The portfolio mix of 60% stocks and 40% bonds has been one of the most popular asset allocation strategies since Harry Markowitz developed modern portfolio theory. Markowitz’s formulation of the efficient frontier allows investors to trade off risk-tolerance and reward-expectations to derive an optimal portfolio. So, is the 60/40 portfolio allocation still the right balance?
What has made a 60/40 portfolio mix appealing is correlations between stocks and bonds are usually low and at times they have been negative (see chart below). Over the past two decades, for example, bond prices typically rose (and interest rates fell) when the stock market sold off.
Stock and Bond Prices Plummeted in 2022
With returns for the S&P 500 index also down by 18%, the return for a 60/40 portfolio was minus 15% last year. Through the first three quarters, moreover, the portfolio return was negative 20%—the third worst showing in the last 100 years and the worst result on record in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.
Experts Take Opposite Sides in the 60/40 Debate
The crux of the difference in views is whether there has been a structural shift in the economy. Goldman calculates that U.S. stocks and bonds both lost money over a 12-month period just 2% of the time since 1926, and it maintains an investor should only change the strategic allocation if there has been a structural change in the economic landscape. BlackRock bases its case exactly on this premise—namely, it maintains the period of low inflation and steady growth dubbed “The Great Moderation” is over.
The Fed Played a Key Role in Distorting Capital Market Pricing and Investment Returns
This debate, however, does not highlight the key role the Federal Reserve played in distorting capital market pricing and investment returns for the past 15 years. The Fed responded to the housing bust and financial crisis in 2008 by lowering the funds rate to zero and introducing quantitative easing, in which it quadrupled its balance sheet to keep bond yields artificially low. While the Fed began to normalize policy in 2017-2019, it subsequently reversed course when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and it reinstated zero interest rates and undertook another quadrupling of its balance sheet.
Artificially Low Interest Rates Created Bubbles
Second, artificially low interest rates also prompted investors to seek out equities and other higher-risk assets to boost portfolio returns. They contributed to asset bubbles in housing and equities during the mid-2000s that burst in 2007-08. Thereafter, the S&P 500 index rose more than five-fold from the beginning of 2009 to the start of 2022. What ensued last year was merely payback for both stocks and bonds being considerably over-valued.
2023 Outlook for Stocks and Bonds
Investment Strategies Will Hinge on Fed's Actions
The case for reconsidering one’s tactical asset allocation depends on how the Fed will respond to an environment of little growth and inflation that is above its 2% annual target. If the Fed were to raise the funds rate to 5% or more and then pause, bonds would likely rally while stocks would stay volatile. Conversely, if the Fed eased policy as unemployment worsened, stocks would likely rally initially.
Conversely, if the Fed waivers in its commitment and inflation expectations become entrenched, investment portfolios are likely to suffer as they did in the 1970s. In this respect, the key issue for investment strategy going forward is whether the Fed will pursue traditional policies or revert to unorthodox policies that distort capital markets.
A version of this article was posted to Forbes.com on February 1, 2023.
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