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5 Lessons About Volatility to Learn From the History of Markets

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In 2018, the re-emergence of volatility took many market participants by surprise.

After all, aside from a few smaller, intermittent spikes over the course of the current bull market, volatility has largely been in a long-term downtrend since the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Whether there is more volatility lurking ahead this year or whether the markets continue to calm, it’s worth looking at the last century of market history to put these recent bouts of volatility into context.

Learning From the History of Markets

Today’s infographic comes to us from New York Life Investments and it goes back in time to show us that the volatility experienced in 2018 was neither exceptional or unusual.

Here are five important lessons to learn from it all:

5 Lessons About Volatility to Learn From the History of Markets

With volatility back on the table again, investors are re-learning what it’s like to cope with a sometimes tumultuous market.

Higher volatility can be a source of uncertainty for even the most seasoned investors, but a look at historical data over the last century helps to ease these concerns.

5 Lessons About Volatility

Here are five lessons about volatility that we can learn from the history of markets:

Lesson #1: Volatility isn’t new
Volatility isn’t a new phenomenon – and it’s actually as old as the stock market itself. In fact, if you look at historical swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, you’ll see that many of the biggest ones were more than 80 years ago.

Lesson #2: Volatility is actually the status quo
In the last century, volatility has been ever-present in the markets, and between 1935 and 2018 the S&P 500 has seen:

  • 4,563 total days with +/- 1% price movements
  • 1,094 total days with +/- 2% price movements

That works out roughly to a 1% price swing every trading week – and a 2% price swing every month. Yet, over this lengthy time period, and after all of that volatility, the S&P 500 has grown by 25,290%.

Lesson #3: Any short-term volatility disappears with a long-term view
Daily price swings can feel like a roller coaster. But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, this volatility is just a blip on the radar.

For example, if you look at a chart of the S&P 500 from August 1990 to February of 1991, you’ll see that daily volatility was rampant. But zoom out to a 10-year chart, and these daily or weekly swings are barely noticeable.

Lesson #4: Volatility can be easily weathered with a resilient portfolio
Given that volatility has been around forever and that it’s extremely common, that makes it fairly unavoidable. Therefore, to weather periods of volatility, it is imperative to build a resilient portfolio by diversifying between different asset classes.

Certain assets are better at weathering periods of volatility than others. Here are some traits to look for:

(a) Low correlation with the market
These assets can zig when others zag, making them a valuable hedge (Examples: Gold, alternative assets, municipal bonds)

(b) Generates cash flow
When times are uncertain, the market puts extra value on assets that are generating real cash flow (Examples: Stocks that pay dividends, or bonds that pay interest)

(c) Defensive or non-cyclical
During uncertain times, there are still companies with stocks that will thrive. They are usually bigger companies with conservative balance sheets and durable competitive advantages. (Examples: Quality stocks in healthcare, consumer staples, telecoms, REITs, and utilities sectors)

Lesson #5: Volatility reminds us that there is no reward without risk

Investing in stocks comes with risks, but it also comes with the best returns over time:

Asset TypeAnnualized real return, 1925-2014
U.S. Equities6.7%
Government Bonds2.6%
Cash0.5%

If stocks offer the best long run gains – and volatility is an unavoidable aspect of investing in stocks – then we must learn to accept volatility for what it is.

Even better, we must learn to build resilient portfolios that can weather any storm, while minimizing these effects.

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Visualizing the Expanse of the ETF Universe

The global ETF universe has grown to be worth $5.75 trillion — here’s how the assets break down by type, sector, and investment focus.

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Visualizing the Expanse of the ETF Universe

View the high resolution version of this infographic by clicking here.

Under the right circumstances, an innovation can scale and flourish.

Within the financial realm, there is perhaps no better example of this than the introduction of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), a new financial technology that emerged out of the index investing phenomenon of the early 1990s.

Since the establishment of the first U.S. ETF in 1993, the financial instrument has gained broad traction — and today, the ETF universe has an astonishing $5.75 trillion in assets under management (AUM), covering almost every niche imaginable.

Navigating the ETF Universe

Today’s data visualization comes to us from iShares by BlackRock, and it visualizes the wide scope of assets covered by the ETF universe.

To start, let’s look at a macro breakdown of the “galaxies” that can be found in the universe:

 Global ETFs (AUM, $USD)Share of Global Total
All ETFs$5.75 trillion100.00%
Equities$4.39 trillion76.4%
Bonds$1.12 trillion19.5%
Alternative$0.20 trillion3.5%
Money market$0.04 trillion0.6%

As you can see, equities are by far the largest galaxy in the ETF universe, making up 76.4% of all assets. These clusters likely comprise the ETFs you are most familiar with — for example, funds that track the S&P 500 index or foreign markets.

That said, it’s worth noting that the fastest expanding galaxy is bond ETFs, tracking indices related to the debt issued by governments and corporations. The first bond ETFs were introduced in 2002, and since then the category has grown into a market that exceeds $1 trillion in AUM. Bond ETFs are expected to surpass the $2 trillion mark by 2024.

