Credit Suisse

John Authers

Today sees the publication of Credit Suisse’s annual Global Investment Returns Yearbook, a mammoth piece of research into global long-run returns overseen by the London Business School academics Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton. It is an invaluable resource, and this blog is likely to mine its contents for some days to come.

Revisions for this year help ram home one quick and spectacular lesson from history. Baron Nathan Rothschild is widely believed (wrongly, according to historian Niall Ferguson) to have said that you should “buy when there’s blood in the streets”.

Much of the time this advice works. Buying into Japan or Germany after the second world war would have worked out extremely well, and the greatest buying opportunities almost by definition come when it seems almost mad to buy.

But the aphorism is not infallible. This year, the academics tried to address their concern that their global stock market index suffered from “survivorship bias”. So they have recalculated them including three new countries that were not previously covered in their attempts to calculated the global equity risk premium: China, Russia and Austria. Adding these nations hugely changes the perception of long-term risk.

Let’s start in Russia. Any bold contrarians who decided in the late 19th century to bet on Tsarist Russia to outperform the US for the long-term, and held on even during the great political unrest of the attempted revolution of 1905, would for a long time have looked very clever.

The chart compares the St Petersburg stock exchange’s composite index performance with that of New York. After 1917, of course, the value of any equity investment in Russia was wiped out. This might appear to be an exceptional example. But it is not. China also had a revolution that led to the closing down of its stock market (and of capitalism for a while), and that happened within living memory. On the eve of the second world war, China’s returns looked very healthy. With the arrival of Mao, shares went to zero (and international investors have had a rough ride even since Chinese stock markets reopened).

Using the MSCI China index, covering stocks available to international investors, those who bought in 1993 have actually lost money. But Chinese stock markets have been recovering recently. And, deliciously for those who like historical ironies, the Shanghai Composite, the main domestic index, bottomed last year at 1949, the year of the revolution.