Posts filed under ‘Asset Allocation’

One Size Does Not Fit All

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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.”

Tabulate Inventory

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.

Risk Appetites

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.

Risk-Return Table

Source (6/30/09): Morningstar Encorr Analyzer (Ibbotson Associates) via State Street SPDR Presentation

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

Efficient Frontier

Source: State Street Global Advisors (June 30, 2009)

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

BellyIn 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.

November 10, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Style Drift: Hail Mary Investing

Hail Mary

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.

Drifting Issues

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.

November 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Super Sizing May Be Hazardous to Your Portfolio’s Health

Super Size

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.

Meal Diversification 

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.

www.Sidoxia.com

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.

October 8, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Avoid Chasing Your 401k Tail

Chasing Tail

David Laibson, a professor of economics at Harvard University, has done extensive research on the savings habits of Americans in their 401k retirement accounts. What he discovers is that workers, like a dog chasing their tail, allocate more of their investments to the areas that have done well and sell the underperforming segments. In short, workers attempt to “time the market.”

Professor Laibson demonstrates this pyramiding strategy has not worked out so well and provides the following advice:

“We know that individual investors are terrible in terms of their market timing. They tend to buy at the tops, they tend to sell at the bottoms. So don’t try to time the market. Don’t think about recouping – just think about a long term strategy.”

 

That long term strategy he advocates entails a diversified allocation of stocks and bonds that reduces exposure to equities as a person gets older. In short, he says, “Hold a diversified portfolio appropriate for your age.”

He advises those aged in their 20s and 30s to allocate nearly 100% of their portfolio to equities, or investments with commensurate risk. Alternatively, if investors don’t want to adjust the allocation themselves, people should consider life-cycle funds or Self Directed 401k options (Read story here). For those in retirement, he recommends a portfolio with the following characteristics:

“30, 40, 50% should be equities, more as you’re younger…simply hold a long term portfolio with less and less allocation to equities as you age.”

 

Jason Zweig, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, recently chimed in with similar thoughts on performance chasing:

“…to buy more of what has gone up, precisely because it has gone up, is to fall for the belief that stocks become safer as their prices rise. That is the same fallacy that led investors straight into disaster in 1929, 1972, 1999, 2007 and every other market bubble in history.”

 

There are many different strategies for making money in the market, but a plan based solely on emotion is doomed for failure – Professor Laibson’s data supports that assertion. So the next time you are considering re-allocating the mix of investments in your 401k, implement a disciplined, systematic approach. That approach should include the following:

1)      Invest Your Age in Fixed Income Securities. John Bogle, Chairman at Vanguard Group, has long made this argument, with the balance placed in equities. For example a sixty year old should have 60% of their assets in bonds and 40% in stocks. This rule of thumb is a good starting point, but the picture becomes cloudier once you account for other assets such as real estate, convertible bonds, and income generated from private businesses.

2)      Periodically Rebalance. Rather than investing more into outperforming areas, harvest your gains and redeploy into underperforming segments of your asset allocation. There obviously is an art to knowing “when to hold them and when to fold them,” nonetheless I concur with Professor Laibson that chasing winners is not the proper strategy.

3)      Diversify. Spread your assets across multiple asset classes, segments, and styles, including equities, fixed income, commodities, real estate, inflation protection, growth, value, etc. Too much concentration in any one category can really come back to haunt you.

The key to successful retirement planning is to implement an unemotional systematic approach, so you don’t end up chasing your 401k tail.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

*DISCLOSURE: At the time of publishing, Sidoxia Capital Management and some of its clients owned certain exchange traded funds, but had no direct positions in any other security referenced.

September 28, 2009 at 3:45 am Leave a comment

Building Your Financial Future – Mistakes Made in Investment Planning

Building Your Dream Future Requires a Plan

Building Your Dream Future Requires a Plan

Building your retirement and financial future can be likened with the challenge of designing and building your dream home.  The tools and strategies selected will determine the ultimate cost and outcome of the project.

I constantly get asked by investors, “Wade, is this the bottom – is now the right time to get in the markets?” First of all, if I precisely knew the answer, I would buy my own island and drink coconut-umbrella drinks all day. And secondarily, despite the desire for a simple, get-rich quick answer, the true solution often is more complex (surprise!). If building your financial future is like designing your dream home, then serious questions need to be explored before your wealth building journey begins:

1)     Do I have enough money, and if not, how much money do I need to develop my financial future?

