When investing, risk is a given, and if you choose to avoid it, at any cost, you will, and in the last decade, you have borne a staggering cost in terms of returns unearned. At the other extreme, seeking out risk for the sake of taking risk is more suited to casinos than to financial markets, and as in casinos, the end game is almost always disastrous. The middle ground on risk is to accept that it is part and parcel of investing, to try to gauge how exposed you are to it and to make sure that your expected return is high enough to compensate you for taking that risk. Put simply, you are charging a price to take risk, and that price will reflect not only your history and experiences as an investor, but how risk-averse you are, as an individual. In this post, rather than focus on your or my price of risk, I want to talk about the market price of risk, as assessed by all investors, and how that price changed in 2019.
The Price of Risk
There are almost as many definitions of risk, as there are investors, but I find many of them wanting. There is, of course, the definition of risk as uncertainty, a circular play on words, since it just replaces one nebulous word (risk) with another. There is the definition of risk as encompassing all the bad outcomes you can have on an investment, which, by making risk into a negative and something to be avoided, leads you right into the arms of those selling your protection against it (in the form of hedging). In finance, we have become so used to measuring risk in statistical terms (standard deviation, variance, covariance etc.) that we have taken to defining risk with these measures, an arid and antiseptic view of risk. The truth is that risk, at least in business, is neither a good nor a bad, but a given. It is a combination of danger (the likelihood that bad things will happen to you) and opportunity (often emerging from exposing yourself to danger, and I think that the Chinese symbol for crisis captures its essence perfectly:
(I know! I know! I have been corrected and recorrected on both the symbols and the definition by people who know far more Chinese than I do, which is pretty much everyone in the world… So, please cut me some slack!) It is this definition of risk that allows us to frame the risk/return tradeoff that lies at the heart of investing. While you can choose a pathway of taking no risk and earning guaranteed returns, those returns in today’s markets would be close to zero in the United States and Europe. If you want to earn higher returns, you have no choice but to expose yourself to risk, and when you do, the key question becomes whether you are being compensated sufficiently for taking that risk.
- When you invest in fixed income securities (bonds), your compensation takes the form of a default spread, i.e., what you charge over and above the risk-free rate to invest in that bond.
- When you invest in equities, the payoff to taking risk comes in the form of an equity risk premium, i.e., the premium you demand over and above the risk-free rate for investing in equities as an asset class.
Both the default spread and the equity risk premium are market-set numbers and are driven by demand and supply. The default spread is a function of what investors believe is the likelihood that borrowers will fail to make their contractually obligated payments, and it will rise and fall with the economy. The equity risk premium is a more complex number, and I think of it as the receptacle for everything from changes in investor risk aversion to perceptions of economic growth and stability to corporate choices on leverage and cash return to global flash points (war, health scares etc.).
The Default Spread
The default spread is the premium that investors demand on a bond to compensate for default risk, and not surprisingly, it varies across bond issuers, with safer (riskier) borrowers being charged less (more) to borrow money. One assessment of corporate default risk is a bond rating, a measure of default risk computed by ratings agencies. While ratings agencies have been criticized for bias and delay, these bond ratings are still widely used and are a convenient proxy not only for measuring default risk but also for estimating default spreads. In the graph below, I have listed the default spreads at the start of 2020 and compared them to default spreads that I had estimated at the start of 2019 by ratings class:
The first conclusion, and a completely unsurprising one, is that companies that are lower rated (and thus perceived to have more default risk) have larger default spreads than companies that are highly rated; a BBB (Baa) rated bond, at the cusp of investment grade and junk bonds, for instance, saw its default spread drop from 2.00% at the start of 2019 to 1.56% at the start of 2020. To get some longer-term perspective on how much default spreads change over time, the default spread on the investment grade (BBB, Baa) rated bond is graphed below from 1980 to 2019:
At the risk of stating the obvious, the default spreads on bonds change over time, decreasing when times are good and investors are sanguine, and increasing during economic downturns and market crises.
The US Equity Risk Premium
In my last data update post, where I looked at markets over the last decade, I also posted a table that reported historical equity risk premiums, i.e., the premiums earned by stocks over treasury bills and bonds over long periods, ranging from a decade to 92 years.
