Historical Returns by Asset Class (1985 - Oct 2020)
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Ranking Asset Classes by Historical Returns (1985-2020)

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Historical Returns by Asset Class

Historical Returns by Asset Class (1985-2020)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, is there one asset class to rule them all?

From stocks to bonds to alternatives, investors can choose from a wide variety of investment types. The choices can be overwhelming—leaving people to wonder if there’s one investment that consistently outperforms, or if there’s a predictable pattern of performance.

This graphic, which is inspired by and uses data from The Measure of a Plan, shows historical returns by asset class for the last 36 years.

Asset Class Returns by Year

This analysis includes assets of various types, geographies, and risk levels. It uses real total returns, meaning that they account for inflation and the reinvestment of dividends.

Here’s how the data breaks down, this time organized by asset class rather than year:

 U.S. Large Cap StocksU.S. Small Cap StocksInt'l Dev StocksEmerging StocksAll U.S. BondsHigh-Yield U.S. BondsInt'l BondsCash (T-Bill)REITGold
TickerVFIAXVSMAXVTMGXVEMAXVBTLXVWEAXVTABXVUSXXVGSLXIAU
2020*1.5%-5.5%-10.3%-0.7%4.9%-0.5%2.6%-0.7%-16.4%21.9%
201928.5%24.5%19.3%17.6%6.3%13.3%5.5%-0.1%26.1%15.9%
2018-6.2%-11.0%-16.1%-16.2%-1.9%-4.7%1.0%-0.1%-7.7%-3.2%
201719.3%13.8%23.8%28.7%1.4%4.9%0.3%-1.3%2.8%9.3%
20169.7%15.9%0.4%9.5%0.5%9.0%2.5%-1.8%6.3%6.6%
20150.6%-4.3%-0.9%-16.0%-0.3%-2.0%0.3%-0.7%1.6%-12.3%
201412.8%6.7%-6.4%-0.2%5.1%3.9%8.0%-0.7%29.3%-1.2%
201330.4%35.8%20.3%-6.4%-3.6%3.1%-0.4%-1.5%0.9%-29.0%
201214.0%16.2%16.5%16.8%2.4%12.5%4.5%-1.7%15.7%6.5%
2011-0.9%-5.5%-15.0%-21.0%4.6%4.2%0.8%-2.9%5.5%5.5%
201013.4%26.0%6.8%17.2%5.0%10.9%1.7%-1.5%26.6%26.0%
200923.3%32.7%24.9%71.5%3.2%35.6%1.6%-2.4%26.3%20.2%
2008-37.0%-36.1%-41.3%-52.8%5.1%-21.3%5.5%2.0%-37.0%5.4%
20071.3%-2.7%6.8%33.6%2.8%-1.8%0.1%0.7%-19.7%25.8%
200612.9%12.9%23.1%26.3%1.8%5.7%0.5%2.1%31.8%19.3%
20051.4%3.9%9.8%27.7%-0.9%-0.5%1.8%-0.5%8.3%13.0%
20047.3%16.2%16.5%22.1%1.0%5.2%1.8%-2.0%26.7%1.4%
200326.2%43.1%36.1%54.7%2.1%15.1%0.4%-0.9%33.3%19.2%
2002-23.9%-21.8%-17.6%-9.6%5.8%-0.6%4.2%-0.7%1.3%20.8%
2001-13.3%1.6%-23.1%-4.4%6.8%1.3%4.6%2.6%10.7%-0.4%
2000-12.0%-5.8%-17.1%-29.9%7.7%-4.1%5.4%2.5%22.2%-9.6%
199917.9%19.9%23.6%57.3%-3.4%-0.2%-0.6%2.0%-6.5%-1.7%
199826.6%-4.2%18.0%-19.4%6.9%3.9%10.2%3.5%-17.7%-2.4%
199731.0%22.5%0.0%-18.2%7.6%10.0%8.9%3.5%16.8%-23.2%
199618.9%14.3%2.6%12.1%0.3%6.0%8.3%1.9%31.4%-7.7%
199534.0%25.6%8.4%-1.9%15.3%16.2%14.3%3.1%10.0%-1.7%
1994-1.5%-3.1%4.9%-10.1%-5.2%-4.3%-7.3%1.3%0.4%-4.9%
19937.0%15.5%28.9%69.4%6.7%15.1%10.7%0.2%16.3%13.9%
19924.4%14.9%-14.7%7.8%4.1%11.0%3.3%0.6%11.2%-8.7%
199126.3%40.9%8.7%54.5%11.8%25.2%7.5%2.5%31.5%-12.5%
1990-8.9%-22.8%-27.9%-16.1%2.4%-11.3%-2.7%1.6%-20.3%-8.3%
198925.5%11.0%5.6%56.9%8.6%-2.6%-0.6%3.7%3.9%-6.8%
198811.3%19.7%22.8%33.9%2.8%8.8%4.4%2.1%8.6%-19.6%
19870.3%-12.7%19.3%9.3%-2.8%-1.7%4.5%1.3%-7.8%19.0%
198616.8%4.5%67.5%10.4%13.9%15.6%10.1%5.0%17.7%17.9%
198526.4%26.2%50.3%22.9%17.6%17.5%7.0%3.8%14.6%1.7%

*Data for 2020 is as of October 31

The top-performing asset class so far in 2020 is gold, with a return more than four times that of second-place U.S. bonds. On the other hand, real estate investment trusts (REITs) have been the worst-performing investments. Needless to say, economic shutdowns due to COVID-19 have had a devastating effect on commercial real estate.

