Executive Summary

As 2016 closes, we reflect on the year’s performance and macroeconomic trends and provide a perspective for the future. The portfolios SigFig recommends are diversified across thousands of companies in nearly 50 countries, with exposure to equities, corporate and government bonds, and real estate. We build these globally-diversified investment allocations from our analysis of performance and volatility across many countries and sectors.

Five key points summarize this analysis:

  1. The aggregate data indicate a strong U.S. economy, coupled with an incoming, tax-reductionist Republican government, which should bode well for the U.S. stock market’s near-term prospects.
  2. Technological advances and globalization provide American consumers with tremendous value, while simultaneously creating forces that push industrial jobs overseas, with mixed long-term prospects for U.S. economic and stock market growth.
  3. Globally, challenges remain in nearly all developed economies, while anti-trade and nationalistic sentiments strain emerging markets’ growth.
  4. Major central banks will be slow to reverse significant quantitative easing measures, potentially leaving interest rates at or near historical lows.
  5. Long-run returns may be lower than in prior eras, leaving investors to update their long-term investment strategies.

Since Donald Trump’s election, globally diversified portfolios have underperformed the U.S. stock market, but year-to-date performance may surprise many investors who have only recently checked on their portfolio performance.  Since January 1, 2016, emerging markets have outperformed U.S. stocks. Even so, over the last few weeks and over the last few years, the U.S. has been among the best performing markets, making it psychologically difficult to hold a well-diversified portfolio, especially when that lags behind our national index.

Trailing Annualized 5-Year Returns
Period Ending United States International Emerging Markets
December 2001 9.7% 0.1% -5.0%
June 2006 3.8% 10.9% 20.4%
June 2010 2.6% 5.6% 14.8%
September 2016 16.2% 6.3% 3.3%
Source: Ben Carlson, A Wealth of Common Sense

The disciplined investor remembers that there have also been significant periods where the U.S. lagged behind dramatically, as the table above illustrates. When the U.S. market inevitably falters, international equities may rise, cushioning the impact. Long-term investors should remain committed to a globally diversified portfolio, which smooths out volatility and increases long-run returns, because chasing the latest “hot” market usually underperforms the strategic approach over the long term.

We remain cautiously optimistic about diversified portfolio returns over the next twelve months, while cognizant that some asset classes may do very well, and others may lag behind or even fall in value.

For more detail, please read our full analysis below.

As advisors for well-diversified investors, we evaluate a lot of conflicting information in building a thorough view of the macroeconomic forces that shape the global economy. Some data are clear; the U.S. economy is quite healthy. Other data are fuzzier; developed nations struggle to bounce out of their economic doldrums while emerging markets are threatened by nationalistic agendas in the U.S. and Europe. Meanwhile, the positive and negative effects of globalization and technology on economies and workers are becoming more salient issues in many industrialized nations.

Our analysis compiles data from around the globe to develop expectations about economic performance. It is worth cautioning that investment performance and economic growth are often not linked, in much the same way that a good company does not always make a great investment.

We are nonetheless cautiously optimistic about the near term for a globally diversified portfolio, while recognizing that some asset classes will outperform others. In the longer term, however, we urge our clients to remain cautious about inflating performance expectations, and recommend that they adjust their long-term investment strategy to guard against more challenging long-term returns.


The U.S. economy is quite healthy. The S&P 500, the broad market, large-cap index is on a seven-year bull run, with no obvious end in sight. With Republicans in charge of the federal government, likely to lower taxes and enact business-friendly legislation, there are strong signs the U.S. stock market continues its run into 2017.

By nearly every aggregate measure, the U.S. economy is enjoying healthy growth.

In short, the overall data about the economy looks great as the Obama era comes to a close.


(Chart illustrates the year-to-date price history of the S&P 500 as of December 7, 2016; source: Google Finance.)

More positively for investors, Donald Trump and Republican legislators may move quickly to lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains. Moreover, Congress may again provide amnesty to corporations for repatriating offshore cash, repeating a Bush-era tax break. Since that 2004 “one-time” amnesty, $2.5 trillion has been stashed on offshore company balance sheets, allowing U.S. companies to escape income tax in the hope of future tax breaks. With the federal government now unified in Republican control, corporations again have an opportunity to bring home these profits with minimal taxes, and will likely distribute repatriated cash through dividends and buybacks. This combination of lower investment taxes and the repatriation of trillions in offshore cash keeps the near-term outlook for the U.S. stock market positive.


