Positioning equity portfolios for when rates rise

Robert C. Doll, CFA
Senior Portfolio Manager / Chief Equity Strategist,  Nuveen Asset Management
Saira Malik, CFA
Head of Nuveen Equities
Jim Boothe, CFA
Chief Investment Officer / Portfolio Manager,  Santa Barbara Asset Management
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In this article
  • The bull market in bonds may have ended
  • A look at history: Interest rate increases and equity markets
  • The benefits of selectivity and active management

The current equity bull market is now more than eight years old and has survived several calls for its demise. So far, it has weathered economic weakness, deflation fears, earnings slowdowns, a collapse in oil prices, wild currency swings, a range of geopolitical risks and valuation worries. Another persistent concern has often been associated with corrections or the onset of bear markets: Federal Reserve rate hikes and rising bond yields. The interest rate environment has been volatile (to say the least), but rates have been rising unevenly over the past year, and we expect that trend will persist. While this will likely contribute to market volatility, it shouldn’t spell the end of the equity bull market. It may, however, affect the way that investors access opportunities in U.S. equity markets.

Should investors expect rates to rise?

Since the end of the Great Recession, it has been widely expected that improving economic growth would lead to an increase in interest rates. But that hasn’t happened — or at least not consistently. This is partially due to a global environment of low (and even negative) bond yields that have suppressed rates in the United States. And risk aversion has generally remained high among investors, prompting several flights to quality. Most recently, for example, concerns over hurricane-related economic damage drove Treasury yields to new 2017 lows before they subsequently rebounded.

We expect the interest rate outlook to remain complicated and anticipate additional periods of short-term rate declines. But we also believe economic growth should continue growing modestly, which should put upward pressure on yields. While the current economic cycle is old in calendar terms, that doesn’t mean it’s coming to an end. Actuarial tables make sense for predicting human lifespans but are useless for predicting economic cycles. We don’t see the excesses that would indicate the end of the current cycle such as an inverted yield curve, rising credit spreads or rapidly rising inflation, all of which can occur before an expansion ends.

Exhibit 1 - positioning equity portfolios

Yet, it is fair to ask: If people have been calling for a rate increase for eight years and it hasn’t happened yet, what’s different this time? To answer, we would disagree with the premise of that question. Rates have been falling on and off for years, until the 10-year Treasury reached a low of 1.37% in July 2016. We believe rates are now in an environment of rising unevenly. We will no doubt see ongoing drops in yields such as those that occurred recently, but if U.S. and global growth continues to improve, we should see a longer-term trend of rising rates.

A look at history: interest rate increases and equity markets

If interest rates are likely to increase, is that a negative for equity markets? Investors typically fear rising rates and think they are bad for equities, but this actually hasn’t been the case.

It is tough to pinpoint exactly when “rising rates” periods begin. In the present cycle, it can be argued that we have been in such an environment since the Federal Reserve ended its quantitative easing program, or when rates bottomed in 2016. But for purposes of historical comparison, we can analyze how equities performed after the first Fed rate hike in different tightening cycles.

Consider the past six rate hike cycles going back to the early 1980s. Using time periods of 250 trading days (roughly equivalent to one year), we found that while pockets of weakness surrounded rate hikes, equities generally weathered the storm. In most cases, equities performed well prior to times when rates rose, struggled or declined slightly after the onset of rate hikes, and then recovered and continued solid performance. The black line in Exhibit 2 represents the average performance of the S&P 500 Index during these cycles.

If interest rates are likely to increase, is that a negative for equity markets? Investors typically fear rising rates and think they are bad for equities, but this actually hasn’t been the case.


We have also seen periods of heightened volatility when the Fed embarked on tightening cycles. In particular, a period of consolidation often accompanied the start of rate increases. In the 250 days before the first rate hike and the 500 days after, stock prices trended higher but experienced a modest selloff. The data is different for each of the six time periods, but on average, equities have experienced a peak-to-trough decline of roughly 10%. This development is known among traders as “three steps and a stumble,” an anecdotal trend pointing to market declines after a third Fed rate move higher.

