Posts filed under ‘Asset Allocation’
Amidst the recent, historically high volatility in the financial markets, there have been a large percentage of investors who have been sleeping like a baby – a baby that stays up all night crying! For some, the dream-like doubling of equity returns achieved from the first half of 2009 through the first half of 2011 quickly turned into a nightmare over the last few weeks. We live in an inter-connected, globalized world where news travels instantaneously and fear spreads like a damn-bursting flood. Despite the positive returns earned in recent years, the wounds of 2008-2009 (and 2000 to a lesser extent) remain fresh in investors’ minds. Now, the hundred year flood is expected every minute. Every European debt negotiation, S&P downgrade, or word floating from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s lips, is expected to trigger the next Lehman Brothers-esque event that will topple the global economy like a chain of dominoes.
The few hours of trading that followed the release of the Federal Reserve’s August policy statement is living proof of investors’ edginess. After initially falling approximately -400 points in a 30 minute period late in the day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average then climbed over +600 points in the final hour of trading, before experiencing another -400 point drop in the first hour of trading the next day. Many of the day traders and speculators playing with the explosively leveraged exchange traded funds (e.g., TNA, TZA, FAS, FAZ), suffered the consequences related to the panic selling and buying that comes with a VIX (Volatility Index) that climbed about +175% in 17 days. A VIX reading of 44 or higher has only been reached nine times in the last 25 years (source: Don Hays), and is normally associated with significant bounce-backs from these extreme levels of pessimism. Worth noting is the fact that the 2008-2009 period significantly deteriorated more before improving to a more normalized level.
Keys to a Good Night’s Sleep
The nature of the latest debt ceiling negotiations and associated Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States hurt investor psyches and did little to boost confidence in an already tepid economic recovery. Investors may have had some difficulty catching some shut-eye during the recent market turmoil, but here are some tips on how to sleep comfortably.
• Panic is Not a Strategy: Panic selling (and buying) is not a sustainable strategy, yet we saw both strategies in full force last week. Emotional decisions are never the right ones, because if they were, investing would be quite easy and everyone would live on their own personal island. Rather than panic-sell, investments should be looked at like goods in a grocery store – successful long-term investors train themselves to understand it is better to buy goods when they are on sale. As famed growth investor Peter Lynch said, “I’m always more depressed by an overpriced market in which many stocks are hitting new highs every day than by a beaten-down market in a recession.”
• Long-Term is Right-Term: Everybody would like to retire at a young age, and once retired, live like royalty. Admirable goals, but both require bookoo bucks. Unless you plan on inheriting a bunch of money, or working until you reach the grave, it behooves investors to pull that money out from under the mattress and invest it wisely. Let’s face it, entitlements are going to be reduced in the future, just as inflation for food, energy, medical, leisure and other critical expenses continue eroding the value of your savings. One reason active traders justify their knee-jerk actions and derogatory description of long-term investors is based on the stagnant performance of U.S. equity markets over the last decade. Nonetheless, the vast number of these speculators fail to recognize a more than tripling in average values in markets like Brazil, India, China, and Russia over similar timeframes. Investing is a global game. If you do not have a disciplined, systematic long-term investment strategy in place, you better pray you don’t lose your job before age 70 and be prepared to eat Mac & Cheese while working as a Wal-Mart (WMT) greeter in your 80s.
• Diversification: Speaking of sleep, the boring topic of diversification often puts investors to sleep, but in periods like these, the power of diversification becomes more evident than ever. Cash, metals, and certain fixed income instruments were among the investments that cushioned the investment blow during the 2008-2009 time period. Maintaining a balanced diversified portfolio across asset classes, styles, size, and geographies is crucial for investment survival. Rebalancing your portfolio periodically will ensure this goal is achieved without taking disproportionate sized risks.
