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September 2023 Performance Review

October 10, 2023

The hot US stock market couldn't handle the renewed slide in bonds, leading to a decline of over 4% for a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds for the month. Despite this, the economy remains strong, even as 30-year fixed rate mortgages approach 8%, reminiscent of the worst of the bond market hit in 2022. Banks are showing signs of strain again, as they grapple with a portfolio of long-term, low-rate loans while needing to offer rising yields to depositors.

For September 2023, our Conservative portfolio declined by 4.71%, and our Aggressive portfolio fell 3.71%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for the month were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 4.77%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), down 2.49%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), down 3.71%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), down 2.06%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a global balanced portfolio, down 4.04%.

Despite its recent drop, the S&P 500 remains up around 13% for 2023. In contrast, longer-term government bonds have experienced significant declines. A 50/50 portfolio consisting of the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the long-term government bond ETF (TLT) is approximately flat for the year, dividends included. Our higher-risk portfolio has registered a 1.35% return, while our lower-risk portfolio has decreased by 1.13% year to date.

The primary areas that have been performing well in the market (though some are cooling down) include technology, which is still up around 20% YTD, and growth sectors in the US. While some foreign markets like Japan are performing strongly this year, most are lagging behind the US. The strength that value stocks displayed in 2022 has waned in 2023, with these funds now in the red. Small cap stocks are barely holding ground with a 3% return for the year.

The weakest performers include assets that investors previously favored when rates were near zero and below inflation — such as gold, high dividend stocks, and utilities. These so-called 'safe' inflation hedges or assets offering inflation-beating yields are now under pressure. Utilities have fallen by 12% this year, real estate funds by over 5%, and precious metal funds have declined around 10%. Investors don't need to look far for safe yields now, as T-bills are offering around 5.5%.

Why haven't higher rates stifled the economy or the stock market as anticipated? Perhaps many had envisaged a near future that mirrored the last 15+ years, with persistent low rates to support the economy where the risk averse are punished for being too conservative. This optimistic projection is rapidly changing as the possibility of enduring higher rates becomes more evident. For those purchasing homes at current peak prices with almost 8% mortgage rates, refinance opportunities at lower rates in the coming years might become scarce.

The US economy's resilience may be partially attributed to how many Americans having locked in low rates with 30-year fixed mortgages of around 3%. Rising inflation is simultaneously pushing up home prices and salaries, and with the surge in cash yields, those brave enough to move away from their zero-interest bank accounts are seeing over 5% yields. However, challenges could be on the horizon for commercial borrowers with short-term or adjustable-rate loans.

If the aim is to curtail consumer spending to combat inflation, then tax hikes and government spending cuts might be necessary – neither of which we're currently seeing. Relying solely on rising rates to cool down the economy could lead to a financial crisis, even when consumers are still splurging on luxuries like $1000 Taylor Swift tickets.

Another factor to consider is that, at some point, government bonds might outperform stocks over a lengthy period, perhaps decades. If an investor had purchased a 20-year government bond in 2000 and, upon maturity in 2020, reinvested in T-bills, the returns would have been on par with the S&P 500, dividends included. The catch is that one would have enjoyed the consistent 6%+ yields from bonds and avoided the recent bond market crash since the bond matured in 2020.

In the current scenario, we're nearing the 6% yield for 30-year bonds seen in early 2000, with rates currently hovering around 5%. While stock yields aren't as low as they were then (meaning stocks are not quite as overpriced), they are not far off, sitting around 1.5%.

The tech innovations from 2000-2020, including the spread of the internet and smartphones, resulted in an average annual return of about 6.5% in the S&P 500 stock fund. But we also saw government debt soar from 60% of GDP to 120%. Without a similar debt-driven boost in the near future and with an aging population, economic growth could be stifled, barring any significant shifts, such as a robot-driven economy.

Ultimately, the primary hesitation against heavily investing in 5% risk-free long-term debt arises from the potential for rates to climb even further, which could further depress longer-term bond prices. Although we haven't observed panic selling of bond funds—a sign that might indicate a good entry point—such a scenario might never transpire. This is especially true if there's significant demand for 6% government bond yields. After all, achieving returns better than 6% long-term government bonds is difficult, even under nearly ideal economic conditions.

Stock Funds 1mo %
ProShares UltraShort QQQ (QID) 11.43%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY) 7.39%
Proshares Short High Yld (SJB) 2.06%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR) -0.65%
LeatherBack L/S Alt. Yld. (LBAY) -1.75%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX) -2.06%
Franklin FTSE Japan ETF (FLJP) -2.36%
Invesco CurrencyShares Euro (FXE) -2.37%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH) -2.49%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX) -2.61%
Proshares Short Bitcoin (BITI) -2.86%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV) -3.27%
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH) -3.53%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX) -3.71%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA) -3.78%
Vanguard Communications ETF (VOX) -3.86%
Vangaurd All-World Small-Cap (VSS) -4.25%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK) -4.49%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX) -4.77%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR) -5.12%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR) -6.10%
UltraShort Bloom. Crude Oil (SCO) -9.81%
Bond Funds 1mo %
BondBloxx Six Month Treasury ETF (XHLF) 0.38%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX) -2.49%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB) -4.18%
Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index ETF (BLV) -6.31%
Vangaurd L/T Treasury (VGLT) -7.31%
Vanguard Extended Duration Treasury (EDV) -11.41%