Over the long term, however, the picture is murkier. On both sides of the Atlantic, the UK’s Brexit vote and the U.S.’s presidential election demonstrated the power of nationalistic agendas, underscored by the unequal effects on workers from globalization and technology. Despite data that suggest a strong economy, unskilled American workers are pessimistic about their future, with good reason. The unemployment rate among workers without high school degrees is 7.9%, while the highly educated enjoy an exceptionally low 2.3% rate. Unfortunately, this inequality is not likely to correct itself anytime soon.

Regardless of the political response to globalization, increasing automation will undoubtedly continue to impact lower-skilled labor. As a thought experiment, consider the future of the U.S.’s two million long-haul truck drivers, who may soon become obsolete. One day — and it may come sooner than we think — we will see driverless long-haul trucks. We will (probably) continue to employ last-mile drivers (the equivalent of tug-boat or pilot-ship captains) and gas station attendants (until a more significant overhaul of gas stations), but future trucking companies could rapidly swap out human drivers for lower cost, automated technology. The unemployment rate could soar to 10% as millions of truckers become jobless nearly overnight. This will have profound impacts on national economics, politics, and policy.

Though the press cast the presidential election as a statement about the negative impact of technology and globalization on workers, its benefits are widespread, thoroughly enjoyed, and are often hiding in plain sight. You may be reading this on your Chinese-made iPhone while watching a Korean-manufactured LG television. Your coffee, tea, chocolate, and bananas likely hail from Latin America and Africa. You can almost feel an athlete’s sweat watching sporting events on huge high definition television sets in the living room. We seamlessly video chat with friends on the other side of the country; transatlantic trips take hours, not days. We have air conditioning and refrigeration. In many respects as consumers, we live richer lives today than did the richest man 100 years ago, in no small part due to the effects of technological innovation and globalization.

In spite of looming technological impacts on the American workforce, the reality is that the U.S. economy is strong. As the Obama Administration wraps up, we note that most metrics of the U.S. economic situation are far improved from eight years ago. We anticipate a modest December increase in the Federal Reserve’s benchmark rate, just the second since the Great Recession, a signal of the central bank’s increasing confidence in the permanence of the recovery. Further efforts at normalizing the Fed’s quantitative easing and reversal of its balance sheet growth remain far off. Though mortgage rates started to climb this fall, we expect reasonably low rates for the near future.


Around the world, the situation is less overtly promising in the near and longer terms. Developed nations face political and economic challenges, especially in Europe. The EU faces protracted negotiations over Brexit, the Italian financial system struggles to stay afloat, and across the continent, far-right parties push nationalistic, isolationist agendas, threatening the established integrated and cooperative order. Japan’s Abenomics program successfully fought off deflationary concerns with massive fiscal spending, yet that economy suffers the same weak growth as many other developed countries. Overall, 2016 was fairly volatile for developed nations, just breaking ahead for the year.


(Chart illustrates the year-to-date price performance of VEA, an ETF tracking developed market equities, as of December 7, 2016; source: Google Finance.)

In general, developed economies’ continued sluggishness suggests that central banks are reluctant to begin any monetary tightening policies. Keeping interest rates very low, the thinking goes, will eventually boost capital investment and spark a sustained growth spurt.

Among less developed nations, China’s rapid expansion continues, albeit at a modestly less torrid pace than in the prior decade. Barring a tumultuous regime change or conflict with the U.S., it is clear that China will continue to grow rapidly. Emerging market investors will be rewarded in a future that encourages their economic progress and deeper connectedness with developed nations. These relationships reduce conflict risk and encourage partnerships in solutions to global problems, like climate change and pollution.

For other developing nations, the outlook also remains optimistic, tempered by recognition that emerging markets, reliant on commodities or trade for export, face significant headwinds in a global political environment with a dim view of international trade. Though investors who have only paid attention in the last few weeks might be surprised, emerging markets actually outperformed the U.S. stock market, up more that 12% on the year, even after a 2.5% drop since Trump’s election. More broadly, even as the President-elect has spoken critically of the cheap imports preferred by American consumers, global integration and increasing international trade are not trends easily reversed by a President alone. Emerging economies should continue to expand, even if that growth is not immediately reflected in their stock markets.


(Chart illustrates the year-to-date price performance of VWO, an ETF tracking emerging market equities, as of December 7, 2016; source: Google Finance.)

