After the ‘warm bath’ of an ultra-loose three-year period of double-digit returns, investors now clearly find themselves being buffeted by a sudden cold shower of headwinds. Yields have risen from ultra-low levels, inflation is no longer anchored, and central banks are reversing their multi-year accommodative stance. We believe these headwinds are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, meaning equity markets will essentially go ‘back to normal’ and show more modest returns and occasional periods of high volatility going forward.
With bond markets having failed to provide a safe alternative this year, given the path to normality for interest rates around the world, it’s worth remembering therefore that in uncertain environments, low-risk strategies tend to perform better. This includes winning by losing less. In particular, history shows us that the relative performance of the Global Conservative Equities strategy is typically good in this market environment.
In its first five-year period, an initially calm and complacent market was rocked by the largest global financial crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. In this volatile period, Global Conservative Equities showed strong risk reduction in 2008, leading to a positive alpha, despite the strategy lagging in the 2009 recovery. This period also includes the first two volatile episodes of the European sovereign debt crisis, again leading to lower losses for the strategy. The first five years were relatively successful for the strategy, avoiding losses while the market dropped an annualized 4.16% per year.
In the second five-year period, the European debt crisis took center stage and many feared a second global financial crisis based on bad debt. Nevertheless, markets churned out annualized double-digit returns, despite periods of high volatility, and it turned out to be a successful period for equity investors and for the Global Conservative Equities strategy. While the MSCI World rose on average 15.7% per year (10.8% in local terms), the strategy managed to show an even higher return, against lower risk. Also the first half of 2016 was a good period for the strategy, but in July 2016, everything changed as a new market regime was clearly on its way.
The third period, however, was characterized by a calm and prolonged bull market. This was sparked by phenomenal returns for US tech stocks, especially FAANG; a trend which was magnified by the pandemic which accelerated digital trends dramatically. In this Goldilocks scenario of high returns and low volatility, Global Conservative Equities lagged the bullish market, especially in the strong recovery in Q2-Q4 2020, following the pandemic panic in Q1 2020. We want to emphasize though that the strategy’s alpha in this period was positive up until the start of the pandemic, when the strategy, for the first time since inception, did not provide the risk reduction one might expect.
Since the fourth quarter of 2021, market patterns have changed. Defensive stocks have stopped lagging the market, and the high market volatility in the first nine months of 2022 led to good relative returns for the low-risk factor. We believe this normalized market environment, with yields up and a reversal of the multi-year ultra-loose monetary policies, bodes well for the future of Global Conservative Equities.
This is because, as we’ve seen, although negative market returns are bad news for equity investors, conservative stocks tend to do relatively well in a volatile market environment. In the figure below, we show how Global Conservative Equities fared in this year’s and previous sell-offs (returns in EUR).1 Over the past eight major market corrections the strategy was able to reduce the market drawdown by an average of 31%, varying across different types of sell-offs.2 We see the same patterns for our EM and European strategy.3
In this brief insight, we highlighted how market circumstances have changed and how the Global Conservative Equities strategy is a suitable investment concept for investors that want to position themselves more defensively. We believe that investors will face a far more challenging market environment in the next few years, contrary to the joyful decade of double-digit returns.
Given that several tailwinds for investors have died down and the Goldilocks environment has changed into a colder investor sentiment, we expect the strategy to perform well in a more moderate, volatile world for asset prices. Moreover, the modest valuation levels for our strategies create a return buffer for our clients for the foreseeable future, in our eyes.
1Because of the strong USD/weak EUR, index and fund returns are less negative/higher in EUR terms than in local or USD terms.
2A notable exception was the pandemic panic, when several low-risk stocks were hit by the specific impact of the lockdowns, while high-beta tech stocks turned out to be the best defense. Apart from this exceptional period, the strategy has a strong track record of risk reduction in down markets.
3See for example our recent client note “Celebrating 15 years of European Conservative: higher returns against lower risks”, Jan Sytze Mosselaar, September 2022. European Conservative Equities managed to show risk reduction in the pandemic panic as tech is a small part of the MSCI Europe.
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