What Drives Market Returns?

In last month's blog, "Get Along, Little Market," we discussed the benefits of diversifying your investments to minimize avoidable risks, manage those that are unavoidable when we're seeking market gains, and better tolerate market volatility along the way.

Our next topic: understanding how to build your diversified portfolio to effectively capture market returns. To do that, we must understand where those returns actually come from.

Market returns represent something deeper than the ups and downs of stocks and bonds. They are our compensation for providing the financial capital that feeds the human enterprise going on all around us.

When you buy a stock or a bond, your capital is ultimately put to work by businesses or agencies that expect to succeed at whatever it is they are doing, whether it's growing oranges, running a hospital or selling virtual cloud storage. You, in turn, are not giving your money away: You mean to receive your capital back, and then some.

A company hopes to generate profits. A government agency hopes to fund its work with money to spare. Investors hope to earn generous returns. Now,
even if a business is booming, you cannot necessarily expect to reap the rewards simply by buying its stock. By the time good or bad news is apparent, it's already reflected in share prices.

So what does drive expected returns? One factor is the acceptance of market risk. Stocks, as you may know, are often riskier than bonds. When you buy a bond:

  • You are lending money to a business or government agency, with no ownership stake.
  • Your returns come from interest paid on your loan.
  • If a business or agency defaults on its bond, you are closer to the front of the line of creditors to be repaid with any remaining capital.

On the other hand, when you buy a stock:

  • You become a co-owner in the business, with voting rights at shareholder meetings.
  • Your returns come from increased share prices and/or dividends.
  • If a company goes bankrupt, you are closer to the end of the line of creditors to be repaid.

In short, stock owners generally face higher odds of not receiving an expected return and of losing their money. While stocks are considered riskier than bonds, they have also tended to deliver higher returns over time. This outperformance of stocks is called the equity premium. The precise amount of the equity premium, and how long it takes to be realized, is never certain.

As the chart below shows, stock have handily outperformed bonds over time. However, they also have exhibited a bumpier ride along the way:

Exposure to market risk is among the most important factors contributing to premium returns. But it's not the only factor. Next month, we'll continue to explore market factors and expected returns, and discuss why our evidence-based approach is so critical to that exploration.