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After Five Great Years For Stocks, What's Next?

Once again, investors have been taught about the power of investing in stocks for the long run. The lesson is illustrated in this chart of returns of a diverse array of 13 investments, including European stocks, commodities, and bonds as well as U.S. stocks. It is a lesson investors have been taught many times before but remains difficult to learn. The chart spans a five-year period, which is a long time, and it covers investments that in the past behaved differently from one another.

Atop the chart, the best investments by far, were America’s blue-chip publicly held companies. Also among the best-performing asset classes for the five years were real estate investment trusts (REITs), both U.S. and foreign, and master limited partnerships.

The worst asset class on the list for the past five years was crude oil and other commodities, along with the euro currency. The euro lost 13% versus the U.S. dollar over the five years.

As for the bond total return indices, U.S. Treasuries returned 23%, or 4.6% per year. Municipal bonds gained 25%, or about 5% per year. Leveraged loans gained 30%, or about 6% annually, while high-yield “junk” bonds gained 49%, about 9.8% per year.

An ounce of gold, in this five-year period, shot from approximately $1,200 to $1,800 before losing luster, recently settling at $1,120. Gold bulls had counted on the Fed’s liquidity program going too far, triggering inflation and “debasing” the U.S. dollar. It never happened. Inflation and bond yields are lower than investors, including the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bankers who make up the Federal Reserve, had expected.

But the most important takeaway from this accompanying chart is not the returns on specific asset classes over these last five years, but the unpredictable nature of investments. At the end of 2009, Time magazine declared the two biggest news stories of the year were the “non-recovery” of the economy and the war in Afghanistan. Who would have thought the U.S. recovery would go so well and that oil prices and commodities would plunge in the years ahead? Who would have known in 2009, amid the global slowdown, that the U.S. was leading the world from recession and the stock market had just started one of the biggest bull markets of the century? Such things are unpredictable, which is why our investment approach is guided by long-term wisdom about markets and human nature.

With the outperformance of U.S. stocks over this five-year period, today’s markets are different than they were five years ago. Stock prices have tripled, and only three bull markets have lasted as long as this one since the advent of the modern securities markets in the 1920s. The longer the bull market goes on, the more likely it will be interrupted by a period of sharp losses. However, bull markets have continued longer than expected many times in the past and this one could go on. It would be folly to abandon stocks now as though we can predict what will happen over the coming five years.

While investors must be realistic about the possibility of a bear market, stock valuations by historic standards were not out of line in the third quarter of 2015. Corporate earnings were in line with analysts’ predictions, and the U.S. economy was continuing to grow. You never should expect past performance to predict your investment results reliably, you should expect the next five years to be totally different from the last five years. But enduring truths about how asset classes historically behave and the power of stocks over the long run remain paramount.

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