To Make the Case for Equities in the Long Term, Look to the Past

While cash yields are attractive now, if we look at the performance of equities in the past, we can expect that, going forward, they could be a better bet.

A businesswoman looks back over her shoulder while walking outside.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Well, the year 2023 is officially a wrap. Overall market performance was relatively strong, with equities, defined as the total return of the S&P 500, up 26.29% for the year, and bonds, defined as Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, up 5.53%.

The strong performance of equities in 2023 was somewhat unexpected, with many market forecasters predicting lower returns at the beginning of the year, especially with growing concerns of a recession. The stock market return for 2024 is equally uncertain, and many investors may be looking to cash, given attractive yields exceeding 5%; however, it’s important to remember that equities have dramatically outperformed cash historically, especially over longer investment periods, and are expected to do so into the future.

Therefore, the case for equities is as strong today as ever, but it’s important to ensure the risk level of your portfolio is appropriate and to stay invested for the long term!

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A look back in time

There has always been risk associated with investing in equities, especially over shorter periods, which is why it’s important to take a long-term perspective when it comes to investing. If we look at total returns for U.S. equities from 1926 to 2023, which include the performance benefit of dividends, they’ve been positive for 73.5% of calendar years with an average annual long-term geometric return of 10.35%, as demonstrated in the chart below.

Performance of U.S. Stocks 1926-2023

(Image credit: David Blanchett)

It’s important to note, though, while the total return on stocks has been positive for 73.5% of calendar years, if we look at five-year periods, it’s been positive 87.2% of the time, and if we look at 10-year periods, it’s been positive 95.5% of the time. In other words, being invested for the long term has definitely benefited investors.

The current high returns on cash, which exceeded 5% at the beginning of the year, may have many investors rethinking their longer-term strategy allocations and possibly underweighting equities in their portfolios. While it’s true that current cash yields are significantly higher than long-term averages, equities have dramatically outperformed cash over the long term. Looking at returns from 1926 to 2023, equities have outperformed by 6.9% per year on average and had a higher return 67.4% of the time, as demonstrated in the chart below.

Equity risk premium of U.S. stocks vs cash 1926-2023

(Image credit: David Blanchett)

Clearly, there have been times when cash has outperformed equities, in particular those years when the return on equities was low or negative, but over the long term, equities have dramatically outperformed cash. For example, stocks outperformed cash 76.6% of the time over rolling five-year periods and 85.4% of the time over rolling 10-year periods. Therefore, it’s important to take a long-term perspective when it comes to investing.

While it obviously is difficult to predict where the market is headed, one of our affiliates, PGIM Quantitative Solutions, does create forward-looking return estimates for the next 10 years. These forecasts can be used to help create expectations for investors around likely future returns. The latest return expectations available, as of Q4 2023, are included below, for a few common asset classes.

10-year return forecasts as of Q4 2023

(Image credit: David Blanchett)

Some important things to be aware of with respect to these forecasts. First, there is still the general expectation that stocks will outperform cash and bonds into the future, but at lower levels than have been experienced in the past. Second, the forecasted return for U.S. equities over the next 10 years, at 7.2%, is notably lower than the historical long-term average, at 10.2%. This is more than 3 percentage points lower and important for investors to be aware of when running any kind of financial plan, given the pronounced potential effect.

For example, $1 invested at 7.2% for 10 years would grow to roughly $2 at the end of the period vs $2.66 if invested at 10.2%, which is roughly one-fourth lower.

Going forward

The common expression that past performance is no guarantee of future results is true today more than ever. Since it is impossible to know what’s going to happen in the financial markets, one of the most important things to try to control is investor behavior, by ensuring your portfolio is consistent with your objectives and staying invested for the long term.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

David Blanchett, PhD, CFA, CFP®
Head of Retirement Research, PGIM

David Blanchett, PhD, CFA, CFP®, is Managing Director and Head of Retirement Research for PGIM DC Solutions. PGIM is the global investment management business of Prudential Financial, Inc. In this role he develops research and innovative solutions to help improve retirement outcomes for investors with a focus on defined contribution plans. Prior to joining PGIM he was the Head of Retirement Research for Morningstar Investment Management. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of Wealth Management at The American College of Financial Services and Research Fellow for the Alliance for Lifetime Income. David has published over 100 papers in a variety of industry and academic journals that have received awards from the CFP Board, the Financial Analysts Journal, the Journal of Financial Planning, and the International Centre for Pension Management. In 2014 InvestmentNews included him in their inaugural 40 under 40 list as a “visionary” for the financial planning industry, and in 2021 ThinkAdvisor included him in the IA25+. When David isn’t working, he’s probably out for a jog, playing with his four kids, or rooting for the Kentucky Wildcats.