Posts tagged ‘diversification’

Blowing the Perfect Investment Game

Photo source: Boston.com

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

Graph source: The New York Times

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.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*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.

June 4, 2010 at 1:15 am 3 comments

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

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.

Seesaw Success

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.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

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.

May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Lessons Learned from Financial Crisis Management 101

For many investors the financial crisis over the last 24 months was an expensive education. Rather than have to enroll and take the courses all over again, I am hopeful we can put that past education to good use. Here are some valuable lessons I learned from my two year degree in Financial Crisis Management 101.

Investors Don’t Get Paid For Emotions: In investing, emotional decisions generally lead to suboptimal decisions. Over the financial crisis, despite the market rebound last year, many investors fell prey to fear. This queasiness (see Queasy Investors article) resulted in money being stuffed under the mattress – earning subpar yields – and asset allocations dramatically shifting towards bonds. Not surprisingly, the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index fell -1% in 2009 as the herd piled in. On the flip side, those willing to brave the equity markets were rewarded with a +23% gain in the S&P500 index. Certainly this bond-equity picture looked different in 2008, but unfortunately many mainstream portfolios lacked adequate bond exposure then. As famed Fidelity Magellan fund manager Peter Lynch points out, fretting about your portfolio can work against you:  “Your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”

Martin Luther King Jr. put anxious emotions into perspective by expressing, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.” Prudent conservatism makes sense, but panicked alarm can lead you astray. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky punctuated this idea by showing the impact that “loss” has on peoples’ psyches. Through their research, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated the pain of loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from gain. Euphoria, whether for homes or for other forms of credit-induced spending, is not a desirable emotion when investing either – just ask any house-flipping Florida or California resident looking for work. The moral of the story: plan for a rainy day and don’t succumb to the elation of the herd. Create a disciplined systematic approach that relies less on your gut. Emotional decisions, as we’ve seen over the last few years, generally do not fare well.

Quality Doesn’t Die in a Crisis: Good companies with solid growth prospects don’t disappear in a bear market. On the contrary, they typically are in much better position to invest, step on the throats of their competitors, and steal market share. Many of the quality companies left for dead last year have risen from the ashes. Leveraged financials and debt laden companies were hit the hardest, and bounced nicely last year, but the market leaders are the companies that endure through bull and bear markets.

Buy and Hold is Not Dead:  Catching fish can be difficult if one constantly dips their line in and out of the water. Academic research falls pretty bluntly on the shoulders of “day traders,” and I’m still searching for a Warren Buffett equivalent to show up on Oprah or Charlie Rose espousing the virtues of speculation – oh wait, maybe Jim Cramer qualifies?

Long-term investors are a rare but dying breed – just look at the average fund manager’s holding period, which has dropped from about five years in the 1960s to less than one year today. The 1980s and 1990s weren’t too bad for buy and holders (about a +1,400% increase), but the strategy has subsequently gone in hibernation for a decade. Warren Buffett may be pushing a bit too far when he says, “Our favorite holding period is forever,” but directionally this posture may actually work well over the next ten years. Patience can pay off – even if you arrive late to the game. For example, if you bought Wal-Mart shares (WMT) after it rose 10-fold during its first 10 years, you still could have achieved a 60x return over the next 30 years. I, myself, believe there is a happy medium between high frequency trading (see HFT article) and “forever” investing. Regardless of your time horizon, I agree with late Sir John Templeton who said, The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Cyclical is Not Secular: Party crashers may be optimistic about the prospects of a gathering, but if they arrive too late to the event, there may be no more food or wine left. The same principle applies to investment themes, as well-known value manager Bill Miller states, “Latecomers are usually persuaded that the cyclical has become the secular.” Over the last few years, the secular arguments of “real estate prices will never go down nationally,” and the belief that emerging markets like China would “decouple” from the U.S. market in 2008, simple were proved wrong. Time will tell if the gold-bugs will be right regarding their call for continued secular increases, or if the spike is a crescendo on a return to more normalized levels. On the whole, I much rather prefer to arrive at a big party prematurely, rather than showing up late sifting through the crumbs and scraping the bottom of the punch bowl.

