The Uncommon Average
The Uncommon Average

The Uncommon Average

The US stock market has delivered an average annual return of around 10% since 1926. [1] Is this an uncommon average? Short-term results may vary, and in any given period stock returns can be positive, negative, or flat.

“I have found that the importance of having an investment philosophy—one that is robust and that you can stick with— cannot be overstated.”
—David Booth

Expectations And The Uncommon Average

When setting expectations, it’s helpful to see the range of outcomes experienced by investors historically. For example, how often have the stock market’s annual returns actually aligned with its long-term average?

Exhibit 1. – S&P 500 Index Annual Returns, 1926–2018

Exhibit 1 shows calendar year returns for the S&P 500 Index since 1926. The shaded band marks the historical average of 10%, plus or minus 2 percentage points. The S&P 500 Index had a return within this range in only six of the past 93 calendar years. In most years, the index’s return was outside of the range—often above or below by a wide margin—with no obvious pattern. For investors, the data highlight the importance of looking beyond average returns and being aware of the range of potential outcomes.

The Uncommon Average - Exhibit 1
In US dollars. S&P data © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. Indices are not available for direct investment. Index returns are not representative of actual portfolios and do not reflect costs and fees associated with an actual investment. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Actual returns may be lower.

Tuning In To Different Frequencies

Despite the year-to-year volatility, investors can potentially increase their chances of having a positive outcome by maintaining a long-term focus. Exhibit 2 documents the historical frequency of positive returns over rolling periods of one, five, and 10 years in the US market. The data show that, while positive performance is never assured, investors’ odds improve over longer time horizons.

Exhibit 2. Frequency of Positive Returns in the S&P 500 Index, Overlapping Periods: 1926–2018

In US dollars. From January 1926–December 2018, there are 997 overlapping 10-year periods, 1,057 overlapping 5-year periods, and 1,105 overlapping 1-year periods. The first period starts in January 1926, the second period starts in February 1926, the third in March 1926, and so on. S&P data © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. Indices are not available for direct investment. Index returns are not representative of actual portfolios and do not reflect costs and fees associated with an actual investment. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Actual returns may be lower.

Conclusion

While some investors might find it easy to stay the course in years with above average returns, periods of disappointing results may test an investor’s faith in equity markets. Being aware of the range of potential outcomes can help investors remain disciplined, which in the long term can increase the odds of a successful investment experience. What can help investors endure the ups and downs? While there is no silver bullet, understanding how markets work and trusting market prices are good starting points. An asset allocation that aligns with personal risk tolerances and investment goals is also valuable. By thoughtfully considering these and other issues, investors may be better prepared to stay focused on their long-term goals during different market environments, and avoid the temptation of the uncommon average.

Footnotes

[1]. As measured by the S&P 500 Index from 1926–2018.

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About the Author Doug Finley

Douglas Finley founded Finley Wealth Management, a Fee-Only Registered Investment Advisor, with the goal of creating a firm that eliminated the conflicts of interest inherent in the financial planner – advisor/client relationship. The firm specializes in financial planning and investment management for high-net-worth individuals and families.

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