• Tailored Plan Matching Risk Tolerance: An 85 year-old wouldn’t go mountain biking on a tricycle, and a 10 year-old shouldn’t drive a bus to his fifth grade class. Sadly, in volatile times like these, many investors figure out they have an investment portfolio mismatched with their goals and risk tolerance. The average investor loves to take risk in up-markets and shed risk in down-markets (risk in this case defined as equity exposure). Regrettably, this strategy is designed exactly backwards for long-term investors. Historically, actual risk, the probability of permanent losses, is much lower during downturns; however, the perceived risk by average investors is viewed much worse. Indeed, recessions have been the absolute best times to purchase risky assets, given our 11-for-11 successful track record of escaping post World War II downturns. Could this slowdown or downturn last longer than expected and lead to more losses? Absolutely, but if you are planning for 10, 20, or 30 years, in many cases that issue is completely irrelevant – especially if you are still adding funds to your investment portfolio (i.e., dollar-cost averaging). On the flip side, if an investor is retired and entirely dependent upon an investment portfolio for income, then much less attention should be placed on risky assets like equities.
If you are having trouble sleeping, then one of two things is wrong: 1.) You are taking on too much risk and should cut your equity exposure; and/or 2.) You do not understand the risk you are taking. Volatile times like these are great for reevaluating your situation to make sure you are properly positioned to meet your financial goals. Talking heads on TV will tell you this time is different, but the truth is we have been through worse times (see History Never Repeats, but Rhymes), and lived to tell the tale. All this volatility and gloom may create anxiety and cause insomnia, but if you want to quietly sleep through the noise like a content baby, make yourself a long-term financial bed that you can comfortably sleep in during good times and bad. Focusing on the despondent headline of the day, and building a portfolio lacking diversification will only lead to panic selling/buying and results that would keep a baby up all night crying.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market ETFs) and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TNA, TZA, FAS, FAZ, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Ask any average Joe off the street what investment category is at or near record all-time highs, and a good number of them will confidently answer “gold,” as prices recently eclipsed $1,600 per ounce. But of course this makes perfect sense, right? The Fed is printing money like it’s going out of style, the dollar is collapsing like a drunken sailor, inflation is about to sky-rocket to the moon, and China is on the verge of becoming the world’s new reserve currency. Never mind that Greece, Portugal and Ireland are in shambles with the Euro on its death bed. Or Japan has achieved a debt to GDP ratio that would even make U.S. vote grubbing politicians blush. A sub-3% 10-Year Treasury Note doesn’t appear to discourage fervent gold-bugs either.
While gold has experienced an incredible sextupling in prices over the last decade and hit new-all time highs, believe it or not, there is an unlikely asset class that is reaching new historic highs and has outperformed gold for almost 2.5 years. Can you guess what asset class star I am talking about? If I said U.S. “stocks,” would you believe me? OK, well maybe I’m not referring to large capitalization stocks like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and AT&T Inc. (T), all of which have effectively gone nowhere in the 21st Century. However, the story is quite different if you look at small and mid capitalization stocks, which have received about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.
As a matter of fact, the S&P 400 (MidCap Index) and S&P 600 Index (SmallCap Index) have more than doubled gold’s performance since the lows of March 2009 (SmallCap +149.0%; MidCap +145.1%; Gold/GLD +71.0%). Given the spectacular performance of small and mid-sized companies, I’m still waiting with bated breath for a telemarketer call asking me if I have considered selling my small and mid cap stock certificates for cash – since everyone has melted their gold chains and fillings, a new hobby is needed.
Has the fear trade ended? Perhaps not, if you consider European sovereign debt and U.S. debt ceiling concerns, but what happens if the half empty glass becomes half full. The early 1980s may be a historical benchmark period for comparison purposes. An interesting thing happened from 1980-1982 when Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker began raising interest rates to fight inflation – gold prices dropped -65% (~$800/oz. to under $300/oz.) from 1980-1982 and the shiny metal lived through approximately a 25 year period with ZERO price appreciation. Since there is only one direction for the Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) to go, conceivably history will repeat itself once again?
In hindsight gold was a beautiful safe haven vehicle during the panic-filled, nail-biting period during late-2007 throughout 2008. Since then, small and mid cap stocks have trounced gold. Like stocks, Rodney Dangerfield may have gotten no respect, but once fear has subsided and rates start increasing, maybe stocks will steal the show and get the respect they deserve.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including small cap and mid cap ETFs), and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JNJ, MSFT, INTC, T, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Oh Nelly, take it easy…don’t get too crazy on that bunny slope. With fall officially kicking off and the crisp smell of leaves in the air, the new season also marks the beginning of the ski season. In many respects, investing is a lot like skiing. Unfortunately, many investors are financially skiing their investment portfolios down a bunny slope by stuffing their money in low yielding CDs, money market accounts, and Treasury securities. The bunny slope certainly feels safe and secure, but many investors are actually doing more long-term harm than good and could be potentially jeopardizing their retirements.
