You May Not Be As Diversified As You Think

onionsDiversification is the key element when managing a portfolio. If you want to smooth the ups and downs of individual assets, combine them in a basket. The less correlated those assets are, the steadier the basket’s performance.

Implementing this simple concept effectively, however, is not easy. One major reason is that asset correlations change over time, both in magnitude and direction. For example, when interest rates fall, bond prices go up but stocks can go up or down, depending on whether investors think that lower rates as a stimulus for the economy, or that they are a sign that the economy is slowing down. Because the relationship between stocks and bonds changes over time, the “optimal” proportion of both in a portfolio changes as well.

It is very difficult to forecast changes in correlations. That’s why a common approach is to assume that they will remain constant – which is where the advice that a portfolio must contain a 60% stocks/40% bonds comes from. The assumption is that such pre-set allocation will be good enough to smooth volatility and produce positive results, even if at times it is not the “best” mix for achieving the sometimes opposite goals of maximizing returns and minimizing volatility.

Is it possible to obtain better results by actively managing a mix of assets instead of fixing it at some arbitrary level?

This question is sometimes dismissed out of hand because it sounds like asking whether it is a good idea to “time the market”, an activity that is generally thought to reduce portfolio returns. Indeed, many studies show that portfolio results tend to decline when trading activity increases. The reason behind this is not clear. Some studies blame transaction costs associated with more frequent buying and selling, while others blame behavioral biases – chasing winners; holding on to losers far too long; fear and greed, etc. that are absent when a portfolio is left alone. Regardless, it is not difficult to show how simple active strategies can outperform a passive approach.

For example, it is possible to improve returns over a simple 70% stock/30% bond strategy with the following rebalancing rule: if stocks outperform bonds in any six-month period, change the mix to 90% stocks/10% bonds for the following six months. Otherwise, change it to 50%/50%. In other words, give an extra 20% to the asset class that did better in the prior six months. This “momentum” rule clearly outperforms the “passive” allocation for any base mix of stocks and bonds –70%/30%, 20%/80%, or any other.

image 1Notably, the rule only improves results starting in the early 1990s, making little difference over the “base” allocation before then. This is because there was a substantial change in the correlation between interest rates and stock returns that started around that time. This phenomenon became clear in hindsight, and many of the papers that describe it were published many years after the fact. An investor dedicated to building portfolios on the basis of responding dynamically to shorter-term correlation changes could have achieved higher returns much sooner.

It seems plausible that looking at diversification in more dynamic terms can yield better results, and in fact dynamic techniques have spread widely in the last few years. This approach has been at the center of our practice since we started managing clients’ portfolios, and we focus on developing, improving, and implementing these techniques for individual investors.

While simple strategies like the one described can be effective over the very long term, their benefits over much shorter periods may be less apparent. This is important, because the usual life of an individual’s investment portfolio is often measured in years, not decades. One consequence of this is that for retirement portfolios controlling volatility becomes more important than maximizing returns. This is because pursuing higher returns exposes a portfolio to more risk, which can get in the way of protecting a savings portfolio so it can fund future living expenses. While a static allocation designed to reduce risk must reduce its expected returns, a dynamic allocation tries to find a way to capture more of the upside while keeping risk low..

The main goal of managing diversification dynamically is to provide a better trade-off between higher returns (more risk) and lower volatility (less risk) than a static portfolio mix. This is best achieved over the long term, since fixed allocations can, and do, outperform dynamic management over shorter periods. The process used to improve this trade-off is often a differentiating factor among portfolio managers who pursue the same goal.

What now?

We believe that our portfolio management process, focused on measuring risk, can be very effective at managing the trade-off between risk and returns. We implement this process for our clients, tailored for their specific circumstances, and we can also help you evaluate your current goals and establish an investment plan aiming at steady, long-term returns while managing downside risk. Please send us a request for a copy of a whitepaper describing our investment process, or contact us if you would like to know more about how Path Financial’s investment process can work for you. We’ll be happy to set up a confidential meeting to discuss your path to financial success.

facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Are You Financially Literate?

classroomIn 2009, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, started a periodic survey of the financial capabilities of US adults, measuring the skills, judgment and resources needed to manage their financial well-being. Questions range from credit-card behavior (are you paying just the minimum due?) to home equity (do you owe more on your mortgage than your home is worth?).

