Before I show you the 20-year annualized returns by asset class between 1999 – 2018, I want you to guess the following four things:
1) Of the following asset classes, the S&P 500, a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio, Bonds, a 40/60 stock/bond portfolio, REITs, Gold, Oil, EAFE (Europe, Asia, Far East), national real estate, which performed best?
2) What was the annualized return for the best performing asset class +/-0.5%?
3) What was the annualized return for the worst performing asset class +/- 0.5%?
4) What was the annualized return for the average active investor +/- 0.2%?
If you can guess two out of the four correctly, I’ll give you a gold star and might even take your child’s SAT or ACT exam for you.
If you only get one out of four right, you need to go run five miles immediately. If you get zero right, then you need to run five miles, do 100 sit-ups, and 100 push-ups.
There’s no way any of you are getting four out of four right.
Now that we have a deal, let’s take a look at the results to see how reality compares with your biased beliefs.
Performance By Asset Class Between 1999 – 2018
Below are the results compiled by J.P. Morgan, one of the largest traditional asset managers in the world that charge clients 1.15% – 1.45% of assets under management, based on $1 – $10 million.
Asset managers like J.P. Morgan are the reason why digital wealth advisors like Wealthfront were created during the last financial crisis. People wanted to pay lower fees (0.25% by WF) and weren’t satisfied with active management results.
As you can see from the results, REITs is the #1 performer with a 9.9% annualized return. I bet less than 20% of you guessed this one right.
The S&P 500 only returned 5.6% a year between 1999 – 2018. I think most of you would have guessed a higher return. On a relative basis, Bonds, at 4.5%, doesn’t seem too shabby given the lower volatility and risk.
Gold is a real surprise at 7.7% since gold doesn’t produce any income and whenever gold is mentioned, it’s usually in a negative light unless you’re a gangster.
Meanwhile, Homes returned the worst at only 3.4%. The national home price index generally tracks close to inflation (2.2% in this time period). Therefore, a 1.2% outperformance is not bad. Further, we’re not including leverage, only sales price.
What’s most interesting to me about this chart is how REITs have outperformed Homes by 6.5% for 20 years. This goes to show that professional real estate managers can add tremendous value.
The outperformance also partially explains why experienced individuals who know how to bargain, remodel, expand, and predict demographic changes often prefer real estate as well.
Finally, it’s no surprise to me that the average active investor has only returned 1.9% a year during this time period. Trading in and out of investments is a losing proposition long term due to timing errors and fees. Figuring out when to buy is hard enough. Having to figure out when to sell and then get back in consistently is impossible.
The inability to consistently outperform the market is the reason why the vast majority of us should stick to a proper asset allocation model based on our risk tolerance and our goals in life.
Our core tax-advantaged retirement portfolio(s) should be mostly left alone. I’m talking about our 401(k), IRA, Roth IRA, SEP-IRA, 403(b), and so forth.
For our after-tax investments, it’s worth adjusting our strategies based on a purpose e.g. getting more conservative if buying a house within the next 12 months. See: How To Invest Your Down Payment
Why I Chose 1999 As The Starting Point
In addition to the fact that J.P. Morgan had already crunched the numbers for me, 1999 as a starting point is significant for me because it coincides with my graduation from college and when I started to aggressively invest my savings.
I actually started investing money during my sophomore year in 1996, but I only had about a $2,500 portfolio at the time so it was insignificant. Hooray for making $4/hour at McDonald’s though to learn about work ethic!
Given my vintage year is 1999, my outlook on various asset classes is shaped by the performance of these asset classes during most of my working career.
From 1999-2000, we had a tremendous internet stock bubble followed by a 2.5-year decline. Then we had a nice 5-year run in the S&P 500 followed by another 2-year collapse.
Now we’ve had a nice 10-year run that has surpassed the previous peak by almost 100%. Therefore, readers have to forgive me for not overweighting stocks at this point in time.
Given my working career has only been limited to living in New York City and San Francisco, I have personally witnessed closer to a 6% annualized growth in property from 1999 – 2018.
6% is not much greater than the stock market’s 5.6% annualized return. However, once you add leverage, 6% becomes a significant amount. We’re talking 12% – 30% annualized returns on a 50% – 80% loan-to-value ratio.
When I calculate my compound annualized net worth growth rate since 1999, the number is between 12% – 14%, depending on how I value some of my assets. This is fine since my annual net worth growth target has always been at least 10%.
However, I would attribute more than 50% of my net worth growth to aggressive savings and building a business rather than to returns. In other words, what you do may matter more than you think.
Lower Your Return Expectations
One of my main goals of this article is for readers to keep your return expectations reasonable over the next 10-20 years. If you do so, your risk exposure will likely be more appropriate. You’ll also likely work harder to build your net worth through action.
The second goal of this article is to compare your overall net worth growth to your various investments of choice and see how they stack up. You should try to figure out how much of your net worth growth was due to savings versus returns.
Finally, I want everybody to recognize their biases. I’m biased towards real estate because real estate has performed best for me since 1999. Whereas some of you will be biased towards stocks or other asset classes because they have performed best for you since getting your first real job.
Past performance is no guarantee of future performance. It is likely we will experience some performance leadership changes in the future and will have to adapt accordingly.
For our tax-advantaged investments, including our son’s 529 plan, I plan on leaving them alone. We’ve still got between 16-20 years before we want to access the funds.
For our after-tax investments, I’m reducing exposure to stocks, increasing exposure to cash and short-term treasuries, diversifying our real estate exposure across non-coastal cities through speciality REITs and real estate crowdfunding, and constantly looking for ocean view fixers in San Francisco.
I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself 10 years from now if I don’t buy at least one more ocean view fixer today. I just love the combo of identifying high growth potential investments and boosting returns through rehabbing.