How to Control Excess Volatility in Your Portfolio

Nov 10 06:35 2006 Mark Kramer Print This Article

Successful investing is all about balancing the potential for gain with the risk of loss.  However the ideal combination for a particular investor can be tricky.  Read about what factors to consider to make better decisions when selecting your investment portfolio.

Affluent investors (which are likely readers of this article) probably already understand that diversification can reduce risk.  But what if you own 20 different stocks and then a bear market takes them all down?  To help cushion your portfolio against that kind of risk you can diversify into different “asset classes” that may hold up in value when the stock market goes down.

This kind of portfolio diversification is called “asset allocation” because it involves allocating different percentages of your portfolio into different types of asset classes. 

  • Bonds,Guest Posting cash and real estate are all different types of asset classes that may be expected to offer some protection during a serious bear market.

This is the traditional approach to designing a portfolio mix that will help to control excess volatility; and it involves setting unchanging, fixed allocations in the different asset types (such as 60% in stocks, 30% in bonds and 10% in cash). 

  • Then there is a newer, more active style of portfolio management that involves adjusting the allocations for the different asset types as market conditions change.  The active style is generally referred to as “dynamic asset allocation” or “tactical asset allocation”. 

Traditional Asset Allocation -- Balancing Risk and Reward

How do you design a portfolio mix in the traditional way that will maximize returns yet not expose you to more risk than you can handle?  That’s the $64,000 question. 

Stocks are the “growth engine.”  So you want as much stock market exposure as you can handle in the form of mutual funds, index funds and diversified groupings of individual stocks.  But you have to balance stocks’ higher growth potential against the risk of a “destructive storm” because the stock market has historically taken dives of as much as 40%, 50% and even 90% during bear markets.

  • Since traditional asset allocation techniques are based upon a “buy and hold” approach, the trick is to decide what percentage of your portfolio should be in stocks so you get some of that growth engine working for you, but not so much that you can’t weather a destructive storm if it were to hit.

The right portfolio mix for you will be a reflection of very individual circumstances.  The right mix should be consistent with your “risk tolerance”.  If you could not weather a short-term portfolio loss of more than 25%, then you may not want stocks to represent any more than about 50% of your portfolio (if you assume that the next destructive storm wouldn’t be worse than a 40% to 50% drop in the market).  In that event, a 50% loss in your stock market holdings would translate into a 25% hit to your overall portfolio (assuming the other half is invested in cash or money market funds).

You Can Take More Risk When You are Young

The conventional wisdom is that the younger you are, the more stock market risk you can take.  The simple thinking behind this is that a younger person has many more years in which to recover from a “destructive storm” and reap the ultimate benefit of holding stocks in the long term.  Clearly, a worker close to retirement could not easily recover from such a destruction of value because there isn’t enough time.  By the same token, retired people may have the lowest tolerance for stock market risk since they may be living on a fixed income and can’t afford any loss of value.

  • However, young people just entering the work force may have good reasons to avoid taking much risk in the early years.  Just like someone approaching retirement, young workers likely have several important, near-term objectives for using their savings:  (1) buying a home, (2) paying back school loans and (3) starting a family.  Too much portfolio risk could be counter-productive.

At the other end of the age scale, retired people may need to introduce more stock market exposure into their portfolios to have some growth potential that can offset rising expenses during their increasingly longer lifetimes.  The rising costs of medical care, combined with the general rate of inflation can do serious damage to a fixed income over 15, 20 or 30 years … and that’s how long many retirees can expect to live.

What to Watch Out For

Deciding upon the right portfolio mix for your particular situation is a delicate question and should involve careful consideration of a broad range of factors.  There are a number of important caveats you should understand before entering into a traditional asset allocation exercise with a broker or financial planner.

