What is diversification worth?

In the investing world, diversification has the feel of holy writ. No one conventional will ever question it.

The reality, however, is that diversification is frequently taken out of context and misunderstood.

For example, many investors are sold on the idea that diversification will prevent their portfolios from tanking when markets go haywire. But, this is seldom the case. Perhaps one’s portfolio goes down 40% instead of 50%, but that’s the best-case scenario at the absolute worst part of a market downturn. How many people are really happy about being momentarily down a little less than the overall market?

I’ve seen presentations that show much less “reduced volatility”–down 10% instead of 11%–pitched as the holy grail, but I’ve never heard a client say, “Boy, am I glad I was diversified,” with such small differentiation.

As with all things in life, there is a cost to diversification: usually lower returns. The sales pitch is that you give up some return in exchange for lower volatility. That’s great, but it must be thoroughly understood that giving up return means less money in retirement. I think many investors would prefer higher volatility and a better retirement, and they should make that choice with a clear idea of what they are choosing. I would happily take 10% more volatility and 10% more income in retirement, and my guess is that I’m not alone.

Diversification is a benefit, but that benefit has limits. A portfolio of 100 stocks should probably be replaced with a low cost index fund. A portfolio that is 80% in your employer’s stock is not very smart. Somewhere in between those two extremes is diversification that works for most people.

Diversification works because it removes the consequences of not being omniscient. No one, not even Warren Buffett, knows the future with precision, so that type of diversification is prudent. 

That does not mean buy a little of everything and the more the merrier. Over-diversification has huge penalties, too, and that comes in the form of lousy returns.

The benefits and drawbacks of diversification seem clearer after the market has tanked and rebounded like it has over the last week and a half. There was little benefit to being investing in one stock versus another, because they almost all went down and back up together. 

The things that did do well, perhaps gold and U.S. Treasuries, either have been or will be terrible investments over 5 to 10 year periods. To gain their benefit in somewhat reduced volatility is to lose future returns that may be worth much more. Perhaps that’s not what everyone wants or needs.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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What is diversification worth?

Focused investing

There are as many different ways to invest as there are stars in the sky.

And, this is why most investors are dumb-founded when trying to pick investments–the choices are limitless.

One of the key problems is that most investment managers are not terribly honest about what they do. They say they do in-depth research, they say they don’t just invest in the market, they promise the moon and stars…

The reality is that the average mutual fund owns 172 stocks. That means their average position size is 0.6%. Even if a 0.6% position doubles, you won’t feel the benefit much.

Added to this, with 172 positions, how on earth does an investment manager do in-depth research on individual companies? Just keeping track of quarterly announcements would utterly over-whelm them. They can’t possibly follow 172 companies in-depth!

The average mutual fund charges their customers around 1% a year to manage money. But, with 172 holdings, it’s almost impossible for them to beat the market after fees. Why not just buy an index fund and get charged 0.2%?

The alternative is to invest with a manager who focuses on only a few investments, let’s say less than 25. Such investors at least have the possibility of beating the market, unlike someone who owns 172 stocks.

If you look at the records of managers who have strongly out-performed the market over the long term, you will almost certainly have found a focused investment manager.

There aren’t that many managers who focus on fewer than 25 investments. Why? Because most invest managers lack the courage of their conviction. As Warren Buffett put it, “wide diversification is only required when investors do not understand what they are doing.”

Added to this, being focused on only 25 investments frequently means higher short-term volatility and requires a lot of patience because short-term under-performance is inevitable.

But, the benefits can be huge. Focused investing can lead to out-performance that can have a huge impact on your long term wealth.

It may take time, it may take patience, it may take a stomach that can handle nerve-wracking ups and downs, but for some investors, it’s well worth the effort.

Besides, what would you rather do with your time? 1) spend several hours picking a manager who knows what they’re doing, or 2) spend the rest of your life diversifying, rebalancing your portfolio, and getting mediocre results anyway?

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Diversification works great…until it doesn’t

Many financial advisers tout the benefits of diversification. They reason that spreading your eggs among many baskets can protect your aggregate egg count in case one basket drops.

But, what if there is some underlying reason that causes all baskets to drop all at once? Then, of course, all your eggs drop.

Most people didn’t think this was possible, and yet it happened in 2008. Almost every asset class dropped as the market panicked. The one major exception was U.S. Treasury Bonds.

