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Low Beta Market Sectors

With U.S. equity markets near their record highs and a bull market run that is starting its sixth year, the potential for a correction is a growing concern.  In addition, U.S. equity prices look fairly high when viewed in terms of the PE10 ratio.  Another factor that concerns some market watchers is that volatility (as measured by VIX) is at very low levels, reminiscent of 2007.  This type of complacency has historically been followed by increasing volatility, as levels return to their historical average, accompanied by a sell-off in higher-risk assets as investors adjust their portfolios to mitigate the effects of higher volatility.

Investors seeking to remain invested in equities at a target level but who want to reduce their exposure to market swings and to mitigate the impact of a rise in market volatility have historically been well-served by increasing their allocations to low-beta market sectors.  In this article, I will review the defensive value of low-beta allocations as well as examining the consistency of beta over time.

Beta measures the degree to which a security or a portfolio responds to a move in a benchmark index such as the S&P500.  A portfolio with beta equal to 80% (also written as 0.8) tends to go up 0.8% when the market rises 1.0% and vice versa.  Beta may be thought of as showing whether a security amplifies the moves in the benchmark (beta greater than 100%) or damps the moves in the benchmark (beta less than 100%).

How Beta Varies by Sector

The SPDR Select Sector ETFs provide a convenient way to break out the sectors of the U.S. equity markets by dividing the S&P500 into nine sectors.  These sectors illustrate how much beta varies.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 1

Betas and 10-year average annual returns for major sectors and indexes

The S&P500 has a beta of 100%, by definition.  Some readers may be surprised that emerging market stocks have beta of almost 140%, which means that emerging market equities tend to go up (down) 1.4% for every 1% gain (drop) in the S&P500.  Even before the market crash of 2008, emerging market stocks were high beta—this is not a new phenomenon.

There are three U.S. equity sectors with betas well below 100%: consumer staples (XLP), healthcare (XLV), and utilities (XLU).  It is often believed that low-beta equities have very low average returns.  In fact, a well-known but now widely-discounted model of equity returns (the Capital Asset Pricing Model, CAPM) assumes that beta of an equity or asset class corresponds directly to expected return.  High-beta asset classes have high expected return and vice versa.  Low-beta equities have historically substantially out-performed what would be expected on the basis of CAPM, however, and the past ten years is no exception.  These three sectors have all out-performed the S&P500 over the past ten years.  The return numbers shown here are the arithmetic averages, including reinvested dividends.

Low Beta Asset Classes in 2007-2008

The first question that is worth asking about beta is the degree to which beta corresponds to losses in really bad market conditions.  In the table below, I have tabulated beta calculated using three years of data through 2007 for each of the funds above, as well as the returns for each of these in 2008.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 2

Beta calculated through 2007 vs. 2008 returns

The three sectors with the lowest betas going into 2008 (consumer staples, healthcare, and utilities) had an average return of -22.3% in 2008, as compared to -36.8% for the S&P500.  An equity tilt towards these lower beta sectors could have reduced losses in that year.

Consistency of Beta through Time

The astute reader may notice that the betas calculated using ten years of data through May of 2014 (shown in the first table) are, in some cases, quite different from the betas calculated using three years of data through December of 2007 (shown in the second table).  Beta varies through time.  The betas calculated using three years of data through May 2014 provide an interesting contrast to the three-year betas through the end of 2007.

Low Beta Market Sectors - 3

Comparing betas for two 3-year periods

We are looking at two distinct 3-year periods, separated by almost six and a half years and, in general, low-beta sectors at the end of 2007 remain low-beta today and high-beta sectors back then are still high-beta.  The two most notable exceptions are international equities (EFA) and the technology sectors (XLK).  These changes notwithstanding, the three sectors with the lower betas in 2007 also have the lowest betas in 2014.

There are a number of factors that will determine whether any sector will weather a broad market decline better than others.  Beta is one important factor, but there are others.  In 2008, the financial sector suffered disproportionately large losses—well beyond what would have been expected on the basis of beta alone.  The underlying drivers of the 2008 market crash were most severe in the financial sector.  Small-cap stocks, by contrast, fell considerably less than the beta value of this sector would have suggested.

Low-Beta and Asset Allocation

Low-beta asset classes have historically provided some protection from market declines and increasing volatility.  There are a range of other considerations that potential investors should consider, however when creating a portfolio.  The selection of individual asset classes should be made with consideration of the characteristics of the total portfolio, including desired risk level, interest rate exposure, and income generation.  The target for total portfolio beta is primarily determined by an investor’s total risk tolerance.  A target beta level can be achieved both by choosing how to allocate the equity portion of a portfolio among sectors and by varying the balance between equity (stocks) and fixed income (bonds) investments.  Fixed income asset classes tend to have very low—even negative—values of beta.  In my next blog entry, I will explore these two approaches to managing beta at the portfolio level.