2)     Can I build it myself, or do I need the help of professionals?

3)     Do I have contingency plans in place, should my circumstances change?

4)     What tools and supplies do I need to effectively bring my plans to life?

Most investors I run into have no investment plan in place, do not know the costs (fees) of the tools and strategies they are using, and if they are using an advisor (broker) they typically are in the dark with respect to the strategy implemented.

For the “Do-It-Yourselfers”, the largest problem I am witnessing right now is excessive conservatism. Certainly, for those who have already built their financial future, it does not make sense to take on unnecessary risk. However, for most, this is a losing strategy in a world laden with inflation and ever-growing entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. There’s clearly a difference between stuffing money under the mattress (short-term Treasuries, CDs, Money Market, etc.) and prudent conservatism. This is a credo I preach to my clients.

In many cases this conservative stance merely compounds a previous misstep. Many investors undertook excessive risk prior to the current financial crisis – for example piling 100% of investment portfolios into five emerging market commodity stocks.

What these examples prove is that the average investor is too emotional (buys too much near peaks, and capitulates near bottoms), while paying too much in fees. If you don’t believe me, then my conclusions are perfectly encapsulated in John Bogle’s (Vanguard) 1984-2002 study. The analysis shows the average investor dramatically underperforming both the professionally managed mutual fund (approximately by 7% annually) and the passive (“Do Nothing”) strategy by a whopping 10% per year.

Building your financial future, like building your dream home, requires objective and intensive planning. With the proper tools, strategies and advice, you can succeed in building your dream future, which may even include a coconut-umbrella drink.

June 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

Your Investment Car Needs Shocks

Smooth Out the Bumpy Ride

Smooth Out the Bumpy Ride

Investing can make for a bumpy ride. What can investors do to smooth out the rough financial journey? The simple answer: diversification. If you consider your investment portfolio as a car, then the process of diversification acts like shock absorbers. Those shocks make for a more comfortable ride while preventing potential disasters – like accidentally driving your investments off a cliff.

People generally understand the concept behind, “not putting all your eggs in one basket.” However, once introduced to financial theory terms such as correlation, covariance, and the efficient frontier, people’s eyes begin to glaze over…and rightfully so!

So what are some of the key points one should understand regarding diversification:

  • Lunch CAN Be Free! There are very few free lunches in life, but with “diversification” you can indeed get something for nothing. For example, let’s assume you are approached with two investments, ski hats and sun visors, and each investment is expected to deliver a 5% annual return.  Furthermore, let’s suppose that zero ski hats are sold in Spring and Summer (and zero sun visors in Fall and Winter). If you merely own one investment, that investment will be more risky (volatile) than a combo portfolio for half the year. Although any combination of two investments will create a 5% return, by diversifying (owning both investments), you can smooth out the ride. There’s your free lunch – the same return achieved for less risk (volatility)!
  • Gravity Holds True For Investments Too!  Nothing goes up forever, so do not concentrate your portfolio in sectors that have wildly outperformed other sectors/asset classes for long periods of time. Lessons learned over the last 10 years in the areas of technology and real estate highlight the dangers of over-exposure to any one sector in the economy.
  • Vary Your Investment Diet! In the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock decides to eat McDonald’s fast-food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for thirty days. As a result, his cholesterol levels sky-rocket, he gains over 24 pounds, and his liver function deteriorates significantly. When it comes to your investment portfolio, you should balance it across a wide range of healthy options, including domestic and international stocks and bonds; large and small capitalization stocks; growth and value styles; cash and low-risk liquid investments; and alternative asset classes, such as real estate, commodities, and private investments.

The benefits of diversification will fluctuate under different economic climates. During our recent financial crisis, especially in late 2008, the correlation ratio (the degree that different asset classes move together) unfortunately was very high. However, those investors who were exposed to areas such as Treasury securities, gold, cash, and bonds generally fared better than those who did not. Subsequently, in the early part of 2009, the benefits of diversification shined through as outperformance in emerging markets, technology, consumer discretionary and growth stocks balanced the weakness suffered in banking, transportation, healthcare, bond and value segments.

Diversification helps on the rough roads of investing, so make sure to check those shocks!

May 9, 2009 at 3:14 am 3 comments

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