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Understanding Benchmarks: Why is my Portfolio Trailing the S&P 500 so far in 2018?

Written by Brett Detterbeck.

Apples are not Oranges

Many investors with well-balanced, diversified portfolios might be asking this exact question when they compare their year-to-date (“YTD”) return with that of the S&P 500. To understand the answer to this question is to understand your portfolio composition and your relative performance to a benchmark which may or may not include the S&P 500.

Per Investopedia, “a benchmark is a standard against which the performance of a security or investment manager can be measured. Benchmarks are indexes created to include multiple securities representing some aspect of the total market.” Within each asset class – equities, fixed income, alternatives, cash – you’ll find lots of benchmarks. In fact, the total number of indexes is somewhere in the thousands! That said, “when evaluating the performance of any investment, it’s important to compare it against an appropriate benchmark.” So let’s start by getting familiar with the most popular as well as the most applicable benchmarks out there.

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: Arguably the most well-known index for domestic stocks, the Dow is composed of 30 of the largest “blue chip” stocks chosen by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. The Dow is not a good benchmark to compare your diversified equity portfolio because 1) 30 companies is a small sample given there are over 3000 publicly listed stocks traded in the US alone. 2) The Dow isn’t well diversified with a heavy influence to industrials and excludes big names like Apple, Amazon, & Berkshire Hathaway. 3) It is price-weighted, meaning a stock with a higher price will have a higher weighting in the index than a stock with a lower price. Change in share price is one thing, but absolute share price shouldn’t dictate measurement. Thus, this index is severely flawed.
  • The S&P 500: Another index for domestic stocks, composed of 500 large-cap companies representing the leading US industries chosen by the S&P Index Committee. It’s certainly not as flawed as the Dow, but it too has its own problems: the biggest being that it is market-cap weighted, meaning that a stock’s weighting in the index is based on its price and its number of shares outstanding. So as a company’s stock price rises and its market-cap grows, this index will buy more of that stock and vice-versa. Thus, the index is essentially forced to buy larger, more expensive companies and sell companies as they get cheaper. This “flaw” is great in times when large cap growth companies are hot: think about FAANG – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google – these are all stocks that up until recently have soared and essentially the reason why the S&P500 heading into this month was one of the only 10% of 2018 positive areas amongst all of the asset categories Deutsche Bank tracks. (See graph below.) However, the S&P500 won’t show too well when growth is out of favor and investors emphasize value and fundamentals like they did in the 2000s, a decade when the S&P500 had basically zero return.
  • There are many other popular equity benchmarks such as the Russell 2000 (representing small cap stocks), MSCI EAFE (representing international stocks - in particular ones from developed regions of Europe, Australiasia, and the Far East), MSCI EEM (representing stocks of emerging regions), and lots more.
  • All of these above focus on a particular niche within the equity market. Therefore, none of them really make a good benchmark for comparison to your well-balanced, diversified portfolio. It’s like comparing apples to oranges! Which is why we favor the following benchmark for equity comparison purposes: MSCI ACWI (All Country World Index): This index is the one-stop shop for equity benchmarks consisting of around 2500 stocks from 47 countries, a true global proxy. It’s not a perfect benchmark, but it does get you closer to comparing apples to apples.

Next, we look at popular benchmarks within Fixed Income:

  • Barclays Capital US Aggregate Bond Index:  Basically the “S&P500 of bond land” and sometimes referred to as “the Agg”, this bond index represents government, corporate, agency, and mortgage-backed securities. Domestic only. Flaws include being market-cap weighted and that it doesn’t include some extracurricular fixed income categories like floating rate notes or junk bonds.
  • There are others, like the Barclays Capital US Treasury Bond Index & the Barclays Capital US Corporate High Yield Bond Index, that focus on their respective niche, but probably the best bet comparison for most diversified fixed income investors would be the Barclays Capital Global Aggregate Bond Index. This proxy is similar to the “Agg”, but we believe superior given about 60% of its exposure is beyond US borders. Not exactly apples to apples, but it can work.  

Lastly, Alternatives:

  • For Alternatives, benchmarks are somewhat of a challenge as there aren’t as many relative to the more traditional asset classes of stocks & bonds because there are so many different flavors and varieties of alternatives. We think one of the most appropriate comparison proxies in alternative land is the Credit Suisse Liquid Alternative Beta Index. It reflects the combined returns of several alternative strategies such as long/short, event driven, global strategies, merger arbitrage, & managed futures. As such, it can be considered as an appropriate comparison tool when comparing your liquid alternative portion of your portfolio.

Now that you’re more familiar with some of the more popular and applicable benchmarks of each asset class category, you may be asking the question: which one of the above is the best for comparison to my portfolio? The answer is: none of them alone, but rather a few of them combined. In other words, you would want to build a blended proxy consistent with the asset allocation mix of your portfolio. For example, if your portfolio is 50% equities / 30% fixed income / 20% alternatives, then an appropriate blended benchmark might be 50% MSCI AWCI Index / 30% Barclays Capital Global Aggregate Bond Index / 20% Credit Suisse Liquide Alternative Beta index. Now you’re really talking an apples-to-apples comparison!

You now should be equipped on how to measure your portfolio versus an appropriate benchmark. With 90% of assets categories being down for 2018 according to data tracked by Deutsche Bank through mid-November (see graph below), most likely you are sitting at a loss for 2018. 2018 has been a challenging year for all investors. Besides a select group of large cap domestic names (that are big constituents of the S&P500), most investment areas are down. That 90% losing figure is the highest percentage for any calendar year since 1920! Yikes! This also could be the first year in over 25 that both global stocks and bonds finish in negative territory. Wow! It’s a tough year. Not every year is going to be a positive one, but history shows that there are more positive years than negative ones. Stay the course.    

Our investment management team here at DWM is made up of CFA charterholders. As such, we believe in prudent portfolio management which adheres to a diversified approach and not one that takes big bets on a few select areas. We know that with this diversified approach, it’s inevitable that we won’t beat each and every benchmark year-in and year-out, but we can be capable of producing more stable and better risk-adjusted returns over a full market cycle. Further, we are confident that our disciplined approach puts the client in a better position to achieve the assumed returns of their financial plans over the long run, thereby putting them in a position to achieve much sought long-term financial success.

Have fun with those comparisons and don’t forget to lose the oranges and double up on the apples!

Asset Category 2018 Performance