My F&M

Market Commentary 4th Quarter 2014

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Diversification is a core principle of our investment approach.  With equities, for example, not only do we diversify across sectors and industries, but we also diversify among both domestic and international stocks.  Within domestic stocks we maintain exposure to both large and small companies, and internationally we hold some funds focused on developed international markets and others invested in emerging markets. 

Our standard mix for stocks is 60% large U.S., 15% small U.S., 15% established international markets, and 10% emerging markets. Diversification is primarily a tool to help control risk, but this mix has also added considerable value in the long run.  For example, over the past 15 years, equity indexes in our typical blend have outperformed the S&P 500 index by a significant 0.7% per year.  While its long-term performance has been great, relative performance in individual years is, of course, highly variable.  In 2014, equity indexes in our standard blend lagged the S&P 500 by 5.8%!  

The S&P 500’s total return in 2014 was 13.8%, its third year in a row of double-digit gains.  Small U.S. stocks (the Russell 2000), in contrast, returned only 4.9%, while established and emerging stock indices each produced negative returns (-4.5% and -2.2%, respectively).  Consequently, the blended equity index representing the diversified mix of equities we typically hold in client portfolios returned 7.9% in 2014.  That’s respectable, but seen through the lens of this past year alone one might say that equity diversification didn’t pay off.  However, if every asset in a portfolio is going up at the same time, it’s a strong sign that the portfolio is not diversified.  The whole point of diversification is reducing risk by holding assets that don’t move together and improving long-term, risk-adjusted returns.  

Looking ahead on the domestic front, economic growth seems to be picking up, inflation remains tame and interest rates low, and seasonal influences remain positive for stocks.  Internationally, the picture is less encouraging with positive, but slowing growth in China and economic stagnation gripping Europe and Japan, despite extremely low interest rates.  Additionally, sharply falling currencies in Japan and Europe increase the risk of a global trade war.  International equity valuations are generally good while domestic equities are quite expensive on the basis of some of the most useful valuation measures, and most expect U.S. interest rates to rise this year.  High domestic valuations and rising rates have traditionally been a bad combination.  With 2015 likely to offer significant crosscurrents, diversification should be more helpful in the year ahead.