Everyone envisions great performance within their investment portfolio. Performance is one of the most sought after characteristics of any portfolio. However, evaluating the return only ignores risk and several other factors that affect performance.
Achieving a balance between the risk and performance or return is what a balanced investment portfolio is all about. In a balanced portfolio the stocks generally provide the greater return and the bonds are there to help minimize the overall risk; risk management techniques are important to consider, providing a balance between two distinct asset classes, stocks and bonds.
These two major asset classes are often broken down between many other asset classes. For example, bonds may be divided between US Treasuries, US corporate bonds, international bonds, inflation protected bonds, junk bonds, municipal bonds, etc. Stocks are likewise divided; there are the large cap, mid cap and small cap, international stocks, real estate stocks, retail stocks, commodity stocks, natural resource stocks, utilities, etc.
Risk is also broken down, as there are several types of risk that each stock and asset class are subject to. There are four major types of risk: technical risk, fundamental risk, interest-rate risk and inflation risk. Each of these risks can play a significant role in a stock or bond’s performance. All publicly traded stocks are subject to technical risk (a.k.a. macro or market risk). Many simply rise and fall with the market as a whole. While fundamental risk, (business or default risk) deals primarily with the company itself; is the management team running things right? Default risk can come into play if the company gets in such a spot that it needs to file bankruptcy; such is the recent case for Radio Shack.
So here are a few things to watch when evaluating performance…
Many folks have a wonderful year in the market and then think all the succeeding years will be the same and they expect the same. They figure that they will hit a jackpot in 10 or 20 years based on what their account did last year after all it should continue to perform at the same level in the future, right? Just like farming, farmers have seldom perfect farming weather year after year. Some years there is a drought and others flooding!
Don’t work off averages
An average return only tells us if the fund has been positive or negative over a period of time is all. Each year is a story to itself; long-term averages don’t always tell the whole story, the average will hide down years. If a portfolio goes up from $10,000 to $11,000 great we had a 10 percent gain. However, if the account goes down by 20% it will take 25% to get back to break even. This is the math of losses, which often plays a major role in the emotional choices to sell at the bottom or get out when things are not looking “great”.
Keep a multi-year perspective
“Maintaining a multi-year perspective is vital to the mental and emotional health of an investor. Year-to-year returns are ‘noisy’ whereas 3-year rolling returns are more indicative of general performance patterns.” One year’s return may not provide an accurate image of an entire portfolio model and may limit the investor’s vision.
While this may sound counter to the previous paragraph; it is not. The previous paragraph about averages is meant to keep the average return in perspective with the annual return. This section provides the reasoning to keep a long-term investment perspective; stick with the game plan for the long-term giving it time to work on your behalf. One year is not a sufficient amount of time to let a long-term portfolio model strategy work.
According to Dalbar investors earned less than ½ the rate of return over the past 30 years that the market earned. Again, money is emotional, it is not math. This lack of return is due in part to investors pulling money out at inopportune times; the market is down, need college funds, down payment for a house, and other major unexpected expenses. The biggest looser is fear when the market tanks.
Yes it is wise to minimize losses, hence a properly balanced portfolio, but the best thing to do is have a game plan for when the market reverses. Ask that question now and make a plan. Are you going to hold on? Sell when the market is down by X% and get back in when? What if the market drops to your target sell level, we sell, and then it does not continue down, but reverses the next day and shoots back up! These bounces are devastating to portfolios; create a logical plan and agree on the plan with your advisor. The old adage of: “Buy low and sell high” might be part of your plan, when the market drops, should you buy more instead of selling?
Two Parts to Climbing a Mountain
If a person is not retired, then they ought to keep adding to their investment/retirement accounts, this will help immensely. (Many folks switch jobs and rollover their 401K to an IRA and let it sit never adding another nickel! To the extent possible keep adding.) This part of mountain climbing referred to as ascending, and when referring to investing, it is accumulating. Going up the mountain is typically easier, and less stressful on the body. Be an accumulator of assets and shares.
On the other hand, if a person is retired, then they are heading back down the mountain, descending or de-accumulating. It is always more trick getting down the mountain than up, for one it is much harder on the knees! There are far more accidents going down a mountain than up. It uses different tools and techniques; in this phase having some market exposure is good, but a person will want to develop greater security in their payouts too. Similar to having a sure footing with every step down.
Check emotions, make a plan for when the market does go down, and manage risk in a balanced portfolio and things should go alright. Most important keep a positive outlook, ask questions, do not be mean and nasty with advisors – they really do want to see investment accounts go up and up! Most advisors I know stress and lose sleep over client’s accounts and their performance.
 Craig L. Israelson, PhD. Architect of the 7Twelve Portfolio Model, Professor of Financial Planning at Utah Valley University (UVU).