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How 'Modern' Is Your Portfolio?

10/3/2016 1:52:57 PM by Jeff Cutter Edited for April Reed Crews Leave a Comment
I consider myself a pretty well dressed person, not flashy by any means, but I try to stay up with the trends. I try to stay modern. But that word "modern" scares me a bit, and reminds me about a recent conversation I had with a gentleman—let's call him Greg.

Greg is a good hardworking guy, about 58, and from Gwinnett. Greg told me he is pretty happy with his current advisor and financial strategy, which is based wholly on the Modern Portfolio Theory. There's that word again, "modern". It gives people the impression that something is new and updated. So when you hear "Modern Portfolio Theory", you probably think it is a new, updated financial philosophy, designed for the current times. But despite its name, the Modern Portfolio Theory has been around for a long time.

The Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) was created by Harry Markowitz back in 1952 and often is the "go-to" strategy for many retail advisors and do-it-yourself investors. It is an investment theory based on maximizing expected returns based on a given level of risk. MPT was designed for risk-averse investors, and Mr. Markowitz was one of the first to quantify the benefits of investing in multiple, uncorrelated stocks, rather than investing in an individual stock. He theorized that investors, who generally want to take on as little risk as possible in order to achieve a certain return, can limit their risk with diversification.

Sounds complicated, right? Let me explain. Let's say you invest in two different stocks: one stock in a company that sells coffee and another in a company that sells irrigation systems in South America. If there is a drought that hits all of the coffee bean farms in South America, the coffee company might struggle but the irrigation company will thrive. On the other hand, if there is plenty of rain and the coffee bean crop is strong, the value of the coffee company will rise, while the irrigation company might become stagnant. You are essentially hedging your bets, so that, rain or shine, your portfolio won’t take a nosedive.

All of this makes sense and is a valuable concept for a portfolio even today, but there are some finer points to this theory that every investor should understand.

I explained to Greg that his portfolio, which is based on MPT, is allocated to different asset classes—let's say 60 percent in equities and 40 percent in bonds—for a specific period of time. The idea is that with those designated allocations, an investor should receive his or her expected results at the end of that time frame—let's say eight years. I also told Greg that I don't look at any strategy as good or bad; I look at each strategy as appropriate or inappropriate based upon knowing the right questions to ask so that he can determine whether or not his MPT-based strategy best serves his investment needs.

Questions such as, "What if market conditions change?" Market conditions are always changing for many reasons: demographics, global political issues and central bank policies, to name a few. As a result, a portfolio allocated a specific way in 2016 may have a very different level of risk for that same allocation in 2020.

Also, what happens if a certain sector of the market is booming and the other sectors of the market are lagging; wouldn't we want to overweight the sectors that are performing and scrap the ones that are not? Wouldn't we want to rotate assets into sectors that have a higher probability of success based upon changing market conditions, and rotate out of ones that are less favorable?

I then asked Greg about his rebalancing strategy. By the look I saw in his eyes, he does not have one. Investopedia explains rebalancing in a very simple way: "the process of realigning the weightings of a portfolio of assets. Rebalancing involves periodically buying or selling assets in a portfolio to maintain an original desired level of asset allocation." MPT doesn't account for changing risk in the market and when that portfolio should be rebalanced.

With Greg's portfolio, if he was initially allocated 60 percent in stocks and 40 percent bonds, and the stocks performed well over a specific time period, that would put a greater percentage of his money in stocks, perhaps throwing off the balance to 75 percent and 25 percent. In order to return to his desired weighting, Greg would sell some of his stocks and buy bonds. This would get him back to the 60/40 he was comfortable with.

But let's say the stock market is incredibly strong for the next eight years and he does not have a system in place to rebalance his portfolio. When Greg is 65, he might have 75 percent of his total assets in stocks. He unintentionally has a much higher risk than initially intended. Then let's say in that ninth year (just before Greg is about to retire), the market tanks. Under this scenario, 75 percent of his portfolio would be high risk, and he could lose half of that. How modern is that? Essentially, Greg and his advisor have created a "set it and forget it" portfolio based upon MPT.

To put it plainly, Greg's strategy is not modern, and certainly is not vigilant or very alert. Don't you deserve better?

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