Archive | Asset classes

Ask the Spud: Is There an Optimal Portfolio?

Q: I’m new to passive investing and am deciding how to allocate between the asset classes. The best split between Canadian equity, international equity, etc. should be determinable based on studies of their past returns, volatility and correlations. Obviously this would vary over time, but approximate weightings should be achievable. Based on this research, how would you weight the individual asset classes? – R.T.

It would look impressive if I designed my model portfolios based on an analysis of historical volatility, correlation matrices and expected returns based on Shiller CAPE or some other data. But instead I generally recommend a roughly equal allocation to Canadian, US and international stocks. Nice and simple, with no advanced math required. This is isn’t because building a “portfolio optimizer” is difficult: it’s because it’s a useless exercise.

Investors have a tendency to resist simple solutions, and this bias is exploited by fund managers and advisors who use algorithms and models designed to determine the “optimal” asset mix that will maximize returns and minimize volatility, sometimes down to two decimal places. That sounds more sophisticated than simply splitting your equity holdings in three, but there’s no evidence it produces better results.

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A Periodic Review of Diversification

After the financial crisis of 2008–09, financial commentators loved to take shots at “old school” investment strategies. First came the declarations that diversification no longer works, because during a crisis everything goes down together—though this wasn’t true in 2008 unless you ignored bonds, which make up a significant part of most portfolios. Then the investment industry sounded the death knell for the traditional balanced portfolio. Apparently we were in a new era where active investing, tactical asset allocation and alternative asset classes would rule the day.

One of the most effective ways to expose this nonsense is to build a “periodic table” of investment returns. (Norm Rothery has maintained one on his Stingy Investor site for several years.) The resemblance to the poster that hung in your high-school chemistry class is only superficial: this table simply presents the returns of various asset classes ordered from highest to lowest over a period of several years. By adding a colour for each asset class, the results jump off the screen.

I thought it would be interesting to build a periodic table with the returns of the seven individual asset classes in the Complete Couch Potato,

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Calculate Your Personal Rate of Return

On January 9, I published the 2013 returns of my model portfolios. The equity markets performed spectacularly last year, but most investors are likely to be far more interested in the performance of their own portfolios. Problem is, calculating your personal rate of return is more difficult than most investors realize.

If you’ve made no contributions or withdrawals during the year, the math is simple enough. But what if you made a big lump sum contribution during RRSP season? Or took $7,000 out of your TFSA to buy a used car? If you make monthly automatic monthly contributions, you may have seen your account balance grow every month, but most of that increase is from new money, not investment returns. Any time you introduce cash flows to the portfolio, calculating your rate of return suddenly becomes much harder.

If you work with an advisor, he or she should provide you with your personal rate of return at least once a year. But hard as it is to believe, many aren’t doing this. The Canadian Securities Administrators issued a policy in July making it mandatory, but firms have three years to comply.

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The Failed Promise of Market Timing

I’ve long believed the most difficult part of being a Couch Potato investor is resisting temptation. Index investors are asked to be content with market returns, but they are bombarded daily by fund companies, advisors and market gurus who promise more.

Back in May 2012, I wrote about one of these enticing strategies, described in The Ivy Portfolio by Mebane Faber and Eric Richardson. The so-called Global Tactical Asset Allocation (GTAA) strategy grew out of Faber’s widely read research paper, A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation, first published in 2007. It begins with a diversified portfolio inspired by the Yale and Harvard endowment funds, combining traditional and alternative asset classes. The “tactical” part involves using market timing to move in and out of these asset classes based on 10-month moving averages.

Faber updated the paper in early 2013 and it now includes four full decades of data. From 1973 through 2012, the GTAA strategy shows exactly one negative year: a modest loss of –0.59% in 2008. And over those 40 years, the GTAA delivered an annualized return of 10.48% with a standard deviation of 6.99%,

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Making Smarter Asset Location Decisions

Last week’s posts about tax loss selling prompted some interesting questions about asset location in the comments section. Holding your ETFs and index funds in the most tax-efficient accounts can have a big impact on your long-term returns. But although it’s often easy to set up a portfolio with proper asset location, it can be a challenge to maintain the right balance when you add new money.

Say you’re using the Global Couch Potato portfolio spread across three accounts. Your TFSA and RRSP are maxed out at $25,000 and $125,000, respectively, and you have another $75,000 in a non-registered account. Your optimal asset location might look like this:

So far, so good. But now you’ve won second prize in a beauty contest and received a $25,000 windfall. Since you can’t add it to your tax-sheltered savings, you put the money in your non-registered account. Then you enter the new values into your rebalancing spreadsheet and discover your portfolio is now off its target:

The naive way to rebalance your portfolio would be to make all the transactions in your non-registered account.

