Forecasters are growing increasingly confident that a large-scale economic downturn is imminent. In a recent Bankrate survey, economists placed a 65% chance of a recession in 2023. Meanwhile, a mid-November American Association of Individual Investors survey showed nearly twice as many investors predict that the stock market will go down in the next six months than those who think it will rebound.
One of the latest economic watchers to sound the alarm is Bloomberg, whose forecast models show a 100% chance of a recession. All this is to say that it’s nearly impossible to know exactly when a global recession will begin — or how long it will last.
But while past performance does not guarantee future results, historical data can help investors predict how certain assets might hold up in times of turmoil. As we head into the New Year, here’s why you might want to consider real assets to help safeguard your portfolio from the uncertainty ahead.
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Historically speaking, stocks and bonds tend to have a negative correlation with each other, meaning if stocks take a turn, bonds should still hold their value and vice versa. Typically, the two act as a hedge against one another. That’s not necessarily the case in today’s environment.
Following the Fed’s decision to begin raising interest rates, coupled with growing fears of a potential recession, both stocks and bonds have experienced massive sell-offs this year. As a result, the values of both assets have dropped in tandem; year-to-date, the S&P 500 is down nearly 18% while the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index has surrendered about 13%.
As two of the most common asset classes gear up to finish the year with net losses — which would be the first time since 1969 — traditional portfolios may be in for a painful drawdown.
Across the board, investors are increasingly looking for non-correlated assets to help cushion their portfolios in times of volatility.
Real assets, such as real estate, infrastructure and farmland, have historically low or negative correlations to traditional stocks and bonds, as well as to each other, meaning they are not often exposed to speculative trading in public markets. In the last three decades, farmland, for example, has had a -0.06 correlation to stocks and -0.24 to bonds, according to research from my own firm, FarmTogether.
As a result, these assets can offer welcome diversification for investors looking to create distance between their portfolios and the markets.
For nearly 30 years, real assets have provided similar or higher average annual returns than stocks, and with much lower volatility, resulting in historically higher risk-adjusted returns. From 1991 to 2021, average annual real estate returns had a standard deviation of 7.73%, while S&P 500’s was over 16%. Meanwhile, farmland’s standard deviation was just 6.75%.
This stability is largely driven by a host of factors, including real assets’ intrinsic value, comparatively lower level of uncertainty around future cash flows and long-term structural trends driving values upward. The demand for necessities, like shelter, food and energy, for example, is inelastic, meaning it tends to remain consistent throughout the year. In turn, the value of these assets is not likely to experience swings like those seen with the markets.
During the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the Dow Jones dropped 54%. By comparison, gold values actually increased in value by 4%. Today, despite stocks and bonds both showing negative returns this year, the NCREIF Real Estate and Farmland indices have returned around 9% and 6% year to date, respectively.
In addition to their physical value, many real assets have the potential to deliver passive income through operating or rental income. Global real estate has historically generated an annual cash yield of 3.8%, while infrastructure investments have yielded 3.3%. Farmland cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities are forecast to be up $91.7 billion in 2022, to $525 billion, a 21.2% increase from last year.
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Hedge against inflation
While inflation cooled to 7.7% in October, the inflation rate is not projected to return to the Fed’s 2% target until the end of 2025, with some econometric models still showing 3%+ inflation through 2024. With many signs pointing to continued inflation, investors may find refuge in real assets.
The value of real assets is ultimately derived from their physical characteristics, meaning they’re more likely to retain long-term value than other, more traditional investments.
But this unique quality of real assets is even more attractive when you combine the limited supply of natural resources with the rising demand from a growing population, which just topped 8 billion people last month. With stable supply-demand dynamics, real assets are well-positioned to increase in value year after year.
Also, because real asset returns are inherently tied to commodity prices, which tend to move in lockstep with inflation, these investments have had a historically positive relationship to inflation indices like the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Simply put, when the CPI rises, so too should the value of your investment; over the last 20 years, real assets have historically outperformed traditional investments in inflationary environments.
Preparing for a potential recession
In an increasingly uncertain market, real assets can present an attractive opportunity for investors in 2023 and beyond. By expanding into real assets, investors have the potential to help spread overall investment risk, generate historically attractive returns and help hedge against persistent inflation.
And thanks to the rise of real asset investment managers in recent years, investors now have access to a wide variety of investment channels and diverse opportunities.
Related: What to Expect from the Markets in a Recession
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