Skip to Content
Investing Specialists

4 Portfolio Takeaways From the Recent Market Volatility

The short sell-off can provide valuable insights into how you manage your portfolio going forward.

Mentioned: , , , ,

For long-term investors, it's a mistake to make too much out of a three-month window of market performance; longer stretches are what really matter because that's your holding period, too.

So, it's not surprising that some readers greeted my recent article on the third quarter with "who cares?"

But the third quarter wasn't just any old three-month period. After stocks posted a nearly unbroken string of robust returns since early 2009, the most recently ended quarter provided a glimpse into how various security types would behave in a less sanguine environment for global economic growth. The S&P 500 lost 6.5% during the quarter, its worst showing since 2011, and the MSCI EAFE Index shed more than 10% of its value. Emerging-markets equity indexes lost between 17% and 18%.

Of course, the next market swoon is likely to be a little different from this one; the U.S. market, rather than emerging markets, could lead the way down. But in many respects, the recent sell-off had some predictable elements that can be instructive for investors aiming to find balance and manage the risks in their portfolios.

Here are some takeaways.

1) High-quality bonds are decent ballast, but don't expect miracles.
Previous data have indicated that high-quality bonds are equity investors' best diversifier, and that relationship held up during the third-quarter sell-off. The long-term government-bond category led the way with a 4.3% return during the third quarter, as investors bid up long-term bonds when the Fed decided to stave off an interest-rate increase. The short- and intermediate-term government categories delivered lower average returns of 0.3% and 0.9%, respectively.

Of course, most investors don't limit themselves to government bonds but instead hold intermediate-term bond funds that own government bonds as well as corporate and mortgage-backed securities; such funds also remained in positive territory, with average returns of 0.3%. The Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, which is heavier on government bonds than the typical intermediate-term fund, outperformed with a 1.2% return.

In a tough market, positive returns are nothing to sneeze at, but those numbers illustrate that bonds won't fully compensate for equities' losses; only funds that took substantial duration risk were able to do so. Such funds are apt to be volatile (and hard to hang on to) given the prospective headwind of rising rates. Nor will duration risk definitely be rewarded in future market sell-offs, particularly if rising interest rates are the catalyst for the equity-market sell-off.

It's also worth noting that some bonds and bond funds won't offset equity losses at all; they'll actually go down right along with stocks. For example, lower-quality bonds were less effective as ballast during the stock sell-off. Given that worries over economic growth precipitated stocks' decline, it's not surprising that high-yield bonds fared especially poorly, shedding 4.5% on average; funds that had invested heavily in the hard-hit energy sector faced a double whammy. The bank-loan and multisector-bond categories also lost ground, albeit to a lesser extent. Non-traditional-bond funds such as  PIMCO Unconstrained Bond (PUBAX) sold like hotcakes a few years ago, touted as a way to dodge rising rates. But because most such funds take credit risk in lieu of interest-rate risk, the group's third-quarter performance was undistinguished.

2) Alternatives' returns were intriguing, but they're still not a must-own.
Alternatives were generally disappointing during the 2008 financial crisis, though many such categories were quite small at that time. Given the proliferation of funds in several of these groups, the most recent stock market downturn provided a more useful, albeit short, window into alts' behavior during difficult markets.

As with the 2008 downturn, the bear-market category was the only group to deliver a truly impressive gain during the third quarter, though Morningstar generally doesn't recommend these offerings for investors' portfolios due to volatility and common-sense considerations. (Stocks generally trend up over long time periods, after all, so a bet against them doesn't often make sense if your holding period is also long.)

Most of the other alts categories managed small gains or muted losses relative to pure equity funds during the third quarter, a result that Josh Charlson, a director of manager research for Morningstar, says is in line with expectations. Charlson points out that many alternatives categories, such as long-short, provide exposure to equity-market performance, so it's unfair to expect them to deliver completely uncorrelated returns.

The managed-futures category managed a small gain during the third quarter, though the Silver-rated  AQR Managed Futures (AQMIX) gained an impressive 6.2%. That's encouraging, and I like the idea of an investment type that's neither correlated with the equity market nor sensitive to interest-rate changes. But I still don't consider alts funds a must-have for most investors, especially if they'd like to avoid a lot of moving parts. To date, many alternatives have delivered a risk/reward profile that's in line with a balanced portfolio but with higher costs.

3) Risk-averse investors should emphasize high-quality equities.
The equity-market rally that has prevailed since 2009 has been frequently described as a low-quality rally, with highly leveraged, high-growth companies leading the way. Higher-quality companies, while posting strong gains in absolute terms, have lagged.

But as analyst Alec Lucas discussed in this article, that relationship was turned on its head during the market downturn. Conservative, quality-oriented funds like       American Century Equity Income (TWEIX) and  Vanguard Dividend Growth (VDIGX) managed much smaller losses than their counterparts. Such funds also fared relatively well during the financial crisis. And in contrast with investment types that shine in one bear market but perhaps not another, there are persistent fundamental reasons that high-quality companies should hold up better than lower-quality ones in uncertain times.

That's not to say that well-balanced portfolios shouldn't include both types of companies. Lower-quality companies frequently outperform at the outset of an economic recovery, for example, because they're frequently growing more rapidly than the mature, wide-moat dividend-payers that typically fall under the high-quality umbrella. But investors who are concerned with downside protection, either because they're retired or simply risk-averse, can reduce the volatility in their portfolios by tilting toward high-quality companies, either individual wide-moat stocks or funds that emphasize high-quality firms.

4) Sell-offs can open up long-dormant tax-saving opportunities.
In an upward-trending market, tax-conscious investors don't have all that many ways to reduce the drag of taxes on their investment results; the best they can do is take maximum advantage of tax-sheltered savings vehicles and practice savvy asset location.

But a downward-trending market can open up tax-saving opportunities that weren't there before, and those opportunities can be a saving grace in a tough market. Tax-loss selling is one such opportunity. Investors employing the specific-share-identification method for cost-basis accounting might be able to sell higher-priced lots of stocks or funds in their portfolios at a loss; stockpiling losses might help fund investors, in particular, offset impending capital gains distributions from actively managed funds. Investors may also be able to cherry-pick losing positions in unloved sectors such as energy or commodities. This article discusses tax-loss selling in greater detail.

A weak market also makes Roth IRA conversions more attractive than they otherwise would be, as lower investment balances lower the tax bill due upon conversion. For investors who have converted IRA assets in the past, when their balances were higher, undoing the conversion via recharacterization can make sense. This article does a deeper dive into Roth IRA conversions and recharacterizations.

Christine Benz does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.