Over time, the order is fairly random with asset classes moving up and down the ranks. For example, emerging market stocks plummeted to last place amid the global financial crisis in 2008, only to rise to the top the following year. International bonds were near the bottom of the barrel in 2017, but rose to the top during the 2018 market selloff.

There are also large swings in the returns investors can expect in any given year. While the best-performing asset class returned just 1% in 2018, it returned a whopping 71.5% in 2009.

Variation Within Asset Classes

Within individual asset classes, the range in returns can also be quite large. Here’s the minimum, maximum, and average returns for each asset class. We’ve also shown each investment’s standard deviation, which is a measure of volatility or risk.

Return Variation Within Asset Classes Over History

Although emerging market stocks have seen the highest average return, they have also seen the highest standard deviation. On the flip side, T-bills have seen returns lower than inflation since 2009, but have come with the lowest risk.

Investors should factor in risk when they are looking at the return potential of an asset class.

Variety is the Spice of Portfolios

Upon reviewing the historical returns by asset class, there’s no particular investment that has consistently outperformed. Rankings have changed over time depending on a number of economic variables.

However, having a variety of asset classes can ensure you are best positioned to take advantage of tailwinds in any particular year. For instance, bonds have a low correlation with stocks and can cushion against losses during market downturns.

If your mirror could talk, it would tell you there’s no one asset class to rule them all—but a mix of asset classes may be your best chance at success.

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Investor Education

A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

If companies want their stock price to rise, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? This infographic explains why.

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A Visual Guide to Stock Splits

Imagine a shop window containing large pieces of cheese.

If the value of that cheese rises over time, the price may move beyond what the majority of people are willing to pay. This presents a problem as the store wants to continue selling cheese, and people still want to eat it.

The obvious solution is to divide the cheese into smaller pieces. That way, more people can once again afford to buy portions of it, and those who want more can simply buy more of the smaller pieces.

cheese and stock splits

The total volume of the cheese is still worth the same amount, it’s only the portion size that changed. As the infographic above by StocksToTrade demonstrates, the same concept applies to stock splits.

Like wheels of cheese, stocks can be split a number of different ways. Some of the more common splits are 2-for-1, 3-for-1, and 3-for-2. Less common splits can take place as well, such as when Apple increased its outstanding shares by a 7-to-1 ratio in 2014.

Why Companies Do Stock Splits

Of course, stocks aren’t cheese.

The real world of the financial markets, driven by macro trends and animal spirits, is more complex than items in a shop window.

If companies want their stock price to continue rising, why would they want to split it, effectively lowering the price? Here are a some specific reasons why:

1. Liquidity
As our cheese example illustrated, stocks can sometimes see price appreciation to the point where they are no longer accessible to a wide range of investors. Splitting the stock (i.e. making an individual share cheaper) is an effective way of increasing the total number of investors who can purchase shares.

2. Sending a Message
In many cases, announcing a stock split is a harbinger of prosperity for a company. Nasdaq found that companies that split their stock outperformed the market. This is likely due to investor excitement and the fact that companies often split their stock as they approach periods of growth.

3. Reducing Capital Costs
Stocks with prices that are too high have spreads that are wider than similar stocks. When spreads—the difference between the bid and offer—are too large, they eats into investor returns.

4. Meeting Index Criteria
There are specific instances when a company may want to adjust its share price to meet certain index requirements.

One example is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), the well-known 30-stock benchmark. The Dow is considered a price-weighted index, which means that the higher a company’s stock price, the more weight and influence it has within the index. Shortly after Apple conducted its 7-to-1 stock split in 2014, dropping the share price from about $650 to $90, the company was added to the DJIA.

On the flip side, a company might decide to pursue a reverse stock split. This takes the existing amount of shares held by investors and replaces them with fewer shares at a higher price. Aside from the general stigma associated with a lower share price, companies need to keep the price above a certain threshold or face the possibility of being delisted from an exchange.

Stock Splits Happen, but are not Inevitable

Alphabet will become the most recent high profile company to split their stock in early 2022. The company’s 20-for-1 stock split aims to make the share price more accessible to retail investors dropping the price from approximately $2,750 to $140 per share.

Conversely, Berkshire Hathaway has famously never split its stock. As a result, a single share of BRK.A is worth over $470,000. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary founder, Warren Buffett, reasons that splitting the stock would run counter to his buy-and-hold investment philosophy.

