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For quite some time now, investors have turned away from stocks. Despite periods of strength, two powerful bear markets, one in the opening years of this century and the other between 2007 and 2009, have marred the long-term average performance figures. Since so many investors draw their perceptions of future possibilities from such historical performance calculations, the disappointing returns have raised many doubts about the role of equities in fundamental asset allocations.
The statistical record is striking. After the fabulous gains of the 1990s, when the benchmark S&P 500® Index1 averaged returns of more than 18% a year, the market crash between 2000 and 2002 entirely dominated the averages calculated for the century's opening decade. By 2010, the average annual 10-year rate of return registered a loss of almost 1.0%. This record was actually worse than during the Great Depression. Though the decade of the 1930s showed an average annual loss of slightly more than 1.0%, the country during that earlier time actually experienced a general deflation. On that basis, even the nominal loss amounted to a gain in real purchasing power of about 0.5% a year. But prices climbed during the first 10 years of this century, modestly to be sure, but enough to enlarge the nominal average loss in the real purchasing power of equity investors of 3.0–3.5% a year.
This record, especially comparisons to the Great Depression, deeply affected perceptions. Retail and institutional investors began to question the role of equities in portfolios. Stocks had so long been considered the best long-run performance bet, many wondered if that former premise were still valid. Articles, scholarly, thoughtful, and otherwise, looked for reasons why past analyses were misplaced, and frequently found them, or what they supposed were reasons. In the process, they reinforced negative perceptions of equities. Such speculation began to dissipate by 2005–06, as strong market gains since 2002 began to restore the picture of longer-term strength. But the 2008–09 financial crisis and attendant market reverses brought back the anti-equity perceptions with a vengeance. Money flowed out of stocks. Even as the market began its irregular recovery after March 2009, the 10-year average annual record showed losses, sometimes as much as 3.5% a year in nominal terms and even worse in real terms. Money continued to flow out of stocks.
But as equity gains have built, this picture has begun to change. Since the market low of March 2009, the S&P 500 has risen more than 120%. In just the last 12 months, it has risen almost 25%. More important, perhaps, the 10-year averages, even as they have included these gains, also have begun to exclude the great losses of 2000–02. As of the third quarter this year, the calculation of the 10-year average return has ceased to include the S&P 500's nearly 25% losses between June and September 2002. Accordingly, in just the past few months, the 10-year average return calculated for the S&P 500 has risen from a mere 2.9% a year to more than 8%, a long-term return figure that even recent investment discussion dismissed as an impossible relic of a false past.
Of course, the great losses of 2000–02 will remain in the record—but analytical conventions will greatly mute their effect. Investors, actually, seldom look back that far. Custom accounts only for one-, three-, five-, and 10-year periods of performance. If there is any reference to a more distant past, the calculations look at 20- and 30-year blocks of time. On this basis, the powerful gains of the 1990s and 1980s will more than swamp the effects of that ugly period at the start of this century. Looking back over 20 years from the present, for instance, the average annual return on the S&P 500 equals 8.6%. Over 30 years, it equals 11.6%. It is these figures, but especially the most recent 10-year average, that will alter formal analytics and inform investors' perceptions, carefully calculated or derived intuitively.
As these new calculations gain wider currency, history suggests attitudes toward equities will become more favorable. Funds flows should follow. The change, no doubt, will start gradually and then build as the historical return calculation becomes more commonly known and one investor’s perceptions influence another's. History suggests that the new flows may carry equities up for another leg. Sometimes that additional leg is short lived. Sometimes it can last for a long while, years in fact. It certainly did in the 1980s and 1990s and even in the middle years of this century's first decade. Especially since valuations in this market remain attractive, there is every reason to expect that this next leg upward may last. Once those funds flows begin, however, the rally will take on a different character.
I would like to thank Henry Rehberg, Lord Abbett Regional Manager, for suggesting this line of thinking.
The opinions in the preceding commentary are as of the date of publication and subject to change based on subsequent developments and may not reflect the views of the firm as a whole. This material is not intended to be legal or tax advice and is not to be relied upon as a forecast, or research or investment advice regarding a particular investment or the markets in general, nor is it intended to predict or depict performance of any investment. Investors should not assume that investments in the securities and/or sectors described were or will be profitable. This document is prepared based on information Lord Abbett deems reliable; however, Lord Abbett does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information. Investors should consult with a financial advisor prior to making an investment decision.
Investors should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses of the Lord Abbett funds. This and other important information is contained in each fund’s summary prospectus and/or prospectus. To obtain a prospectus or summary prospectus on any Lord Abbett mutual fund, contact your investment professional or Lord Abbett Distributor LLC at 888-522-2388 or visit us at www.lordabbett.com. Read the prospectus carefully before you invest.