So far, the current cycle has more or less followed this historical trend. Since the first rate hike in December 2015 (the blue line in Exhibit 2), stock prices experienced some pullbacks but managed to grind higher.

Exhibit 2 - positioning equity portfolios

It matters why rates rise

History is a good starting point for considering how equities might respond to rising interest rates, but we also must look closely at today’s markets. Interest rates can rise for many reasons — and those reasons can affect how equity markets perform.

For example, if the U.S. were in the midst of an inflation scare, as in the 1970s, interest rates would rise while equity prices fell. Conversely, if interest rates are rising due to improving economic growth, that would probably be good for stock prices. As a result, we sometimes see positive correlations between rising rates and higher equity prices, while at other times we see negative correlations, as shown in Exhibit 3. For the most part, we believe the current backdrop should lead to a positive correlation.

In addition, we think U.S. stocks should benefit from the interest rate “starting point” in this cycle. This current cycle represents the first time in history that the Fed is raising rates from such a low level. And at the same time, bond yields are much lower than during other rate increase cycles.

Exhibit 3 - positioning equity portfolios

We think this is important, since periods of low and upward moving rates may be a good backdrop for equities. Exhibit 4 divides the average historical monthly S&P 500 Index performance based on the 10-year Treasury yield during times of rising and falling rates. Not surprisingly, equities fared poorly when yields were high and moving higher, but performed well when yields were decreasing from elevated levels. Interestingly, stock prices also tended to rise significantly when yields were low and starting to move higher.

Exhibit 4 - positioning equity portfolios

The 10-year Treasury yield is still quite low by historic standards at around 2.3%, so we don’t believe rising rates and yields are likely to act as a drag on stock prices any time soon.

Investment selectivity:Which areas of the market might benefit?

We don’t believe equities as a whole are likely to suffer during the current period of rising rates, but different areas of the market will likely perform better than others. The closing section of this paper offers our individual views and investment themes.

Consider sector performance, for example. In periods of rising rates, equity valuations tend not to expand, so earnings growth becomes the main driver of equity returns. Not surprisingly, sectors that tend to exhibit better growth prospects, such as financials or technology, have generally outperformed during periods of rising rates. Conversely, areas that are income driven and act as bond proxies, such as utilities and telecommunications services, tended to under perform, as shown in Exhibit 5.

We don’t believe equities as a whole are likely to suffer during the current period of rising rates, but different areas of the market will likely perform better than others.

Exhibit 5 - positioning equity portfolios


Interestingly, equity markets appear to be more affected than usual by changes in bond yields today than they have in the past. Exhibit 5 shows a higher correlation between equity market sectors and changes in the 10-year Treasury yield over the last five years than over the last 20 years — in both a positive and negative direction. This is likely because Fed policy has heavily influenced economic growth in the post-crisis environment, and changes in bond yields at such low levels may have had an outsized influence on global financial markets in general. In any case, we expect these correlations to remain high for the time being.

In addition to sector differentials, we believe focusing on dividends and particularly on dividend growth is a notable consideration. Dividend growth can be an important element of investment performance in any environment, but especially so when rates and yields are rising.

Exhibit 6 illustrates how different types of stocks performed in the months following Fed interest rate increases. Companies that grew their dividends tended to outperform those that did not change dividend policies, did not pay dividends or cut dividends.

Exhibit 6 - positioning equity portfolios

Exhibit 7 considers dividend growth from a different perspective. Dividend growers have also performed well from a risk/return perspective when Treasury yields moved higher. And, as we indicated earlier, Treasury yields probably affect stock performance more than changes in the fed funds rate. During months when the 10-year Treasury yield increased, companies that demonstrated higher levels of dividend growth produced better returns per unit of risk (measured by standard deviation) than those that merely had high levels of absolute dividend yield.

Exhibit 1 - positioning equity portfolios

Next steps: the benefits of selectivity and active management

When interest rates and yields rise, equity investing may grow more complicated. But we believe opportunities still exist. Rising rates do not necessarily lead to market pullbacks, and even when they do, those pullbacks are likely to be temporary. Additionally, we believe changes in the interest rate and yield environment have affected intra-market moves across sectors and across differing dividend yields. We expect this trend to continue.

