Strategist's Corner: Stocks Are Not the New Bonds

by James Swanson, CFA
MFS Chief Investment Strategist

2016 has been notable for droughts in some places and floods in others. There has been a disconnect, if you will, in normal weather patterns. Lately, we have witnessed a growing disconnect in the financial markets too. Asset class after asset class continues to rise in value despite stagnant global economic growth and flagging corporate profits. Why are investors chasing the market higher? Extraordinarily accommodative central bank policies are the most likely explanation. With a large fraction of the world’s pool of government bond yields in negative territory, flows that normally would have gone into high- quality fixed income securities are instead finding a home in dividend-paying stocks. This "chase for yield" has pushed up traditional high-dividend payers like real estate investment trusts (REITs), utilities and telecom stocks to historically rich price/earnings multiples. This is the most concrete evidence we have seen in years that investors are substituting stocks for bonds in investment portfolios.

Bonds: Accept no substitute

There are two powerful reasons why stocks are not a substitute for bonds. The first is the relative volatility of the two asset classes. Stocks are historically about three times as volatile as bonds. Investors therefore demand higher returns in exchange for holding these riskier assets. Second, dividend payments to stockholders are not a contractual obligation; there is no legal compunction for corporations to continue to pay dividends. Dividend payments can be — and often are — cut at the first hint of trouble.

swanson chart

 

Stock investors need to be particularly mindful of potential economic inflection points. History has shown that markets often become the most euphoric at the most perilous point in the economic cycle. The current US economic expansion is now in its eighth year, while the average business cycle typically lasts five years. The stock market has historically peaked 6–8 months before a recession begins, though forecasting recessions is always challenging. When recessions do hit, corporate profits have fallen by an average of 26% and stock markets typically have fallen by roughly the same amount. Failing to avoid late-cycle euphoria can have severe costs for investors, especially for investors who have been driven into equities for the wrong reasons.

Don’t be late

Instead of being an equity market latecomer, yield-starved investors might want to consider adding "credit," or corporate bonds, to their investment portfolios. Pools of investment-grade corporate bonds are currently not cheap by historic standards, but they are not at extremely rich price levels either. Investors seeking yield can find attractive opportunities in corporate credit, which offers yields similar to or higher than equity dividends, but generally with far less volatility.

Global central banks have been providing novel forms of support for world bond markets with the aim of stimulating economic growth and inflation rates. But in my opinion, sound investment strategy does not include guessing where central bank policy is heading next. The guiding principles of preserving capital while generating growth are vigilance on the fundamentals, caution regarding gains, and the avoidance of fads. Don’t follow raw market emotion, especially when easy money causes the temperature of the markets to rise just as fundamentals fall.

 

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

No investment strategy, including asset allocation or diversification, can guarantee a profit or protect against a loss. No forecasts can be guaranteed.

The views expressed are those of James Swanson and are subject to change at any time. These views are for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a recommendation or solicitation or as investment advice from the Advisor.

Issued in the United States by MFS Institutional Advisors, Inc. ("MFSI") and MFS Investment Management. Issued in Canada by MFS Investment Management Canada Limited. No securities commission or similar regulatory authority in Canada has reviewed this communication. Issued in the United Kingdom by MFS International (U.K.) Limited ("MIL UK"), a private limited company registered in England and Wales with the company number 03062718, and authorised and regulated in the conduct of investment business by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. MIL UK, an indirect subsidiary of MFS, has its registered office at One Carter Lane, London, EC4V 5ER and provides products and investment services to institutional investors globally. This material shall not be circulated or distributed to any person other than to professional investors (as permitted by local regulations) and should not be relied upon or distributed to persons where such reliance or distribution would be contrary to local regulation. Issued in Hong Kong by MFS International (Hong Kong) Limited ("MIL HK"), a private limited company licensed and regulated by the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (the "SFC"). MIL HK is a wholly-owned, indirect subsidiary of Massachusetts Financial Services Company, a US based investment adviser and fund sponsor registered with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. MIL HK is approved to engage in dealing in securities and asset management regulated activities and may provide certain investment services to "professional investors" as defined in the Securities and Futures Ordinance ("SFO"). Issued in Singapore by MFS International Singapore Pte. Ltd., a private limited company registered in Singapore with the company number 201228809M, and further licensed and regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Issued in Latin America by MFS International Ltd. For investors in Australia: MFSI and MIL UK are exempt from the requirement to hold an Australian financial services license under the Corporations Act 2001 in respect of the financial services they provide. In Australia and New Zealand: MFSI is regulated by the US Securities & Exchange Commission under US laws and MIL UK is regulated by the UK Financial Conduct Authority under UK laws, which differ from Australian and New Zealand laws.

34792.10