Why I Don’t Hold the All Seasons Portfolio

The All Seasons Portfolio reports amazing statistics about its returns.  I’d never heard of the All Seasons Portfolio, so had to check it out.  As I’ll discuss in more detail, it is an asset allocation strategy with more than 50% of the portfolio allocated to US government bonds.  In this current environment of low interest rates, one of my followers asked my opinion of the portfolio as an investment strategy for the near future.  The answer is, as is almost always the case, it depends.  However, after studying the portfolio and relevant data, I won’t be aligning my portfolio with the All Seasons Portfolio.

In this post, I’ll define the All Season Portfolio, talk about when each of the components of the portfolio is expected to perform well and provide a wide variety of statistics regarding its historical performance.  I’ll also talk about the need to re-balance assets to stay aligned with the portfolio and the impact of income taxes on your investment returns.  I’ll close with how I’ve changed my portfolio based on this analysis.

All Seasons Portfolio

Ray Dalio is an extremely successful hedge fund manager.  If you have more than $5 billion in investable assets, he might consider accepting you as a client.  His fund is famous for the All Weather investment strategy.  According to Tony Robbins, in his book MONEY Master the Game, the annual returns on the All Weather portfolio exceed 21%![1]

Composition of Portfolio

In an interview with Robbins, Dalio described a much simpler version of the All Weather portfolio for the rest of us.  This asset allocation is called the All Seasons portfolio.  The allocation in the All Season portfolio[2] is:

  • 40% in Long-Term US Bonds (20+ years), using the iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol TLT)
  • 15% in Intermediate US Bonds (7-10 years), using the iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol IEF)
  • 5% in Gold, using the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker symbol GLD)
  • 5% in Commodities, using the PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking fund (ticker symbol DBC)
  • 30% in the S&P 500

This allocation is illustrated in the pie chart below.

Economic Indicators

The portfolio’s name, All Seasons, refers not to the four seasons of the calendar year but to four indicators of the economic cycle.  These four indicators are:

  1. Higher than expected growth (often measured using gross domestic product or GDP)
  2. Lower than expected growth
  3. Higher than expected inflation (often measured using the consumer price index or CPI)
  4. Lower than expected inflation

I note that there is overlap between the first pair of characteristics and the second pair.  That is, a period of higher than expected growth can have either higher or lower than expected inflation.

The chart below shows which of the five components of the portfolio are expected to perform well in each part of the economic cycle, according to Robbins.[3]

GrowthInflation
Rising

Stocks

Commodities

Gold

Commodities

Gold

FallingTreasury Bonds

Treasury Bonds

Stocks

Historical Performance

According to Robbins[4], the All Seasons portfolio had a compounded annual average return of 9.7%, net of fees, from 1984 to 2013.  By comparison, I calculate the corresponding value for the S&P 500 to be 8.4%.  In addition, the All Seasons portfolio had much lower volatility, with a standard deviation of 7.6%, as compared to the S&P 500 which had a standard deviation of 17%.  So, at first glance, the All Seasons portfolio seems to be a terrific option – higher return for lower risk.

My Estimate of Returns

There are many challenges to calculating the returns on the All Seasons portfolio.[5]  I made many assumptions to better understand the returns, so do not consider the statistics I’ve calculated as accurate, but I think they are close enough to be informative.

The chart below shows the annual returns on the S&P 500 and my approximation of the returns on the All Seasons portfolio from 1963 to 2019.

From this graph, it appears that the biggest benefit of the All Seasons portfolio is that the non-S&P 500 asset classes diversify away a substantial portion of the significant negative returns on the S&P 500.  For example, in the three years in which the S&P 500 had returns worse than -20%, I approximated that the All Seasons portfolio lost an average of only 0.1%!

Returns by Asset Class

I wasn’t able to get a long enough history of Commodity price data, but was able to calculate the average return on the three other asset classes during those same years (1974, 2002 & 2008), as shown in the table below.

Asset ClassAverage Return in Years when S&P 500 Return was < -20%
S&P 500-30.5%
7-10 Year US Treasury Bonds8.0%
20 Year US Treasury Bonds15.2%
Gold33.5%

As can be seen, all three asset classes had positive returns in those three years, with Gold having the most significant increase.

My Investing Goals

I retired a little over two years ago, so have changed my investing goals to make sure I can meet my cash needs as I don’t have any earned income to cover my expenses.  Specifically, now that I’ve switched from the accumulation phase to the spending phase, I have less tolerance for volatility.

Goals While Accumulating

While I was accumulating assets, I wanted my invested asset portfolio to produce returns that were at least as high as the overall market.  I use the S&P 500 as my metric for market performance.  During that time, I was quite willing to tolerate the ups and downs of the market because I was diversifying my risk over time.  As a confirmation of my risk tolerance, I point out that I did not sell any assets during any of the market “crashes.”