Bonds Go Down Too:  Don’t be mislead that bonds never go down.  There is only one instance in which the value of a bond doesn’t change … that is when you hold it to maturity and, like a Certificate of Deposit, it will return the original, face value of the bond.  At any other time prior to maturity, the market value of a bond goes up or down in response to the changing level of interest rates.  If you own a bond mutual fund, the market value of the fund changes daily with the movement of interest rates.  A mutual fund holding long term bonds has the potential to lose as much as 10% to 20% in value during a period of steeply rising interest rates.

Online Asset Allocation Tools are … well … “Canned”:   Many brokers and mutual fund companies include an online tool on their websites that you can use to generate recommended asset allocation percentages for your portfolio.  These tools can be helpful as you consider the different factors in your situation and what impact each should have on your allocation decision.  But many of these online tools are too simplified and may not be able to take into account certain critical factors in your own unique situation.  Suffice it to say that these canned tools don’t really substitute for an in-person interview with a good financial planner or advisor.

Maximum Downside Risk Should be Considered:   When you seek guidance on the right asset allocation mix for you, be aware that you can get wildly different answers from different advisors, and from different canned online tools.   There are various reasons for this; but one main reason you can get very different answers from the experts is the kind of measure they use to define risk.  Many advisors use statistical measures of “historical market volatility” that do not effectively take into account the maximum loss potential of a major “destructive storm”.   These advisors are more likely to recommend you put a much higher percentage of your portfolio into stocks.  Before accepting such a recommendation, know that the stock market has lost between 40% and 50% of its value three times in the past 35 years, most recently earlier in this decade.  And of course, the Great Depression was much, much worse.

Needed:   Years of Patience

If you had invested in the stock market in 1964, you would have bought in just before one of those destructive storms rolled in.  This storm was a monster and you would have waited 17 years before breaking even on your investment … actually about 27 years if you take the effects of inflation into account.

The drawback of the traditional asset allocation technique is its reliance on a “buy and hold” philosophy.  The method is based upon the belief that you can’t successfully time the markets … that you just have to sit tight and collect your average historical return of about 7% per year on stocks over the long run.   In fact, it can be the very long term.  Studies show that in many previous years, going back 100 years, investors have had to wait 20 to 40 years to actually achieve that average long-term market return.

Stepping Aside to Avoid the Destructive Storms

This painfully obvious problem with the traditional approach has fueled development of a more active investment style that seeks to avoid most of the ravages of destructive storms, when they arrive.  The active approach can reduce the risk involved with holding stocks; and can allow the average investor to tolerate a higher percentage in their portfolio.  So if the “traditional” allocation approach says you can only tolerate 40% in stocks, the “active” approach might allow you to tolerate up to 75% when the market is bullish. 

But it takes timing of the markets to be successful.  While the timing success of market “gurus” has long been suspect, the reputation of market timing has grown steadily among sophisticated investors given the increasing reliability of computerized models that analyze a host of quantitative factors about the market. 

The point of these computer models is to identify longer-term market trends and invest in them until the trend falls apart.  A strategy for actively changing the asset allocation of a portfolio can be driven by this kind of market timing analysis.  For example, such a dynamic strategy would have had you heavily invested in stocks during most of the 1990’s while the bull market was raging.  Then it would have moved your portfolio out of stocks and into something else in 2000 after the market peaked and a new stock market downtrend  became evident … thereby avoiding most of the damage suffered by the average buy and hold investor.

Active portfolio management is now accessible to the average small investor because there are a growing number of individual investment advisors, market timing services and investment newsletters that employ these techniques with success.  Some of these services can even be used to help you manage a 401k portfolio.  Now you can weather the destructive storms by moving your portfolio out of their way and sitting happily on a dry dock or enjoying better weather in some other climate.

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About Article Author

Mark Kramer
Mark Kramer founder Mark Kramer has over 24 years of experience in the Financial Services industry. He was most recently a licensed Registered Representative with a predecessor firm of JP Morgan Chase.  Mark intends to share his investment knowledge and model portfolios for index funds and exchange traded funds to help investors make smarter investment choices in the stock market and mutual funds.


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