Cult Figures The cult of equity is dying. Like a once bright green aspen turning to subtle shades of yellow then red in the Colorado fall, investors’ impressions of “stocks for the long run” or any run have mellowed as well. I “tweeted” last month that the souring attitude might be a generational thing: “Boomers can’t take risk. Gen X and Y believe in Facebook but not its stock. Gen Z has no money.” True enough, but my tweetering 95-character message still didn’t answer the question as to where the love or the aspen-like green went, and why it seemed to disappear so quickly. Several generations were weaned and in fact grew wealthier believing that pieces of paper representing “shares” of future profits were something more than a conditional IOU that came with risk. Hadn’t history confirmed it? Jeremy Siegel’s rather ill-timed book affirming the equity cult, published in the late 1990s, allowed for brief cyclical bear markets, but showered scorn on any heretic willing to question the inevitability of a decade-long period of upside stock market performance compared to the alternatives. Now in 2012, however, an investor can periodically compare the return of stocks for the past 10, 20 and 30 years, and find that long-term Treasury bonds have been the higher returning and obviously “safer” investment than a diversified portfolio of equities. In turn it would show that higher risk is usually, but not always, rewarded with excess return.
- The long-term history of inflation adjusted returns from stocks shows a persistent but recently fading 6.6% real return since 1912.
- The legitimate question that market analysts, government forecasters and pension consultants should answer is how that return can be duplicated in the future.
- Unfair though it may be, an investor should continue to expect an attempted inflationary solution in almost all developed economies over the next few years and even decades.
Chart 1 displays a rather different storyline, one which overwhelmingly favors stocks over a century’s time – truly the long run. This long-term history of inflation adjusted returns from stocks shows a persistent but recently fading 6.6% real return (known as the Siegel constant) since 1912 that Generations X and Y perhaps should study more closely. Had they been alive in 1912 and lived to the ripe old age of 100, they would have turned what on the graph appears to be a $1 investment into more than $500 (inflation adjusted) over the interim. No wonder today’s Boomers became Siegel disciples. Letting money do the hard work instead of working hard for the money was an historical inevitability it seemed.
Yet the 6.6% real return belied a commonsensical flaw much like that of a chain letter or yes – a Ponzi scheme. If wealth or real GDP was only being created at an annual rate of 3.5% over the same period of time, then somehow stockholders must be skimming 3% off the top each and every year. If an economy’s GDP could only provide 3.5% more goods and services per year, then how could one segment (stockholders) so consistently profit at the expense of the others (lenders, laborers and government)? The commonsensical “illogic” of such an arrangement when carried forward another century to 2112 seems obvious as well. If stocks continue to appreciate at a 3% higher rate than the economy itself, then stockholders will command not only a disproportionate share of wealth but nearly all of the money in the world! Owners of “shares” using the rather simple “rule of 72” would double their advantage every 24 years and in another century’s time would have 16 times as much as the sceptics who decided to skip class and play hooky from the stock market....MORE