October 7, 2011

Balanced Funds Performance ‘Statistically Equivalent’ During Recessions, Expansions: Vanguard

Balanced funds have earned their name as historical performance shows little difference between good economic times and bad

Average returns for funds with an equal mix of stock and bond allocations have historically been “statistically equivalent” during recessions and expansions, according to Vanguard. Vanguard studied balanced funds’ historical performance from 1926 through June 2009.

The reason for this, according to Vanguard’s research, is that during a recession, bonds typically outperform stocks as investors search for safety. Furthermore, stock prices tend to fall in the period before a recession is declared and rise again as the economy begins to recover.

Consequently, the average returns for balanced funds between 1926 and 2009 have been “similar regardless of whether the U.S. economy was in or out of recession.”

This is particularly true of inflation-adjusted returns, the paper notes, because inflation tends to be higher during expansions.

Vanguard acknowledges that while the average balanced portfolio returns have been similar, specific recessions have resulted in a wide variance between returns for stocks and bonds.

“Balanced portfolios have provided positive returns in a surprising number of recessionary periods, in part because equities often have done better during recessions than conventional wisdom would suggest,” according to Vanguard.

Despite these findings, Vanguard warns eager investors to remember that past performance no guarantee of future results.

“That a balanced 50%/50% portfolio has produced an average historical real return of approximately 5% during past recessions does not imply that a 5% real return is assured or even reasonable to expect should a recession occur in the near future,” according to the paper. Deep, long-lasting recessions preceded by a run-up in asset prices and leverage have been associated with lower balanced fund returns.

The level of stock valuations and interest rates going into a recession will also affect a balanced fund’s performance. As they stand now, according to Vanguard, these metrics suggest that balanced portfolios’ returns could be below the historical averages during any near-future recession.

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