There are many practitioners, who use these historical equity risk premiums as the best estimates for what you will earn in the future, using mean reversion as their basic argument. I have already made clear my problems with using a backward-looking number with a large estimation error (see the standard errors in the table above) as an expectation for the future, but it cuts against the very essence of an equity risk premium as a number that should be dynamic and constantly changing, as new information comes into markets. For almost three decades, I have computed an implied equity risk premium, a forward-looking value computed by looking at what investors are paying for stocks today, and the expected cash flows on those stocks. Specifically, I take an approach that is used with bonds to compute a yield to maturity to stocks, computing an IRR for stocks and then subtracting out the risk-free rate. At the start of 2020, the implied equity risk premium for the S&P 500 was 5.20% and the calculations are in the graph below:
Since I have been computing this number at the start of each month, since September 2008, I can look at how this number moved in the twelve months of 2019:
During the course of the year, the implied equity risk premium has increased from 5.96% to 5.20%, driven down by increasing stock prices and lower interest rates.
I am fascinated by the implied equity risk premium because it captures the market’s current standing in one number and frames debates about the overall market. A contention that markets are overvalued, or in a bubble, is equivalent to claiming that the equity risk premium is too low, relative to what you believe is a reasonable value. In contrast, a bullish assessment of the entire equity market can be viewed as a statement about equity risk premiums being too high, again relative to reasonable values. But what is a reasonable value? I have no idea, since I am not a market timer, but to help you make your own assessment, I have reproduced the implied equity risk premium for the S&P 500 going back to 1960:
You could use the computed averages embedded in the graph as your basis for reasonable, and using that comparison, the market looks closer to under than overpriced, since the ERP on January 1, 2020, was 5.20%, higher than the average for the last 60 years (4.20%) or the last 20 years (4.86%). Even with a 10-year average, the market is only very mildly overpriced. It is true that the current implied ERP of 5.20% is being earned on a risk-free rate of 1.92%, low by historical standards, yielding an expected return of 7.12% and that may be too low for some. I will let you make your own assessment, but this is a healthier one that just looking at PE ratios (Shiller, trailing, forward) or other market metrics.
A Real Estate Risk Premium?
If default spreads measure the price of risk in bond markets and equity risk premiums measure the risk for investing in stocks, what is the price of risk of investing in other asset classes? It may be more difficult to assess what this value is in other risky markets, but it exists without a doubt, and one way of evaluating how much of your portfolio to allocate to these asset classes is to compare their risk premiums to the risk premiums of bonds and stocks. To get a sense of how this would play out, consider the real estate market, perhaps the biggest asset class outside of stocks and bonds. Investors in commercial real estate attach prices to properties, based upon their expectations of income from the properties and capitalization rates. Thus, a property with expected income of $10 million and a capitalization rate of 8% will be valued at $125 million = $10/0.08. Since the capitalization rate is effectively a measure of expected return on real estate, subtracting out the risk-free rate should yield a measure of the risk premium in real estate.
Risk Premium for Real Estate = Cap Rate – Risk-Free Rate
In the graph below, I have estimated the real estate risk premium and provided a comparison to the equity risk premium and default spread, over time:
Note that the real estate risk premium in the 1980s was not only well below the equity risk premium and the default spread, it was sometimes negative. While that may strike you as odd, it makes sense if you think of real estate as an asset class that is not only uncorrelated with financial asset returns but also provides insurance against inflation. As real estate was securitized in the 1990s and fears of inflation receded, the real estate risk premium has started behaving like the risk premiums in stock and bond markets, and the rising correlation between them reflects that co-movement. Put simply, we live in a world, where the real estate you own (often your house or apartment) will tend to move with, rather than against, your financial assets, and in the next market crisis, as the stocks and bonds that you own plummet in value, you should expect the value of your house to drop as well!
The debate about equity risk premiums is not an abstract one, since which side of the debate you come down upon (whether risk premiums today are too high or low) is going to drive your asset allocation judgments. If you are a bear, you believe that equity risk premiums should be higher, either for fundamental reasons or by instinct, and you should put less of your wealth into stocks than you normally would, given your age, liquidity needs and risk aversion. The challenge that you will face is in deciding where you will invest your money until you think that the ERP becomes more reasonable, since bonds are likely to also be overpriced (according to your view of the world) and real assets will often be no better. If you are a market bull, your story has to be one of equity risk premiums declining in the future, perhaps because you believe in your own version of mean reversion or because of continued economic growth. For both market bulls and bears, the perils with then bringing these views into every valuation that you do is that every company you value will then jointly both your views about the company and the overall market. It is for this reason that I think it makes sense to revert back to a market-neutral view, when valuing individual companies, even if you have strong market views. Since my market timing skills are non-existent, I prefer to stay market neutral and stick to valuing companies using the prevailing equity risk premiums.
Editor’s Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.