Turn Off the TV: Fanning the flames of our daily emotions are media outlets. Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the 24/7 news cycle, we are bombarded with some type of daily fear factor to worry about. Typically, an eloquent strategist or economist pontificates on the direction of the market. In many instances these talking heads don’t even manage client money or are not held accountable for their predictions (see Peter Schiff article). I like Barron’s Michael Santoli’s description of these story-telling market mavens, “A strategist’s first job is to have a plausible, defensible case to shop around client conference rooms globally. Being right is gravy.”  Although intellectually stimulating, I advise you to limit your consumption and delivery of strategist commentary to cocktail parties and don’t let their advice sway your portfolio decisions. You’ll be much better served by listening to veteran investors who have successfully navigated choppy market cycles. Famed growth investor William O’Neil shrewdly chimes in on the subject too, “Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

Bad Loans are Made in Good Times: Markus Brunnermeier, a Princeton economist known for studying financial bubbles, declared this observation regarding loans. Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s no wonder that boat loads of no-doc, no down-payment, teaser rate subprime loans and overleveraged risky private equity loans were being made when unemployment was at 5% — not today’s 10% rate. Now with the loan spigots shut, the tables have been turned. Relatively few loans are now being made, but with a massively steep yield curve, surviving financial institutions are in a golden age for bringing on new wildly lucrative assets onto their balance sheets. Sure, the industry is still saddled with toxic legacy assets, but the negative impact should begin fading in coming quarters if the economy can continue building a firmer foundation.

Diversification Matters: Contrary to current thinking, which believes diversification didn’t help investors through the crisis, owning certain asset classes like treasuries, certain commodities, and cash did help in 2008. Certainly, the correlations between many asset classes converged in the heat of the panic, but I’m convinced the benefits of diversification provide beneficial shock absorbers for most investment portfolios. Princeton professor and economist Burton Gordon Malkiel sums it up succinctly, “Diversity reduces adversity.”

The Herd is Often Led to the Slaughterhouse: The technology and housing bubble implosions serve as gentle reminders of the slaughterhouse fate for those who follow the herd. Avoiding consensus thinking is virtually a requirement of long-term outperformance.  As Sir John Templeton stated, “It’s impossible to produce superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.” John Paulson can also attest to this fact. If aggressively shorting the housing market and loading up on CDS insurance was the consensus, his firm would not have made $20 billion over 2007 and 2008.

These are obviously not all the lessons to be learned from the financial crisis, and by following a philosophy of continual learning, future mistakes should provide additional insights to help guard against losses and capitalize on potential opportunities. Having freshly graduated from Financial Crisis Management 101, I hope to immediately implement this education to land on the financial market’s Dean’s List.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including fixed income ETFs and FXI). Also at time of publishing SCM and some of its clients had a direct long position in WMT, but no position in BEN or BRKA/B. 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.

January 11, 2010 at 12:40 am 2 comments

More Eggs in Basket May Crack Portfolio

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.

Deceiving Diversification

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.”

Zweig’s Solution:  

“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.

Read Complete WSJ Jason Zweig Article

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.

December 2, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

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

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

Bernanke Portfolio Takes Painful Hit

Groin Kick

As a former tenured economics professor at Princeton University, I would believe Ben Bernanke would understand and appreciate the power of diversification, but apparently not. The bulk of his $1.2 million to $2.5 million (only a broad range was disclosed) was invested in a large-cap stock fund and a fixed-rate annuity from TIAA-CREF. Some would say his portfolio could use a higher dosage of small-cap, mid-cap, international and alternative asset classes, including real estate. With arguably the highest ranking finance job in the universe, wouldn’t you expect him to have a smoking hot portfolio? The data paints a different picture.