Let’s take a gander at the cautious returns offered up from the financial bunny slope products:
That CD earning 1.21% should cover a fraction of your medical insurance premium hike, or if you accumulate the interest from your money market account for a few years, perhaps it will cover the family seeing a new 3-D movie. If you also extend the maturity on that CD a little, maybe it can cover an order of chicken fingers at Applebees (APPB)?!
We all know, for much of the non-retiree population, the probability that entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare will be wiped out or severely cut is very high. Not to mention, life expectancies for non-retirees are increasing dramatically – some life insurance actuarial tables are registering well above 100 years old. These trends indicate the criticalness of investing efficiently for a large swath of the population, especially non-retirees.
Let’s Face It, One Size Does Not Fit All
As I have pointed out in the past, when it comes to investing (or skiing), one size does not fit all (see article). Just as it does not make sense to have Bode Miller (32 year old Olympic gold medalist) ski down a beginner’s bunny slope, it also does not make sense to take a 75-year old grandpa helicopter skiing off a cornice. The same principles apply to investment portfolios. The risk one takes should be commensurate with an individual’s age, objectives, and constraints.
Often the average investor is unaware of the risks they are taking because of the counterintuitive nature of the financial market dangers. In the late 1990s, technology stocks felt safe (risk was high). In the mid-2000s, real estate felt like a sure bet (risk was high), and in 2010, Treasury bonds and gold are currently being touted as sure bets and safe havens (read Bubblicious Bonds and Shiny Metal Shopping). You guess how the next story ends?
Unquestionably, coasting down the bunny slopes with CDs, money market accounts, and Treasuries is prudent strategy if you are a retiree holding a massive nest egg able to meet all your expenses. However, if you are younger non-retiree and do not want to retire on mac & cheese or work at Wal-Mart as a greeter into your 80s, then I suggest you venture away from the bunny slope and select a more suitable intermediate path to financial success.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in APPB, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Armando Galarraga, pitcher from the Detroit Tigers baseball team, became a victim of a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce, resulting in a lifetime opportunity being ripped from his clutches. Not only did the error in judgment cost Galarraga a perfect game – a feat only achieved by 20 pitchers over the last 130 years – but the blunder also cost him a no-hitter. Perfect games are difficult to come by in the investment world too, but for those ambitious investors reaching for the finance Hall of Fame, I strongly believe a healthy dosage of international and emerging markets is required to achieve perfection (or significant outperformance).
The Fab Five
The oft quoted view that the U.S. was the dominant economic powerhouse in the 20th century (after Britain controlled the 19th century) led me to analyze five emerging growth markets outside of the U.S. There are some clear leaders in pursuit of 21st century economic supremacy, however nothing in the global pecking order is guaranteed. What I do know is that me and my clients will be relying on the financial tailwinds of growth coming from these international markets to provide excess return potential to my portfolios (albeit at the cost of shorter-term volatility). Even retired individuals, or those with shorter time horizons, should consider small bite sizes of these emerging markets in their portfolios, if merely for some of the diversification benefits (see diversification article).
Pundits and media types endlessly write and talk about the “lost decade,” the demise of “buy and hold,” and/or the “death of equities.” Well, as you can see, the lost decade through the first half of 2010 turned out to be a significantly lucrative period for investors with the stomach and courage to invest outside the familiar comfort zone of the United States (see chart below).
Specifically, here is the international outperformance achieved in the sample of international markets as compared to the United States (S&P 500 Index):
- Brazil +266.22% (EWZ tracking Bovespa Index)
- India +266.16% (Bombay Stock Exchange – BSE)
- Australia +68.16% (ASX 200 Index)
- China +68.06% (Shanghai Index)
- Hong Kong +39.74% (Hang Seng Index)
- United States -128.19% Average Underperformance versus five other geographic indexes.
An added kicker for investment consideration is valuation. According to The Financial Times market data section, all these international markets, with the exception of India, trade at a discount to the S&P 500 on a Price/Earnings ratio basis (P/E).
