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Surprising resilience of the S&P 500

Through inflation, recessions and other volatile market events, this decades-old index has continually reinvented itself, historically tracking solid returns. What’s the secret of its durability?

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April 21, 2022

FOR INVESTORS NAVIGATING THE TURBULENCE OF 2022, a key piece of advice has been to lean toward stocks of large, high-quality companies. “Major firms with proven earnings and strong balance sheets have historically tended to provide stability, consistent returns and dividends,” says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. In the United States, the world’s largest equity market, Hyzy’s description could be captured in a single phrase: The companies listed on the S&P 500.

“Even with a global pandemic, a historically deep global recession, rising trade wars, natural disasters and political chasms, U.S. equities represented by the S&P 500 Index are higher by 133% over the last five years.”1

Niladri Mukherjee, head of Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Over time, this index of major U.S. companies has proven remarkably resilient. “Even with a global pandemic, a historically deep global recession, rising trade wars, natural disasters and political chasms, U.S. equities represented by the S&P 500 Index are higher by 133% over the last five years,”1 says Niladri Mukherjee, head of Portfolio Strategy in the Chief Investment Office (CIO) for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. While past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, “The returns of the companies on this index over this period of time are impressive from a historical perspective,” notes Kirsten Cabacungan, an investment strategist in the CIO for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

A selective list

Though numerically just a small portion of the more than 4,200 publicly listed companies based in the United States,2 S&P 500 companies represent about 80% of total U.S. market capitalization.3 Thus the index, created in 1957, is widely regarded as a “proxy” for the broader U.S. equity market.

To be selected for inclusion in this index, companies must have at least $14.6 billion in market capitalization (as of March 31, 2022), have positive earnings in the most recent quarter and year and meet a host of other standards. The list is continually updated by the Index Committee as companies expand or decline, and this regular refresh may help to explain the index’s historical resilience in the face of market pressures.

A benchmark for quality, yield, real returns and more

In a recent CIO Capital Market Outlook report, Mukherjee and Cabacungan discuss some of the underlying qualities that make the S&P 500 such an important benchmark and share some points for investors to consider. They include:

Quality. S&P 500 companies are often considered most representative of the key industries in the economy, and they tend to be large-caps with relatively higher quality and stable businesses.

Yield. “As investors struggled to find bond income, the S&P 500 offered an alternative in the form of dividends. “While the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury was hovering close to 2% in mid-February, roughly 45% of S&P 500 dividend stocks still paid a higher yield,”4 Mukherjee says.

Access to secular growth. The U.S. is a global innovation juggernaut and home to world-leading technology firms, many of which are listed on the S&P 500. But tech innovation and efficiencies aren’t limited to tech companies; many businesses listed on the S&P 500 now harness the power of technology and automation.

“Creative destruction has transformed the S&P 500 over time.”

Kirsten Cabacungan, investment strategist, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Real returns. While inflation affects individual companies and industries differently, the S&P 500 over the long term has historically provided real returns — or the amount earned after accounting for taxes and inflation — as companies have become more productive and able to pass higher costs on to consumers.4 “Even during the Great Inflation decade from 1971 to 1980, consumer prices rose by a cumulative 117%, but the S&P 500’s total return was higher at 125%,”4 notes Mukherjee.

A foundation for consistent earnings. Because of the stringent requirements for inclusion in the S&P 500 Index, the companies listed on it tend to be those that have generally kept up with long-term structural changes in the economy, technology and consumer preferences, which we believe contributes to a rise in corporate earnings5 — the foundation for long-term equity gains.

Durability during and after recessions. Considering the last four recessions, the S&P 500 tended to perform better on average in terms of price return, both during and 12 months after the start of the recession, compared with global peers and commodities.4

Ongoing reinvention. “Creative destruction, or the process of constant reinvention as emerging companies become eligible for inclusion and others drop off, has transformed the S&P 500 over time,” Cabacungan says. In 1969, industrials represented a third of the index. Today, only 72 firms are industrials, while technology companies have risen from 16 to 76.

What the S&P 500 might mean for you

If you own individual large-cap stocks, you may likely be invested in one or more companies listed on the index. Many index-based mutual funds and exchange-traded funds invest with the intent of tracking or mimicking the S&P’s yearly performance and own all 500 of the index’s stocks. In general, too, because it has such broad exposure across sectors, the index is a useful benchmark, offering insights on the strength of the markets and the economy.

A reminder: S&P 500 companies don’t guarantee results, Hyzy cautions. All investments carry risk and are subject to challenging conditions. Amid 2022 volatility, for instance, “Strategists and economists have cut their overall S&P 500 growth expectations to around 5% for 2022, down from about 7% to 8% at the start of the year,” he notes. Nor should investors focus solely on the S&P 500. Stocks of smaller, promising companies and international equities can offer important potential growth opportunities for investors, while bonds and other assets are essential for diversification.

Bottom line: While there will always be volatility and results may vary from year to year, “Given their improving productivity, proven durability, higher quality and consistency of earnings growth, we believe S&P 500 companies are a resilient and unique asset class that should be considered as a core holding for long-term investors,” says Mukherjee.

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