My first market crash was October 19, 1987.  I can still remember being in the office that day.  The internet was not available to the general public, so our news came from TV and radio.  One of the senior people in the office had a TV in his office, though I suspect it had just the over-the-air channels as very few people had cable TV then either.  He told everyone what was happening in the market.  I asked him whether he was going to move his 401(k) money out of the market into a safer fund.  His advice was that it was already too late and that I should just hang on for the ride.  That was one of the best pieces of investing advice I’ve ever gotten.  I didn’t sell during that crash and haven’t sold during any of the crashes since.

Goals While Retired

Now that I’m retired, I am drawing down my assets.  I’ve made two changes to my asset mix to reflect the fact that I now need to spend my assets rather than add to them.

  1. Instead of having a six-month emergency fund in cash, I now have several years of expenses in cash.
  2. I’ve added a few individual corporate bonds (to be clear, not a bond fund) that mature in 3 to 5 years to my portfolio. When these bonds mature, they will add to my cash balance to cover my expenses in those years.

For the rest of my invested asset portfolio, I’ve maintained the same goal – meet or beat the S&P 500.

By having several years of expenses in cash, I know I won’t have to sell any assets during any market turmoil, such as we are experiencing now.  As discussed in my post on reacting to the most recent crash, the market has historically recovered in less than five years (excluding the crash of 1929) and has higher than average returns during the recovery phase.  As such, I don’t want to have to sell stocks when markets are down.

How I Evaluate the All Seasons Portfolio

As I said, my goal is to earn a return close to or higher than the return on the S&P 500.  I would be willing to take a small reduction in return for less risk, but not much given the other aspects of my strategy.  Therefore, I will look at the components of the All Seasons portfolio relative to what I can earn if I just invest in the S&P 500.

In particular, I am interested to see how these asset classes perform when interest rates are low, as they currently are.

Bonds

Returns on bonds (unless held to maturity) and bond funds have the following characteristics:

  • The total return is equal to the interest rate on the bond plus the change in market value from changes in interest rate levels.
  • Returns are higher when interest rates are high or are going down.
  • The total return is similar to the interest rate itself when interest rates stay fairly stable.
  • Returns are lower when interest rates are low or are increasing.

Bond Returns vs. Interest Rate Changes

This relationship can be seen in the chart below which compares the change in the 10-year US Treasury bond interest rate (yield) with the change in the market value of iShares Barclays 7-10 Year Treasury Bond fund (ticker symbol IEF) in each year from 2003 through 2019.

What Can Happen from Here

We are currently in the last situation listed above.  Interest rates are currently quite low by historical standards.  The chart below which shows the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond from 1962 to 2020.  The last point on the chart is the interest rate on July 8, 2020 of 0.65%.  It is lower than the interest rate at the end of any year since 1962.

For all intents and purposes, interest rates can do one of two things from their current levels – stay about the same or go up.  If they stay the same, the return on bonds funds will be about the same as the interest rate on the bonds – currently less than 1% for 10-Year US Treasury bonds and less than 1.5% for 30-Year US Treasury bonds.  If interest rates go up, the market value of the bonds will go down and returns will be even lower.

As such, I don’t believe the returns on bonds or bond funds in the near term will be high enough to be consistent with my investing objectives.  I will continue to buy individual corporate bonds that mature in the next few years to ensure that I have cash available to meet my expenses.  But, I do not plan to add any bond funds to the investment portion of my portfolio.   If I were younger and the time until I needed to draw down my investments to cover my expenses was longer, I wouldn’t invest in bonds at all in the current environment.

Gold

I am particularly interested in how gold has behaved, as it isn’t something I’ve studied much.  For the current environment, I’m interested in how gold behaves when interest rates are flat or rising.  The chart below shows how I defined historical periods as having interest rates that are either flat or rising.

The line is the same line shown in the 10-Year Treasury Interest Rate chart above.  I have shaded periods in which interest rates have been relatively stable in blue.  The time periods in which interest rates have increased are highlighted in green.

The chart below has the same time periods shaded as the previous chart, but the blue line shows the percentage change in the price of gold between 1971 (when the price of gold was no longer set by the US government) and today[6][7].

Looking back to the 1970s, gold prices were generally up quite significantly when interest rates were either relatively flat and when they increased.  While the increases in price were not as large in the period from 2003 to 2006, another time period when interest rates were flat, as in the 1970s, annual price increases were still generally in the 10% to 30% range, much higher than would be expected on the S&P 500.  Only in the most recent flat period are changes in gold prices not as consistently high.

Gold Funds

Buying gold means that you have to find a way to take delivery of it or pay to have it stored.  One article about the All Seasons fund suggested investing in SPDR Gold Shares[8] (ticker symbol GLD) which is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) physically backed by gold.  I compared the changes in prices of this ETF with the changes in the price of gold.  Although they generally track each other, as shown in the chart below, they are not a perfect match.  Nonetheless, this ETF appears to be a much easier alternative for investing in gold than buying gold itself.