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Visualizing The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds

To date, only two countries have sovereign wealth funds worth over $1 trillion. Learn more about them in this infographic.

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Visualized: The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds

Did you know that some of the world’s largest investment funds are owned by national governments?

Known as sovereign wealth funds (SWF), these vehicles are often established with seed money that is generated by government-owned industries. If managed responsibly and given a long enough timeframe, an SWF can accumulate an enormous amount of assets.

In this infographic, we’ve detailed the world’s 10 largest SWFs, along with the largest mutual fund and ETF for context.

The Big Picture

Data collected from SWFI in October 2021 ranks Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (also known as the Norwegian Oil Fund) as the world’s largest SWF.

The world’s 10 largest sovereign wealth funds (with fund size benchmarks) are listed below:

CountryFund NameFund TypeAssets Under Management (AUM) 
🇳🇴 Norway Government Pension Fund Global SWF$1.3 trillion
🇺🇸 U.S.Vanguard Total Stock Market Index FundMutual fund$1.3 trillion
🇨🇳 ChinaChina Investment CorporationSWF$1.2 trillion
🇰🇼 Kuwait Kuwait Investment Authority SWF$693 billion
🇦🇪 United Arab EmiratesAbu Dhabi Investment Authority SWF$649 billion
🇭🇰 Hong Kong SARHong Kong Monetary Authority Investment PortfolioSWF$581 billion
🇸🇬 SingaporeGovernment of Singapore Investment CorporationSWF$545 billion
🇸🇬 SingaporeTemasek SWF$484 billion
🇨🇳 ChinaNational Council for Social Security Fund SWF$447 billion
🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaPublic Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia SWF$430 billion
🇺🇸 U.S.State Street SPDR S&P 500 ETF TrustETF$391 billion
🇦🇪 United Arab EmiratesInvestment Corporation of DubaiSWF$302 billion 

SWF AUM gathered on 10/08/2021. VTSAX and SPY AUM as of 09/30/2021.

So far, just two SWFs have surpassed the $1 trillion milestone. To put this in perspective, consider that the world’s largest mutual fund, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX), is a similar size, investing in U.S. large-, mid-, and small-cap equities.

The Trillion Dollar Club

The world’s two largest sovereign wealth funds have a combined $2.5 trillion in assets. Here’s a closer look at their underlying portfolios.

1. Government Pension Fund Global – $1.3 Trillion (Norway)

Norway’s SWF was established after the country discovered oil in the North Sea. The fund invests the revenue coming from this sector to safeguard the future of the national economy. Here’s a breakdown of its investments.

Asset Class% of Total AssetsCountry DiversificationNumber of Securities
Public Equities72.8%69 countries9,123 companies
Fixed income24.7%45 countries1,245 bonds
Real estate2.5%14 countries867 properties

As of 12/31/2020

Real estate may be a small part of the portfolio, but it’s an important component for diversification (real estate is less correlated to the stock market) and generating income. Here are some U.S. office towers that the fund has an ownership stake in.

AddressOwnership Stake
601 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 45.0%
475 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY49.9%
33 Arch Street, Boston, MA49.9%
100 First Street, San Francisco, CA44.0%

As of 12/31/2020

Overall, the fund has investments in 462 properties in the U.S. for a total value of $14.9 billion.

2. China Investment Corporation (CIC) – $1.2 Trillion (China)

The CIC is the largest of several Chinese SWFs, and was established to diversify the country’s foreign exchange holdings.

Compared to the Norwegian fund, the CIC invests in a greater variety of alternatives. This includes real estate, of course, but also private equity, private credit, and hedge funds.

Asset Class% of Total Assets
Public equities38%
Fixed income17%
Alternative assets43%
Cash2%

As of 12/31/2020

A primary focus of the CIC has been to increase its exposure to American infrastructure and manufacturing. By the end of 2020, 57% of the fund was invested in the United States.

“According to our estimate, the United States needs at least $8 trillion in infrastructure investments. There’s not sufficient capital from the U.S. government or private sector. It has to rely on foreign investments.”
– Ding Xuedong, Chairman, China Investment Corporation

This has drawn suspicion from U.S. regulators given the geopolitical tensions between the two countries. For further reading on the topic, consider this 2017 paper by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Preparing for a Future Without Oil

Many of the countries associated with these SWFs are known for their robust fossil fuel industries. This includes Middle Eastern nations like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Oil has been an incredible source of wealth for these countries, but it’s unlikely to last forever. Some analysts believe that we could even see peak oil demand before 2030—though this doesn’t mean that oil will stop being an important resource.

Regardless, oil-producing countries are looking to hedge their reliance on fossil fuels. Their SWFs play an important role by taking oil revenue and investing it to generate returns and/or bolster other sectors of the economy.

An example of this is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which supports the country’s Vision 2030 framework by investing in clean energy and other promising sectors.

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