Will the Future Be More Volatile for Equity Investors?

Equity Markets Have Been Relatively Calm in Recent Years


It’s hard to remember just how calm the last decade was for US equity markets. But from a historical perspective, that period looks like an anomaly. If volatility becomes more common in the future, strategies that help reduce downside risk should become integral to equity allocations.

Investors are still stunned by the scale of last year’s downturn. To some extent, the pain was magnified by the relative calm of the past decade. Even considering the sharp-but-brief COVID-induced crash in early 2020, US equities were less volatile from 2013 to 2022 than over the previous 40+ years. Our research shows that the S&P 500 Index was down only 13% of the time in the last 10 years, based on 12-month rolling returns, versus 22% of the time from 1970 through 2012 (Display,).

Moderate gains were more common over the past decade. About 23% of the time, equities were up by as much as 10%—a historically strong run. Big rallies—with gains exceeding 10%—were also seen at a greater frequency, occurring 64% of the time.

Nobody knows what the future holds. But given severe macroeconomic and geopolitical stress as well as less support from central banks, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see more volatility in the next 10 years than in the recent past—in line with longer-term trends.

How to Prepare for More Frequent Downturns

Volatility shouldn’t scare investors away from equities. Instead, allocate strategically to dampen the downside. We believe high-quality stocks with stable trading patterns and attractive prices can help investors capture equity potential while navigating more turbulent market conditions ahead. An active approach focused on quality, stability and price (QSP) is especially important when investors are fleeing to safer pockets of the market and pushing up prices of defensive stocks.

In a Volatile World, the Pattern of Returns Matters More

Our QSP universe of US stocks delivered returns of –0.4% on average in falling markets over the last decade, when the S&P 500 fell by 7.5% on average (Display). In modestly rising market environments, QSP stocks advanced by 6.7%—2% more than the broader market.

Don’t Fixate on Relative Returns

What’s the catch? When markets rose by 10% or more, QSP stocks underperformed the S&P 500’s 21.0% gain by 1.2 percentage points. So investors must get comfortable with sacrificing some return in very strong markets—less upside capture. The good news is that a strategy that loses less than the market in downturns can beat the market over time even if it doesn’t capture all of the market’s rallies.

Embracing this type of strategy requires a mindset shift that doesn’t fixate on relative returns quarter after quarter. Knowing that the defensive stocks in a portfolio are well positioned for hard knocks can help investors stay invested in equities to capture vital return potential for meeting long-term financial goals.

Kent Hargis
Co-Chief Investment Officer—Strategic Core Equities
Jillian Geliebter

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AB portfolio-management teams and are subject to revision over time. AllianceBernstein Limited is authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom. MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations, and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein.

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