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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

This infographic is available as a poster.

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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Infographics

5 Key Questions Investors Have About Inflationary Environments

This infographic explores questions on today’s inflationary environment as the economy faces persistent price pressures.

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Inflationary Environment

This infographic is available as a poster.

5 Key Questions on Inflationary Environments

What does a changing inflationary environment mean for financial markets, and how could this impact investors?

While there are no clear answers, the above infographic from New York Life Investments looks at key questions on inflation and the potential implications looking ahead.

1. What Are the Main Factors Driving Inflation?

Often, investors closely watch core inflation since it doesn’t factor in volatile energy and food prices. In September, core inflation rose 0.6% from the previous month while headline inflation, as represented by the Consumer Price Index, increased 0.4%.

DateCore InflationHeadline Inflation
Sep 20220.6%0.4%
Aug 20220.6%0.1%
Jul 20220.3%0.0%
Jun 20220.7%1.3%
May 20220.6%1.0%
Apr 20220.6%0.3%
Mar 20220.3%1.2%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10/13/22.

Earlier in the pandemic, surging second-hand car prices and supply-chain distortions were factors driving up inflation. But as dynamics have shifted, rising services costs, including housing, have played a significant role.

Along with these factors, a strong labor market is adding to price pressures. Nominal wages increased 6.3% annually in September, after hitting almost 7% in August, the highest in 20 years.

For this trend to reverse, unemployment levels may need to rise and interest rates may need to increase to cool an overheating economy.

2. What is the Effect of Fiscal Stimulus on Inflation?

In response to a historic crisis, the U.S. government allocated over $5 trillion in fiscal stimulus. The Federal Reserve released research that suggests that the fiscal stimulus contributed to 2.5 percentage points in excess U.S. inflation.

Specifically, the fiscal stimulus affected supply and demand dynamics, stimulating the consumption of goods. At the same time, the production of goods didn’t increase, which elevated demand pressures and price tensions.

As the short-term implications begin to unfold, the longer-term structural effects of record stimulus remain far from clear.

3. How Do Interest Rates Impact Inflation?

When inflation is running high, the Fed often hikes interest rates to cool an overheating economy.

Consider how in February 1975 there was a 17% difference between core inflation and real interest rates, an instance when the Fed got “behind the curve”. This shows that the real rate is far below the core inflation rate.

Sometimes, this prompts the Fed to raise rates to combat inflation. After several rate hikes, inflation fell to 4% by 1983, bringing the real rate and core inflation closer together. The table below shows when this gap rose to the double-digits between 1974 and early 2022:

DateCore InflationReal RateDifference
Oct 197410.6%-0.5%11.1%
Nov 197411.0%-1.5%12.5%
Dec 197411.3%-2.8%14.1%
Jan 107511.5%-4.4%15.9%
Feb 197511.9%-5.6%17.5%
Mar 197511.3%-5.8%17.1%
Apr 197511.3%-5.8%17.1%
May 197510.3%-5.1%15.4%
Jun 19759.8%-4.3%14.1%
Jul 19759.1%-3.0%12.1%
Jan 198012.0%1.9%10.2%
May 198013.1%-2.2%15.3%
Jun 198013.6%-4.1%17.7%
Jul 198012.4%-3.4%15.8%
Aug 198011.8%-2.2%14.0%
Sep 198012.0%-1.1%13.1%
Oct 198012.2%0.7%11.6%
Dec 20215.5%-5.4%10.9%
Jan 20226.0%-6.0%12.0%

Source: Peterson Institute for International Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 03/14/22. The real policy interest rate is the Federal Funds Rate minus Core Inflation over 12 months.

In January 2022, this gap reached 12%, hinting towards further interest rate action from the Fed.

Over the last 11 tightening cycles since 1965, six resulted in soft landings and three resulted in hard landings. Whether or not the recent tightening cycle will result in a hard landing, also known as a significant decline in real GDP, remains an open question.

4. How Long Will Inflation Last?

From the vantage point of 2022, the direction of inflation is as complex as it is uncertain. Below, we show where inflation may be headed in the near future based on analysis from the Federal Reserve.

 2022P2023P2024P
PCE Inflation5.4%2.8%2.3%
Federal Funds Rate4.4%4.6%3.9%

Source: Federal Reserve Board, 09/21/22. Reflects median projections for PCE Inflation and the Federal Funds Rate.

By 2024, inflation is expected to fall closer to the 2.0% target amid higher interest rates. What other key factors could influence inflation going forward?

 2023 Projection
U.S. Real GDP Growth1.2%
Interest Rates4.6%
Housing Price Growth-10.0%
Unemployment Rate4.4%

Source: Federal Reserve Board 09/21/22, Morningstar, 08/07/22. Interest rates represented by the Federal Funds Rate. Housing Price Growth represented by median U.S. home prices.

A combination of slowing GDP growth, higher interest rates, decreasing housing prices, and higher unemployment could potentially dampen inflation leading into 2023.

5. What May Lessen the Impact of Inflation On My Portfolio?

During inflationary periods, value stocks have tended to perform well, based on data from Robert Shiller and Kenneth French. In fact, value stocks saw nearly 8% annualized outperformance over growth during the 1970s and over 5% outperformance during the 1980s.

Similarly, tangible assets like commodities and real estate have tended to weather these periods thanks to their ability to increase portfolio diversification and stability across economic cycles. For instance, between 1973 and 2021, commodities have averaged 19.1% during inflationary periods while real estate assets averaged 5.0%.

The Big Canvas

Generally speaking, periods of high inflation over history are quite rare. Since 1947, the average U.S. inflation rate has been 3.4%.

Inflation (1947-2021)Percentage of Time Spent
Below 0%16%
Between 0 and 5%57%
Between 5 and 10%20%
Above 10%7%

Source: CFA Institute, 07/19/21.

