Worried about a recession? Patient investors can ride it out

Economic downturns are rough on stocks, but history shows that handsome returns can pile up anyway if you stick with it

By Jeff Sommer

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A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 20, 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. That was a particularly painful time for the stock market. (Michael Appleton/The New York Times)
A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 20, 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. That was a particularly painful time for the stock market. (Michael Appleton/The New York Times)

Published: Sat 29 Apr 2023, 8:18 PM

Last updated: Sat 29 Apr 2023, 8:19 PM

So many people expect a recession soon that it will almost be surprising if a downturn doesn’t happen.

After all, the Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates for more than a year to tame inflation. Credit conditions have already tightened and some regional banks have failed. Although the job market is still stubbornly strong, even the staff economists at the Fed anticipate an economic slowdown that will be severe enough to count as a recession.

That’s particularly worrisome for investors because recessions are typically associated with double-digit stock market declines. In 2020, for example, during a bear market and recession near the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the S&P 500 dropped nearly 34 per cent from its peak.

Will we really have a recession this year? I don’t know. But recessions are a regular part of life. Having experienced six of them in my career, along with countless up and down markets, I accept that I can’t reliably forecast these important events, and neither can anyone else.

Yet I remain a constant investor anyway, mainly by keeping plenty of cash in safe places and by maintaining a resolutely long-term view that is grounded in history.

It’s not always easy to hang on. Uncertainty about what’s coming next can make investing excruciating. But you may find some comfort from the past.

Stocks have always bounced back after previous recessions, sometimes quite rapidly. Investment returns calculated at my request by Dimensional Fund Advisors, a large asset management company based in Austin, Texas, show that the market has performed reasonably well over periods of 10 or 20 years after economic downturns, if not always over shorter periods.

Calling recessions

A recession is “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the quasi-official entity that declares when recessions start and stop in the United States.

That sounds straightforward enough. But for a large and complex economy, determining when a recession has taken place is no simple matter, even after it has happened.

The bureau doesn’t rush in making these judgements.

We won’t know for sure that we’ve had a recession until well after it’s started, and, quite probably, not until long after it’s ended. That’s what happened for the last recession. It started in February 2020, near the beginning of the pandemic, and ended in April 2020. But the bureau waited 15 months, until July 2021, to declare that a recession happened.

“Earlier determinations took between four and 21 months,” the bureau says. “There is no fixed timing rule. We wait long enough so that the existence of a peak or trough is not in doubt, and until we can assign an accurate peak or trough date.”

Often, stocks fall before a recession starts and rise before it’s over.

The economic research bureau “dates recessions only after they’ve begun,” Marlena Lee, the global head of investment solutions at Dimensional Fund Advisors, said in an email. “Markets, on the other hand, call them well in advance.”

Historical returns

At my request, Lee examined all 11 US recessions since 1948 and calculated the S&P 500’s annualised total returns, including dividends, starting with the first day of the month after the recession started.

I find these averages reassuring:

— One year after the starting dates, the S&P 500 returned 6.4%.

— Three years after the starting dates, it returned 12.1%.

— Five years later, it returned 10.4%.

— Ten years later, it returned 12%.

— Twenty years later, it returned 11.5%.

Consider that, with compounding, $1 in the index would be worth $10.56 after 20 years, on average. So far, so good.

Now for the caveats.

These are only long-term averages, and there are big variations among them.

The best 20-year return, which occurred in the two decades starting in February 1980, was 17.2%, annualised. That would transform $1 into $24.02 after 20 years.

The worst 20-year return, in the decades starting in May 1960, was 7.3% annualised. That would have changed $1 into $4.09 after 20 years.

Obviously, I’d rather have $24.02 in my pocket but even $4.09 would have represented a sizeable gain.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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