Victim of Our Own Success
In many respects, our country has continued to thrive in spite of some of our political and economic shortcomings. As you can see from the chart below (NY Times article) our country’s market share of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been steadily been declining since World War II (and we’ve still done OK). With U.S. GDP exceeding $14 trillion, our sheer size makes it much more difficult to grow relative to our smaller, more nimble international brethren. Given our top economic position in the world, Warren Buffett succinctly identified the force working against size when he said, “Gravity always wins.” I would expect gravitational influences to continue to weigh us down in the future, but our declining share should not be considered a detrimental trend. Globalization needs to be embraced by policymakers so we can take advantage of these faster growing countries as opportunistic export markets. We Americans can improve our standard of living while riding the coattails of our speedy neighbors. Do yourself a favor and include a healthy chunk of higher growth markets into your portfolio – it’s important you do not blow your own investment game.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including BKF, FXI, EWZ), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX). Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold. With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.
While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.
While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.
Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
There is an old saying that lightning does not strike twice in the same place. I firmly believe this principle will apply to stock returns over the next decade. Josh Brown, investor and writer for The Reformed Broker highlighted a chart published by Bloomberg showing the 10-year return for various asset classes. Statisticians and market commentators have been quick to point out that stocks, as measured by various benchmarks, have not only underperformed bonds for the last 10 years, but stock performance has actually also been negative for the trailing decade.
Will this trend persist during the next decade? Will the lost decade in stocks be repeated again, similar to the deflation death spiral experienced by the Japanese? (Read more regarding Japanese market on IC). With the Fed Funds rate at effectively zero, is it possible bonds can pull off a miracle over the next 10 years? I suppose anything is possible, but I seriously doubt it.
Let’s not forget that the P/E ratio (Price-Earnings) pegged by some to be at about 14-15x’s 2010 expected earnings – nestled comfortably within historical bands. Granted, financials and some other sectors were overheated (e.g. certain Consumer industries), but based on next year’s estimates, some industries are already expected to exceed the peak earnings achieved during 2007 (e.g., Technology).
History on Our Side
For the trailing decade using December 20, 2009 as an end point, I arrive at a marginally negative return for the S&P 500 index assuming an average dividend yield of 2.5% for the period. Certainly the negative return would be pronounced by any fees, commissions or taxes related to a 10-year buy-and-hold strategy of the broad market index. This chart gets chopped off in 2005, nonetheless history is on our side, lending support that stock returns have a good chance of improving on the results over the last 10 years.
Equity Risk Premium
The bubbles and scandals that have blanketed corporate America over the last 10 years have made the average investor extremely skeptical. What does this mean for the pricing of risk? Well, if you rewind to the year 2000 when technology exceeded 50% of some indexes, and many investors thought technology was a low risk endeavor, there was virtually no equity risk premium discounted into many stock prices. If you fast forward to today, the reverse is occurring. Investors despise market volatility and arguably demand a much higher risk premium for taking on the instability of stocks. This is the exact environment investors should desire – lots of skepticism and money piled into bonds (See IC article on investor queasiness). As Warren Buffett says, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” I believe the next 10 years will be a time to be greedy.
The analysis above is obviously very narrow in scope, since we are only discussing domestic stock markets. In my client portfolios I advocate a broadly diversified portfolio across asset classes (including bonds), geographies, and styles. However, in managing bonds across portfolios, I am forced to tactfully include strategies such as inflation protection and shorter duration techniques. With the year-end fast approaching, now is a good time to review your financial goals and asset allocation.
Lightning definitely negatively impacted stocks this decade, but betting for lightning to strike twice this decade could very well turn out to be a losing wager.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in BRKA. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
NOT putting all your eggs in one basket makes intuitive sense to many investors. Burton Malkiel, Princeton Professor, economist, and author, summed it up succinctly, “Diversity reduces adversity.” Diversification acts like shock absorbers on a car – it smoothens out the ride on a bumpy financial road (read more on diversification). Jason Zweig, Wall Street Journal writer, acknowledges the academic findings that underpin these diversification benefits by stating the following:
“As many studies have shown, at least 40% of the variability in returns can be reduced by moving from a single company to 20. Once a portfolio contains 20 or 30 stocks, adding more does little to damp the fluctuations in wealth over time.”
