February 13, 2019
Asset allocation. It’s so ingrained in how we manage our clients’ investment portfolios, we talk about it all the time. But what is it? What are assets, and what happens when you allocate them?
Asset Allocation: A Classy Subject
Big picture, an asset is anything beneficial you have or have coming to you. For our purposes, it’s anything of value in your investment portfolio. After bundling your investable assets into asset classes, we allocate, or assign, each asset class a particular role in your portfolio.
To offer an analogy, allocating your portfolio into different asset classes is similar to storing your clothes according to their roles (pants, shirts, shoes, etc.), instead of just leaving them in a big pile in your closet. You may also further sort your wardrobe by style, so you can create ideal ensembles for your various purposes. Likewise, asset allocation helps us tailor your portfolio to best suit you – efficiently tilting your investments toward or away from various levels of market risks and expected returns. Your precise allocations are guided by your particular financial goals.
That’s it, really. If you stop reading here, you’ve already got the basics of asset allocation. Of course, given how much academic brainpower you’ll find behind these basics, there is a lot more we could cover. For now, let’s take a closer look at those asset classes.
Asset Classes, Defined
At the broadest level, asset classes typically include domestic, developed international, and emerging market versions of the following:
- Equity/stocks (an ownership stake in a business)
- Bonds/fixed income (a loan to a business or government)
- Hard Assets (a stake in a tangible object such as commodities or real estate)
- Cash or cash equivalents
Just as you can further sort your wardrobe by style, each broad asset class (except for cash) can be further subdivided based on a set of factors, or expected sources of return. For example:
- Stocks can be classified by company size (small-, mid-, or large-cap), business metrics (value or growth), and a handful of other factors more recently identified.
- Bonds can be classified by type (government, municipal or corporate), credit quality (high or low ratings), and term (short-, intermediate-, or long-term due dates).
We can then mix and match these various factors into a rich, but manageable collection of asset classes – such as international small-cap stocks, intermediate government bonds, and so on.
Generally speaking, the riskier the asset class, the higher return you can expect to earn by investing in it over the long haul.
Asset Allocation, Implemented
To convert plans into action, we turn to select fund managers with low-costs fund families that track our targeted asset classes as accurately as possible. Sometimes a fund tracks a popular index that tracks the asset class; other times, asset classes are tracked more directly. Either way, the approach lets us turn a collection of risk/reward “building blocks” into a tightly constructed portfolio, with asset allocations optimized to reflect your investment plans.
The Origin of Asset Allocation
Who decides which asset classes to use, based on which market factors? To be honest, there is no universal consensus on THE correct answer to this complex and ever-evolving equation. As evidence-based practitioners, we turn to ongoing academic inquiry, professional collaboration, and our own analyses. Our goal is to identify allocations that seem to best explain how to achieve different outcomes with different portfolios. As such, we look for robust results that have:
- Been replicated across global markets
- Been repeated across multiple, peer-reviewed academic studies
- Lasted through various market conditions
- Actually worked, not just in theory, but as investable solutions, where real-life trading costs and other frictions apply
Asset Allocation in Action
As we learn more, sometimes we can improve on past assumptions, even as the underlying tenets of asset allocation remain our dependable guide. Bottom line, by employing sensible, evidence-based asset allocation to reflect your unique financial goals (including your timelines and risk tolerances), you should be much better positioned to achieve those goals over time.
Asset allocation also offers a disciplined approach for staying on course toward your own goals through ever-volatile markets. This is more important than most people realize. As Dimensional Fund Advisor’s David Booth has observed, “Where people get killed is getting in and out of investments. They get halfway into something, lose confidence, and then try something else. It’s important to have a philosophy.”
So, now that you’re more familiar with asset allocation, we hope you’ll agree: Properly tailored, it’s a fitting strategy for any investor seeking to earn long-term market returns. Please let us know if we can tell you more.
June 12, 2017
If you enjoy fine literature, we recommend all of Warren Buffett’s annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters, dating back to 1965. While financial reports are rarely the stuff from which dreams are made, Buffett’s way with words never ceases to impress. His most recent 2016 letter was no exception, including this powerful insight about market downturns:
“During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy.”
This actually is a good time to talk about scary markets, since we haven’t experienced a severe one in a while.
For example, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), aka, “the uncertainty index,” is a generally accepted gauge of how confident (or not) investors are that the market is going to be volatile (or not) during the next little while. The lower the number, the smoother the presumed ride … although, as usual, there are no guarantees the markets will actually do as they’re told.
