Advisor Insight

Here's the most alarming market message: So-called safe havens aren't so safe

Key Points
  • The so-called safe-haven assets that retirement investors have relied on for decades to reduce risk during periods of stock market volatility aren't working.
  • Bonds, real estate and dividend stocks are not doing well.
  • For investors, this is a sea change related to rising interest rates, and it should serve as a wake-up call to those who still haven't gotten the message.

I don't know if this is an SOS or an LOL message, but your so-called "safe haven" investments aren't so safe.

Judging by the investments that are underperforming so far this year, the supposedly safe-haven assets — the ones you counted on to keep your portfolio stable during periods just like the current one, when market volatility surges — are turning out to be not so safe after all.

One of hundreds of leftover Fallout Shelter signs in New York, signifying a protective space to sit out a nuclear attack. It dates back to the early 1960s, when America was in a Cold War with Russia.
Getty Images

You could say that 2018 is still a young year and it's way too early to judge things, which is true, but the level of volatility in both stocks and bonds during February is making this year feel like we've lived through two full years already, and I think what the markets are signaling is more likely to be a sea change than a blip.

Bonds, as measured by the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index ETF (), were down more than 2 percent year-to-date through the end of February. High-yield bonds, aka junk bonds, as measured by iShares iBoxx $ High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (HYG) are down, too, though by a little less.

The stock dive after President Trump's steel and aluminum tariff announcement on Thursday didn't help. It was the worst first day of the month for the markets since January 2016.

Dividend-paying stocks, as measured by the iShares Select Dividend ETF (DVY), were down by more than 2 percent through the first two months of 2018. But compare that to the S&P 500, as measured by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY), which was up almost 2 percent at the end of February, even amid the stock market volatility, and the Guggenheim S&P 500 Top 50 ETF (XLG), which was up by about 3.75 percent.

Real estate, as measured by iShares U.S. Real Estate ETF (IYR): closing in on correction territory, down more than 9 percent.

Utilities, as measured by Utilities Select Sector SPDR (XLU), are off by near-7 percent.

And how about those consumer staples stocks that pay dividends? The Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLP) is down by 6 percent. Big names in the sector are getting beaten up bad: Procter & Gamble is down near-12 percent, and PepsiCo is down by nearly 8 percent.

You get it.

And OK, I get it, too. You're going to tell me that I'm just picking on interest rate-sensitive sectors, and again that is true. But it highlights an important concept that conservative investors —especially boomers and seniors who've been chasing passive income the last few years — need to understand before more potential carnage. And it runs counter to popular investor thinking.

When it comes to stocks — any and all stocks — and bonds with a time to maturity greater than a year, there are no true safe havens. They don't exist.

When it comes to stocks — any and all stocks — and bonds with a time to maturity greater than a year, there are no true safe-havens. They don't exist.

What does exist are the right economic and interest-rate circumstances that powered these formerly winning spaces, and the truth is that those conditions lasted for a long time, just like the low volatility of the last few years. Just because a trend goes on for a long time doesn't mean we should plan on it continuing forever.

As markets sink, so-called safety stocks are getting slammed
As markets sink, so-called safety stocks are getting slammed

The number of big-name investors calling a bond bear market added hedge fund legend Paul Tudor Jones on Thursday, following similar calls from Bill Gross, Bill Miller and Jeff Gundlach. Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan said on Thursday that the "bond market bubble" is starting to unwind. The bond bull market lasted three decades. Like that popular financial disclaimer says — for good reason — past performance is no indication of future performance.

What the current mixed-up market environment does favor

What does the current market environment favor? One sector is financials, as measured by Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) and iShares U.S. Regional Banks ETF (IAT), which are up by approximately 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively, this year.

There are a few important lessons I'd like to share with investors about rising interest rates, which typically favor financial stocks.

Higher interest rates are not a death knell for stocks. There are an infinite amount of factors that drive stock prices. But one thing that a rising-rate scenario does do is change the pecking order of winners and losers, regardless of how long a prior pecking order lasted. When the interest-rate regime changes, everything else changes. In other words, nothing that pays a good yield is safe, and anything that's safe doesn't pay a good yield.

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Some stocks, like technology in general and FANG stocks in particular, are more about capacity than interest rates. During the tech stock boom of the late '90s, the tech sector was driven largely by hardware and semiconductors — Cisco and Intel to name two. But when oversaturation in tech products came about, earnings got crushed, leading to the tech wreck in 2000. Could social media, search and cloud computing become oversaturated in the future? Of course, but that's a risk all tech investors have to live with. But investors obviously don't see that happening anytime soon, which is why the tech sector, as measured by Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLK), was able to transition from 2017 into 2018 and still remain an outperformer YTD, up almost 7 percent at the end of February.

Just like that phrase cited above about past performance, diversification is another lesson that many investors seemingly forget during bull markets. If one had an investment portfolio made up of all of the above safe-haven assets/sectors, one might think that means one is diversified. Turns out that couldn't be further from the truth. Diversification just isn't as easy as it sounds.

What you really had were a bunch of holdings that were all correlated to the same set of circumstances — a prolonged period of low interest rates and investors piling into the same dividend and interest-paying securities.

I've seen this movie before. When interest rates rise, it's always the same group of conservative investors who were overreaching for yield who wind up getting burned.

By Mitch Goldberg, president of investment advisory firm ClientFirst Strategy