Despite the evidence, Jason Zweig explores the conventional views on diversification more closely.
Turning the Diversification Concept on its Head
Zweig, not satisfied with the standard thinking on the topic, decided to explore the work of Don Chance, a finance professor at the Louisiana State University business school. Professor Chance asked more than 200 students to consecutively select stocks until they each held a portfolio of 30 positions. Here are two of the main findings:
1) Averages Hold Firm: On average, for the group of students, diversifying from a single stock to 20 reduced portfolio risk by roughly 40% – just as would be expected from the academic research.
2) Individual Portfolios Riskier: After the first few initial stock picks, for each individual portfolio, were made from a list of large cap household names (e.g., XOM, SBUX, NKE), Professor Chance found in many instances students dramatically increased portfolio risk. These students juiced up the octane in their portfolios by venturing into much smaller, more volatile stock selections.
Gur Huberman, a Columbia Finance Professor also points out a tendency for investors to clump stock selections together in groups with similar risk profiles, thereby reducing diversification benefits. Diversifying from one banking stock to 20 banking stocks may actually do more damage. Statistically, Zweig points out, “Thirteen percent of the time, a 20-stock portfolio generated by computer will be riskier than a one-stock portfolio.”
Professor Chance found similar results according to Zweig:
“One in nine times, they [students] ended up with 30-stock portfolios that were riskier than the single company they had started with. For 23%, the final 30-stock basket fluctuated more than it had with only five stocks.”
Diversified Views on Diversification
Chance and Huberman are not the only professionals to question the benefits of diversification:
Warren Buffett: A diversification skeptic declares, “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket very carefully.” Alternatively, Buffett says, “Diversification is protection against ignorance.”
Peter Lynch: He referred to diversification as “deworsification,” especially when it came to companies diversifying into non-core businesses.
Charlie Munger: “Wide diversification, which necessarily includes investment in mediocre businesses, only guarantees ordinary results.”
“If you want to pick stocks directly, put 90% to 95% of your money in a total stock-market index fund. Put the rest in three to five stocks, at most, that you can follow closely and hold patiently. Beyond a handful, more companies may well leave you less diversified.”
Portfolio diversification and concentration have been issues studied for decades. As you can see, there are different viewpoints regarding the benefits. As Zweig establishes, through the research of Don Chance, putting more eggs in your basket may actually crack your portfolio, not protect it.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in XOM, SBUX, BRKA/B or NKE. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
When you go shopping for a pair of shoes or clothing what is the first thing you do? Do you put on a blindfold and feel for the right size? Probably not. Most people either get measured for their personal size or try on several different outfits or shoes. When it comes to investments, the average investor makes uninformed decisions and in many instances relies more on what other advisors recommend. Sometimes this advice is not in the best interest of the client. For example, some broker recommendations are designed to line their personal pockets with fees and/or commissions. In some cases the broker may try to unload unpopular product inventory that does not match the objectives and constraints of the client. Because of the structure of the industry, there can be some inherent conflicts of interest. As the famous adage goes, “You don’t ask a barber if you need a haircut.”
A more appropriate way of managing your investment portfolio is to first create a balance sheet (itemizing all your major assets and liabilities) individually or with the assistance of an advisor (see “What to Do” article) – I recommend a fee-only Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)* who has a fiduciary duty towards the client (i.e., legally obligated to work for the best interest of the client). Some of the other major factors to consider are your short-term and long-term income needs (liquidity important as well) and your risk tolerance.
The risk issue is especially thorny because the average investor appetite for risk changes over time. Typically there is also a significant difference between perceived risk and actual risk.
For many investors in the late 1990s, technology stocks seemed like a low risk investment and everyone from cab drivers to retired teachers wanted into the game at the exact worst (riskiest) time. Now, as we have just suffered through the so-called Great Recession, the risk pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction and many investors have piled into what historically has been perceived as low-risk investments (e.g., Treasuries, corporate bonds, CDs, and money market accounts). The problem with these apparently safe bets is that some of these securities have higher duration characteristics (higher price volatility due to interest rate changes) and other fixed income assets have higher long-term inflation risk.
