You can’t get away from volatility when you invest. Even if you hold a diversified  basket of different stocks or bonds through a fund such as an index tracker , over shorter periods of time the annual returns from the different asset classes can really vary.
Maximum and minimum real returns over different periods
As we move up from bottom to top, we’re looking at holding the asset for longer periods of time. The highest and lowest annualized returns over each time period are shown by the bars.
- Holding UK shares (equities) for one year, for example, has seen enormous variations in annual return – at the extremes as low as -60% over a year, to as high as near-100%.
- Hold shares for ten years, and the range of minimum and maximum annualized returns over that period is much tighter: From a worse case approaching -10% per year over ten years, to gains of more than 20% per year.
What volatility means for your investing
This graphic reveals some vital lessons for investors:
- Holding for longer allows good years to make up for bad years and vice versa, which averages out the returns.
- The smaller amount of dark blue to the left of the 0% line once you hold for longer than ten years shows it is fairly unusual for shares to deliver real negative annual returns over longer time periods. (Remember, these are the worse case runs over the past 100-odd years).
- Over one year, anything can happen!
- Volatility is the price you pay for potentially superior annual returns.
Also notice that because the average real annual returns from cash and bonds are low compared to shares, a period of high inflation can see them still post negative real returns even after 20 years.
‘Real’ annual returns take inflation into account. A real return of -1% over 20 years means that factoring in inflation , your investment lost 1% of its spending power per year over the two decades.
Over the past 116 years, UK shares have never posted negative real returns over periods longer than 23 years. Indeed, for holding periods for 20 years or more the minimum real returns from equities have been better than from lower volatility cash or bonds. This is why shares are the best asset class for long-term savings.
Remember too that we’re just looking at UK returns here. Different markets around the world  have seen different returns over the past century. Investing in a global tracker  is a good way to smooth your returns.
The bottom line is that if you pick a simple passive portfolio , save regularly , and rebalance  every now and then, such fluctuations become much less critical. The good and bad periods of returns for the different assets should be evened out.
- i.e. Adjusted for inflation. [↩ ]