In my last post on the subject, I introduced the idea of monitoring and maintaining a portfolio’s asset allocation.
Determining when and how to effectively rebalance your portfolio requires careful monitoring of not only portfolio performance, but awareness of your tax status, cash flow, financial goals, and tolerance for risk. The act of portfolio rebalancing results in transaction fees and has the potential to incur capital gains in taxable accounts. Thus, while there may be good reasons to rebalance, the benefits must outweigh the costs.
Given these challenges, a practical approach to rebalancing takes into consideration the occurrence of “triggering” points, yet provides enough flexibility that costs are effectively managed and minimized.
When to Rebalance
Defining triggering points helps us decide when to rebalance. Most experts recommend rebalancing when asset group weightings move outside a specified range of their target allocations. This may be widely defined according to either a stock-bond mix or to a percentage drift away from target weightings for categories like small cap stocks, international stocks, and the like.
How to Rebalance
While rebalancing costs are unavoidable, several strategies can help minimize the impact:
- Rebalance with new cash. Rather than selling over-weighted assets that have appreciated, use new cash to buy more under-weighted assets; this reduces transaction costs and the tax consequences of selling assets.
- Whenever possible, rebalance in the tax-deferred or tax-exempt accounts where capital gains are not realized.
- Incorporate tax management within taxable accounts, such as strategic loss harvesting, dividend management, and gain/loss matching.
- Implement an integrated portfolio strategy. In other words, rather than maintaining rigid barriers between component asset classes and accounts, manage the portfolio as a whole.
While there are good reasons to adjust portfolio risk by rebalancing, it does incur real costs that can detract from returns. A good strategy includes determining which investment components can acceptably drift, and adopting tax-saving and cost-saving strategies during rebalancing. In helping our clients rebalance, we strive to develop a structured plan that remains flexible to each individual’s unique blend of goals, risk tolerances, cash flow, and tax status.
No one knows where the capital markets will go—and that’s the point. In an uncertain world, investors should have a well-defined, globally diversified strategy and manage their portfolio to implement it over time. Rebalancing is a crucial tool in this effort.
Moreover, if and when your overall financial goals or risk tolerance change, you have a foundation for making adjustments. In the absence of a plan, adjustments are a matter of guesswork.
When meeting with new clients, I always discuss risk and return before helping them design a portfolio that will meet their needs. We live in an uncertain world, so there are no guarantees, and generally, risk and reward go hand in hand. I help my clients arrive at a portfolio that is well diversified and, most importantly, has an acceptable (for them) risk profile. It allows my clients to “stay the course,” even when market declines occur, as they inevitably will.
While global diversification gives investors a valuable tool for managing risk and volatility in a portfolio, it requires maintenance. Over time, asset classes have different returns. This is inevitable and, in fact, desirable. A portfolio that holds assets that perform dissimilarly will experience less overall volatility, and that results in a smoother ride over time.
However, dissimilar performance can also change the integrity of your asset mix or allocation – a condition known as “asset drift.” As some assets appreciate in value and others lose relative value, your portfolio’s allocation changes, which affects its risk and return qualities. If you let the allocation drift far enough away from your original target, you end up with a very different portfolio.
If you do nothing, “asset drift” will cause your portfolio to deviate from your long range plan and risk tolerance. As I said, even a well diversified portfolio requires maintenance.
Rebalancing is the remedy. To rebalance, you sell some assets that have risen in value and buy more of assets that have dropped in value. The purpose of rebalancing is to move a portfolio back to its original target allocation. This restores strategic structure in the portfolio and puts you back on track to pursue long-term goals.
At first glance, rebalancing seems counter-intuitive. Why sell a portion of outperforming asset groups and acquire a larger share of underperforming ones? A common reaction is to want to buy what has gone up, because you think it will continue to outperform. This logic is flawed, however, because past performance may not continue in the future. In reality, there’s no reliable way to predict future returns. The old stock broker mantra (slightly modified, simply because you can’t predict the future) holds true, “Buy lower, sell higher.”
Equally important, remember that you chose your original asset allocation to reflect your risk and return preferences. Rebalancing realigns your portfolio to these priorities by using structure, not recent performance, to drive investment decisions. Periodic rebalancing also encourages dispassionate decision making – an essential quality during times of market volatility.
In the real world, portfolio allocations can be complex, incorporating not only fixed income and stocks, but also the multiple asset groups within equity investing. And, of course, tax considerations are very important.
In summary, to ensure that a portfolio’s risk and return characteristics remain consistent over time, a portfolio must be rebalanced. Rebalancing is a tool to control risk and also an antidote to becoming too optimistic or too pessimistic. You are, in effect, buying low and selling high, whether you want to or not.
Determining when and how to effectively rebalance is the subject of Part 2.