Since Donald Trump’s election, U.S. equities outperformed most asset classes, especially international developed and emerging markets. The last few weeks’ outperformance has been especially stark and makes many investors question the wisdom of investing outside the U.S. Even over the last few years, U.S. markets have outperformed other countries’ markets, so why do we remain committed to a diversified strategy? Because it’s the only one that makes sense for the long run.

In a fascinating recent blog post, “Diversification Is No Fun,” Ben Carlson highlighted how diversification makes sense after realizing the unpredictability of asset class returns over an appropriately long investment horizon. Consider the June 2001 – May 2006 investment period, graphed below, when U.S. stocks languished with a 8.7% total return over five years. Developed markets were up 45%, while emerging markets rocketed skyward 130%!


(Chart illustrates price returns for VTSMX, VGTSX, and VEIEX, mutual funds tracking indices of the U.S., developed markets, and emerging markets, respectively, from June 2001 through May 2006; source: Google Finance.)

This is a pattern that has happened before, as Carlson notes in the chart replicated below. There are times, as now, when U.S. stocks beat the rest of the world, just as there are long periods when the international stocks are better investments. For the long-term investor, however, it makes sense to diversify across the board to capture the upside, while diversification also smooths out the swings of individual markets and asset classes.

Trailing Annualized 5-Year Returns
Period Ending United States International Emerging Markets
December 2001 9.7% 0.1% -5.0%
June 2006 3.8% 10.9% 20.4%
June 2010 2.6% 5.6% 14.8%
September 2016 16.2% 6.3% 3.3%
Source: Ben Carlson, A Wealth of Common Sense

It is psychologically difficult to remain committed to an internationally diversified strategy when it underperforms the local major index. Nonetheless, it is important to stay on track and ignore the movements of a few weeks, months, even years. We encourage our investors to remain committed to a long-run allocation, smoothing out volatility and increasing long-run returns, because chasing the latest “hot” market often underperforms the strategic approach over the long run.


What composite picture does this paint? Continued economic growth in the U.S., coupled with favorable tax changes for investors and corporations. Over the long-term, however, the picture is fuzzier: there are dangers ahead which could upset the basic characteristics of our economy. Elsewhere, developed economies struggle to sustain growth with little reason for near-term optimism. Emerging market economies, whose stock markets fell after Trump’s election, should nonetheless continue to grow, in spite of nationalist preferences of some developed nations. Further, U.S. bonds and emerging market debt have underperformed in expectation of a Fed rate hike. Across both stocks and bonds, with questionable paths to long-term growth, long-run equity returns may be lower than seen over the last few years, while interest rates are likely to remain quite low for the foreseeable future. It may become a challenging environment to achieve once “normal” returns.

SigFig’s Investment Team regularly reviews all these factors when considering future expectations about asset class returns and building our clients’ asset allocations. Adjustments to allocations may be small or negligible, even if we have reduced expectations about long-run returns. Our investment philosophy, based on the mathematics of Modern Portfolio Theory, outlines how to develop a diversified portfolio which balances the tradeoffs of risk and return for our clients.

Lowered expectations about long-run returns have implications for our clients’ financial planning. Lower long-run returns mean weaker benefits from compounding; savings rates must increase significantly. Unfortunately, we cannot solve for lower long-run returns simply by identifying the high-return asset classes: that approach implies significantly more risk in search of higher returns. Moreover, the intuition of Modern Portfolio Theory is that the search for “hidden” excess returns is costly and nearly impossible. Instead, we must rely on more disciplined investing and savings.

Our year-end financial planning advice:

  1. Save more today by trimming excess spending. Make a plan to pay yourself first: deposit savings immediately after payday as a mechanism to enforce low spending rather than saving only whatever is left after monthly spending.
  2. Think critically about the size of the nest egg you need in retirement.
  3. Remain a disciplined investor, with a broadly diversified investment strategy.
  4. Retake our risk tolerance questionnaire to confirm your risk tolerance.

Ultimately, because asset class returns are unpredictable and vary significantly from year to year, a diversified approach remains our recommended strategy. For the coming year, our guidance remains consistent: a strategic, globally diversified portfolio provides the best tradeoff of balancing risk and returns.

Aaron Gubin

Aaron Gubin leads research for SigFig’s Wealth Management team. He holds a Ph.D. in Finance and taught investments and portfolio management to graduate and undergraduate students before coming to SigFig. His research focuses on asset allocation, behavioral finance, and investment management.