Bonds: Why Bother?

April 20, 2009


A 2.5 percentage point advantage over two centuries compounds mightily over time. But it’s a thin enough differential that it gives us a heck of a ride.


  • From 1803 to 1857,4 stocks floundered, giving the equity investor one-third of the wealth of the bond holder; by 1871, that shortfall was finally recovered. Oh, by the way, there was a bit of a war—or three—in between. Forget relative wealth if you owned Confederate States of America stocks or bonds. Most observers would be shocked to learn that there was ever a 68-year span with no excess return for stocks over bonds.
  • Stocks continued their bumpy ride, delivering impressive returns for investors, over and above the returns available in bonds, from 1857 until 1929. This 72-year span was long enough to lull new generations of investors into wondering “why bother with bonds?” Which brings us to 1929.
  • The crash of 1929–32 reminded us, once again, that stocks can hurt us, especially if our starting point involves dividend yields of less than 3 percent and P/E ratios north of 20x. It took 20 years for the stock market investor to loft past the bond investor again, and to achieve new relative-wealth peaks.
  • Then again, between 1932 and 2000, we experienced another 68-year span in which stocks beat bonds reasonably relentlessly, and we were again persuaded that, for the long-term investor, stocks are the preferred low-risk investment. Indeed, stocks were seen as so very low risk that we tolerated a 1 percent yield on stocks, at a time when bond yields were 6 percent and even TIPS yields were north of 4 percent.
  • From the peak in 2000 to year-end 2008, the equity investor lost nearly three-fourths of his or her wealth, relative to the investor in long Treasuries.

Fig. 2

It's also striking to note that, even setting aside the opportunity cost of forgoing bond yields, share prices themselves, measured in real terms, are usually struggling to recover a past loss, rather than lofting to new highs. Figure 2 shows the price-only return for U.S. stocks, using S&P and Ibbotson from 1926 through February 2009, the Cowles Commission data from 1871–1925, and Schwert data5 from 1802–1870. Out of the past 207 years, stocks have spent 173 years—more than 80 percent of the time—either faltering from old highs or clawing back to recover past losses. And that only includes the lengthy spans in which markets needed 15 years or more to reach a new high.

Most observers will probably think that it’s been a long time since we last had this experience. Not true. In real, inflation-adjusted terms, the 1965 peak for the S&P 500 was not exceeded until 1993, a span of 28 years. That’s 28 years in which—in real terms—we earned only our dividend yield … or less. This is sobering history for the legions who believe that, for stocks, dividends don’t really matter.

If we choose to examine this from a truly bleak glass-half-empty perspective, we might even explore the longest spans between a market top and the very last time that price level is subsequently seen, typically in some deep bear market in the long-distant future. Of course, it’s not entirely fair to look at returns from a major market peak to some future major market trough.6 Still, it’s an interesting comparison.

Consider 1802 again. As Figure 3 shows, the 1802 market peak was first exceeded in 1834—after a grim 32-year span encompassing a 12-year bear market, in which we lost almost half our wealth, and a 21-year bull market.7 The peak of 1802 was not convincingly exceeded until 1877, a startling 75 years later. After 1877, we left the old share price levels of 1802 far behind; those levels were exceeded more than fivefold by the top of the 1929 bull market. By some measures, we might consider this span, 1857–1929, to have been a seven-decade bull market, albeit with some nasty interruptions along the way.

The crash of 1929–32 then delivered a surprise that has gone unnoticed, as far as I’m aware, for the past 76 years. Note that the drop from 1929–32 was so severe that share prices, expressed in real terms, briefly dipped below 1802 levels. This means that our own U.S. stock market history exhibits a 130-year span in which real share prices were flat—albeit with many swings along the way—and so delivered only the dividend to the stock market investor. The 20th century gives us another such span. From the share price peak in 1905, we saw bull and bear markets aplenty, but the bear market of 1982 (and the accompanying stagflation binge) saw share prices in real terms fall below the levels first reached in 1905—a 77-year span with no price appreciation in U.S. stocks.

Fig. 3

Stocks for the long run? L-o-n-g run, indeed! A mere 20 percent additional drop from February 2009 levels would suffice to push the real level of the S&P 500 back down to 1968 levels. A decline of 45 percent from February 2009 levels—heaven forfend!—would actually bring us back to 1929 levels, in real inflation-adjusted terms.



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