Everything Under the Sun

While the sheer scale of the ETF universe is captivating, it’s the variety that shows you how ubiquitous the instrument has become.

Today, there are over 8,000 ETFs globally, covering nearly every asset class imaginable. Here are some of the lesser-known and more peculiar corners in the ETF universe:

Thematic ETFs: Gaining popularity in recent years, thematic ETFs are built around long-term trends such as climate change or rapid urbanization. By having more tangible focus points, these funds can also appeal to younger generations of investors.

Contrarian ETFs: In a healthy market, there can be a variety of different positions being taken by investors. Contrarian ETFs help to make this possible, allowing investors to bet against the “herd”.

Factor-based ETFs: This approach uses a rules-based system for selecting investments in the fund portfolio, based on factors typically associated with higher returns such as value, small-caps, momentum, low volatility, quality, or yield.

Global Macro ETFs: Some ETFs are designed to mimic strategies used by hedge fund managers. One example of such a strategy is global macro, which aims to analyze the macroeconomic environment, while taking corresponding long and short positions in various equity, fixed income, currency, commodities, and futures markets.

Commodity ETFs: There are ETFs that track gold or oil, sometimes even storing physical inventories. Interestingly, however, there are commodity ETFs for even more obscure metals and agricultural products, such as zinc, lean hogs, tin, or cocoa beans.

Whether your investments track popular market indices or you are more surgical about your portfolio exposure, the ETF universe is impressively vast — and it’s projected to keep expanding in size and diversity for years to come.

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Chart of the Week

Visualizing the Biggest Risks to the Global Economy in 2020

The Global Risk Report 2020 paints an unprecedented risk landscape for 2020—one dominated by climate change and other environmental concerns.

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Top Risks in 2020: Dominated by Environmental Factors

Environmental concerns are a frequent talking point drawn upon by politicians and scientists alike, and for good reason. Irrespective of economic or social status, climate change has the potential to affect us all.

While public urgency surrounding climate action has been growing, it can be difficult to comprehend the potential extent of economic disruption that environmental risks pose.

Front and Center

Today’s chart uses data from the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, which surveyed 800 leaders from business, government, and non-profits to showcase the most prominent economic risks the world faces.

According to the data in the report, here are the top five risks to the global economy, in terms of their likelihood and potential impact:

Top Global Risks (by "Likelihood") Top Global Risks (by "Impact")
#1Extreme weather#1Climate action failure
#2Climate action failure#2Weapons of mass destruction
#3Natural disasters#3Biodiversity loss
#4Biodiversity loss#4Extreme weather
#5Humanmade environmental disasters#5Water crises

With more emphasis being placed on environmental risks, how much do we need to worry?

According to the World Economic Forum, more than we can imagine. The report asserts that, among many other things, natural disasters are becoming more intense and more frequent.

While it can be difficult to extrapolate precisely how environmental risks could cascade into trouble for the global economy and financial system, here are some interesting examples of how they are already affecting institutional investors and the insurance industry.

The Stranded Assets Dilemma

If the world is to stick to its 2°C global warming threshold, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, a significant amount of oil, gas, and coal reserves would need to be left untouched. These assets would become “stranded”, forfeiting roughly $1-4 trillion from the world economy.

Growing awareness of this risk has led to a change in sentiment. Many institutional investors have become wary of their portfolio exposures, and in some cases, have begun divesting from the sector entirely.

The financial case for fossil fuel divestment is strong. Fossil fuel companies once led the economy and world stock markets. They now lag.

– Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

The last couple of years have been a game-changer for the industry’s future prospects. For example, 2018 was a milestone year in fossil fuel divestment:

  • Nearly 1,000 institutional investors representing $6.24 trillion in assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, up from just $52 billion four years ago;
  • Ireland became the first country to commit to fossil fuel divestment. At the time of announcement, its sovereign development fund had $10.4 billion in assets;
  • New York City became the largest (but not the first) city to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Its pension funds, totaling $189 billion at the time of announcement, aim to divest over a 5-year period.

A Tough Road Ahead

In a recent survey, actuaries ranked climate change as their top risk for 2019, ahead of damages from cyberattacks, financial instability, and terrorism—drawing strong parallels with the results of this year’s Global Risk Report.

These growing concerns are well-founded. 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters, with $344 billion in global economic losses. This daunting figure translated to a record year for insured losses, totalling $140 billion.

Although insured losses over 2019 have fallen back in line with the average over the past 10 years, Munich RE believes that long-term environmental effects are already being felt:

  • Recent studies have shown that over the long term, the environmental conditions for bushfires in Australia have become more favorable;
  • Despite a decrease in U.S. wildfire losses compared to previous years, there is a rising long-term trend for forest area burned in the U.S.;
  • An increase in hailstorms, as a result of climate change, has been shown to contribute to growing losses across the globe.

The Ball Is In Our Court

It’s clear that the environmental issues we face are beginning to have a larger real impact. Despite growing awareness and preliminary actions such as fossil fuel divestment, the Global Risk Report stresses that there is much more work to be done to mitigate risks.

How companies and governments choose to respond over the next decade will be a focal point of many discussions to come.

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