The Death of Equities Redux

July 26, 2012

A famous Business Week article, “The Death of Equities,” concluded, “Today, the old attitude of buying solid stocks as a cornerstone for one’s life savings and retirement has simply disappeared.” Sound familiar? The article was published in August 1979.

The Business Week article discusses how, with “stocks averaging a return of less than 3% throughout the decade,” investors were fleeing equities in favor of cash and real assets such as property, gold and silver. “Further,” it states, “this ‘death of equity’ can no longer be seen as something a stock market rally—however strong—will check. It has persisted for more than 10 years through market rallies, business cycles, recession, recoveries and booms….For better or worse, then, the US economy probably has to regard the death of equities as near-permanent condition.”

The primary economic problem back then was high inflation, which had devastated returns for  stocks and bonds but had greatly buoyed the value of real assets such as gold. Of course, Paul Volcker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was soon to unleash his war on inflation, which set the stage for a prolonged period of strong equity and bond market returns.

But the article says other factors contributed to the death of equities: “The institutionalization of inflation—along with structural changes in communications and psychology—has killed the U.S. equity market for millions of investors. We are all thinking shorter term than our fathers and our grandfathers.”

Inflation (at least of the consumer-price variety) has not been the problem it was in the 1970s, but I would argue that structural changes in communications and psychology have been, if anything, more severe. We are all subject sooner and sooner to more and more information. And, as a consequence, we are thinking shorter term than our fathers and grandfathers and, I should add, mothers and grandmothers.

Equities are no more likely to be dead now than they were in August 1979. Indeed, the expected return advantage of stocks versus government bonds is unusually high at present, in our opinion. However, shorter-time horizons may require us to revisit our investment portfolios. In addition to longer-horizon strategies like value and growth, investors may need to consider shorter-horizon strategies, such as equity income or low-volatility stocks.

Finally, for those investors worried about the return of the inflation bogeyman, holding some exposure to real assets is a good insurance policy.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AllianceBernstein portfolio-management teams. 

The Death of Equities Redux
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