Beginners guide to Portfolio Diversification. And why Portfolios Fail.

It is often asked if Modern Portfolio Theory failed during the Global Financial Crisis / Great Recession (GFC).

No, Modern Portfolio Theory did not fail during the GFC. Portfolio construction did.

During the GFC many investors did not have exposure to enough different asset classes and investment risks. This limited their protection from market loses.

Therefore, Investors should consider incorporating a wide range of different investment strategies as their core investment strategy. Investors should also clearly understand the sources of risk within their portfolio.

Furthermore, investors cannot necessarily rely on “what is traditionally thought of as diversification to meet their long-term goals.”

It is likely that many investors remain under-diversified today.

These are the views of a 2013 BlackRock Article, the new diversification: open your eyes to alternatives.

 

The discussion in 2012 with Dr Christopher Geczy is still very relevant today.

As we have seen previously, from what does portfolio diversification look like, many KiwiSaver Funds are under-diversified relative to Australian Superannuation Funds. Likewise, the Australian Future Fund is very well diversified relative to the New Zealand Super Fund.

 

Highlights of the BlackRock article are provided below.

They are presented to provide the rationale for seeking true portfolio diversification, as pursued by many of the largest investors worldwide, including Super Funds, Pension Funds, Foundations, Endowments, Family Officers, and Sovereign Wealth Funds. This group also includes the ultra-wealthy.

Albeit, the opportunity to have a truly diversified portfolio is open to all investors, the value is in implementation.

Currently, many New Zealand investors are missing out.

 

What happened during the GFC?

In short, as we all know, what happened during the GFC was a spike in financial market volatility, this led to all markets behaving in a similar fashion – technically market correlations moved to one. This reduces the benefits of diversification. As a result, many markets fell sharply in tandem.

Those markets that where already quite highly correlated became more correlated e.g. listed property with the broader share market.

As we also know, this often happens at time of market crisis, nevertheless, correlations can spike higher without a crisis.

The BlackRock article provides a comparison of market correlations prior to the GFC and correlations during the GFC.

 

For clarity, there are benefits from investing in different asset classes, regions, and so forth.

Nevertheless, although a traditional “Balanced Portfolio”, 60% shares / 40% Fixed Income, provides a smoother ride than an undiversified portfolio, the risks of the Balanced Portfolio are dominated by its sharemarket exposures.

It is well understood that for the Balanced Portfolio almost all the risk comes from the sharemarket exposures. On some estimates over 90% of the risk of a Balanced Portfolio comes from sharemarkets.

Therefore, investors should not only clearly understand the sources of risk, but also the magnitude of these risks within their portfolio.

 

What is the difference between Portfolio Diversification and Portfolio Construction?

Diversification is not as obvious as many think e.g. as outlined above in relation to listed property, a portfolio exposed to different asset classes may not be that well diversified.

As a result, and a key learning from the GFC, investors need to think in terms of risk exposures – risk diversification.

Investors should not think in terms of asset class diversification.

More asset classes does not equal more Portfolio Diversification.

This is because returns from of a range of asset classes are driven by many of the same factors. These can include: economic growth; valuation; inflation; liquidity; credit; political risk; momentum; manager skill; option premium; and demographic shifts.

So while investors have added a range of asset classes to their portfolio (such as property, infrastructure, distressed debt, and commodities) their portfolio risk remains similar at the expense of adding greater complexity and management cost.

Therefore, increasingly institutional investors accept that portfolio diversification does not come from investing in more and more asset classes. This has diminishing diversification benefits.

 

From a portfolio construction, and technical, perspective, this means thinking in terms of risk exposures and “getting exposure to as many different and non-correlated types of risk that they can.”

Portfolio construction = “building a portfolio based on risk exposures and not just so-called “asset classes” or “sub-classes.””

 

What does this look like?

Investors should seek exposure to a variety of risk exposures in proportion to their risk tolerances and individual circumstances.

The point being everyone should have a broadly diversified portfolio to the greatest extent they can. Investors should hold as many different assets and risk exposes as they possibly can.

Therefore, portfolios should likely include real assets, international investments, and long/ short investments. Alternative and Alternative investment strategies.

The real value is in implementing the portfolio construction, accessing the appropriate risk exposures efficiently.

As BlackRock emphases, Investors need to work with their financial professionals to choose and blend the risk exposures that make sense for their unique circumstances.

 

Low Correlated investments

If the objective is to seek a truly diversified portfolio, the exposure to low correlated assets, both in general and particularly in times of stress, is necessarily.

These exposures are largely gained via Alternative investments or Alternative Investment strategies.

“Alternatives” are a broad category, as defined by BlackRock, offering “sources of potential return and investments that provide risk exposures that, by their very nature, have a low correlation to something else in an investor’s portfolio.”

The concept of alternative investing is about going beyond what a traditional Balanced Portfolio might look like, by introducing new sources of diversification.

 

BlackRock provides a very good discussion on Alternatives, types of assets that would be considered alternatives and a discussion around implementation – highlighting the portfolio benefits of adding alternatives to a portfolio (improving the risk/reward profile). Also noting Alternative investments feared better during the GFC.

 

It is important to emphasis, as does BlackRock, that the inclusion of alternatives into the traditional portfolio is not a radical departure from the notion of managing risk and constructing portfolios. It helps in understanding what risks are being taken and broadens portfolio diversification.

The inclusion of alternative investments is common place in many institutionally managed portfolios. For further discussion, see my previous Post on adding alternatives to a portfolio, it is an Evolution not a Revolution.

 

BlackRock makes a final and important point, the world presents countless risks, and not all those risks can be accounted for in a traditional Balanced Portfolio. Investors need to be diversified in general, but they also need to be diversified for the extreme. If not, they may be setting themselves up for failure.

Do not become too dependent on one source of investment returns.

 

Summary

Investors need to clearly understand the sources of risk in their portfolios and should consider incorporating a wide range of different investment strategies and assets as their core investment strategy.

Furthermore, investors cannot necessarily rely on what is traditionally thought of as diversification to meet their long-term goals.

It was not Portfolio Theory that failed during the GFC but Portfolio Construction.

And this is where the real value lies, the ability and knowledge to implement a truly diversified portfolio.

Many investors very likely remain under-diversified today. Their portfolios do not fully reflect the key learnings from history as outlined in this Post.

 

In my mind, many New Zealand Investors are missing out.

 

Happy investing.

Please see my Disclosure Statement

 

Global Investment Ideas from New Zealand. Building more Robust Investment Portfolios.

 

One thought on “Beginners guide to Portfolio Diversification. And why Portfolios Fail.

  1. Pingback: The opportunity and role of active management | Kiwi Investor Blog

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