Post-World War II economic expansion from 1947 through 1968 using inflationary dollars
Inflation was quelled by a post-war recession. The immediate post-war inflation spike ended with a drop in inflation of -1.2% during 1949. This immediate post-war downturn saw the value of stocks fall by 8.3% in 1946. For this reason, the chart below begins with 1947 as stock markets recovered and began an upward march for two decades through 1968.
Between 1947 and 1968, there were four years in which stock values fell measured year-over-year: -1.2% in 1953, -10.46 in 1957, -8.8% in 1962 and -10.0% in 1966. Nevertheless, during the other 18 years of this period, stock values rose. In 14 of those years, inflationary stock values increased by at least 10%. Moreover for those 14 years of double digit stock appreciation, 6 years experienced stock appreciation of 10% to 20%, 4 years experienced stock appreciation of 20% to 30%, 2 years experienced stock appreciation of 30% to 40%, and 2 years experienced stock appreciation exceeding 40%, including one year exceeding 50%.
Clearly this post-WWII economic expansion graph using inflationary dollars, shows that stock returns dominated cash and bond returns. Stock appreciation was dominant to the point that any possible appreciation for bonds or cash hardly registers on this inflationary dollars chart. While the inflationary value of the original stock dollar moved up by a factor of 18, the value of cash rose by just 73% and bonds by just 53% over these 22 years.
Post-World War II Economic Expansion from 1947 through 1968 using real dollars
This post-WWII economic expansion graph uses real dollars, rather than the inflationary dollars presented in the graphic above. Over these twenty-two years, the purchasing power of the initial stock dollar increased by ten-fold, while the purchasing power of both cash and bonds fell actually fell. Over this period, the purchasing power of cash fell by -3% and the real dollar value of bonds decreased by and even greater cumulative -13%.
Escalating inflation and increasing economic stagnation from 1969 through 1981 using inflationary dollars
This inflationary dollar graphic for the 1969 to 1981 period demonstrates the increasingly caustic impact that sustained and increasing inflation can have to all asset classes — especially to stocks. Asset values measured in inflationary dollar increased over most of the period, yet initial one dollar invested in stocks dropped below one inflationary dollar in 1969, 1970, and again in 1974.
The fact that throughout this period that CPI line rises above the cash, bond, and stock asset classes means that all asset class did not maintain purchasing power in the face of consistently rising inflation. Clearly, the real dollar graphic below will tell a more accurate story about asset valuation.
Escalation of inflation and increasing economic stagnation from 1969 through 1981 using real dollars
This real dollar graphic for the 1969 to 1981 period is particularly helpful in understanding the negative inflationary impacts in relative terms between the cash, bond, and stock asset classes. Initially, yields on cash (3 month treasury bill) rose slightly above inflation, but eventually lost a modest amount of purchasing power during the second half of the period. At the end of these thirteen years, the initial dollar invested in cash was worth $.95 in real dollars.
Bonds also rose in value above inflation in the 1971 through 1973 period, but they fell in value more severely from 1977 to 1981, as annual inflation rates escalated. By the end of this thirteen year period, the initial dollar invested in bonds was worth only $.65 in real dollars.
Compared to cash and bonds, increasing inflation had a more substantially negative impact on stocks in the beginning and in the middle of this period. However, relative values for stocks improved during the last several years, despite the escalation of inflation. This trend reversal reflects, in part, the ability of firms to raise prices along with inflation. By the end of this stagflation period, the initial dollar invested in stocks was worth $.78 in real dollars, trailing the purchasing power of cash, but exceeding that of bonds.
Stock and bond bull markets as inflation recedes, including the Dot Com mania, from 1982 through 1999 using inflationary dollars
Inflation was finally defeated in the early 1980s, through harsh monetary policies and an associated recession. A two decade period of relatively high economic growth and high stock appreciation followed. The 1980s and 1990s stock value growth was comparable to the post-WWII expansion period from 1947 through 1968. However, unlike 1947 to 1968, the last two decades of the 20th century was also a bond bull market fueled by falling interest rates and a growing economy.
Stock and bond bull markets as inflation recedes, including the Dot Com mania from 1982 through 1999 using real dollars
When the 1980s and 1990s are viewed in real dollars, it becomes more obvious how stock value appreciation rates differed between the two decades. In constant purchasing power terms, the initial stock dollar grew to be worth $2.89 at the end of 1989 and to $11.30 in 1999.
Bonds and cash appreciated more steadily in inflation-adjusted terms without the “birth of the Internet” growth inflection point that stocks experienced in 1994. For bonds, the initial bond asset class dollar grew in real terms to be worth $2.16 at the end of 1989 and to $3.28 in 1999. For cash, the initial cash asset class dollar grew in real dollar terms to be worth $1.34 at the end of 1989 and to $1.60 in 1999.
Dot Com crash and recovery, Credit Crisis, Great Recession, and recovery from 2000 through 2013 using inflationary dollars
Because we have all lived though the most recent economic period, it is obviously fresh in our memory compared to any of the earlier historical periods discussed above. The dot com crash was followed by an anemic recovery pumped up somewhat by increasingly unsustainable debt. The Credit Crisis — induced by completely irresponsible financial industry mortgage underwriting, deceptively cleaver financial engineering, and toxic mortgage debt derivatives — broke the global banking system and quickly impacted the real economy, leading to the very ugly Great Recession.
