What If…

May 12, 2022

It’s no doubt been a painful year for investors thus far. Both U.S. and non-U.S. equities are down broadly, with technology and growth stocks currently in bear market territory. Fixed income, typically a powerful diversifier in down equity markets, has fared little better. All while inflation and the war in Europe show little sign of ending anytime soon.

With markets delivering negative returns YTD to investors, it’s perhaps natural for investors to begin second guessing their asset allocations. However, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t whether we should’ve done something differently in the past, but how best to go about making decisions in the future.

“What if….?”

With most asset classes down across the board, it’s right about now when the financial press begins parroting articles about “alternative” investments for outperforming in bad markets—all of which prompts investors to begin engaging in “what if…?” thought exercises regarding their portfolio. What if we had an allocation to Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)? What if we held more real estate? What if we moved into gold, commodities, or Bitcoin at the start of the year and “side-stepped” these losses? That’s five “alternative” asset classes that are often touted as non-correlated or inflation-hedging assets.

But thinking there are “obvious” sure bets to combat market corrections or inflation is little more than myth. TIPS, for example—a favorite among inflation-haters everywhere—are down 6.64% YTD, similar to that of a short-duration, nominal bond portfolio. What about real estate? It’s down 13.54%, about the same as equities. What about Bitcoin and its supposed non-correlative and anti-inflationary properties? It’s down the most of our list of alternative asset classes: -27.8% YTD as of Friday’s close.

Okay, what about the classics—gold and commodities? Both are up YTD, 5.8% and 31.6% respectively. Finally, we have a winner! Two actually. Maybe 2 out of 5 (40%) isn’t bad. So, what are we waiting for? But wait, there’s more.

The danger of questionable assumptions

Any thought exercise of this sort requires a series of questionable assumptions. For example, let’s assume we did want to add commodities to our portfolio. Before we do so, there’s a lot we need to figure out. For starters, the timing. When do we buy? When do we sell? How do we make such decisions? What do we buy? All, some, one, or none? Would we’ve added commodities in March 2020 or April 2020 when it was “obvious” that easy monetary policy would fuel inflation in coming years—and when the front month oil future contract was trading at a negative $37.63 a barrel?

I put “obvious” in quotes above because—despite what the Fed critics, gold bugs, and commodities bulls would have us think—these things are far from obvious in the real world. For example, the Federal Reserve printed over $4 trillion from 2008 to 2015 and took interest rates to near zero, all pretty much without a hint of inflation. And during that time, let’s say January 2009 to March 2020, commodities lost a staggering 45.25% of their value (a return of -5.21% annually). So, let’s try this again. Would we’ve honestly added such an asset class to our portfolio in March 2020? If we’re like most investors, we didn’t.

But let’s assume you’re one of the few brave souls who did decide to invest in commodities in March 2020. Fair enough. How then would you go about determining how much to allocate to it? 5% or 50%? Why not 100%? At least for your portfolio and financial plan, these are big life and death questions. Size the position too small and it doesn’t have the intended impact; size it too big and you risk destroying a lifetime of hard work and dreams.

We should also keep in mind that all investment decisions involve opportunity costs; for example, a decision to allocate 5% to commodities is a decision not to allocate that same 5% elsewhere. Taking 5% from say, U.S. stocks, to fund a commodities allocation can involve substantial opportunity costs, especially since commodities have lower expected returns than equities. For the 20-year period from April 30, 2003-April 30, 2022, the Bloomberg Commodities Index returned a paltry 0.75% annually versus 10.53% for U.S. stocks, representing a very real opportunity cost of 9.78% per year over that time.1 The question, ultimately, is whether we should reasonably expect the returns on commodities going forward to be higher than those of equities—and, if so, why exactly we should expect this to be the case, especially when history tells a very different story.

Despite a deluge of Quantitative Easing (“QE”) since the financial crisis, this is what the world looked like to commodities investors in early April 2020. Would you’ve invested?

There’s a better way

These are already tough times for investors. There’s little point in making them tougher by beating ourselves up and playing Monday morning quarterback. The question isn’t what we should’ve done differently in the past, but how best to go about making decisions going forward. Should we abandon diversification and instead make highly concentrated bets on commodities contracts? Or perhaps engage in market timing or invest in untested, unregulated markets like crypto?

As fiduciaries, we think there’s a better way. One that’s guided by academic research, real-world evidence, and the power, clarity, and security that can come with a comprehensive financial plan. Our approach to investing—a diversified, factor-tilted, market-based approach that diversifies across and within assets classes—doesn’t rely on expensive, esoteric products or the clairvoyance of gurus or celebrity money managers to time markets or make big, concentrated bets on companies, sectors, or asset classes. Sure, there are no guarantees and there will be bumps along the way, but the same could easily be said for any investment strategy. The difference between our approach and other investment strategies is that our investment approach is data-driven and low cost, grounded in prudence and humility, and, has withstood the test of time.

Your advisor is always available to speak with you should you have any questions regarding your financial plan, risk tolerance, or just to check-in on things. Please feel free to contact your advisor at any time. Also, be sure to check out our Insights page for educational content and market updates.

Footnotes:

1 YCharts.  US stocks is the Russell 3000 Index.


Mercer Advisors Inc. is the parent company of Mercer Global Advisors Inc. and is not involved with investment services. Mercer Global Advisors Inc. (“Mercer Advisors”) is registered as an investment advisor with the SEC. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements.

All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author as of the date of publication and are subject to change. Some of the research and ratings shown in this presentation come from third parties that are not affiliated with Mercer Advisors. The information is believed to be accurate but is not guaranteed or warranted by Mercer Advisors. Content, research, tools and stock or option symbols are for educational and illustrative purposes only and do not imply a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell a particular security or to engage in any particular investment strategy. For financial planning advice specific to your circumstances, talk to a qualified professional at Mercer Advisors.

Past performance may not be indicative of future results. Therefore, no current or prospective client should assume that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy or product made reference to directly or indirectly, will be profitable or equal to past performance levels. All investment strategies have the potential for profit or loss. Changes in investment strategies, contributions or withdrawals may materially alter the performance and results of your portfolio. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that any specific investment will either be suitable or profitable for a client’s investment portfolio. Diversification does not ensure a profit or guarantee against loss. Historical performance results for investment indexes and/or categories, generally do not reflect the deduction of transaction and/or custodial charges or the deduction of an investment-management fee, the incurrence of which would have the effect of decreasing historical performance results. Economic factors, market conditions, and investment strategies will affect the performance of any portfolio and there are no assurances that it will match or outperform any particular benchmark.

This document may contain forward-looking statements including statements regarding our intent, belief or current expectations with respect to market conditions. Readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements. While due care has been used in the preparation of forecast information, actual results may vary in a materially positive or negative manner. Forecasts and hypothetical examples are subject to uncertainty and contingencies outside Mercer Advisors’ control.

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