If there is one thing the 2008 financial meltdown taught us, it is the value of a properly diversified portfolio. The second thing is that if you think you are diversified, you may need to check again. At the time, many thought they were, only to see losses across the board as assets that previously were uncorrelated moved together and sunk many a portfolio.
Today, figuring out what constitutes a diversified portfolio and, more importantly, how to actually assemble one can be a difficult and at times frustrating ordeal; every analyst and investment advisor has a different idea. To help you navigate these treacherous waters, we offer the following 10 rules of portfolio diversification.
1. Start with the end in mind. A diversified portfolio is not a one-size-fits-all product. Instead, it should be personalized, focusing on your personal long-term investment goals while considering your current personal circumstances. According to Michael Loewengart, senior investment strategist at E*TRADE Capital Management, your personal circumstances should take into account your current financial situation, expected future expenses and how far away from retirement you are. "The goal of asset allocation is to make sure the level of volatility in your portfolio is in line with your goals, personal circumstances and tolerance for risk," he says. Additionally, consider your temperament. If high-risk assets make you overly stressed, perhaps it would be better to stick with comparably low-risk alternatives.
2. Aim to reduce overall risk. Portfolio diversification has two goals, this being the first and what most people associate with diversification. If you have multiple assets in your portfolio, even if one is not doing well, you have others that are outperforming. As such, this reduces the overall volatility of the portfolio. "[Diversification] reduces your risk. Instead of being stuck in just one sector that may not do well at times, a diversified portfolio can sustain you and keep you in business," Michael Clarke, CEO of Clarke Capital Management, says.
3. Aim to enhance overall returns. Being able to capitalize in markets that are outperforming and adding to your bottom-line is the second goal of a diverse portfolio. Not only does owning a range of assets protect you in the event that one does poorly, but it positions you to take advantage of ones that perform exemplarily. "We try to have a finger in each of the different sectors because in our experience usually something is working and that one may save the bill," says Clarke.
4. Invest in multiple asset classes. Traditionally, a portfolio was considered diverse if it had a mixture of equities and bonds. As investors are becoming more sophisticated, other assets such as commodities, real estate and foreign currencies are receiving more attention. In order to reduce risk and enhance returns, investments in numerous asset classes help keep correlations among assets in check. Each class has its own drivers and its own speed bumps. Taken together, they help smooth out the ride.
5. Invest in multiple sectors within the asset classes. Just as investing in multiple asset classes reduces risk and enhances returns, so too does investing in multiple sectors within those asset classes. Just including equities, bonds and commodities is not enough as equities have sectors reaching from healthcare to industrial metals, bonds have a variety of maturations and commodities include energies, metals and foods. "You want to be allocated amongst the various market sectors and industries. Across asset classes, you want to have further diversification into the different segments," Loewengart says.
6. Own assets that do well in bull, bear and sideways markets. This point really stresses the need for owning a diverse array of assets. You do not want to place all your eggs in a basket that does well when the stock market is moving up, because that also means your portfolio will do very poorly when that bull market turns into a bear. Instead, it usually is advisable to own assets with a negative correlation in which one asset moves higher while the other moves lower. Examples of this relationship include the U.S. dollar and crude oil as well as stocks and bonds. It is often true that in times of crisis all correlations go to 1.0, but some strategies are more resistant to this. It is wise to look broadly at how various assets perform in different environments.
Commodity Trading Advisor Salem Abraham pointed out following 2008 that nearly all asset classes were long the economy. Managed futures, which are diversified in their own right through being long or short disparate sectors like agriculture, metals, energies, interest rates and currencies, also perform well in periods of high dislocation. Other diversified asset classes had the same negative response to the economic crisis but managed futures did well by taking advantage of fat tail events rather than being punished by them.
7. Have a disciplined plan for portfolio rebalancing. If you have constructed your portfolio properly, it is to be expected that some assets will outperform others and over time begin constituting a larger percentage of your portfolio. That is the time to rebalance and bring your investments back in check with one another. "If you have a disciplined plan for rebalancing in place, then you can capitalize on the different movements that will take place from the different assets in your portfolio," Loewengart says.
He explains that that discipline will enable you to automatically sell out of your outperforming assets and buy into those underperforming. Consequently, you will naturally be selling high and buying low.
8. No "borrowing" among classes except during rebalancing. Trading can become emotional and that can cloud your judgment. It may seem like a good idea to abandon an investment decision that is not immediately paying off or to bolster ones that are doing well. Proceed with caution, because that is a move that catches many investors. The reason for having a rebalancing plan is to remove that emotional element. "When you look at your portfolio, rebalancing with a stated framework is going to give you the discipline that many investors inherently lack," Loewengart says. That discipline helps you do the things that you may not want to do, but are in your best interest.
9. Backtest your portfolio, but consider current market conditions. Backtesting can help you see correlations that exist in your portfolio and can allow you to see how it would stack up in various market conditions. There is a reason, though, that investment advisors are required to say, "Past performance is not indicative of future results." Also, remember there will be periods in the past in which your portfolio would not have fared well.
Past events can provide a framework, but also consider current market conditions to better position your portfolio for future events. We can learn a lot from the past, but current events are shaping
10. Test asset correlations periodically. If there is one thing we can count on in the markets, it’s that they will never stay exactly the same. What was negatively correlated one year can move lock-step the next (see "Conflicting correlations"). Consequently, it is not enough to simply rebalance from time to time; you also need to test the asset correlations in your portfolio periodically to see if anything has changed. As markets change, you need to make informed decisions as to how you need to alter your portfolio to counter those changes. You can’t expect your portfolio allocation decisions to be a one-and-done event; as markets change, so to must your portfolio.
These rules leave a lot to personal judgment and that is the key to success. One additional item to point out is that any allocation to a less liquid asset should calculate that liquidity risk in addition to other risks to achieve the proper allocation.
Your portfolio should fit your needs. Unfortunately in the past not all potential asset classes were available to retail investors. Today, thanks to innovative exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual fund structures, nearly every investor can access commodities, currencies, short and leveraged strategies as well as active strategies including managed futures. Now everyone truly can be diversified.