The average investor across the world has wildly more optimistic return expectations than the average financial adviser.
Boston-based Natixis Investment Managers conducted its eighth annual survey of investors, spread across 24 countries over March and April, and found the average expected long term return among the 8,550 respondents was 14.5 per cent per year. In a striking contrast, the global average amongst the financial professionals they surveyed was only 5.3 per cent per year. For the record, Australian investors expected a return of 14.4 per cent, compared to 6 per cent for the financial professionals.
The difference between investor expectations and those of financial professionals is something Natixis calls the ‘expectation gap’. For 2021 it is 174 per cent, but tellingly, it has jumped by almost half from the 2020 gap, after investors’ return expectations leaped by 25 per cent but financial professionals’ were unchanged.
Conspicuously, as financial markets have continued to rise since the surveys started in 2014, investors’ expectations have gone up hand in hand. In 2014, real returns, that is, after inflation, were expected to be 8.9 per cent, and for 2021 it’s 13 per cent.
The branch of economics that studies human behaviour refers to ‘recency bias’, which is where peoples’ expectations, and not just about financial returns, are heavily influenced by their most recent experiences, whether they be good or bad.
It’s easy to theorise that after seeing share markets rebound spectacularly from the fastest ever 30 per cent sell off, to the second fastest ever 100 per cent gain in the US, that it’s recency bias more than common sense that’s leading investors to expect the good times to keep on rolling.
By contrast, financial advisers keep getting told by highly rated, and highly paid, investment consultants, that successive years of strong, above average market returns will almost inevitably be followed by years of below average returns due to the inexorable force of mean reversion. Trees don’t grow to the sky, after all.
According to Vanguard, over the past 50 years Australian shares have averaged a return of 9.7 per cent per year and for international shares it was 9.9 per cent. However, if we change the horizon to 20 years, the return for Australian shares was 8.4 per cent, and for international it was a far less impressive 4.7 per cent. In other words, the point at which you invest makes an enormous difference.
It’s an argument that makes sense and is backed up by compelling data: the likelihood of strong future share market returns declines the higher are valuation multiples. With global share markets hitting new all-time highs, the noise around valuations grows by the day. The challenge for a smart investor is, of course, which valuation multiple do you use and why?
One of the most commonly used multiples is the Cyclically Adjusted Price to Earnings (CAPE) ratio, which is the brainchild of Nobel economics laureate Bob Shiller. For the US it’s currently above 38, and the only time it’s been higher was in the period leading up to the dotcom bust. Australia’s is a far more modest 24.
Advocates of the CAPE ratio point to its ability to predict future share market returns over the next 10 years, based entirely on what’s happened in the past. For the US, at current levels, it’s about 1 per cent per year, and for Australia, it’s about 9 per cent.
However, critics of the CAPE ratio point out it’s all but useless as a timing tool, given the US has been above its long-term average now for almost the whole of this century. Also, critically, trying to compare today’s macro environment, characterised by record low interest rates and bond yields, super accommodative monetary policy and record fiscal stimulus, to past periods that were almost the opposite, is like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.
The same argument applies to comparing a normal PE ratio to historical averages: how do you account for vastly different inflation, bond yields and policy settings?
Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball that will tell you accurately and consistently what future returns will be. Investors may end up being right for the wrong reasons, or the conservatism of the average financial professional could prove prescient.