I have been delayed in making this post due to some real life distractions. The year ended 2021 was a weak one for the portfolio, with a +5.70% return versus nearly +13% for a global 60/40 allocation and a blistering +28% for the S&P 500. A simple 50/50 NTSX/GLD portfolio would have returned +9.03%.
The full set of performance statistics is available here.
You’ll notice I’ve made some allocation changes, notably by introducing a US small/micro cap value fund into the mix. This is a discretionary adjustment I’ve made as an initial, adaptive step in a macroeconomic and market environment that seems increasingly supportive of “value” (defined here as “statistical cheapness”). Since the purpose of this portfolio is to provide a stable core for one’s net worth, incremental adjustments are the order of the day.
2022 is shaping up to be a very interesting year so far. As I write this, this S&P 500 is -7.66% for the year. However, this bellwether belies huge dispersion across equity styles. US Small Caps as proxied by the Russell 2000 are down nearly 11.50%, and the Russell 2000 Growth index is down nearly 16% (!!). Ex-US and “value” style securities have delivered much more muted declines. Treasuries are down slightly and gold is flat.
All in all, the current market trends are relatively more favorable for a diversified portfolio such as this one. I say “relatively” because if 2022 plays out as the dominant narratives expect we are going to see rising interest rates, slowing growth and elevated inflation. A nasty cocktail for financial assets. Such an environment is one where most long-only allocations will be “taking their medicine.”
Nonetheless, a relatively stable portfolio core with some downside protection should provide a base of capital that can be selectively redeployed into the pain to scoop up some bargains in individual securities. I have a feeling there will be plenty to look at this year!
Updated performance statistics available here. The portfolio was -1.80% in November. This compares favorably with many equity market segments (US large cap being a notable exception). Relative to a “vanilla” US-equity-only implementation, ex-US equity exposure and a growth style tilt weighed on performance.
Month-to-date in December, the portfolio has been relatively flat, down 12 basis points. Overall it is shaping up to be a very mediocre year for the strategy (which I may write about more when the full year is on the books).
Whoa. I really got behind on these updates. Here is the current portfolio allocation:
There have been some modest changes over the past three months (embarrassingly my last update covered through June). These are the result of market moves and also some mild rebalancing as I had cash flows into the portfolio.
The detailed performance comparison data is available here.
2021 continues to be a “take your medicine” year for the strategy. It’s a good illustration of why more people don’t invest like this. This kind of relative performance is trying, even for someone who has spent a good deal of time “doing the work” on the strategy.
Longer term, the static allocation (Portfolio 2 in the data) continues to perform as expected. The difference between this return stream and Portfolio 1 (the live track record) is partly why I decided to jettison the tactical elements of the original strategy. In 2020 the tactical overlays kept a significant portion of the portfolio in cash well past the nadir of the Covid drawdown. This led to poor up capture in the latter half of the year.
Below is data since I went live with the strategy. Portfolio 1 is the live track record for my implementation. Portfolio 2 is the performance of a static allocation to my implementation since inception. Portfolio 3 is 100% SPY.
As you can see, my implementation has underperformed the static allocation. Bummer. The reason for this is that up until 2020 I was adjusting the gross exposure based on trailing volatility. The strategy de-risked significantly in March 2020 and was slow to get invested again. I’ve since decided to drop this aspect of the strategy and stick to a relatively static allocation with occasional rebalancing going forward. I’m confident the divergence between the live implementation and the static-since-inception implementation will narrow over time.
33% S&P 500 Futures
22% Laddered Treasury Futures
28% ex-US equity (active mutual funds)
~118% gross exposure (numbers above are rounded)
Periodically I get questions about quirks of this implementation. The lack of US small cap exposure, for example. There’s a simple reason for this. For structural reasons, this isn’t my whole portfolio. I can’t own this strategy in my 401k. Also, I invest in a concentrated portfolio of individual securities with a sleeve of my net worth. So overall, I have that exposure. If the leveraged permanent portfolio were 100% of my portfolio, I’d bring in more of that US small and mid-cap exposure. As I’ve said many times, the philosophy underlying this approach is extremely flexible.
In a tragic turn of events, a Morningstar Portfolio manager debacle wiped out my historical performance data earlier this month. So we’ll have to make do with just the backtest while I build up the live track record again (as far as I can tell the old data is unrecoverable).
I may try and go back through the old updates to rebuild the “real” track record but it’s not something I’ve put any time into yet.
This is about 118% notional exposure due to the leverage in NTSX.
From an attribution perspective, the main pain YTD has been in gold and bonds, with some ancillary pain from my growth equity tilt. I don’t have a lot of Deep Thoughts about this other than that I think what we are seeing is a reflationary trade post-Covid. I would expect this to be bad for Treasuries and bad for gold in the short term, and for the bond pain to ease up a bit as rates find their footing again.
A historical comp to this kind of behavior would be 2013. That was another period where the markets were wrestling with a reflationary dynamic. Here is historical data on a plain vanilla permanent portfolio. The 2013 return is a mere 1.23% (market cap weighted US equities returned 33%; bonds -2.26%; gold -28.33%). So if the dynamic we are experiencing YTD in 2021 continues through year-end, I would not expect much performance-wise.
I shall leave you with the below words of encouragement. This gets at the philosophy underlying the permanent portfolio concept.
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
Not much to report this month (performance as of intraday Monday).
Current allocation is roughly:
32% S&P 500 futures
21% Laddered Treasury futures
30% ex-US equity
115% gross exposure
A Brief Aside About Portfolios & Inflationary Regimes
Lately at work I have been helping a few people (and their clients) think about building portfolios to better withstand inflationary economic regimes. A recurring theme I come across is clients concerned about the potential impact of high inflation on their portfolios, whose first impulse is to cut or eliminate their equity exposure.
If anything, it is the bonds and cash they should be cutting. This is not to say that equities will do super well in an inflationary environment, but they are, at least in theory, capable of passing some inflation through to customers via price increases (what you really want to own in a high inflation period are companies with pricing power). Setting aside TIPS for the moment, bonds and cash are what are going to suffer badly in a highly inflationary environment.
What I think is happening here is that folks are thinking of high inflation as a Bad Thing and then thinking of Bad Things in deflationary terms. It is natural to think that if a Bad Thing is happening you ought to cut equity risk. Don’t do this! It may indeed be worthwhile to cut some risk. Just make sure you are cutting the right risk.
Again, this is not to say that equities will not suffer in an inflationary regime. It is important to disaggregate equities here. Equities I would be most worried about in an inflationary regime would be high multiple stocks with questionable pricing power and little to no free cash flow. These companies are going to be the most sensitive to substantial changes in the cost of capital/”discount rate.” They are the zero coupon bonds of the equity world.
I try to discourage people from positioning portfolios specifically for extremely high inflation or hyperinflation. Doing so requires them to dump their deflation allocation. We just don’t know whether/when significantly higher inflation is going to show up, and how many more deflationary episodes we might endure in the meantime. The basic intuition underlying the permanent portfolio concept is that we are bad at predicting things. Better to strive for a balanced portfolio capable of surviving many different regimes, even if it is not the best performer in any given regime.