As John Authers put it in his “The Short View” column in the Financial Times, “…last year’s sell-off was so extreme that diversification would not have helped one whit.”

But, isn’t it at times like this, when everyone is panicking, that diversification is supposed to provide benefits? Yes, it is supposed to. But, that doesn’t mean it does.

The reason why is that all financial markets are linked. Just because everyone is running from one investment does not mean another “historically uncorrelated” asset is necessarily doing well. This was very clear in 2008.

Diversification seems to work best when you don’t need it. People don’t get excited about diversification during normal times. It just gives you average instead of slightly better or slightly worse returns.

If you have half your money in U.S. stocks that provide a 5% return and half your money in foreign stocks that provide a 15% return, you get 10% returns. All you manage to do is lock in mediocre returns all the time. Getting 5% returns versus 10% or 15% returns in a single year won’t ruin someones retirement. Losing 40% the year after retiring almost certainly will.

When markets really panic, everything goes down together. Even a brief glance at economic history confirms this. Diversification fails when people want it most. Like…well, like in 2008.

There is a very real benefit to be gained from this situation, though. Not all investments have bad underlying characteristics. The very fact that a panic has occurred means both good and bad investments were sold off. So, you can currently buy excellent investments for the same price as the poor ones.

But, if you diversify you’ll get both the bad and the good returns going forward. Someone down 40% will see a world of difference between getting a 67% return (being in the good investments and returning to starting principal value) and getting a 33% return (being diversified in half the good investments that go up 67% and half the bad investments that go nowhere, thus still being down 20% from starting principal value).

Or, as John Authers put it, “If there is any consolation, it is that the sell-off was so indiscriminate. The odds are overwhelming that some stocks and asset classes will now begin to outperform.”

I don’t know when, exactly, those good stocks and asset classes will take off, but I’m quite comfortable I have identified them and believe very strongly my clients and I will benefit going forward.

This may very well be a case where not being too diversified will reap great benefits.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Concentration versus diversification

The academics will tell you to diversify, and they will probably tell you that there’s no such thing as too much diversification.

I beg to differ.

It all depends on your objective. If your objective is to match market performance, which, by the way, will beat 80-90% of individual and profession investors, then by all means diversify to your heart’s content.

In diversifying, make sure you have all asset classes, including stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, etc. And, make sure you have subclasses within in those asset classes, like small and large stocks, foreign and domestic stocks, etc. Finally, make sure you keep your costs as low as possible.

But, if you want to out-perform the market, you have to concentrate your investments.

By definition, investing in all the stocks in the S&P 500 will, after fees, never significantly beat a low priced S&P 500 index fund. That seems obvious.

The only way to out-perform the index is to invest heavily in a few stocks that you believe can out-perform the index. Once again, that’s definitional.

It makes intuitive sense, too. Is it even possible to keep track–really understand and accurately assess the value–of 500 stocks? Not in this world.

It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect your 21st, 51st, 101st, or 501st idea to be as good as your top 5, 10 or 20, either.

It makes as much sense empirically as it does intuitively.

The folks who out-perform the market–really out-perform after fees by a worthwhile margin–are always concentrated on less than 50 or, more likely than not, 20 stocks.

And, they probably size their positions to correspond to the return and probability characteristics of the investments they make. By that, I mean they buy more of the stocks they believe have a high probability of getting outstanding returns and buy less of the stocks they believe have a lower probability of achieving merely good returns.

If you don’t believe me, look at Warren Buffett, or Bob Rodriguez, or Wally Weitz, or Bruce Berkowitz, or Glenn Greenberg.

Warren Buffet recently said that if he were managing $50 – $200 million right now, he’d have 80% in the top 5 stocks and 25% positions in the top few. If you aren’t as good as Warren Buffet, you probably don’t want to be that concentrated, but you get the idea.

Do you have to have conviction to invest this way? You betcha!! And nothing hones your investing focus like putting a lot of your money into a few stocks.

I’ve been investing this way for over 12 years now, and I’ve been quite happy with the results. I’ve beaten the market by a significant margin (past results are no guarantee of future performance), and this has allowed me to grow my net worth quite quickly.

If you want to match the market, diversify broadly and do it with the lowest fees possible.

But, if you want to beat the market, you should concentrate.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.