A more objective way of looking at risk is by looking at the historical risk as measured by the standard deviation (volatility) of different asset classes over several time periods. Many investors forget risk measurements like standard deviation, duration, and beta are not static metrics and actually change over time.
Diversification Across Asset Classes Key
Correlation, which measures the price relationship between different asset classes, increased dramatically across asset classes in 2008, as the global recession intensified. However, over longer periods of time important diversification benefits can be achieved with a proper mixture of risky and risk-free assets, as measured by the Efficient Frontier (above). Conceptually, an investor’s main goal should be to find an optimal portfolio on the edge of the frontier that coincides with their risk tolerance.
Tailor Portfolio to Changing Circumstances
In my practice, I continually run across clients or prospects that initially find themselves at the extreme ends of the risk spectrum. For example, I was confronted by an 80 year old retiree needing adequate income for living expenses, but improperly forced by their broker into 100% equities. On the flip side, I ran into a 40 year old who decided to allocate 100% of their retirement assets to fixed income securities because they are unsure of stocks. Both examples are inefficient in achieving their different investment objectives, yet there are even larger masses of the population suffering from similar issues.
Financial markets and client circumstances are constantly changing, so the objectives of the portfolio should be periodically revisited. One size does not fit all, so it’s important to construct the most efficient customized portfolio of assets that meets the objectives and constraints of the investor. Take it from me, I’m constantly re-tailoring my wardrobe (like my investments) to meet the needs of my ever-changing waistline.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: For disclosure purposes, Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) certified in the State of California. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
The mutual fund investing game is extraordinarily competitive. According to The Financial Times, there were 69,032 global mutual funds at the end of 2008. With the extreme competitiveness comes lucrative compensation structures if you can win (outperform) – I should know since I was a fund manager for many years. However, the compensation incentive structures can create style drift and conflicts of interest. You can think of style drift as the risky “Hail Mary” pass in football – you are a hero if the play (style drift) works, but a goat if it fails. When managers typically drift from the investment fund objective and investment strategy, typically they do not get fired if they outperform, but the manager is in hot water if drifting results in underperformance. Occasionally a fund can be a victim of its own success. A successful small-cap fund can have positions that appreciate so much the fund eventually becomes defined as a mid-cap fund – nice problem to have.
Why would a fund drift? Take for example the outperformance of the growth strategy in 2009 versus the value strategy. The Russell 1000 Growth index rose about +28% through October 23rd (excluding dividends) relative to the Russell 1000 Value index which increased +14%. The same goes with the emerging markets with some markets like Brazil and Russia having climbed over +100% this year. Because of the wide divergence in performance, value managers and domestic equity managers could be incented to drift into these outperforming areas. In some instances, managers can possibly earn multiples of their salary as bonuses, if they outperform their peers and benchmarks.
The non-compliance aspect to stated strategies is most damaging for institutional clients (you can think of pensions, endowments, 401ks, etc.). Investment industry consultants specifically hire fund managers to stay within the boundaries of a style box. This way, not only can consultants judge the performance of multitudes of managers on an apples-to-apples basis, but this structure also allows the client or plan participant to make confident asset allocation decisions without fears of combining overlapping strategies.
For most individual investors however, a properly diversified asset allocation across various styles, geographies, sizes, and asset classes is not a top priority (even though it should be). Rather, absolute performance is the number one focus and Morningstar ratings drive a lot of the decision making process.
What is Growth and Value?
Unfortunately the style drift game is very subjective. Growth and value can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, whereby value investing can simply be viewed as purchasing growth for a discount. Or as Warren Buffet says, “Growth and value investing are joined at the hip.” The distinction becomes even tougher because stocks will often cycle in and out of style labels (value and growth). During periods of outperformance a stock may get categorized as growth, whereas in periods of underperformance the stock may change its stripes to value. Unfortunately, there are multiple third party data source providers that define these factors differently. The subjective nature of these style categorizations also can provide cover to managers, depending on how specific the investment strategy is laid out in the prospectus.
What Investors Can Do?
1) Read Prospectus: Read the fund objective and investment strategy in the prospectus obtained via mailed hardcopy or digital version on the website.
2) Review Fund Holdings: Compare the objective and strategy with the fund holdings. Not only look at the style profile, but also evaluate size, geography, asset classes and industry concentrations. Morningstar.com can be a great tool for you to conduct your fund research.
