The great big empty bandwagon

Friday, October 12, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 41

Year-to-date the MSCI World index has climbed 15 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed within 5 percent of its all-time high. The S&P 500 has returned 14.9 percent annualized over the last three years. Corporate earnings have reached a record high. Has any of this inspired investors?

Main Street investors have pulled $300 billion out of equity markets over the last two years. Despite record low yields, more than 50 percent of the $1.6 trillion investor’s house at Fidelity resides in money markets and bond funds. Typically, rising markets attract capital, which fuels further advances. Today, stock markets are suffering horrendous PR. High frequency trading, flash crashes, botched IPOs, ponzi schemes and political hostility have convinced investors that the stock market is rigged against them. Oddly, the “rigging” in the stock markets pales in comparison to the “rigging” in the bond markets.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has muscled inflation adjusted yields into negative territory. Without Fed intervention yields for savers would float higher. The purpose of the intervention is to lure savers out of “safe” assets into “risky” assets. In other words the government has intervened in a way to punish bond investors and reward stock investors – explicitly. Yet, Main Street investors associate bonds with safety and stocks with risk. To be fair, the Vanguard Total Market Bond Fund has returned 6 percent annualized over the last three years with low volatility. However, with Americans in dire need of rebuilding wealth, the cost of comfort has been high. Over the same period, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund has compounded at 15 percent annually. $100,000 invested in the bond fund three years ago would have grown to $119,000 while $100,000 invested in the stock fund would have grown to $152,000.

Disobeying the Feds explicit asset allocation direction and pursuing “comfort” cost this investor $33,000.

With the Fed now engaged in QE3, an infinite commitment to squashing interest rates, the push toward equities has only strengthened. Will investors finally experience stock market seller’s remorse and hail the bandwagon? Possibly. Unfortunately, the timing track record of Main Street investors is abysmal. An often cited study published by researchers at Dalbar indicate that while the stock market (S&P 500) advanced nearly 8 percent a year between Jan. 1, 1992, and Dec. 31, 2011, the return for the average equity fund investor barely exceeded 3 percent. On the fixed income side, the average fixed income fund investor returned less than 1 percent per year while the Barclays Aggregate Bond gained better than 6 percent. Of course no investor considers himself or herself average, but these numbers do suggest that managing money from the gut can be very, very expensive for those who are.

With the “fiscal cliff” looming, Europe recessing and China transitioning, there are a number of justifiable reasons to keep avoiding stocks and fondling cash. Just remember that the list of anxieties was no shorter a year ago, the year before that, or the year before that.

David Waddell, who is regularly featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Forbes, as well as on Fox Business News and CNBC, is president and CEO of Waddell & Associates, with offices in Memphis and Nashville.