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How Not to Prepare for a Bear Market in Bonds

The risk of rising interest rates has become an obsession in the financial media. Those risks are undeniably real: it’s quite possible that broad-based bond funds will see multiple years with negative returns. (As I illustrated in a previous post, that would likely occur if rates across the yield curve rose 1% annually for three years. This article by Dan Hallett also includes some possible scenarios.) But these risks need to be kept in perspective: if you hold a bond fund with a duration shorter than your time horizon, your capital is not at risk. And if you’re a decade or two from tapping your portfolio, rising rates should even be welcomed.

And yet the bond bears just keep on roaring. The latest example is an advisor featured in a Globe and Mail article this weekend. “For the first time in my entire career,” he says, “bonds are in my opinion riskier than stocks.” He’s recommending his clients abandon the asset class altogether. Whenever articles like this are widely read, I get contacted by worried readers who are ready to follow suit. So here’s my preemptive response to what I believe is dreadful,

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Deep Thoughts on Diversification

Just shy of two years ago—in October 2011—I wrote a post that laid out the year-to-date returns for the Complete Couch Potato portfolio. If you can remember that far back, the third quarter of 2011 was truly ugly. The European debt crisis was all over the news, the US government’s credit rating was downgraded, and the global economic outlook was bleak. If you held a diversified portfolio, your equities were in the toilet, but you were saved by a solid performance from REITs and outstanding returns from bonds, especially real-return bonds. Overall, the portfolio experienced a small loss over the first nine months of the year:

January–September 2011
Ticker
 %
Return

iShares S&P/TSX Composite
XIC
20%
-12.02%

Vanguard Total Stock Market
VTI
15%
-5.26%

Vanguard Total Int’l Stock Market
VXUS
15%
-13.82%

BMO Equal Weight REITs
ZRE
10%
5.77%

 iShares DEX Real-Return Bond
XRB
10%
9.53%

 iShares DEX Universe Bond
XBB
30%
7.20%

Total

-1.6%

Now let’s look at how the Couch Potato has performed so far in 2013. Here are the returns as of August 30:

January–August 2013
Ticker
 %
YTD return

iShares S&P/TSX Composite
XIC
20%
3.2%

Vanguard Total Stock Market
VTI
15%
20.8%

Vanguard Total Int’l Stock Market
VXUS
15%
5.6%

BMO Equal Weight REITs
ZRE
10%
-10.5%

 iShares DEX Real-Return Bond
XRB
10%
-10.5%

 iShares DEX Universe Bond
XBB
30%
-2.1%

Total

1.9%

How’s that for an about-face?

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Seeing Diversification in Action

Why should you add multiple asset classes to your portfolio? That seems like a simple question, but it’s one many investors would answer with only a vague comment about “more diversification.” It’s more precise to say you do so to increase expected returns or to decrease volatility. Sometimes these are mutually exclusive, but Harry Markowitz won a Nobel Prize for explaining that you can sometimes accomplish both at the same time. That insight is the basis for Modern Portfolio Theory.

One of the clearest illustrations of this idea can be found in Larry Swedroe’s book Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett, which I reviewed late last year. Swedroe shows how the return and risk characteristics of a 60/40 portfolio change as you slice and dice the equity allocations.

A portfolio made up of just the S&P 500 and five-year Treasuries returned 10.6% annually from 1975 through 2011, with a standard deviation of 10.8%. By gradually splitting that equity allocation into multiple asset classes (international stocks, value stocks, small caps, and commodities) the portfolio’s annual return increased 150 basis points to 12.1%,

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Why Diversification is a Piece of Cake

After almost four years of false alarms, the bond bears are finally able to act smug. Broad-based Canadian bond index funds have fallen in price about 4% or so in since the beginning of May. Meanwhile, real-return bonds have taken it on the chin: they’ve plummeted about 13% and are headed for their worst calendar year since first being issued by the federal government in 1992.

In times like these investors question the whole idea of including these asset classes in a balanced portfolio. So it’s time for a reminder about how diversification is supposed to work.

It’s helpful to think about a portfolio like a cake recipe. You probably wouldn’t eat flour, baking powder or raw eggs on their own, but when you mix them with sugar, butter, vanilla and other ingredients the results are delicious. A baker doesn’t view ingredients in isolation: she considers how each interacts with the others to produce the final result.

In the same way, it’s important not to view individual asset classes in isolation. Real-return bonds are a perfect example. It would be hard to make a compelling argument for holding nothing but RRBs: their yields are low,

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