Tag Archives: Emerging Markets

Is My Portfolio at the Right Risk Level?

This is the fifth installment in our series on how individual investors can assess their financial health.

RiskAt every stage of investing, you should periodically ask yourself how much risk you can realistically tolerate. The primary way to measure the risk level of your portfolio is to look at its allocation of stocks vs. bonds.  Although some stock and bond ETFs  are riskier than others, your first decision has to be how much of your investments to put in stocks and how much in bonds.

One standard rule of thumb that’s a good place to start is the “age in bonds” axiom. According to this guideline, you invest a percentage of assets equal to your age in a broad bond index, and the balance of your portfolio in a diversified stock portfolio.  The idea here is that your portfolio should become more conservative as you get older. This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. You tend to get wealthier as you age, so any given percentage loss from your portfolio represents an increasingly larger dollar value.
  2. You are gradually converting your human capital (your ability to work and earn money) into financial capital (investments) as you age. And as you get older, your financial assets represent a larger and larger fraction of your lifetime wealth potential.

For these reasons, it makes sense  to manage this pool of assets more conservatively as time goes by.

Beyond “Age in Bonds” – Choosing Your Allocation of Stocks and Bonds

The past decade provides a powerful example of the tradeoffs between risk and return.  The table below shows the year-by-year returns for portfolios comprising different mixes of an S&P 500 ETF (IVV) and a broad bond ETF (AGG).  The returns include the expense ratios of the ETFs, but no adjustment is made for brokerage fees.

2004-2013 Allocation Performance

Source: Author’s calculations and Morningstar

Over the 10-year period from 2004 through 2013, a portfolio that is entirely allocated to the S&P 500 ETF has an average annual return of 9.2%.  In its worst year over this period, 2008, this portfolio lost almost 37% of its value.  As the percentage of the portfolio allocated to stocks declines, the average return goes down. But the worst 12-month loss also becomes markedly less severe.

We cannot say, with any certainty, that these statistics for the past ten years are representative of what we can expect in the future, but they do provide a reasonable basis for thinking about how much risk might be appropriate.

Ask yourself: If these figures are what you could expect, what allocation of stocks vs. bonds would you choose?  Would you be willing to lose 37% in a really bad year to make an average of 9.2% per year?  Or would you prefer to sacrifice 1.5% per year to reduce the potential worst-case loss by one third?  If so, the 70% stock / 30% bond portfolio provides this tradeoff.

Planning around Improbable Events

One might object that 2008 was an extreme case, and that such a bad year is unlikely to recur with any meaningful probability.  One way to correct for this potential bias towards extreme events is to assume that returns from stocks and bonds follow a bell curve distribution, a common way to estimate investment risk.  Using the data over the last ten years to estimate the properties of the bell curve (also known as the “normal” or Gaussian distribution), I have estimated the probabilities of various levels of loss over a 12-month period.

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Estimated 12-month loss percentiles for a ‘normal’ distribution (Source: author’s calculations)

When you look at the figures for the 5th percentile loss, you can see what might be expected in the worst 5% of 12-month periods for each of the five portfolio types. For example, the 100% stock portfolio has a 1-in-20 chance of returning -21% or worse over the next twelve months. Note that a loss of 35% for stocks, similar to 2008, is estimated to have a probability of 1-in-100.

It’s important to point out that the ability to calculate the probability of very rare events is very poor.  Perhaps 2008 really was a 1-in-100 probability event, but we don’t know that with any certainty.  The most catastrophic events (what Nassim Taleb has famously dubbed “Black Swans”) are so severe and outside our normal range of experience that they tend to catch us totally off guard.

Moshe Milevsky, a well-known retirement planning expert, suggests that rather than thinking in terms of probabilities, it’s sensible to set your portfolio’s risk to a level that ensures that the worst case outcomes are survivable. Based on that, it’s prudent to choose a portfolio risk level that won’t ruin you if there’s another year like 2008. If you can survive a 12-month loss of 23% (the average of the worst loss for this allocation over the past ten years and the estimated worst-case 1st percentile return), for example, you can afford to hold a 70% equity portfolio.

