When designing an investment program, your expected rate of return is a critical element in determining how much to periodically invest to meet a future goal. Since no one can predict future returns, the expected rate of return is typically estimated based on an analysis of past returns for various investments. So what return can you expect in the future for stock investments? The average annual return for the Standard & Poor's 500 (S&P 500) for the period from 1926 to 2002 was 10.2%*, but you don't want to simply use that return without determining whether it is a reasonable return for the future.
A starting point for making that assessment is to look at the equity risk premium. Since stocks are generally considered more volatile than bonds, investors typically expect a higher return. This excess return is called the equity risk premium. Although there are many complicated methods of calculating this premium, a simplified approach calculates the difference between total returns for large-company stocks and long-term government bonds.
For the period from 1926 to 2002, that difference was 4.7%.* However, the annual equity risk premium fluctuated significantly during that period. For the near future, many market analysts question whether the equity risk premium will approach the historical average of 4.7% for several reasons. First, even though price/earnings (P/E) ratios have declined, they still remain at high levels. Since corporate profits are not expected to increase as rapidly in the future, P/E ratios may not go back to previous levels. Second, a significant portion of the equity risk premium results from dividends, which are at historically low levels. Third, the current bear market may have shaken investors' confidence in stocks. Lower-than-expected returns in the future may further erode that confidence. If that happens, investors' preference for stocks may stay dampened, bringing the equity risk premium down.
If the equity risk premium does decrease in the future, total returns will be lower than historical returns. Only time will tell if that assessment is accurate. However, it is probably prudent to consider a lower return for investment programs than historical returns would indicate. To compensate for potentially lower returns, consider the following strategies:
- Take a fresh look at your financial goals. Reevaluate your goals, how much you need to reach them, and how much you should be saving annually based on lower expected returns.
- Save more of your income. If you can't count on returns to provide growth in your portfolio, you should compensate by saving more of your income. That may mean you'll need to work overtime or take on a second job to provide additional income. Another strategy is to reduce your living expenses and save the reductions.
- Invest in a tax-efficient manner. Taxes are often a significant investment expense, so using strategies to defer the payment of taxes may make a substantial difference in your portfolio's ultimate size. Utilize tax-deferred investment vehicles, such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts, which defer the payment of taxes until withdrawal. Or emphasize investments generating capital gains rather than ordinary income. Minimize turnover in your portfolio, so unrealized capital gains can grow for many years.
- Consider other investment categories. Investors have typically allocated their investment portfolio among cash, bonds, and stocks. With the prospect of lower returns in stocks, you might want to consider other categories, such as real estate.
- Don't concentrate your investment portfolio in one category. The one major lesson to learn from the recent stock market volatility is that it is risky to concentrate your portfolio in one category. Diversify so when one asset class declines, hopefully other asset classes will be either increasing or not decreasing as much.
- Evaluate your portfolio's performance annually. That way, if returns are lower than you targeted, you can make adjustments to your strategy to compensate for these variations in return.
* Source: Stocks, Bonds, Bills, and Inflation 2003 Yearbook. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged index generally considered representative of the U.S. stock market. Investors cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.