What is Ahead for 2009


Major structural changes have occurred in the economy and markets, and more changes are on the way. The failure of Lehman Brothers was a watershed event. Investors stopped making even routine transactions, bailing out of even money market funds. The effects froze the economy and greatly worsened the effects of the credit crisis. We moved from the collapse of housing prices to a widespread economic decline. It is clear now that the effects will not be short-term. There also are longer-term effects beyond the credit crisis that should influence your portfolio choices.

Some of the long-term changes from the crisis I have identified include:

Ÿ Deleveraging by consumers, investors, and business will continue. The trend persists because asset prices still are declining and credit is tight.

Ÿ After the crisis, the economy will not return to the pre-crisis levels of leverage. Many people and businesses will not want to take on that level of risk. Even those that do will have trouble obtaining credit.

Ÿ Less leverage means lower economic growth.

Ÿ Investment returns are likely to be lower than in the past few decades for several reasons. Economic growth is the driver of long-term investment returns, and GDP growth will be lower. Returns from investments are the risk-free rate, or treasury bill rate, plus a premium for taking risk. The risk-free rate currently is bouncing around zero and even after the crisis ends will be below levels of recent decades.

Also, the negative equity returns of the last 10 years will make investors more risk averse. It will be a long time before investor enthusiasm pushes investment prices to extremely high valuations.

The bottom line is the equity risk premium will be lower than since 1982. The ERP is the return of stocks above the risk-free rate. Investors have been burned and are extremely pessimistic, so they will be less willing to pay high prices for stocks. Also, the aging population alone will make investors more income- and safety-oriented and less equity- and growth-oriented.

Ÿ Stocks have higher dividend yields than the 10-year treasury yield for the first time since 1958. Through 1958 it was normal for stocks to yield more than bonds, because investors believed they needed to be compensated for the higher risks of stocks. I think dividend yields will be more important to investors in coming years.

Ÿ Much of the world's economic growth is likely to be in the emerging economies, especially in Asia. For many years these have been high risk, low cost producers that depended on the western economies for growth. They are developing middle classes with internal consumption, and over time that will make them less dependent on the western world for growth. Also, they have decreased risk by improving their financial systems and government financing.

Ÿ There also have been some structural changes in the markets that favor change in your portfolio. There are a host of new tools that allow individual investors to invest in sectors and assets previously closed to them. These tools enable an investor to come closer to producing a portfolio with true diversification, one in which assets are not highly correlated with each other. There also are new analytical tools and approaches to investing that help reduce risk and better balance portfolios.

I recommend changing your portfolio in two stages.

The first stage is to get us through the current crisis  by having a high level of safety in your portfolio. I am not anticipating a near-term turnaround in the economy or the financial crisis. You need to be prepared for continued deleveraging, disruptions in the credit markets, and unpleasant surprises from businesses and in the economic data. There will be bear market rallies, and I suggest you take advantage of them to sell riskier assets at prices above the lows and move into a safer portfolio. It is hard to tell how long you should stay in the safer portfolio. I moved Retirement Watch subscribers there late in December. It might last a few more weeks or a few years. It depends on when the credit markets and economy start to heal.

In the second stage, move into riskier investments. But build a more diversified portfolio than many people generally have. There are four major economic trends: falling economic growth, rising economic growth, falling inflation, and rising inflation. You want to be sure part of the portfolio will do well in each of these environments. We are able to do that like never before because of the new investment vehicles. Plan the portfolio now, but wait for the current crisis to be nearing its nadir before implementing it.

Bob Carlson is editor of the monthly newsletter and web site Retirement Watch at www.RetirementWatch.com. He also is the author of The New Rules of Retirement and Invest Like a Fox…Not Like a Hedgehog.

Posted 02-10-2009 2:32 PM by Bob Carlson