Final Thoughts

If your investments in stocks don’t approximate the S&P 500, the stock portion of your portfolio may be considerably riskier than the table above implies.  Allocations to emerging markets, small companies, and technology stocks can be very volatile. The examples shown here provide a starting point in determining risk.  Combining a wider range of asset classes can provide important diversification benefits beyond their individual risk levels, but this topic is beyond my scope here.

The past ten years have provided examples of very high returns and very low returns from stocks. This period gives us a useful basis for testing our tolerance for volatility.  Many readers, I imagine, will find that their risk tolerance—self-diagnosed from looking at the tables above—corresponds reasonably well to the “age in bonds” rule. If your choice of risk levels is too far from these levels, a closer look is needed—and perhaps a talk with an investment advisor.

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What Are the Core Asset Classes for Income Portfolios?

In a recent post, I presented a list of the ‘core asset classes’ that investors need in order to build portfolios that fully exploit available diversification opportunities.  That article focused on portfolios designed for total return potential, the combined return from price appreciation and income generated by the assets in the portfolio.  For investors focusing on building income-generating portfolios, the core asset classes are somewhat different.  In this article, I present a proposed set of core asset classes for income-focused investors, along with examples of representative funds.  Continue reading

What Are the Core Asset Classes for Total Return Portfolios?

One of the most important questions for investors and advisors is identifying a set of asset classes that will be considered for inclusion in a portfolio.  Some people will decide that all they need or want is one broad stock market index fund and one bond fund.  Others will choose to include Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and commodities.  There are well-thought-out arguments that inflation-protected government bonds (TIPS) are a major core asset class.  It is also quite common for investors or advisors to break stocks out into value vs. growth and small cap vs. large cap.  Continue reading

Emerging Market Indexing

Guest post by Matthew Amster-Burton, Mint.com. We thought this was an interesting article and thought our readers would too. Enjoy.

Let’s say you want to build your own stock market index fund based on the S&P 500. Easy: download a list of all the companies in the index–from 3M (MMM) to Zions Bancorp (ZION) and their market cap, and start investing. Every stock in the index will be easy to buy in whatever quantity you want.

Now, after the success of your first index fund, you decide to create an emerging market fund, concentrating on the world’s up-and-coming economies. Again, no problem. We have the internet, after all, and we can just print off a list of all the stocks in China, India, Chile, Hungary, and so on, pull out a pile of Benjamins, and go to town.

That won’t work, says Raman Subramanian, Executive Director of Index Research at MSCI. Continue reading

Standing at the Close of 2011

This has been a chaotic year in the financial world.  In this latest article, I will take a look at what happened in 2011 and give my personal views on where things are going for 2012.

Many Happy Returns?

The biggest news of the year would have to be Europe.  As I write this, the EAFE index of international developed-market stocks has returned -12% for the trailing 1-year period and an annualized -4.7% per year over the last five years.  The EAFE index has a 15-year annualized return of 3.3% per year.

The S&P 500 Index has delivered 2.8% for the trailing 1-year and stands at almost exactly 0% total annualized returns (including dividends) for the trailing three years.  On the other hand, Continue reading

International Investing in Uncertain Times

Political turmoil in the Middle East and Africa, a natural and nuclear disaster in Japan, rekindling European debt crises: It’s easy to understand why investors may shy away from investing in foreign stocks these days.

They may be making a mistake.

Reluctant Global Investors

“There’s so much fear out there,” says Darleen Gilmore, founder of Austin Wealth Specialists, an investment advisor who likes clients to put a certain percent of their holdings into global markets. “I have to ease them into it.” Continue reading

GMO’s Lean Investment Outlook

Bob Huebscher over at Advisor Perspectives just published an interesting article that gives an overview of Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo & Co.’s (GMO) outlook for the coming years. The article is based on a talk given by Ben Inker, head of asset allocation at GMO.

Most investors who are aware of GMO first encounter the Boston-based investment management firm by reading some of the brilliant essays of Jeremy Grantham, one of the firm’s founders. Grantham’s market outlooks have historically been prescient.

A Bleak Outlook?

GMO’s broad outlook for investors — the firm manages $107 billion in assets — has changed since last year. Continue reading