With the equity market sell-off at the beginning of August, investors have been reminded once again that there is risk to investing in the stock market, but before hitting the panic button, it is worthwhile to review why we suggest allocating at least part of your portfolio to equities and why stocks are still likely to offer the best total return over the medium to long-term.
While some people have called the stock market a casino or worse, investors need to be reminded that each share of stock represents a fractional ownership of a business. When you buy shares of Apple, Pfizer, BCE or TD Bank, you are becoming a fractional owner in those enterprises. The value of that business is based on the future earnings and cash flow that those companies generate. Buying shares of good companies at a reasonable price has been and likely will continue to be one of the best methods of building long-term wealth.
The main reason that people have bought equities is to generate higher returns in their portfolio. This is called the Equity Risk Premium (ERP). The ERP represents the additional return that investors have earned owning equities over other asset classes. Historically, equities have provided a 4% higher return than bonds1 per year. If the investment is in a taxable account, that premium is even higher as equities generate capital gains and dividends, both of which are taxed at much lower rates than bonds (interest income). Please note though that the 4% premium is an average, meaning in some years the benefit will be much greater than 4% and in other years equities may earn a lower return than bonds or a negative return.
Inflation Hedge: While bonds offer security – a fixed coupon payment from issue to maturity date as long is there isn’t a default, investors bear inflation risk. This is the risk that if inflation increases, the fixed coupon payments from the bonds will have a lesser value, because these cash flows will not be able to buy the same amount of goods and services, i.e. have less purchasing power.
Since equities are public companies, typically when inflation rises, these companies find ways to continue generating higher profits by raising prices and /or cutting costs. E.g. if inflation rises, Walmart, McDonald’s, Royal Bank and TransCanada Pipelines typically find ways to continue increasing profits (and potentially dividend payments to shareholders) through changes in pricing or cost cutting measures, thereby protecting the investor’s purchasing power.
Participate in Economic Growth: While economies do experience contractions from time to time, typically Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases over time. As the economy expands, so should earnings of quality public companies (equities). Historically, these companies will generate more in sales and be able to increase prices during periods of economic expansion, and be able to reduce costs during periods of economic weakness, which should lead to higher earnings per share (EPS). Higher EPS typically leads to higher stock prices and often to higher dividend payments over time. In short time periods, particularly recessions, equity prices may decline even if earnings rise, but on a long-term basis, equities have been one of the best ways for investors to benefit from economic growth.
Low Interest Rates: While interest rates are expected to rise in the first half of 2015, we expect the increases to be small initially and the pace of the increases to be slow. Low interest rates benefit equities in a few ways: 1) relative attractiveness – institutions and individuals need to put their investment dollars somewhere. When interest rates are low, the relative attractiveness of stocks, particularly those that pay a dividend, is greater, i.e. when your choices are investing in a GIC paying less than 2%, and a government bond paying less than 2.5%, investing in stock that pays a 3% dividend and offers the potential for capital gains is quite appealing. 2) enhanced earnings – with low interest rates, companies need to devote less of their revenues to debt payments, which enhances profit margins and overall earnings. Higher earnings typically leads to higher stock prices. 3) Share buyback – many companies are using their savings on debt costs to buy back their shares on the market. If the number of shares outstanding decreases and earnings remains relatively the same, earnings per share (EPS) improves as well. From Q2 2013 to Q2 2014, U.S. companies bought back approximately 3.3% of their shares outstanding2; these share repurchases increased earnings per share.
While we do not expect equity returns similar to 2013 or 2014 in the year ahead, we still expect equities to outperform other asset classes in 2015. Because of their many benefits, equities should remain a key part of each investor’s portfolio over the long-run.
The overall percentage of equities to own in an investment portfolio, and the type of equities to hold (large capitalization vs. small capitalization, developed market vs. emerging market) are best determined by meeting with a trusted investment counsellor and /or financial planner. A trusted planner reviews their clients’ income and cash flow needs as well as taxes to determine the clients’ needed rate of return. An investment counsellor analyzes investments to determine the best return prospects relative to each investor’s willingness and ability to take risk in his investment / retirement portfolios.
 http://www.seeitmarket.com/quantifying-equity-risk-premium-13202/. Quantifying Equity Risk Premium, Allan Millar, January 30, 2013. Based on S&P500 Index return vs. U.S. Government and Corporate Bond Indices. Data set from Ibbotson 1926-2010.
 http://www.factset.com/websitefiles/PDFs/buyback/buyback_6.18.14. FactSet Quarterly Buyback S&P500, June 18, 2014.