Low Risk, High Returns

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In today's bull market, few investors may be thinking about risk.

That is the nature of a bull market for any asset class, especially one up more than 20% such as stocks in 2013. It is during a run-up, however, that investors should prepare for the inevitable downturn. For long-term investors looking for defensive holdings, the stocks with the lowest risk have been proven to have the highest rewards.

Russell Investments, a global asset manager that is a subsidiary of Northwest Mutual, conducted two studies on the returns of equities as related to the beta, or the measure of the volatility of an asset in relation to its market. It was determined that stocks with the highest betas, the most volatile ones, had lower returns than stocks that fluctuated less in price. In other words, investors can have it all: a low-risk asset with a high return when buying equities.

That means that what was learned about the risk/reward ratio is wrong. Investors don't have to accept a high level of risk in order to have a higher level of return. Greater total returns will come from stocks that are lower in risk.

After all, if a stock is performing well and rewarding its investors, why would they sell? It makes no sense to sell an asset that continually does well, not to mention taking the capital-gains tax hit on the profits. If the shareholders don't sell, then the price won't bob up and down like a high-beta asset. As a result, equities with the lowest betas probably do have the highest returns.

Let's take a look at a holding of Warren Buffett in the portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway ( BRKA, BRKB). Buffett prefers companies that have wide economic moats, those features that will protect the business enterprise against the forces of time and competition.

Tops among his holdings as a performer has been Coca-Cola ( KO), listed as one of Buffett's best investments of all times. He started to buy shares of Coca-Cola for Berkshire Hathaway back in 1988.

The return since has been more than 700%, far exceeding that of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index for the same period. While the beta for the S&P 500 is 1, the beta for Coca-Cola is 0.48. The dividend yield for Coca-Cola is 2.79%, above the 1.9% average dividend for a member of the S&P 500.

That is the story for Berkshire Hathaway as an investment vehicle with Buffett at the helm. If $100 had been invested in Berkshire Hathaway in 1964, the first year of Buffett's stewardship, it would now be worth about $587,000. The same amount put into an index fund for the S&P 500 would have around $7500.00 in value, at present. The beta for Berkshire Hathaway is 0.55.

It's not just stocks such as those found in portfolio of Berkshire Hathaway, either. Buffett has never been a big fan of high tech companies. But anyone would have to appreciate Apple's ( AAPL) 10-year return of well over 4,000%. Over the same period, it has been around 70% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The beta for Apple is 0.84. The dividend yield of 2.19% for Apple also tops the average for a member of the DJIA.

Beta should definitely play a role in the due diligence of an investor considering which stocks to buy. A low beta and a high dividend yield can be a rewarding combination.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Yates is a financial writer who has had thousands of articles appear in periodicals and Web sites such as TheStreet, Newsweek, The Washington Post and many others. Much of his career was spent working on Capitol Hill for Members of Congress in both the House and Senate, on both committee and personal staff.  He was also General Counsel for a publicly traded corporation.  He has degrees from Harvard University, Georgetown University Law Center and The Johns Hopkins University.

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