Thursday, January 05, 2012

Congress fiddles while U.S. burns!

Politicians around the world seemed to have messed things up so badly our investments were making little or no sense, based on history. Or were they? All great empires come and go: Greece, Rome, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and now the United States?

You see we have been looking at the last 10 year wondering what was wrong with the stock markets. We were wondering why they were not performing like they did during the last century. Here is a persuasive argument that we may be overestimating future equity returns and return estimates in our investments, and maybe investing in all the wrong places.

Financial Advisors in the United States (U.S.) tend to use long-term U.S. equity returns as their guidepost for what they expect stocks to do in the future in the United States. Most advisors adapt historical assumptions based on PE ratios and other valuation measures. But if you go back to the beginning, where did these returns come from? They came from our country at the start of the 20th century until now. The United States at the turn of the century was basically an emerging market economy. Then it moved to a developed market and then to the leading economy in the world. During this time the dollar became the world's reserve currency.

Here's the point that affects our planning assumptions: going forward, are U.S. equity returns going to reflect the rapid growth of an emerging market becoming developed, or a developed market becoming the dominant global economy? Have we built in return assumptions that were extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime trajectory of economic growth, along a path which almost certainly cannot be sustained going forward?

If we have: we need to look outside the U.S. to find the returns that would reflect that growth. What we want to do is consistently hitch our wagon to the emerging, developing economies around the world; to the extent we can identify them. That's what U.S. investors did for 100 years in the U.S., by investing in the United States. That may be the only way we get returns like we got from U.S. equities over the past century.

There are a lot of implications here, and potentially a lot to change about our current thinking. So let's start by taking a closer look at the U.S. growth story. In 1900, the estimated total market cap of the world was $18 billion. Europe made up 56%, with Britain comprising 24% all by itself. India accounted for 10% of global market cap, Russia 11% and the U.S. 16%. The U.S. was a smaller, less wealthy country. You could have described it as an emerging economy, even though the term didn't exist back then."

Between 1900 and the mid-1970s, the U.S. share of the world's market cap grew from 15% to over 70%. Be-tween the mid-70s and the end of 2010, the rest of the world caught up dramatically, and the U.S. share of the world's $47 trillion share value had fallen back to 32%. Since 2000, our equity returns haven't been exactly world-beating. Is it possible that this is a better predictor of the future than the time period when the U.S. was increasing its percentage of total market cap and global GDP?

I know we have all be raise to believe that the United States is the best, biggest and most wonderful country in the world and I would agree with you right up until sometime around March of 2000. Looking forward, Jeremy Siegel has projected that by 2050, the U.S. share of global market cap will have fallen to 17%, almost exactly where it was in 1900.

Looking at the situation another way, the U.S. economy grew by an average of 3.8% a year from 1946 to 1973, right around the time when America's share of market cap peaked. Since then, GDP growth has averaged 2.7%, and the most recent decade has not lived up to even that average. From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. accounted for just 15% of total global GDP growth, less than Europe (21%) or China (23%). The U.S. share of global GDP peaked in 1985 at 32.74%. In 2010, the U.S. accounted for 24% of global GDP.

This is not to say that the U.S. will fall into some kind of severe slump, or that U.S. companies won't continue to generate profits. But it does suggest that the long, rapid run up from an emerging economy to global super-power was an extraordinary wagon to hitch your portfolio to. A long projected decline from the world's dominant economy to a market share under 20% might generate lower annual returns going forward.

A better way to say this is that U.S. investors have been spoiled by extraordinary domestic growth that helped produce extraordinary domestic stock returns not found anywhere else. If we anchor on the returns that investors enjoyed during that probably never-to-be-repeated era in the U.S., and project them forward in our portfolios, there is a strong possibility of disappointment.

So how do we want to deploy our assets in the global opportunity set, if the U.S. is mature and likely descending from its peak? Who or what is ascending? Where can we find similar growth to what the U.S. had enjoyed? And how can we position our investments to capture that growth?

Our search led to those economies that are currently emerging and what was most surprising was how rapidly this is taking place today. The term "emerging markets" was been coined in 1981, defined as countries with in-come per capita of $10,000 or less. The threshold today is around $15,000. The first EM indices seem to date back to 1995, when this obscure niche of the global economy made up 3% of the world's market cap. By the end of last year, that percentage had grown to 28%. Goldman Sachs recently issued a report that suggests that by 2030, the market cap of what we used to call emerging markets will exceed that of the traditional developed markets. Jeremy Siegel forecasts that EM countries will make up 67% of total market cap by 2050.

Turning back to GDP, during the 2000-2010 decade, China alone contributed 23% of total GDP growth, India 8%, Japan 3%, and other Asian nations 12%. For the next five years, while the U.S. is projected to contribute 13% of world economic growth, China's projected contribution is 29%, India's is 10%, Japan's is 3% and the rest of Asia is projected to contribute 11% of the world's growth. My calculator says that this makes up more than half (53%) of the world's growth coming from Asia, mostly from the less developed economies.

