January 21, 2011 6:58 pm

I’m not sure what passes for normal these days

Ihaven’t always seen eye to eye with Ken Fisher, the US market guru. But, in much of his material, he tends to make one very good point: that you almost never get what you might think of as a normal return in stock markets.

In his latest book, Debunkery, he lays out the numbers. Fisher puts the average nominal annual return on the S&P 500 since 1926 at 10-12 per cent. He then notes that the market rarely returns this kind of number in any given year. It has ended the year up between 0 and 10 per cent in 12 years and between 10 and 20 per cent in another 16 years.

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Merryn Somerset Webb

So, if you call a normal return something in this range, it has given normal returns just over 30 per cent of the time. However, it has also made negative returns 30 per cent of the time and super-good returns nearly 40 per cent of the time.

In 14 of the years since 1926, it has returned 20-30 per cent to investors. In 13 of the years, it has given them 30-40 per cent. And in five happy years, it returned 40 per cent-plus. So, there you go: while it might, says Fisher, be hard to get people to accept the degree to which it is true, “average returns are not normal. Normal yearly returns are extreme”.

The other point to remember about returns is that they depend more than anything on the price you pay when you buy. Buy near long-term average prices and you can expect to make average returns over a decade. Buy low and you’ll probably make more. Buy high and you’ll make less. Very high, and odds are you’ll lose your shirt in one of the rare years in which the market falls more than 40 per cent.

So, if we buy now what kind of returns can we expect?

Last week, I visited the flu-ridden strategy team at Société Générale to find out. Their answer? Rubbish returns.

Dylan Grice notes that if you look at the cyclically-adjusted price/earnings ratio (or Cape – basically a 10-year moving average of the price/earnings ratio) for the S&P 500 today, you will find it is in the top quintile of its historical range.

Indeed, Andrew Smithers of Smithers & Co puts it so high that he considers the US market to be around 70 per cent overvalued. This tells us – on Grice’s numbers at least – that the 10-year returns from here are likely to average around 1.4 per cent a year.

Add in the charges that the likes of you and me have to pay when we invest and you might as well call it zero.

However, given that we know that markets don’t tend to make steady returns, we also know that rather than a regular zero we are likely to see a parade of big ups and downs that eventually add up to zero.

These numbers refer to the US, of course, but thanks to the correlation between it and us we can assume similar movements in the UK.

Back to Smithers. He doesn’t expect a crash this year. Given the fact that quantitative easing (QE) cash is still flowing into the US market, “share prices will probably continue to rise”. That said, the gross overvaluation of the market might lead “investors who are sceptical of their own and anyone else’s ability to time markets” (which should be all of us) to prefer, “in these conditions, to hold cash”.

That makes some sense. But holding cash seems even more unattractive this year than it did last year, what with rising inflation and low rates on deposits. And, of course, there is surely always value somewhere – it is just a matter of finding it.

I’ve mentioned various value and defensive funds here before but I’ve recently come across a newish one that might be of interest: the Kennox Strategic Value Fund (www.kennoxam.co.uk) run by Charles Heenan. The managers agree with the bears on valuations (“risk is not adequately reflected in valuations”) and on QE (they disapprove of the way in which central bankers are experimenting “with such disregard for history”).

But they feel they own the things we all want to own: “solid companies at reasonable prices”. They have around 17 per cent of their assets in cash as “in readiness to pick up bargains when markets turn, as we firmly believe they will”. And they work on what sounds like the finest of principles: if you can protect your capital when the markets fall, says Heenan, “longer term performance over the cycle will be good even if you give some ground up when the markets run”.

Finally, over the short period since their launch, Heenan seems to be getting things right: in 2010, he produced a total return of 21 per cent. The fund is small and as a result has a slightly higher total expense ratio than I would like (1.53 per cent).

However, that is coming down as the fund grows, you shouldn’t have to pay an entrance fee, and there is no performance fee either.

If you want to buy value into a particularly volatile market, I suspect you could do a lot worse than with Kennox.

Merryn Somerset Webb is editor-in-chief of Money Week and previously worked as a stockbroker. The views expressed in her column are personal.

merryn@ft.com

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