Commodities

I wasn’t able to get a long history of returns on commodities, but the table I provide earlier from Robbins’ book indicates that they are expected to behave in a manner similar to gold.

Overall Portfolio Evaluation

The chart below summarizes the annual average returns (on a compounded basis) for each of the asset classes for which I could approximate returns from 1963 to 2019[9].

Over this time period, it appears that Gold has had returns similar to that of the S&P 500, but the returns on US Treasuries have dragged down my estimate of the returns on the All Seasons portfolio.

I am particularly interested in how these asset classes perform when interest rates are either flat or increasing.  The chart below illustrates these returns using the same approximations as above.

In average in both rising and flat interest rate environments, gold has historical outperformed the S&P 500.  By comparison. both categories of bonds have underperformed and, in fact, have had average returns during those periods of roughly 0%.

Re-Balancing

The performance metrics reported by Robbins and others assume that you maintain the target mix in each asset class.  To accomplish that, you need to sell asset classes that have appreciated the most (or depreciated the least) and buy asset classes that have not performed as well.

What is Re-Balancing

Let’s look at an example.  At the beginning of a year, you invest $10,000 using the All Seasons portfolio.  Your portfolio looks like this:

If your one-year returns were similar to those in 2019, your end of year asset allocation (light green) would not be the same as your target (dark green), as shown in the graph below.

To reach the target allocation, you would need to make the following changes.

GoldSell $44
CommoditiesBuy $28
StocksSell $451
Medium Term BondsBuy $399
Long Term BondsBuy $67

To attain the high returns reported by Robbins, I suspect you need to re-balance the portfolio fairly often.  In my calculations, I assumed annual re-balancing on the first of each year.  How often you re-balance the portfolio depends on your personal preference, but should generally be more often when the prices of one or more of the asset classes is changing rapidly and no less often than annually.

Impact of Income Taxes

It is better to own portfolios you need to re-balance regularly in a tax-free or tax-deferred account.  Otherwise, you will need to pay income taxes on the net of your capital gains and capital losses.  401(k)s and IRAs are the most common tax-free and tax-deferred accounts in the US.  The Canadian counterparts are TFSAs and RRSPs.

Continuing the example above, you sell $44 of gold and $451 of stocks for a total of $495.  Without going into the details of the calculation, your cost basis for these two sales combined is $387, for a realized capital gain of $108.  Many Americans have a 10% tax rate on capital gains which corresponds to $11 on the capital gain of $108.  These taxes reduce your total return by 0.1 percentage point.  That might not sound like much, but it can add up.  If you make a $10,000 investment in this portfolio and taxes reduce your return from 10.0% to 9.9%, you will have $5,000 less after 30 years.  That’s half of the amount of your initial investment!

Changes I’ll Make to My Portfolio

The analysis presented in this post has refined my thinking about my portfolio in two ways.

First, I have confirmed my past thinking that I can maintain a substantial cash position, supplemented by some individual bonds held to maturity, as a hedge against the risk that the stock market will have a significant downturn.  Although holding several years of expenses in cash lowers the return on my total assets, I find it a much easier and less risky strategy than introducing bond funds into my portfolio.  That is, although the return on money market funds where I hold my cash is low, it isn’t much lower than the current returns on US treasury or even high-quality corporate bonds.  With the significant potential that the market price of bonds will go down, I am more comfortable with my cash position.

Second, I have invested in the SPDR Gold Trust (ticker symbol GLD).  I don’t plan to immediately move as much as the 7.5% of my portfolio into gold as suggested by the All Seasons portfolio (15% if I use gold as a substitute for commodities, too).   Rather, I plan to initially invest 1% to 2% of my portfolio in gold and add to that position as I gain more comfort and experience investing in it.

Footnotes

[1] Robbins, Tony, MONEY Master the Game, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014, p. 391-392.

[2] “Robbins’ All-Seasons Portfolio.” TuringTrader.com, https://www.turingtrader.com/robbins-all-seasons/.  Accessed July 5, 2020.

[3] Robbins, op. cit., p. 390

[4] Robbins, op. cit., p. 395.

[5] There are many components of the calculation of returns, including assumptions regarding frequency of reinvestment and fees and the choice sources of data used to calculate the returns of the components of the portfolio.  As such, I am not able to replicate his calculations.  In fact, I found another source for returns on the All Seasons portfolio that, in the single year for which details were provided both sources, shows a return that was 3 percentage points higher than reported by Robbins.

[6] “Historical Gold Prices.” CMI Gold & Silver, Inc, https://onlygold.com/gold-prices/historical-gold-prices/, Accessed July 7, 2020.

[7] “Gold Prices.” World Gold Council, https://www.gold.org/goldhub/data/gold-prices, Accessed July 8, 2020

[8] “Bringing the gold market to investors.” State Street Global Advisors, https://www.spdrgoldshares.com/.  Accessed July 8, 2020.

[9] As indicated above, the returns I calculated for the All Seasons portfolio are not as high as were calculated by Robbins.