Jeremy Siegel’s book Stocks for the Long Run is in its fifth edition and has so much fascinating information for investors that keeping this review to a reasonable length is a challenge. A major theme running throughout the book is how different stocks look in a long-term view versus a short-term view. Despite Siegel’s deep analysis, this book is very accessible for readers with an interest in investing.
In the Foreword, Peter Bernstein assets that “stocks must remain ‘the best investment for all those seeking steady, long-term gains’ or our system will come to an end, and with a bang, not a whimper.” Early in the first chapter, Siegel shows a remarkable chart of U.S. asset class returns adjusted for inflation over 210 years. A dollar in stocks grew to over $700,000 from 1802 to 2012 (even after subtracting out inflation). In contrast, bonds grew to only $1800 and gold to a measly $4.52.
The swings in stocks feel large when you live through them, but on a 210-year chart, stock gains look steady and relentless. “Since World War II ... the longest it has ever taken an investor to recover an original investment in the stock market (including reinvested dividends) was the five-year, eight-month period from August 2000 through April 2006.”
The conventional wisdom is that stocks are riskier than bonds. This is true in the short-term, but Siegel shows that for holding periods of 20 years or longer, real stock returns have been less volatile than bond returns! And unlike bonds, “stocks have never given investors a negative real return over a 20-year horizon.”
It’s normal for risks to steady out somewhat over time, but this happens for stocks faster than random chance would predict “because of the mean reversion of equity returns.” In contrast, bond returns steady our more slowly than random chance predicts, which means that bonds show “mean aversion.” So, over long holding periods, stocks offer higher expected returns and lower volatility than bonds, which makes a strong case for owning stocks.
For the rest of this review, I’ll discuss some of the many interesting parts of the book.
On geographic diversification
“Some argue that the increased correlation between the world’s stock markets reduces or even eliminates the incentive to diversify one’s portfolio.” However, “correlations are usually calculated over relatively short periods of time,” and long-term correlations are “significantly lower.” If you’re more interested in the state of your portfolio in a couple of decades than next month or next year, geographic diversification looks valuable.
“Who will produce the goods and services that the [longer-living] retirees will consume”? “If the developed world must rely solely on its own population to produce these goods, then the age that people will be able to retire must increase significantly.”
How can stocks rise faster than the economy?
“The reason that total return grows faster than stock wealth is because investors consume most of the dividends paid by stocks.”
Stock returns of other countries
Some say that the rise of the U.S. to dominate the world is the reason for the impressive history of U.S. stock returns, and that we cannot expect the same in the future for the U.S. or most other countries. In fact, since 1900, U.S. real stock returns have trailed those of Australia and South Africa. There are a total of 12 countries with over a century of real returns over 4% per year, and the world average is over 5% per year.
If you don’t care about expected returns and just want to choose an asset allocation between stocks and bonds that minimizes risk, the result depends greatly on the holding period you consider. For 1-year returns, you get the lowest risk with 13% in stocks. However, for 30-year returns you get the lowest risk with 68% stocks.
Biased P/E ratios
“The traditional way of calculating the P/E of an index or a portfolio is by adding the earnings of each firm in the index and dividing this sum into the total market value of the index.” When some firms report large losses, we can get a “very distorted view of the index’s valuation.” Stock prices can’t go below zero. “Losses in one firm do not cancel the profits of another firm. Equity holders have unique rights to the profits of firms, unsullied by the losses in others.” So, beware of P/E measures of the entire stock market.
With charts of stock prices from 1957 to 2012 broken out by quintiles of P/E ratio levels, Siegel shows the existence of a value premium for stocks. However, John Bogle found no evidence for a value premium when looking at returns from 1948 to 2008. Could the slightly different measurement periods be the explanation for the difference of opinion, or is there something else to this?
Investing based on economic growth
“There is a negative correlation between economic growth and stock returns, and this finding extends not only to those countries in the developed world but also to those in the developing world.” The chart showing poor returns in China is striking.
Inflation protection with stocks
“Since stocks are claims on the earnings of real assets—assets whose value is intrinsically related to the price of the goods and services they produce—one should expect that their long-term returns will not be harmed by inflation.”
Republicans vs. Democrats
“The stock market has actually done better under Democrats than Republicans.”
Technical analysis (charting)
A quote from Benjamin Graham: “A moment’s thought will show that there can be no such thing as a scientific prediction of economic events under human control. The very ‘dependability’ of such a prediction will cause human actions which will invalidate it. Hence, thoughtful chartists admit that continued success is dependent upon keeping the successful method known to only a few people.”
The January effect
It’s well known that for some reason, small-cap stocks have performed amazingly well in January for many decades. “Perhaps all the publicity about the January effect has motivated investors and traders to take advantage of this calendar anomaly, since the effect has largely disappeared since 1994.”
Berkshire has beaten the S&P 500 by an average of “more than 10 percentage points per year” from 1972 to 2012. “The probability that this return was achieved by chance is less than one in a billion.”
Selective memory causes us to regret not acting on past hunches. “Hindsight plays tricks in our minds. We forget the doubts we had when we made the decision not to buy. Hindsight can distort our past experiences and affect our judgment, encouraging us to play hunches and try to outsmart other investors.”
This book has remarkably few typos. One small error occurs in an example of futures markets on page 277 where the figure 1410 should be 1710.
This book is very clearly written and offers powerful evidence for the advantages of investing in stocks. I highly recommend it to investors.