History suggests that low-beta sectors can provide some protection from market downturns.  The length of the current equity rally, and the substantial increases in equity valuations in recent years, are motivating some investors to consider their best defensive alternatives to protect against the inevitable reversal.  The question for investors to ask themselves is whether they are best-served by reducing portfolio beta by reducing their exposure to equities, by shifting some portion of assets from high-beta to low-beta sector, or both.

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What’s Driving the Price of Oil?

There’s lot’s of talk right now about the price of oil and, particularly, gasoline.  Oil is trading at more than $104 per barrel and the national average price of gasoline at the pump is $3.80.  It looks as though the price of a gallon of gas will be a significant political topic for the election this year.  Newt Gingrich, in his efforts to secure the Republican nomination for president, promised to bring the price of a gallon of gas down to $2.50.  President Obama recently proposed new rules for limiting the influence of speculators on the oil market.  Politifact, a media group that fact checks the truthfulness of political statements recently ran a piece on public statements about oil prices.  Their conclusion is that Continue reading

Stocks and Shocks: What to Do?

Guest Post by Contributing Editor, David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer, Cumberland Advisors.

How do we avoid walking into a “left hook” in the markets? That was the discussion this week during a client review.

“Can’t you see them coming and avoid them?” he asked. Well maybe some folks can, but the issue of investing with possible shocks as an outcome is a very difficult one.

“Do you position for the worst outcome?” If yes, you would never invest in anything.

“Is there a middle road?” We think so and that is why we use a combination of ETFs and bonds and recommend diversifying risk among several asset classes.

Below this introduction is a partial list of upcoming potential shocks. As readers will note, we can see the potential shock relatively clearly. Scott MacDonald of MC Asset Management calls them “dangerous seas ahead.” His maritime metaphors sequence the Titanic and Lusitania. Lehman-AIG and the meltdown were the Titanic. “This leaves us to wonder if the U.S. economy is not like the Lusitania, operating in a high risk environment, but felt to be safe from prowling German U-boats in the North Atlantic.” ponders Scott.

Of course, we cannot know the result of a potential risk before it happens. We cannot know the outcome and the policy shift. Therefore, the anticipatory period preceding the risk and the aftermath (if as and when the risk is realized) are not symmetrical. In other words, you are investing in asymmetry. Knowing this in advance allows for an asset-allocation rebalancing as the circumstances and probabilities change. In other words: reassess, reassess, reassess risks and rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Some of the discussion in our new book addresses these types of asymmetries. See Amazon.com, From Bear to Bull with ETFs or visit Cumberland’s website. In the book, we actually show the comparison with the ten sectors of the S&P 500 index and the relative performance of each sector in the bear and in the subsequent bull market.

Now let’s get to some potential shocks and comment about them:

