital markets will do better than expected and deliver high returns.
Lowering expectations or taking on more risk may not be an option for many investors and hoping that capital markets will do better than expected is a dangerous choice.
If bonds won’t provide the return stream necessary to investors, it may be time to rethink how that 40% of the portfolio is allocated.
About the Author:
Marc Odo, CFA®, CAIA®, CIPM®, CFP®, Client Portfolio Manager, is responsible for helping clients and prospects gain a detailed understanding of Swan’s Defined Risk Strategy, including how it fits into an overall investment strategy. Formerly, Marc was the Director of Research for 11 years at Zephyr Associates.
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