That Was the Year That Was

 |  Includes: BWX, SHY, TLT
by: James Picerno

Two-thousand-and-eight is gone — and good riddance. But the blowback will be with us for some time, on a number of fronts. And that starts with reviewing the previous 12 months.

As our first table below shows, red ink was spread far and wide in 2008 in almost everything other than cash and bonds. Otherwise, double-digit losses were the rule last year. But if we look at the monthly tally for December, the view looks decidedly better. REITs, in particular, rebounded sharply last month, surging nearly 18% in December.


Most of the other asset classes followed suit, albeit with lesser although still robust gains for the month. The exceptions are cash and commodities. It's too soon to tell if the worst is over or if the rally is merely a fleeting affair in an ongoing bear market. But given the extent and breadth of the carnage, it's tempting to think that maybe, just maybe, positive returns await in asset classes other than cash.

Speaking of cash, a few words about last month's performance of 3-month Treasury bills (our proxy for cash) is in order. Although our table above lists December's performance for cash as zero, the number's in red because the return is slightly negative for 3-month T-bills if you carry the return out to two digits: -0.02%. In the grand scheme of the universe, no one will lose any sleep over this microscopic loss. But the fact that T-bills — the classic "risk-free" asset — posted a loss of any degree is extraordinary, and so it speaks to the times we live in.

Indeed, monthly losses in T-bills are so rare that it doesn't register in our databases, which admittedly only go back to the 1980s for "cash." That's not to say that it never happens, but you'll have to go back quite a ways to find monthly red ink in this corner of finance.

The source of last month's slight loss is no mystery, at least. The explanation starts by noting that the yield on a 3-month T-bill slipped to just about zero at the end of November — an astonishing state of affairs in and of itself. Then, in December, the T-bill yield rose a bit, albeit to a mere 0.11% by December 31 from roughly zero a month earlier. Slight as that is, it was enough to tip the monthly return to negative in the 3-month T-bill for two reasons. One, for much of December, the 3-month T-bill barely gave investors any yield to speak of, and since yield is the only source of return for these securities the pickings were fated to be slim at the end of November even under the best of circumstances. Add the fact that T-bill yields rose slightly set the stage for an ever-so-slight loss (rising yields translate into lower prices in bondland).

The fact that even cash could post a loss is a sign of the times, of course, although investors had bigger problems than worrying about miniature losses in T-bills. Indeed, as our second table below reminds, 2008 was a horrendous year for most asset classes. Horrendous, but not entirely surprising, at least in terms of how 2008 compared with previous years. Yes, the depth of the losses are shocking. But the reversal of fortune was overdue — long overdue in some cases.

click to enlarge

Consider emerging market stocks, which lost more than 50% last year. Shocking as the loss is, the volatility is not out of character for the asset class. Indeed, as the chart shows, emerging market stocks had been posting gains of 20% to 50% for each and every calendar year during 2003-2007. That extraordinary five-year stretch of price increases had to end eventually, of course, and for anyone who expected otherwise, well, they were living in a dream. Surely if an asset class can post a 50% gain in one year — as emerging markets did in 2003 — something similar is possible if not likely on the downside.

A similar lesson applies to the formerly high-flying world of REITs, which also enjoyed an extraordinary bull market run that finally started coming apart in 2007 and continued in 2008.

Yet not everything was about losses in 2008, a year that witnessed potent gains for some corners of the bond world, which once again makes the case for owning a globally diversified portfolio. Foreign government bonds denominated in foreign currencies, for example, was an exceptionally bright light last year and so if you didn't own the asset class (via BWX, for instance), your portfolio probably paid a price.

The point is that cycles endure, even if the details aren't always 100% clear. What goes up in price eventually comes down. Meanwhile, lower prices precede higher prices. Although one must be extremely cautious about applying that view to individual securities, it generally works well over time when it comes to asset classes, which have a habit of surviving, which is more than one can say for some individual companies or certain bonds.

Timing, of course, is always debatable, even with broad asset classes, which is an argument for maintaining some mix of the world's capital and commodity markets through thick and thin. The question, as always, is how to structure the mix and manage the betas through time?

As it happens, that's the focus of a new monthly newsletter (

The Beta Investment Report

) that your editor will launch later this month (details to follow on For the moment, though, we're simply gazing backward, in search of some basic perspective. Knowing where you've been and what history looks like is the foundation for looking into the future and assessing risk as well as opportunity. As always, a surplus of both awaits. The critical challenge is fleshing out the details.