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Six simple charts on what to expect from shares

In our recent Reader Survey, about 40% of respondents reported portfolio losses of over 20% between January and March 2020, although the market rise since the lows has pared back some of the pain. Anyone relying on their investments to fund regular spending will not only be concerned about the loss in capital value, but also the reductions in dividends. National Bank has lowered its interim dividend from 83 cents to 30 cents and ANZ Bank has cancelled it completely in a sector which traditionally provides one-third of all dividends in the listed market.

Market recovery patterns

Contrasting 'investors' with 'traders', most people do not make radical changes in their portfolios based on short-term volatility. That's a good thing, as picking tops and bottoms is almost impossible, even for professional fund managers who stare at screens all day. A well-designed investment plan should focus on long-term goals and needs, and not worry too much about monthly variations. Volatility is the cost of participating in the long-term benefits of share investing.

Regardless of an investor's ability to look long term, two questions remain:

1. How often does a diversified share portfolio lose money?

2. How long does it usually take to recover?

We opened the Morningstar Direct data base for the Australian All Ordinaries Accumulation Index to measure the total returns (including dividends) over one year, three years and five years since 1983. For the five year, we did a check using the Canadian Total Return Index, given the similarities between the Canadian and Australian markets. 

There are good reasons to take comfort from the charts, and the pictures 'tell a thousand words'. Of course, Covid-19 is a unique threat, and only time will tell whether 'this time is different'.

One-year returns

Australian equity investors should expect to lose money for one year in every four to five years. Anyone who considers this loss of capital unacceptable should hold a more diversified portfolio including other asset classes, because over time, the same pattern will probably repeat. 

(In the chart, 0.1 equals 10%, 0.2 equals 20%, etc. Yes, the All Ords rose 67% in 1983, and fell 40% in 2008 and rose 40% in 2009).

Three-year returns

Moving to a three-year horizon of annualised returns (that is, 1985 shows total returns over 1983, 1984 and 1985, annualised) shows good years regularly offset down years, such that over 90% of three-year periods produced a positive result. Over the period, only the severe loss of the GFC carries into other years.

Five-year returns

Similarly for five-year performance, now about 19 times out of 20, the All Ords produced a positive result.   

Canadian Total Returns over five years

The Australian economy has experienced almost 30 years of economic growth (which will be punctured in 2020), so as a quick check on whether the above numbers are an Australian miracle, here are the Canadian Total Returns numbers for five years. There are no five-year losses.

A longer-term perspective of 120 years

Taking the data back to 1900 shows annual returns are positive in 80% of years, and the average annual return (nominal, not adjusted for inflation) for the All Ords Accumulation Index is 13.2%. Remember that inflation has reached double digits in the past so this number in no way reflects real returns or the potential for the future.

Over this longer horizon, and measuring returns over a decade, Australian shares have generated positive returns 100% of the time and 82% for US shares.

All Ords Accumulation Index, annual returns for all years since 1900

Bull and bear years since 1980

Finally, defining bull and bear years as 20% rises or falls in this Vanguard chart of the All Ords index shows that in the last 40 years, persistence with equity markets usually pays off. The bear markets have been much shorter and shallower than the bull markets.

Is the past a prologue?

We will only know if this time is different when we look back in a few years, and given the uncertainty in the market, there could be another leg down from the recent drop. Taking history as a guide suggests those who do not panic are likely to be rewarded over the long term.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor. Past performance may not be repeated but it's the best guide we have.


May 05, 2020

Self-funded retirees depend on dividends for income. If shareholder dividend income is treated as discretionary then so too should board and company executive incomes, which should be cut by the same percentage as any cut to dividends. That will focus their minds.

May 05, 2020

That's the thing though; those board members who take all or part of their remuneration as shares already have done, and those who have LTIRs that are a function of the share price will also suffer because the share price will drop if there is no to little dividend from it.

You might well depend on dividends for income, well, those of us who aren't retired depend on it to fund our eventual retirement, so it's no different. Technically, any income is discretionary as to what you're worth paying as a wage earner and the companies you invest in as an investor. It's not different.

This isn't the fault of any board or CEO, and if we extrapolate that to the people who work as PAYG / PAYE employees, it wasn't their fault that they lost their jobs either. It's like saying the same to them - "lost your job ? That'll focus your mind" which is pretty harsh.

Maybe if executive remuneration (as a cash or non-equity component) is increased during this time, THEN you have a point to make, but otherwise, not so.

SMSF Trustee
May 05, 2020

AlanB, No one should depend on income payments from investments to live on. They should have invested so that they can have income and growth to rely on. If the income exceeds your needs, you reinvest and grow more. If the income falls short, you sell some assets and use that.

To think that your capital is sacrosanct once your retired and that you're entitled to get income payments is self-indulgent nonsense. You saved for a rainy day and now that it's raining your capital is what provides your umbrella. Open it up.

May 06, 2020

I agree with SMSF trustee here completely. If anything, Gen-X and anyone after them will be the real, completely self-funded retirees because there won't BE a pension or any "entitlements" despite "eeeh, I paid taxes all my life" as well (so that will hopefully be over by then, Mr Hockey) because even if there is, you won't qualify for it ("you had a working lifetime of super, why's that not enough ?") and you won't want it because it will be SO low it will be poverty line wages. Welfare payments have not risen anywhere near the cost of living has.

The only option for us is to invest as much and for as long as we can both inside and outside of super, and hope that our investment managers who look after our money, the investment choices we made and that investment markets do well enough to get us a sufficient pot of money to last us our comparatively, longer lives than boomers will have. Yes, we actually have a higher risk of outliving our money than you do.

Because the alternative (a State "pension") isn't worth thinking about.

Chintan Engineer
May 06, 2020

Hi SMSF Trustee,
Your response and approach is what a lot of investors need to understand and accept...the analogy is also quite brilliant, to be honest.
On the surface of it, a dividend cut is not good news but cutting the dividend can be a very sensible move. I'd rather be invested in a company that has the courage to make strong financial decisions to remain afloat in tough times rather than try to maintain dividend payments to keep the shareholders happy.
How many times have we come across companies that have borrowed to pay it's dividend and then face significant financial issues in times like these before they go under?
I'm always happy to look for quality companies that have short term investors who sell their shares when a company cuts their dividend since the fall in share price may finally throw up a great opportunity to buy that quality asset at a reasonable price.
Past performance is not a guide to future performance and may not be repeated but stupidity never goes out of's more contagious than COVID-19!

Gary M
April 30, 2020

The dividend parts of 'total returns' or 'accumulation' are now taking a pounding, and that is the main component and the most consistent.


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