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Are Stocks Really Less Volatile in the Long Run?

Are Stocks Really Less Volatile in the Long Run?

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10/18/2011

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Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1136847
Are Stocks Really Less Volatile in the Long Run?
by
*
ˇLuboˇs astorandRobert F. Stambaugh
First Draft: April 22, 2008This revision: February 17, 2009
Abstract
Conventional wisdom views stocks as less volatileover long horizons than over short hori-zons due to mean reversion induced by return predictability. In contrast, we find stocks aresubstantiallymore volatileover long horizons from an investor’s perspective. This perspectiverecognizes that parameters are uncertain, even with two centuries of data, and that observablepredictors imperfectly deliver the conditional expected return. We decompose return varianceinto five components, which include mean reversion and various uncertainties faced by theinvestor. Although mean reversion makes a strong negative contribution to long-horizon vari-ance, it is more than offset by the other components. Using a predictive system, we estimateannualized 30-year variance to be nearly 1.5 times the 1-year variance.
*The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, NBER, and CEPR (P´astor) and the Wharton School,University of Pennsylvania, and NBER (Stambaugh). We are grateful for comments from John Campbell, DarrellDuffie, Gene Fama, Wayne Ferson, Jeremy Siegel, and workshop participants at Cornell University, Erasmus Univer-sity Rotterdam, George Mason University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Tilburg University, Universityof Amsterdam, University of California at Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, University of SouthernCalifornia, and Washington University. We also gratefully acknowledge research support from the Q Group.
 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1136847
1. Introduction
Conventional wisdom views stock returns as less volatile over longer investment horizons. Thisview seems consistent with various empirical estimates. For example, using over two centuriesof U.S equity returns, Siegel (2008) reports that variances realized over investment horizons of several decades are substantially lower than short-horizon variances on a per-year basis. Suchevidence pertains to unconditional variance, but a similar message is delivered by studies thatcondition varianceon informationuseful in predictingreturns. Campbell and Viceira(2002,2005),for example, report estimates of conditional variances that generally decrease with the investmenthorizon. The long-run volatility of stocks is no doubt of interest to investors. Evidence of lowerlong-horizon variance is cited in support of higher equity allocations for long-run investors (e.g,Siegel, 2008) as well as the increasingly popular “life-cycle” mutual funds that allocate less toequity as investors grow older (e.g., Gordon and Stockton, 2006, Greer, 2004, and Viceira, 2008).We find that stocks are actually
more
volatile over long horizons. At a 30-year horizon, forexample, we find return variance per year to be 21 to 53 percent higher than the variance at a1-year horizon. This conclusion stems from the fact that we assess variance from the perspectiveof investors who condition on available information but realize their knowledge is limited in twokey respects. First, even after observing 206 years of data (1802–2007), investors do not know thevalues of the parameters that govern the processes generating returns and observable “predictorsused to forecast returns. Second, investors recognize that, even if those parameter values wereknown, the predictors could deliver only an imperfect proxy for the conditional expected return.Under the traditional random-walk assumption that returns are distributed independently andidentically (i.i.d.) through time, return variance per period is equal at all investment horizons.Explanations for lower variance at long horizons commonly focus on “mean reversion,” wherebya negative shock to the current return is offset by positive shocks to future returns, and vice versa.Our conclusion that stocks are more volatile in the long run obtains despite the presence of meanreversion. We show that mean reversion is only one of five components of long-run variance:(i) i.i.d. uncertainty(ii) mean reversion(iii) uncertainty about future expected returns(iv) uncertainty about current expected return(v) estimation risk.Whereas themean-reversion component is strongly negative, theother components areall positive,and their combined effect outweighs that of mean reversion.1
 
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1136847
Of the four components contributing positively, the one making the largest contribution atthe 30-year horizon reflects uncertainty about future expected returns. This component (iii) isoften neglected in discussions of how return predictability affects long-horizon return variance.Such discussions typically highlight mean reversion, but mean reversion—and predictability moregenerally—require variance in the conditional expected return, which we denote by
t
. Thatvariance makes the future values of 
t
uncertain, especially in the more distant future periods,thereby contributing to the overall uncertainty about future returns. The greater the degree of predictability, the larger is the variance of 
t
and thus the greater is the relative contribution of uncertainty about future expected returns to long-horizon return variance.Three additional components also make significant positive contributionsto long-horizon vari-ance. One is simply the variance attributable to unexpected returns. Under an i.i.d. assumptionfor unexpected returns, this variance makes a constant contribution to variance per period at all in-vestment horizons. At the 30-year horizon, this component (i), though quite important, is actuallysmaller in magnitude than both components (ii) and (iii) discussed above.Another component of long-horizon variance reflects uncertainty about the current
t
. Com-ponents (i), (ii), and (iii) all condition on the current value of 
t
. Conditioning on the currentexpected return is standard in long-horizon variance calculations using a vector autoregression(VAR), such as Campbell (1991) and Campbell, Chan, and Viceira (2003). In reality, though, aninvestor does not observe
t
. We assume the investor observes the histories of returns and a givenset of return predictors. This information is capable of producing only an imperfect proxy for
t
,which in general reflects additional information. P´astor and Stambaugh (2008) introduce a predic-tive system to deal with imperfect predictors, and we use that framework to assess long-horizonvariance and capture component (iv). When
t
is persistent, uncertainty about the current
t
con-tributes to uncertainty about
t
in multiple future periods, on top of the uncertainty about future
t
’s discussed earlier.The fifth and last component adding to long-horizon variance, also positively, is one we label“estimation risk,followingcommonusage ofthat term. Thiscomponent reflectsthefactthat, afterobservingtheavailabledata,an investor remainsuncertain abouttheparametersof thejoint processgenerating returns, expected returns, and the observed predictors. That parameter uncertainty addsto theoverall varianceof returnsassessed by an investor. Ifthe investor knew the parameter values,this estimation-risk component would be zero.Parameter uncertainty also enters long-horizon variance more pervasively. Unlike the fifthcomponent, the first four componentsare non-zero even if the parametersare known to an investor.At the same time, those four components can be affected significantly by parameter uncertainty.2

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