What, if anything, have we learned from the recent steep stock market decline? One lesson, I hope, is that planning and designing a portfolio that is appropriate for you and that you can live with is very important. Read on to learn about an approach that may help you decide on the right portfolio design for you.
The Stock-Bond Decision
When meeting with clients, I emphasize that choosing a basic stock-bond mix is a very important first step in effective and productive portfolio design. Unfortunately, I sometimes encounter people who have allocated their portfolio at either extreme – 100% in stocks or 100% in money market accounts/bonds. Very few advisors would ever recommend either approach.
Although the stock-bond decision may appear simple, it can have a profound impact on your wealth. Studies have proven that nearly 90% of a portfolio’s long-term results are directly linked to asset allocation, and the right stock-versus-bond mix should be your first deliberate and strategic decision.
Because neither I nor anyone I know can predict the future, I believe in having a diversified portfolio that includes both stocks and bonds. I “dial down” total risk by adding fixed income to the stock market mix. Quite simply, the greater the bond allocation relative to stocks, the less risky the portfolio, but the lower the total expected return. On the other hand, the greater the stock allocation relative to bonds, the higher the portfolio’s expected return, and the higher the associated risk.
So, how do you confidently allocate between stocks and bonds? One method is to use model portfolios to illustrate the risk-return spectrum over time. For simplicity and clarity, the highest risk portfolio holds 100% in a stock index, while the least volatile portfolio holds 100% in high quality bonds. Between these extremes lie other stock-bond allocations, such as 80/20, 60/40, 50/50, 40/60, and 20/80. Comparing past results side by side is illuminating and quite helpful in the decision making process.
Certainly, relying on historical performance is not foolproof, because past results are not a guarantee of future performance. But if you compare the average annualized return and volatility (standard deviation) of each model portfolio since 1970 (for example), you have an idea of what relative risk you can expect and whether or not you can accept the potential loss.
Lately, I have found that showing how portfolios did in 2008 is very helpful in illustrating the risk-reward tradeoffs. Analyzing just that specific year shows that diversification neither assures a profit nor guarantees against loss in a declining market, at least in the short term.
For example, a portfolio with a stock allocation of 80% declined 30% in 2008, while a portfolio of 60% stocks “only” declined by 21%. Many people can live with a 21% decline, knowing that markets do rebound and the long term outlook is positive. On the other hand, suffering a 30% loss (or more) could have tipped some investors into panicking and getting out of the stock market entirely, much to their chagrin today.
Refining the Stock Allocation
After establishing the basic stock-bond mix, I turn my attention to refining the stock allocation. Depending on an investor’s individual profile, I may overweight or “tilt” the allocation toward riskier asset classes that have a history of offering average returns above the market.
Research published by Eugene Fama and Kenneth French reveals that small cap stocks have had higher average returns than large cap stocks, and “value stocks” have had higher average returns than growth stocks. By holding a larger portion of small cap and value stocks in a portfolio, an investor increases the potential to earn higher returns for the additional risk taken.
The final step in refining the stock component is to diversify globally. By holding an array of equity asset classes across domestic and international markets, you can reduce the impact of underperformance in a single market or region of the world. And lest you worry about the global recession, last year developed and emerging markets grew at a rate higher than domestic markets, by 27.7% and 74.1%, respectively.
Over short periods of time, returns on stocks are quite variable; in other words, in any year we don’t know whether stocks will produce good results or not. But, over a longer period of time – and this has been historically proven – stocks provide higher average returns than low-yielding bonds. That’s why I generally recommend that investors with a long investment life ahead of them focus on achieving the higher long-term returns through investment in stocks. As your time horizon or risk tolerance changes, you can reallocate your portfolio’s risk more in favor of bonds.
The stock-bond decision drives a large part of a portfolio’s long-term performance. During discussions with clients, I have found that examining different stock-bond combinations can help them visualize the risk-return tradeoff as they consider the range of potential outcomes over time. Once a mix is determined, it can guide more detailed choices of asset classes to hold in the portfolio. And, as one’s appetite for risk shifts over time, the allocation decision can and should be revisited.