While China gets the majority of the press coverage, it is not the only country that is growing rapidly. According to the International Monetary Fund, by the year 2015, there will be 17 countries with an annual GDP over $1 trillion, compared with only ten today." In the first half of 2010, Asia, notably including the Hong Kong market, accounted for 60% of global IPOs, vs. 16% for the U.S.

Okay, so what do we DO with this information? Step one is to overcome our homeboy bias and recognize that much of the GDP and portfolio return growth is going to come from abroad in the years ahead. Our homeboy bias will be harder to cure because it worked so well for U.S. investors in the past well, until ten years ago, anyway; and because we probably have unrealistic expectations about future U.S. stock returns.

Step two is to recognize that what we call emerging markets are not what they were in 1995. Most of Asset Allocations in the U.S. allow only 3% of a portfolio to be allocated into emerging markets. They just assume, without really thinking about it, that our emerging markets allocation should be somewhere in that range. But if that's where the majority of the world's growth is going to come from, it needs to be a bigger part of our allocations.

Step three is to recognize that the traditional indices severely underweight the places where the growth is expected to come from. The MSCI EAFE Index allocates 66% of its weightings to Europe and another 20% to Japan. The EAFE EM Index, meanwhile, allocates just 7% of its assets to Indian stocks, and 18% to China. We have an unusually high 40% allocation to non-U.S. equities. If you have 20% of client portfolios in EAFE, and another 20% in the EM index that means your total allocation to India is 1.4%. To China (including Hong Kong): 5.2%. To other Asian countries: 12.2%.

In all, this aggressive international investor would have just under 20% of his client’s portfolios invested in the economies that are projected to generate 50% of the world's economic growth over the next five years.

Step four is to reexamine the argument that you can get all the exposure you need to international and emerging markets growth by investing in U.S.-based multinational firms. There are 5,000 companies worldwide with a market cap over $1 billion, and 75% of them are located outside the U.S. There are 25 stock markets with an average company size of $1 billion or more. Ten of these are considered emerging markets, and the U.S. is number three on that list.

Step five, it may be time to retire the term "emerging markets" altogether. "There's a real lack of consistency in how some of these countries are defined and categorized. China is the obvious example; if you look at coastal China, you see all the signs of a major economic power, a country with 1.1 millionaire households. True, many people in the interior are impoverished, but given China's importance in the global economy, and the sophistication of its technology and its overall wealth, how much longer can you say it is "emerging”? Plus, Hong Kong is considered a developed market, and China's and Hong Kong's stock markets are clearly intertwined. Half of the market cap on the Hong Kong stock exchange is made up of mainland Chinese companies.

Rethinking Allocations
Once you make all of these mental adjustments, what then? The Americas, including the U.S., Canada and Latin America make up 40% of the world's market cap. So that becomes the reference percentage you start with before making any tactical or strategic adjustments. Note that this allocation includes a number of developed markets, Canada and the U.S.; and a number of emerging economies, Latin America. Instead of drawing a lot of distinctions about how developed each country is, focus on capturing the region and its various economies.

The Asian/Pacific region currently makes up 30% of the world's market cap. Europe, which includes many developed and some emerging Eastern European economies, makes up 25%. An "other" category, which includes many Middle Eastern and African nations, currently makes up 5%.

That's the base allocation. If you still have a U.S. bias you could raise the Americas allocation from 40% to 45%. You still want to stay ahead of the strong growth in Asia, so increased the Asia allocation a little bit, up to 32%. Next you reduced the Europe allocation from 25% to 20% to make room for the slightly increased expo-sure to the Asian region. The last piece of the puzzle is to reduce Middle Eastern and African nations from 5% to 3% of client portfolios.

Another advantage is that this approach is easy to implement. Within each of the broad allocations are a variety of country-specific ETFs, plus ETFs that focus on the different regions.

There could be a problem with two very popular ETF the Vanguard Emerging Markets Index and the iShares Emerging Markets Index. Both funds are based on MSCI criteria, what happens when MSCI determines that China is no longer an emerging market? It could be a huge mess. We need to keep track of this situation, since we currently use them in our client allocations.

When you look at the years since 2000 in this larger context, the lost decade doesn't seem quite so strange any more. We are starting to experience what everybody else in the world would consider normal market returns, perhaps even subnormal since the U.S. is now on a course that is opposite to its remarkable 20th century burst from relative obscurity to preeminence.

The difference between what we have come to expect and what we can actually expect from U.S. equities may not be as enormous as the big picture would make it seem. To satisfy my curiosity, I pulled out the Credit Suisse 2011 Global Investment Yearbook, which has stock returns for various countries and regions since 1900. The real (after-inflation) growth in U.S. stocks over that time period has been 6.3% a year. During much of that century and a decade, at least the first 80years or so, the U.S. was taking global market share away from Europe; in other words, America was ascendant and Europe was being passed, the way America is now being passed by the more rapidly-growing Asian economies.