3) Determine Benchmark: Find the appropriate benchmark for the fund and compare fund performance to the index. If the fund is consistently underperforming (outperforming) on days the benchmark is outperforming (underperforming), then this dynamic could be indicating a performance yellow flag.
4) Rebalance: By periodically reviewing your fund exposures and potential style drift, rebalancing can bring your asset allocation back into equilibrium.
5) Seek Advice: If you are still confused, call the fund company or contact a financial advisor to clarify whether style drift is occurring in your fund(s) (read article on finding advisor).
Style drift can potentially create big problems in your portfolio. Misaligned incentives and conflicts of interest may lead to unwanted and hidden risk factors in your portfolio. Do yourself a favor and make sure the quarterback of your funds is not throwing “Hail Mary” passes – you deserve a higher probability of success in your investments.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP is a contributing writer for Morningstar.com. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
You may be familiar with the 2004 Academy Award nominated documentary titled Super Size Me, in which the creator Morgan Spurlock decides to film his 30 day journey of eating McDonalds (MCD) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, making sure he samples every item on the menu. In addition, any time a McDonald’s employee asked Mr. Spurlock whether he wanted to “Super Size” his beverage or French fry order, he complied by ordering the larger size. What was the result from this gluttonous, month-long, fast food binge?
Mr. Spurlock ended up gaining about 25 pounds in weight, his cholesterol sky-rocketed, his liver function deteriorated dramatically, he experienced heart palpitations, and became depressed, among other symptoms. At one point a doctor told him if he continued overindulging at the same pace, he could die.
Well, over the years, investors, governments, and corporations have been doing their own form of “Super-Sizing,” but not by eating Big Macs, Apple Turnovers, and Fish Fillets, but rather consuming too much debt, real estate, and other risky assets, like stocks and hedge funds. Now, like Morgan Spurlock, investors are “de-toxing” by saving more and creating a better balanced portfolio diet. Investors have learned their lessons from our “Great Recession” and are dieting on lower risk assets and consuming a broader set of asset classes. An investor’s diet should cover a broad spectrum of options, including diversified choices across asset class, size, style, and geography. Alternative asset classes, like real estate, commodities, and loans should be evaluated as well.
After the massive crash post-Lehman Brothers, many investors and academics have cast doubts about the relative benefits of diversification, arguing there was no investment class or segment to hide – everything fell equally. There is some truth to the argument, with some exceptions like treasuries, cash, and certain commodities. Globalization and the tighter inter-connectedness between countries can shoulder part of the blame of the synchronized freefall in late 2008 and early 2009. Nonetheless, unless you were short the market, even if you were relatively diversified, pain was spread out generously across many investors.
What countless investors fail to recognize is the constant variability in historical relationship data (e.g., correlations, standard deviation, and covariance) – all the better reason to be broadly diversified. Nobel Prize winners Robert Merton and Myron Scholes know first-hand what can happen when you rely too heavily on historical correlations. Their over-reliance on their quantitative models led to the economic collapse of Long Term Capital Management, which nearly brought the entire economic globe to its knees. Importantly, the magnitude of diversification benefit varies throughout an economic cycle. Since the market rebound in March of this year, we have clearly seen the advantages of diversification.
From a geographical perspective, emerging markets like Russia, which is up over +117% (excluding dividends), are trouncing the domestic averages. Diversification benefits across particular industries and sectors are also evident in areas like technology. For example, the NASDAQ and IIX (Internet Index) are up about +34% and +52% in 2009, respectively. In relation to style characteristics, “Growth” is trouncing “Value” as measured by the Russell 1000 Growth and Value benchmarks. “Growth” is up +25% this year, more than double the appropriate Russell “Value” benchmark. It comes as no surprise that the conservative investments that outperformed in the market collapse, like fixed income and utilities, have generally lagged the other segments.
Like Morgan Spurlock, investors need to resist the “Super Size” temptations in their concentrated portfolios and learn from the binging mistakes experienced by others. A more balanced investment diet across asset class, size, style, and geography will lead to a healthier portfolio and steadier return profile. Now if you will excuse me, I would like to get a bite to eat – perhaps a wholesome McGarden Burger.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management has a short position in MCD at the time this article was originally posted. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.