The study was repeated in 2012 and 2015. Results are encouraging: resources and judgment show a steady improvement over six years. But when it comes to skills, results are disappointing. More and more adults fail to demonstrate a basic level of financial knowledge.

First, the good news. As labor conditions improve, fewer individuals spend more than they make: 20% in 2009, 19% in 2012, and 18% in 2015. The Affordable Care Act had a strong impact on reducing the number of people with overdue medical bills: 26% in 2012 versus 21% in 2015 (the question was not asked in 2009). Similarly, more people have rainy day funds (35% in 2009, 40% in 2012, and 46% in 2015) and fewer pay just the minimum on credit card balances (40% in 2009, 34% in 2012, 32% in 2015). And as home prices recovered, just 9% report having a home underwater in 2015 (i.e. with a mortgage balance higher than the value of the home) versus 14% in 2012.

The data paints a much improved picture. In fact, when asked directly if people are satisfied with their personal finances, the percentage saying “yes“ has gone up to 31% in 2015 from 24% in 2012 and 16% in 2009.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true of financial literacy. Study participants were asked five questions about basic aspects of economics and daily-life finances regarding inflation, interest rates, mortgage debt, and investment risk. In 2009 the percentage of respondents with 3 or less correct answers was 58%. This went up to 61% in 2012 and again to 63% in 2015.

This is a worrisome development because, as FINRA notes, “individuals need at least a fundamental level of financial knowledge” to make sound financial decisions.

Even more worrisome for us at Path Financial is that in 2015 Florida scored second-worst in the nation, at an average of 2.89 correct answers out of five (Texas was worst, at 2.81). You can take the five-question quiz here.

An even more worrisome fact is that, despite their poor performance in this quiz, Americans tend to see themselves as highly versed in financial matters. In 2015, 76% gave themselves a “high” assessment of their own financial knowledge. And while the proportion of “high” self-scoring went up in each of the study years, the public’s ability to answer basic questions correctly went down every time.

Furthermore, when asked to evaluate their math skills, less than two-thirds among the 79% of respondents who gave themselves a “high score” could estimate compound interest correctly in the context of debt.

The disconnect between people’s perceived and actual financial skills is alarming, because it is contributes to making bad decisions regarding savings, investments, and debt.

Understanding risk and avoiding fraud, specifically, are two key areas that are difficult to handle without basic financial knowledge. Even securing conflict-free advice can be challenging without some level of financial literacy: for example, many “seminars” aimed to the public, usually involving a free meal, are aimed more at selling products preying on financial illiteracy than on actually enlightening the public.

This does not mean that everyone who is not a financial expert is doomed to investment failure. But a basic set of skills is necessary to identify those “too good to be true” situations that we all encounter at some point.

A good place to start is an adult-education course offered by a community college, although you may not be able or willing to commit to classroom training. If you want to hire a financial advisor to help you instead, you can screen his or her record beforehand at the Investment Advisor Public Disclosure website. Watch for “disclosures,” which alert the public to client disputes or regulatory violations involving the advisor or firm you want to check out.

Another excellent resource is FINRA’s “protect your money” site. One of the links will take you to a “scam meter” that asks a few questions about investments you might be considering. See, for example, if you identify with these statements:

– I learned about an investment at a free investment seminar

– I cannot clearly articulate what the investment is

– I am not sure what license the person selling the investment has

– The investment is guaranteed

These four answers earn four red flags in the “scam meter”. This is a useful tool that will not analyze a specific investment but can alert you to potential dangers when considering one.

The bottom line is that it would be great for individuals to have better investment skills, but the numbers show little improvement on that front. Also, free tools that can help people avoid serious investment mistakes remain under-utilized. In the meantime, well-crafted investor protection regulations will have to fill the gaps.

facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather