The start of this year has been painful for investors with sharp losses in shares and bonds, dragging most superannuation funds into negative returns for the last financial year. And yet despite this setback and rough patches in 2015, 2018 and in early 2020 with pandemic lockdowns, median balanced growth superannuation funds returned 8.4% pa over the 10 years to June after fees and taxes. While dull compared to the double-digit returns of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s pretty good once low average inflation of 2% pa over the last decade is allowed for.
However, returns have been boosted for decades by a “search for yield” as interest rates collapsed with falling inflation. This pushed down investment yields (bond yields, earnings yields on shares, rental yields on the property, etc) and so pushed up asset values. But the sting in the tail was that ever lower yields meant an ever lower return potential for when yields eventually stopped falling. The good news in the recent fall in markets is that it’s pushed potential medium-term returns back up a bit.
Investment returns have two components: yield (or income flow) and capital growth. What gets confusing though is that the price of an asset moves inversely to its yield all other things being equal. For example, suppose an asset pays $5 a year in income and its price is $100 – this means an income flow or yield of 5%. If interest rates on bank term deposits are cut from say 3% to 1% this will likely encourage increased investor interest in the asset as investors will like its relatively high yield. Its price will then be pushed up – to say $120, which given the $5 annual income flow means that its yield will have fallen to 4.2% (ie, $5 divided by $120). This is great for investors who were already in the asset as its value has gone up by 20%. But its yield is now pointing to lower potential returns going forward (ie, 4.2% which is down from 5%), unless the yield continues to fall further boosting capital growth. But of course, there is a limit to this & it also works in reverse as maybe we are now starting to realise with the surge in inflation over the last year, which is pushing up interest rates, bond yields & yields on other assets.
In the early 1980s, the RBA’s “cash rate” was around 14%, 1-year term deposit rates were nearly 14%, 10-year bond yields were around 13.5%, commercial and residential property yields were around 8-9% and dividend yields on shares were around 6.5% in Australia and 5% globally. This meant investments were already providing very high income so only modest capital growth was needed for growth assets to generate good returns. And then with the shift from very high inflation in the early 1980s to very low inflation up until recently, the last 40 years saw a collapse in yields. This was led by falling interest rates and then yields on other assets were pushed down too. See the next chart. Consistent with the explanation in the previous section this led to strong average returns for diversified investors through the last 30 or 40 years, despite periodic setbacks like the 1987 crash, the tech wreck and the GFC.
At their recent low point, the RBA’s official cash rate fell to 0.1%, average bank 1-year term deposit rates fell to 0.25%, 10-year bond yields fell to 0.6%, gross residential property yields fell to 2.2%, commercial property yields fell below 5%, dividend yields fell below 4% for Australian shares (with franking credits) and just 2% for global shares. The problem was that with the cash rate and bond yields around zero there wasn’t much further for yields to keep falling. This saw our assessment of nominal medium-term return projections for a balanced growth mix of assets fall below 5%. The good news is that with yields on cash, bonds and shares now up and asset prices down their return potential has improved.
Our approach to getting a handle on the medium-term return potential of major asset classes is to start with current yields and apply simple and consistent assumptions regarding capital growth. We also prefer to avoid forecasting and like to keep it simple.
Our latest return projections are shown in the next table. The second column shows each asset’s current income yield, the third shows their 5-10 year growth potential, and the final column shows their total return potential. Note that:
Adjustments can be made for: dividend payout ratios (but history shows retained earnings often don’t lead to higher returns so the dividend yield is the best guide); the potential for PEs to move to some equilibrium level (but forecasting the equilibrium PE can be difficult and dividend yields send valuation signals anyway); and adjusting the capital growth assumption for some assessment regarding profit margins (but this is hard to get right). So, we avoid forecasting these things.
If you have any questions about this please get in touch with us.
Source: Russel Investments
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