Stock prices bottomed in March of 2009 and have recovered to record levels measured by some stock market indexes. The slow revival of fragile economic growth has been facilitated by extraordinary monetary steps taken by central banks around the world. Even though stock markets have recovered, both consumers and investors are generally shell-shocked, and our economic, financial, and monetary systems seem far from whatever “normal” is.
During this period, bonds have been in the ascendancy and falling stock values have generated massive quantities of stomach acid. However, the bond versus stocks relative performance gap had closed substantially by the end of 2013. During the past year or two, one pervasive financial media meme has been the end of the bond bull market and the expected rise in interest rates that will negatively impact bond values. And, oh by the way, cash earned nothing during this period and ended slightly below inflation, if that really needed to be pointed out.
Dot Com crash and recovery, Credit Crisis, Great Recession, and recovery from 2000 through 2013 using real dollars
This real dollar chart for the latest period tells a similar story to the inflationary graph above. Because inflation has been relatively low and steady throughout this period of two crashes and two recoveries, making asset value adjustments for changes in CPI do not change the story of what has happened. Most people just hope that we are done with all this financial crisis excitement for a very long time.
Viewing the relative 85-year historical performance of cash, bonds, and stocks broken down into these five major thematic periods tells a long-term story of “see-saw” investment performance between the primary financial investment asset classes.
During these first and fifth sub-periods of relatively high economic adversity, bond assets and cash held their purchasing power far better than stocks :
- Stock market crash, Great Depression, and World War II from 1928 through 1946
- Dot Com crash and recovery, Credit Crisis, Great Recession, and recovery from 2000 through 2013
During these second and fourth sub-periods of relatively strong economic activity, stocks appreciated in value far more than bond asset or cash assets:
- Post-World War II economic expansion from 1947 through 1968
- Stock and bond bull markets as inflation receded, including the Dot Com mania from 1982 through 1999
Only during this middle (third) sub-period of stagflation were comparative asset class returns mixed and relatively close to each other, when compared to the other four major sub-periods:
- Escalation of inflation and increasing economic stagnation from 1969 through 1981
Several things do stand out, when one looks at the long-term historical data in this manner:
- There have been extended periods when one or another asset class is generally ascendant or descendant.
- Even within periods that seemed generally to have favored one asset class over another, there been significant trend reversals in comparative asset class performance.
- In the two sub-periods when stocks have been ascendant, their appreciation multiples have been very high in both inflationary or real dollar terms. This largely accounts for the cumulative dominance of stock performance across the entire period.
- A broad, long-term, but unpredictable picture of reversion toward upward trending return averages is presented for bonds and stocks. Obviously, the upward trending performance averages differ dramatically between bonds and stocks, while cash has barely exceeded long-term inflation.
The selection of beginning-points and ending-points for these five periods was arbitrary and driven by historical hind-sight knowledge. Nevertheless, these five periods do present a long-term, cyclical pattern. These previous five extended periods alternated or see-sawed between “good and bad” stock appreciation episodes.
Given that the most recent period exhibited relatively poor performance, going forward can we now expect an extended period of relatively high stock asset class appreciation? The answer is either an emphatic “no” or a perhaps a more wishy-washy “maybe – maybe not,” which really means do not count on it.
A statistician would complain about the paucity of data points, the pitfalls of data mining, etc. The problem is that historical data is solely informative. It can never be predictive. Expecting stocks to continue an extended bull market — beyond the post-credit crisis and Great Recession recovery that we have already experienced — is just one of a range of future scenarios. History knows nothing about the future, and neither do you nor I.
Securities history is not predictive regarding any particular aspect of the future, but historical returns and price volatility do illustrate the varying risk premiums that the various asset classes have paid over time. The only sane response to the uncertainty of investment risk and reward across asset classes is to diversify broadly and thoroughly.
Even then, each investor is challenged to determine how much to allocate to cash, bond, and stock securities. At one extreme, one could hold all cash, but history tells us that cash pays only a very small return over inflation. At the other extreme, one could hold all stocks, but history tells us that one needs a strong stomach and iron will to endure price fluctuations in pursuit of the higher risk premium that has been paid to equities.
Each individual investor and all investors in aggregate must face the future with complete uncertainty. All investment crystal balls are really completely opaque for both professional and amateur investors. Despite theories, models, and firmly held beliefs about the future, any belief in predictability is largely delusional.
The more certain any future event is to a larger number of investors, the larger the shock to the system when an improbable “black swan” presents itself. The factors that gave rise to the mortgage derivatives driven credit crisis of the past decade represent just another major delusion that later was made plain to investors.
Nevertheless, I do hope that this graphical review of the past 85-years of U.S. asset class performance has been illuminating. Understanding the historical context of relative financial asset class performance at least provides some reference points for deciding one's investment strategy in the face of complete uncertainty about actual future events.
Larry Russell, the author of this investment returns article, is also a very strong proponent of investment cost reduction. While there are no reliable strategies that will beat the market, reducing investment costs to a minimum ensures that investors will keep the highest portion of their gross returns. Individual investors do not need to spend their lives paying tribute to the financial services industry without receiving commensurate benefits. Larry helps investors pull the plug on excessive investment fees through his free and paid personal investing books and articles.