  • Possible Shock Number 1: The Fed will cease “Operation Twist” on June 30. They confirmed the policy shift as recently as this last meeting and Bernanke’s statement. What will a twist cessation bring to bond yields? Will it change home mortgage interest rates? Delay a housing market recovery? Alter the steepness of the yield curve? Or the flatness of the yield curve? What happens to bond credit spreads? Pricing of repo collateral? Maybe the whole thing will pass as a non-event. Nobody knows.
  • Possible Shock Number 2:The so-called “fiscal cliff” is approaching at year-end. Strategas’ Dan Clifton and Jason Trennert have hammered this theme. Their summary identifies three elements:“… roughly one-third of the entire tax code expiring at the end of the year, the spending sequester beginning on January 2, a debt ceiling increase needed in the six weeks after the election and before the end of the year.”How much will markets anticipate these outcomes? How deep is fiscal drag? Is there a fiscal drag? Is Ricardian equivalence dead? How large is the policy shift danger to our country from the Congress? From this President? From next year’s President (re-elected or new)? All of these tax-spend-borrow outcomes are probable in the present-day realm of American politics. That puts our American destiny in the hands of a class of people who are very unpopular and despised by the majority of American citizens. Our politicians have become the scurrilous, scatological scoundrels that we elect and send to Washington. (We include both political parties in this opprobrium). Jack Bittner asks if we should limit all pols to a single term.
  • Possible Shock Number 3: The Bank of Japan has leaped to the top of the G4 central banks when it comes to balance-sheet expansion. BOJ announced an increase in the rate of asset purchases and an extension of the duration of the Japanese sovereign debt it will buy. Initial market reaction was that this plan is “not enough.” BOJ is trying to get Japan’s inflation rate UP! They have not succeeded in the past. Is this time different? What will be the impact on the foreign exchange markets? Will the yen weaken? If so, which currency will strengthen? We have written in the past that FX market adjustments are quite distorted when the G4 central banks are all maintaining their policy interest rates near zero.
  • Possible Shock Number 4:The FDIC limit on non-interest-bearing demand deposit insurance is scheduled to revert back to the pre-crisis level at the end of this year. We quote from the FDIC website:“From December 31, 2010 through December 31, 2012, at all FDIC-insured institutions, deposits held in non-interest-bearing transaction accounts will be fully insured regardless of the amount in the account. For more information, see the FDIC’s comprehensive guide, Your Insured Deposits.”What will be the impact in the money-market end of the yield curve? Will there be an extension of the termination date if markets begin to tighten? What will happen to repo rates? Repo collateral pricing? How closely is the Fed watching this development, since the Fed has been providing the market with more repo collateral (T-bills) through its Operation Twist? Is there a relationship, or will there be one? Can the banking system withstand larger withdrawals of zero-interest deposits if corporate agents deem deposits to be insecure without FDIC insurance coverage? (Note that the FDIC just closed five more banks this week. In the case of the Bank of Eastern Shore, Cambridge, Maryland, the FDIC has not found a buyer or merger partner, and the uninsured depositors are at risk of loss. Readers who are still worried about the safety of their bank deposits may check the FDIC website for the current rules).
  • Possible Shock Number 5: Watch the price and futures prices of Brent crude. Many are sanguine about oil and energy pricing and the gasoline price. We are not. Libyan production is not coming back in a hurry (hat tip to Barclays for superb research on the risk of Libyan civil war). Geopolitical risk is high in the Persian Gulf (Iran) and in Nigeria (see the developing news story of turmoil in this important oil-producing country). Worldwide demand for oil inexorably rises. U.S. energy policy still fails to accelerate our move to energy independence. Despite Energy Secretary Salazar’s protestations, the fact is that the Obama Administration has a failed energy policy and continues to pursue it. We do not drill, we do not encourage the use of natural gas in an accelerated and proactive way, and we do stymie new production and exploration. We do have pipelines running in the wrong directions, and we do have distorted domestic oil pricing because of excess inventories in Cushing, Oklahoma. At Cumberland, we remain attentive to this sector even as the market has become sanguine about it. We continue to hold our oil-energy-exploration and oil-service positions. The range of forecasts of the oil price is a mile wide. We have seen a low of $40 a barrel within two years and a high of $175. We lean to the higher price, not the lower one.

Reassess and Rebalance

I will stop now with the list of possible shocks and leave it to the reader’s imagination to complete this compendium with thoughts about Europe or China slowing or future inflation risk. Here is how we see the portfolio management decision. Remember this is today. It could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The operative structure is reassess, reassess, reassess, rebalance, rebalance, rebalance.

Cumberland continues its fully invested approach using ETFs. We have been in that mode since the bear-market bottom of October 3. We think the bull market that started on October 3 is only half over as to price change and only one-third to one-fourth over as to time. Of course, any shock could derail this forecast. Our bond portfolios are slowly repositioning to a hedged or defensive mode. We have time. The process of moving from the present very low interest rates will require years and be volatile but gradual. Interest rates cannot go below zero. To get them above zero and into a more normal relationship, the G4 central banks must neutralize over four trillion dollars equivalent of excess reserves. Collectively they are still enlarging this position and are a long way from extraction from it.

Two items are recommended:

  • Read “Death of a Theory,” by St. Louis Fed president James Bullard, in the March-April/2012 monthly bulletin of that bank.
  • For analysis of last year’s bear market and the ensuing bull market, readers may wish to consult our new book, From Bear to Bull with ETFs. We thank readers for their responses so far. For the first time in our life, we have had a three-week-running best-selling book. All links to book distribution will be constantly updated on Cumberland’s website.

(Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Portfolioist. Cumberland Advisors is unaffiliated with FOLIOfn Investments.)

About David R. Kotok:

David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. Mr. Kotok’s articles and financial commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other publications. He is a frequent guest on financial television including Bloomberg Television, CNBC and Fox. He also contributes to radio networks such as NPR and media organizations like Bloomberg Radio, among others.

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