TSP funds: What Happened?

Wow, what a difference a year makes.  What happened to the TSP I fund?  As we will see, part of what happened was really what did not happen to the international fund.

Note: I have never recommended the TSP I fund or Lifecycle funds for a number of reasons as discussed in Best TSP Allocation and Strategy.  Some of those reasons are evidenced in 2018. 

First let’s discuss the TSP S fund – The TSP small cap fund lost ground to the large companies in the TSP C fund in 2017, then in 2018 it outperformed.  But if we look back about 2 years we see these two funds basically tied in performance.  The flip in performance from 2017 to 2018 matches the change in direction of the dollar to world currencies.

Peak Divergence


In 2017 a declining dollar benefited the 38% of SP500 revenue which is generated overseas, then in 2018 the rising dollar hurt the translation of overseas SP500 profits into US dollars.  The small cap fund is considered less exposed and became a safe haven in the US from a rising dollar as well as benefiting from the bounce back in energy prices.

The same dollar effect of course happened with the International fund but to a larger degree.  But this does not explain all of the divergence.  The lack of significant tech exposure in the international fund explains a big part of the I fund’s weakness over the long run and nothing changed in 2018 to improve this situation.

Shifting sentiment also added to the divergence.  In 2017 Europe’s economy finally looked like if might lift off, but 2018 has seen expectations come down.  Since the elections, US sentiment skyrocketed and stalled in mid-2017.

The passing of the tax cuts for large corporations gave US asset owning class a sentiment surge in late 2017 and also hit the tape for 2018 earnings reports (a one-time bump).  The US is now hitting peak expectations.

But wait there’s more…

I’ve talked about corporate buybacks and price-insensitive central bank buying of financial assets for some time.  I think we are hitting a peak in this area also in 2018 since central banks are pulling back (but still positive) and corporate buybacks will not have cash repatriations in 2019 to match 2018.

But it is more involved than a simple are they buying or not.

Here is a new concept…

…bear with me.  I’ll start with an extreme example to help keep your eyes from glazing over – Bitcoin.

I wrote about Bitcoin Lessons & Stock Market Melt-Ups back on 4 January.  The main takeaway was that JP Morgan found “that a mere $6 billion in net inflows… resulted in a market cap [increase] of $330 billion.”

Think about that awhile… how can $6 billion in buying increase the total value of all outstanding stock to $330 billion.  That means for every $1 invested in buying Bitcoin, Bitcoin’s market cap went up $55!   Huh?

The answer is marginal supply & demand with the focus on the word “marginal”.

Stay with me… if the current holders of Bitcoin would not sell but demand grew then the price had to surge to bring out sellers.

Bitcoin Ride

A marginal story

Now think housing: 95% of households do not buy or sell a house every year. So it is the selling 5% that set prices for those online Zillow appraisals of your house.

Supply and demand makes sense for setting the price of apples and oranges.  But houses, Bitcoin and to an increasing extent the stock market, it is those marginal buyers and sellers that set prices. Hence “marginal supply & demand” matters.


Back to the TSP funds

Okay, unglaze your eyes because we are back to your investments. What is happening to the marginal supply & demand of the stock and bond funds? Marginal madness…

1st half

Take away the corporate buyback and what do you have? Selling.


  1. Increasing passive investments which usually means buy & hold so no supply here
  2. Corporations are reducing supply of stocks through buybacks
  3. Central banks significantly reduced the supply or global bonds and even stocks to the tune of 12 trillion dollars since the financial crisis


  1. Corporations are responsible for the largest inflow of funds into stocks.  This demand only holds true while they are in buyback mode, meaning it is unsustainable.
  2. Institutional investors are net sellers, so when #1 ends look out below.
  3. The Bank of Japan is a buyer of Japan’s stocks and is now the largest share-holder in Japan.  If this stops, no demand.  This also means the Japanese are increasing their buying of international stocks as they sell to the BOJ. Same with bonds in Europe.

There is more, but the point is the marginal supply & demand dynamic is squeezing the stock market higher and higher in valuations.  See Bitcoin chart again.

You are living with the most expensive global stock and bond market of all-time.  Yet, until the above marginal supply & demand factors reverse the markets can be squeezed higher.  Then at some point the opposite dynamic will occur on the way down. It happened to Bitcoin.  Yes, a more extreme case. But it can happen to the stock market (your funds) too.

Awareness matters. There is much more of course so you might want to review the Best TSP Allocation and Strategy on other considers among the funds…

…and definitely TSP Charts: About Those Valuations.



Michael Bond


TSP and Vanguard Smart Investor 


Categories: Perspectives, TSP Charts

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