Having Rules Means Never Having to Guess What to Do Next
“A masterly retreat is in itself a victory.”
–Norman Vincent Peale
At Spartan Planning Group, we think a lot about survival. If you spend a few days with our team, you’ll know that phrases like “Protect and advance” or “Save some dry powder in downtrends” are core to what we do with investment portfolios. These aren’t indicative of a pessimistic outlook; quite the opposite. They stem from our commitment to rationality and objectivity, particularly concerning risk.
Every type of investing always involves losses, risk, uncertainty, and volatility. We just want to enact the best process to minimize any unnecessary risk and balance it against the need to be “risk seeking” in good times to outpace inflation over time. As trend followers, we accept a defined process and measured losses over some time periods as part of our investing strategy. This isn’t about ego or trying to predict the unpredictable. We don’t fight the market or burden ourselves with endless what-if scenarios. Instead, we focus on repeatable, consistent execution intended to preserve more capital in the rocky times so we can “make hay while the sun is shining.”
In our view, trend following is a strategy that’s rooted in survivability. While historically, trend following has experienced short-term “lags” behind a static benchmark, this approach gives us some of the best opportunities to avoid or reduce exposure to catastrophic losses. It’s about staying in the game today to seize tomorrow’s opportunities. The research shows that many trend-followed strategies have experienced more short-term slight underperformance than outperformance as compared to the static benchmarks. However, the key fact to notice is that over longer periods that include any meaningful decline in market prices, the trend-following approaches often substantially outperform their static counterparts. Also, it should be noted that because of the lower overall risk characteristics (volatility, Sharpe, and Sortino ratios – industry jargon: aka calculating “risk”) often generated by trend-followed strategies, one can often have a higher risk-adjusted return over time in those that were risk managed with trend. This then allows flexibility in choosing between a similar return over time with a lower risk profile, or a similar risk profile over time with a goal of a higher compound return.
TLDR (Too long, didn’t read):
- It is critical for those in a mid-career phase or a late-career/retired phase to avoid excessive, undue risk in their portfolio
- It is also critical for most folks to be “risk seeking” at some level in order to maintain purchasing power and outpace inflation over time
- In order to look different in the bad times (catastrophic loss like tech bubble burst, financial crisis, COVID, Russia war, great depression, etc…) you must be willing to look different at other times. This involves occasional short-term underperformance because of the need to be cautious in large downtrending environments.
In this Monthly Note, we discuss our rationale for reducing equity risk headed into October, and we explore one of the benefits of a systematic investment process: having an adaptable plan, even as markets continue to evolve.
Below are the asset classes utilized in our portfolios and their model-driven exposure heading into October.
Disclaimer: This note is for general update purposes related to the general strategy and approach of Spartan Planning portfolios. Every client’s situation including Risk Profile, Time Horizon, Contributions, and Distributions is different from other clients. Your exposure to any given asset class will depend on your goals, risk profile, and how tactical or static your risk profile calls for. Adjustments can vary across strategies depending on each strategy’s objectives. What’s illustrated above most clearly reflects allocation adjustments for the Growth Strategy. If there have been changes to your risk profile and/or goals or if you wish to discuss them in more depth, please contact your advisor.
Equities & Real Estate
Similar to the story in August, major equity indexes declined in September, with tech and growth among the worst performing. As we enter the final quarter of 2023, most equity indexes cling to positive year-to-date returns, value- and dividend-oriented are in negative territory, and only growth, tech, and large-cap indexes sit comfortably with positive annual gains.
The now two-month-old retracement has brought many segments of U.S. equities into an intermediate-term downtrend. Although long-term trends generally remain positive for now, the change in intermediate-term trends results in reductions in exposure across our portfolios.
International equities have fared slightly better over the last 60 days but have also declined. Because they have declined from a weaker initial position relative to their U.S. counterparts, international equities have more quickly succumbed to downtrends. Emerging markets have returned to downtrends across both timeframes, a space the asset class has occupied frequently since the end of 2021. For now, Foreign Developed maintains a long-term uptrend, so its exposure did not decline as severely.
Real estate securities now sit near their 2022 and one-year lows, which is remarkable given how well some equity segments have performed in 2023. However, inflation and interest rate narratives have punished this asset class. Accordingly, our portfolios will maintain their minimum exposure levels.
Fixed Income & Alternatives
The same mechanism that has sustained pressure on real estate is also at work in fixed income. For assets of any duration, trends remain negative, and our allocations remain small. The beneficiary, from an exposure perspective, continues to be ultra-short-term fixed-income instruments, which will not only stay high in our portfolios but increase due to taking on exposure from weaker equity assets.
Gold exposure will be steady for now. The intermediate-term trend continues to sit in negative territory. The long-term trend remains positive.
Sourcing for this section: Barchart.com, Nasdaq Composite ($NASX), 9/1/2023 to 9/28/2023; Barchart.com, Growth ETF Vanguard (VUG), 9/1/2023 to 9/28/2023; Barchart.com, Value ETF Vanguard (VTV), 1/1/2023 to 9/28/2023; Barchart.com, High Dividend Yield Vanguard ETF (VYM), 1/1/2023 to 9/28/2023; and Barchart.com, Real Estate Vanguard ETF (VNQ), 1/1/2022 to 9/28/2023
Three potential catalysts for trend changes:
- The Shutdown: U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy rejected a bipartisan short-term funding bill from the Senate in favor of a House Republican plan driven by conservatives. The action decreased chances of a deal and raised the likelihood of a partial government shutdown headed into the final weekend of September. Lawmakers were anticipating that Congress would fail to fund the government past September 30, a lapse that would have partially closed federal agencies and temporarily withhold pay for federal workers and active-duty military personnel. Thankfully, we now see that the shutdown was temporarily averted.
- Consequences: Federal Reserve officials are carefully trying to slow inflation without creating an economic meltdown. It’s a difficult task that could be made even more challenging if there is an extended government shutdown later this year.
- Slowdowns and Lawsuits: The race to hire warehouse workers and package carriers for the holidays is slowing to a crawl compared to last year. Logistics companies and fulfillment specialists generally are keeping their hiring flat this year, as concerns about consumer spending continue. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states sued Amazon, alleging the company illegally wields monopoly power that keeps prices artificially high, locks sellers into its platform, and harms its rivals.
For October, we are reducing exposure to U.S. equities, the one asset class that has done well in 2023. That decision doesn’t come easy, but it’s part of the process that a partial downtrend has begun and we must act to limit undue risk to client portfolios.
Fortunately, our portfolios are hedged well either way for October due to Treasury bill rates (where much of the “offloaded stock exposure” has gone) being at their highest levels since January 2001 and our equity exposure being high enough to benefit if there’s a reversal upward. If equity markets continue to decline, our expectation is the portfolios should outperform. Likewise, if equities rally, we should benefit and be able to quickly add back exposure heading into the final months of 2023.
Our plan, patience, and discipline are always being tested, but our confidence remains steadfast.
The Spartan Team