According to publicly disclosed data, Bernanke’s assets were down -29% (about -$600,000) in 2008, better than the S&P 500, but not comparable since his portfolio also included fixed income securities like Canadian treasury bonds and an annuity fund. For whatever reason, the global money czar couldn’t or wouldn’t use his knowledge to outmaneuver the markets. Why didn’t he use the Yen carry trade to buy crude oil up to $140 per barrel, then short emerging markets during 2008 before going long technology stocks beginning on March 9, 2009?

Certainly, Bernanke does not want to create a conflict of interest, whether real or implied. I’m sure Bernanke is not day trading options and shorting levered Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) on E-Trade, because the headaches it would create for him would undoubtedly outweigh any short-term financial benefits earned from his investment ideas. Even if Bernanke felt he could exploit profit opportunities, the real bucks will come from speaking events and consulting prospects after he leaves his position of Federal Reserve Chairman. If Bernanke does a better job with his portfolio, perhaps he can retire at a younger age…

Read Article on Bernanke Portfolio

Wade W. Slome CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

August 18, 2009 at 4:00 am 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

Navigating the Fixed Income Waters

Fixed Income Rapids Can Be Treacherous

Fixed Income Rapids Can Be Treacherous

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given the downward plunge in equity markets that started at the beginning of 2008, investors have flocked to fixed income options in droves. But buyers should beware. Swimming in the fixed income markets is not like frolicking around in the kiddy pool, but rather more like swimming in treacherous, crocodile-infested waters. Not all bonds are created equally, so arming yourself with knowledge regarding bond investing risks can save lots of money (and limbs).

Bond prices move in the inverse direction of interest rates – so now that interest rates have fallen to five-decade lows, is now the best time to buy bonds? Certainly there are segments of the bond market that offer tremendous value, but when the Federal Funds Rate (the key benchmark inter-bank lending rate that the Federal Reserve sets) stands at effectively 0%, that means there is only one regrettable direction for rates to go.

Before diving head first into the bond market, investors should educate themselves about the following risks:

Interest Rate Risk: With record low interest rates, coupled with massive amounts of government stimulus injected both here and abroad, the risk of rising interest rates is becoming a larger reality. Large government deficits and expanding government debt issuance can lead to inflation pressures that are correlated to upward movements in interest rates.

Default Risk: Bonds typically pay bondholders interest payments (coupons) until maturity (expiration), however in challenging financial times, various issuing entities may be incapable of paying its investors, and therefore may default. As the recession matures, more and more companies are defaulting on their debt obligations.

Reinvestment Risk:
Owning healthy yielding bonds in a declining interest rate environment is the equivalent of sailing with a tailwind – however all good things must eventually come to an end. At maturity, investors must also face the risk of potentially reallocating proceeds into lower yielding (lower coupon) alternatives. For those investors relying on higher fixed income payments to cover living expenses, reinvestment risk can pose a real threat to their financial future.

Callable Risk:
Just like ice cream comes in different flavors, so do bonds. Certain bonds come equipped with an add-on “callable” feature that allows the issuer to retake possession of the bond for a predetermined price. In periods of declining interest rates, as we have experienced since the early 1980s, this advantageous option has been included repeatedly by many bond issuing entities. Prepayment risk for mortgage securities can also lead to suboptimal investment returns.

Liquidity Risks: This whole banking crisis that our global financial system is currently digesting has highlighted the importance of liquidity, and the painful clogging effects of illiquid fixed income securities. Forced sales of illiquid securities (due to lack of buyers) can lead to unanticipated and drastically low proceeds for sellers.

Overall, bonds offer tremendous diversification benefits to an investment portfolio and with the exploding baby boom generation entering retirement these fixed income vehicles are attractive. Just remember, before you dip that toe into the bond market waters, beware of the lurking risks hiding below the surface.

April 18, 2009 at 3:13 am 2 comments

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