Against a changing environment, investors may consider balancing their portfolios with more defensive strategies that have been historically more resistant to inflation.

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Infographics

A Visual Guide to Stagflation, Inflation, and Deflation

In this infographic, we show the key differences between stagflation, inflation, and deflation and how they impact the economy and investors.

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This infographic is available as a poster.

A Visual Guide to Stagflation, Inflation, and Deflation

Today, high inflation and slowing economic growth have contributed to stagflation worries.

As of August 2022, the U.S. inflation rate has risen to 8.3%, above the central bank target of 2%. Yet unlike the last period of stagflation in the 1970s, unemployment—a key ingredient for stagflation—remains low.

In this infographic from New York Life Investments, we show the key differences between stagflation, inflation, and deflation along with the broader economic implications of each.

Main Features of Inflationary Environments

What are the main characteristics of each inflationary scenario?

 Economic GrowthInflationUnemployment
StagflationSlowsIncreasesIncreases
InflationIncreasesIncreasesDecreases
DeflationSlowsDecreasesIncreases

The key markers of stagflation are weak growth, persistent inflation, and structural unemployment—meaning that high unemployment levels continue beyond a recession.

In a stagflationary scenario, inflation expectations continue to rise each year. This can happen when inflation stays too high for too long, enough for expectations to shift across the economy. This was the case in the U.S. in the 1970s, until the Federal Reserve fought inflation with steep interest rate hikes.

Here’s a closer look at some of the main causes of each scenario and how they’ve historically impacted households and businesses.

1. Stagflation

The term stagflation is the combination of ‘stagnation’ and ‘inflation’.

The primary causes include the expansion of the money supply feeding into higher inflation, as well as supply shocks, which can drag on economic growth.

During periods of stagflation, consumers spend more on items such as food and clothing, while earning less—reducing their purchasing power. Less purchasing power can eventually cause people to buy less, leading to falling corporate revenues, which can ripple across the economy.

Case Study: 1970s Stagflation

The stagflation of the 1970s saw inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, increase from 1% to 14% between 1964 and 1980.

Price pressures, driven by skyrocketing energy prices in the 1970s, contributed to a sharp economic downturn. By 1980, unemployment reached 7.2%.

YearAnnual
Inflation Rate
Unemployment Rate
(December)
Annual
GDP Growth
19641.3%5.0%5.8%
198013.5%7.2%-0.3%

In response, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates as high as 20% in 1981. Soon after, inflation sank to 5% by 1982 and unemployment levels improved.

2. Inflation

Inflation is the rise in the price of goods and services across the economy. Broadly speaking, low and stable inflation is associated with periods of economic growth and low unemployment. It can be driven by rising consumer demand.

The expectation of predictable inflation allows consumers and businesses to prepare for the future, in terms of both their purchases and investments.

Case Study: 1990s-2000s

Over the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. saw relatively low and stable inflation.

Rapid global population growth, the absence of oil shocks, and expanding global trade contributed to falling costs across industries. Between 1990 and 2007, inflation averaged 2.1% compared to 8.0% during the 1970s as price pressures became less volatile.

YearAnnual
Inflation Rate
Unemployment Rate
(December)
Annual
GDP Growth
19905.4%6.3%1.9%
20072.9%5.0%2.0%

Today, several central banks adhere to a 2% inflation target to ensure prices remain stable and predictable.

3. Deflation

Deflation is the fall in prices of goods and services in the economy.

In many cases, its main causes are demand shortfalls, reduced output, or an excess of supply. For households, spending may stall as consumers wait for prices to fall. In turn, declining prices may lead to a lag in growth for businesses.

Sometimes, deflationary periods raise concerns of slower economic growth. However, supply-driven deflationary periods may be associated with lower prices, raising real incomes and boosting output as exports become more competitive.

Case Study: 1930s Great Depression

Prior to WWII, deflationary episodes were more common than today. One prime example is the Great Depression of the 1930s, when real GDP fell 30% between 1929 and 1933 and unemployment spiked to 25%.

YearAnnual
Inflation Rate
Unemployment Rate
(December)
Annual
GDP Growth
1930-2.7%8.7%-8.5%
1933-5.2%24.9%-1.2%

Tightening monetary policy contributed to this environment. In fact, between 1930 and 1933, the U.S. money supply contracted roughly 30%, while average prices fell by a similar amount.

Historical Asset Class Performance

Which asset classes have historically tended to perform well across different types of inflationary environments?

Average Real Annual Total Returns
(1973-2021)
GoldilocksDisinflationReflationStagflation
U.S. Equities16.1%8.4%14.6%-1.5%
U.S. Treasuries4.3%8.1%-2.0%0.6%
U.S. T-Bills0.8%1.7%0.0%0.4%
Commodities0.4%-5.6%21.0%15.0%
Gold-2.5%1.3%-1.1%22.1%
REITs18.1%3.5%14.0%6.5%

Defensive assets like gold and commodities have historically performed well during stagflationary periods, with average returns of 22.1% and 15.0%, respectively.

Meanwhile, U.S. equities have typically performed well during moderate inflation, or ‘goldilocks’ environments, characterized by falling inflation and rising economic growth.

Both U.S. equities and Treasuries have shown the strongest real returns in deflationary or ‘disinflationary’ periods of slowing growth and inflation, at over 8% returns on average each.

Understanding Different Inflationary Environments

Today’s inflationary period is jarring for investors after an extended period of low and stable inflation. With this in mind, the economy has historically cycled through different types of inflationary periods.

While central banks aim to influence price stability and employment through monetary policy, investors can influence their portfolio by adjusting their asset allocation based on where the inflationary environment may be heading.

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