In particular, we believe some areas of the market are more likely than others to outperform, meaning selectivity and active management within equities could grow in importance. Below, we highlight some of our individual views and thoughts about how we are approaching equity markets:


Changes in the interest rate and yield environment can be an important factor driving equity returns — and these changes make some factors more or less important when looking for attractively valued companies with improving fundamentals. 

In general, we have been focusing more on cyclical sectors and value areas of the market as interest rates have moved unevenly higher since the middle of last year. These parts of the market tend to perform better when economic growth improves and when interest rates rise. We found that these areas tended to outperform when rates moved higher (such as toward the end of 2016) but did less well when rates stopped rising or fell (such as during periodic flights to quality). 

From a sector perspective, we’re seeing some solid opportunities in financials, focusing on large global banks that may benefit from a rising rates environment. At the same time, we have a mostly unfavorable view toward utilities, which tend to act more like bonds


In our view, the current interest rate environment is good for equity markets. Yields are rising, but they remain close to historically low levels. And we think low-but-rising yields favor stocks. In our opinion, 10-year Treasury yield would need to rise to 4% or 5% before it would act as a drag on stock prices. At that point, equity market multiples may begin to contract. 

Within this context, we view some areas of the market as better positioned than others. To start, we suggest avoiding capital-intensive industries such as industrials. These areas of the market are likely to experience higher borrowing costs as rates rise and could be at a disadvantage. In contrast, we would focus on areas where a preponderance of companies have strong balance sheets, such as the technology sector. 

We also see opportunities from a capitalization perspective. Small cap stocks have lagged large cap stocks notably this year. We think that trend should reverse as rates rise. Higher interest rates in the U.S. may also cause the dollar to increase, which should offer a relative advantage to small caps over large-cap companies.


Many investors pay attention to dividend yield, but we think it is critically important to focus not on absolute yield, but on dividend growth. This is especially true in times of rising interest rates. Many companies that offer impressive dividend levels may actually underperform when interest rates rise. Income-oriented segments of the market tend to act like bonds and may not be a good option when yields are moving higher. 

In contrast, dividend growers tend to be financially stable and well managed. As such, they tend to have strong balance sheets, which can help limit the effect of higher funding costs often associated with rising interest rates. 

Regarding specific areas of the market we find attractive in the current environment, we would point to the materials and energy sectors as offering good value. Additionally, we see select opportunities in the real estate sector and favor the media and advertising segments of the consumer sectors. We are more cautious about technology, as we believe much of that sector’s strong performance has come from large, non-dividend paying companies.

Investment Outlook Equity bull market can continue, with help from earnings


Investment opportunities: A look at the emerging markets consumer sector


Tax reform investment implications: How much bang for the bucks?

For more information, please consult with your financial advisor and visit nuveen.com.

S&P 500 Index is a capitalization-weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure the performance of the broad domestic economy. Standard Deviation is a measure of the degree to which an investment’s actual returns varied from its average return over a certain period. The smaller the variation, the lower the standard deviation will be. The standard deviation is a common measure of volatility and risk. Correlation is a statistical measure of how two variables move in relation to each other. Perfect positive correlation (a correlation co-efficient of +1) implies that as one factor moves the other factor will move in lockstep, in the same direction. Alternatively, perfect negative correlation (a correlation co-efficient of –1) means that variables will move by an equal amount in the opposite direction.

Risks and other important considerations
This information represents the opinions of Nuveen Asset Management, TIAA Investments and Santa Barbara Asset Management and is not intended to be a forecast of future events and this is no guarantee of any future result. Information was obtained from third-party sources, which we believe to be reliable but are not guaranteed as to their accuracy or completeness. All investments carry a certain degree of risk and there is no assurance that an investment will provide positive performance over any period of time. Equity investments are subject to market risk or the risk that stocks will decline in response to such factors as adverse company news or industry developments or a general economic decline. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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Nuveen, LLC delivers the expertise of TIAA Investments and its independent investment affiliates. Santa Barbara Asset Management, LLC and Nuveen Asset Management, LLC are registered investment advisers and affiliates of Nuveen, LLC.