As of June 2, the VIX was hovering in the range of 10–16, year to date. To put this in context, the VIX peaked at about 60 during the bear market of 2007–2009. You’d have to go back just over a decade to witness similar periods of relative calm.
What should we make of these numbers? Scanning financial news, you’ll find the usual range of attempted interpretations: “We are worried about …” “Economic indicators suggest that …” “Geopolitical events are likely to …” and so on.
What else is new? While it’s highly unlikely the VIX will remain this calm forever, nobody can predict when it might turn, or why or how dramatically it may spike back up when it does. As always, we counsel against shifting your portfolio in reaction to near-term forecasts. This includes prognostications of perceived volatility, or lack thereof.
Instead, let’s use the relative calm as a perfect time to do a reality check on what scary markets really represent, and how to manage them when they occur.
How well-prepared are you today, in anticipation of tomorrow’s market downturns?
This brings us back to Buffett’s words of wisdom. Contrary to common perception, scary markets can actually be your friend. Some of your best returns are delivered in their immediate aftermath and, as Buffett suggests, there may be some “bargain” buying opportunities. BUT, you have to be there to benefit, which is why personal fear becomes your enemy if you panic and flee during the downturns.
So, how can we prepare? Instead of fussing over when the next market downturn may or may not occur, here are some great questions to consider:
Market Returns – Are you taking on enough stock market risk in your portfolio to capture a measure of expected returns when they occur (often unpredictably and without warning)?
Market Risks – Are you fortifying your exposure to market risks and expected returns with enough lower-risk holdings, so you won’t fall prey to your fears the next time markets tumble?
Personal Goals – Have you assessed whether your current portfolio mix is optimized to achieve your personal goals? Speaking of goals, have yours changed, warranting portfolio adjustments?
Personal Risk Tolerance – Have you been through past bear markets? If you discovered you’re not the risk-taker you thought you were (or, conversely, you sailed through with relative ease), does your current portfolio mix of safer/riskier holdings accurately reflect what you learned?
Actual Analytics – Have you carefully considered what a 30% or so market downturn would mean to you in real dollars and cents? Yes, it could happen. If it did, and you feel you’d be unlikely to hold firm with your current holdings, additional preparation may be warranted.
In short, you can prepare for the next down market by having a well-planned portfolio in place today – one you can stick with through thick and thin. Neither too “hot” nor too “cold,” your portfolio should be just right for you. It should reflect your financial goals. It should be structured to capture an appropriate measure of expected returns during good times, and allow you to effectively manage your personal fears throughout.
When is the last time you’ve thought about your portfolio from this perspective? If it’s been a while – or never – let’s talk. Because there’s never a better time than today to ensure you are well-prepared for tomorrow. Let us know if we can help.
June 8, 2015
2014 may go down in financial history as the year that a lot of things didn’t happen to investors. For example, despite numerous nervous headlines that it might be best to prepare for the worst, there was no universal stock correction. And despite Federal announcements on tapering quantitative easing in the U.S., there was no major slump in the bond markets.
Another non-event for globally diversified investors was that we were not rewarded with higher annual returns relative to a concentrated, stay-at-home position. Large U.S. companies happened to enjoy a remarkable, double-digit year, even as other markets experienced negative to ho-hum results, especially for international, emerging market and small-cap stocks.
In light of all that did not happen, there is one more thing I hope continues to not happen. I hope you do NOT react to the current market by succumbing to two common behavioral biases: Recency, or giving recent events more weight than they deserve; and Tracking-Error Regret, or abandoning your personalized diversified portfolio to chase last year’s Old Glory returns.
In his article, “There’s a Perfect Storm Brewing,” financial author Larry Swedroe describes the risks associated with chasing past performance. While the U.S. S&P 500 Index has outperformed the MSCI EAFE (international stock) Index since 2010 by an annualized return of around 9 percent, the MSCI EAFE happened to deliver about the same outperformance in reverse from 2002–2007. Clearly, the tables can turn abruptly and destructively for an undiversified investor. As Swedroe says, “Diversification is like insurance. It’s insurance against having all your eggs in the wrong basket.”
There remains decades of resounding evidence that one year or even several years does not a strategy make. That’s why, come what may, we remain as convinced as ever that individualized diversification is the right policy every year. Maintaining a globally diversified portfolio according to your personal goals and risk tolerances does not guarantee that you will outperform other lucky scores you might have made instead. But it continues to offer the most rational approach to reaching your desired destination while managing the rocky risks along the way.
As always, we welcome the opportunity to explore your particular goals and investments in light of this and any other market climate.
Learn more about HHWM and who we serve in Omaha, NE – Financial Planning and Investment Management