The Long, Long Term Rip Van Winkle Approach

Imagine an investor who makes an investment and falls asleep for 20 years. One might think the results of that investment might be very poor, but in Harold J Bowen’s recent guest contribution to Barron’s, he paints a different picture and offers some thoughts on what he calls the “Rip Van Winkle” investing strategy.

Bowen begins his argument by stating that that “investment performance is the biggest factor determining the long-term viability of these [pension] plans” and yet most pensions are allocating away from common stocks to higher priced alternatives including hedge funds and private equity strategies. The result, says Bowen, is ” woeful underperformance.” Through 2014, pensions have reduced their equity exposure from 61% to 52% and increased their alternative exposure to 25%, and yet from 1995-2014 pension funds underperformed a simple all stock or 75% stock and 25% bond portfolio by 0.6% to 1.2% per year. This underperformance adds up to a huge amount of money for larger multi-billion funds. Bowen recommends getting away from high fee strategies and allocating to a “high-quality, long-term approach—passive or active—with a 20-year investment time span.”

Bowen says that 20 year periods include bull and bear markets and other events that typically impact asset class returns, which means that investors in the 20 year period are likely to see all major parts of a market cycle. Bowen makes the point that some thought should go into the Rip Van Winkle view because certain asset classes may do better than others over specific 20 year periods. He writes, pension planners “should recognize that the return on stock investments could be particularly important over the next 20 years because fixed-income investments are now very close to maximum prices. Reflecting today’s low interest rates that have nowhere to go but up, prices have nowhere to go but down.”