modern portfolio theory

Change is the Only Constant

pyramid

The ability to adapt to changing conditions is what sets those who thrive apart from those who merely survive.

Our portfolio theory evolves over time as economic and market conditions unfold. The problem with the textbook approach in a changing world is that a textbook, once printed, never changes. Looking at the world as it is and doing our own thinking, we see things in a new way.

We believe that central bank intervention and counterproductive monetary policies have distorted pricing in the bond market and for other income-producing investments. By crushing interest rates and yields to very low levels, the old investment textbook has been made obsolete.

Therefore the classic advice about the proper balance between stocks and bonds brings new and perhaps unrecognized risks, with corresponding pockets of opportunity elsewhere. Yet the classic advice met a need which still exists: how to accommodate varying needs for liquidity and tolerance of volatility.

Our adaptation to this new world is the portfolio structure you see above. Our classic research-driven portfolio methods live in the Long Term Core. We believe our fundamental principles are timeless, and make sense in all conditions.

But people need the use of their money to live their lives and do what they need to do. So a cash layer is needed, tailored to individual circumstances.

The layer between is ballast. This refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast serves two purposes. It dampens volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. Ballast may serve as a source of funds for buying when the market seems to be low.

The client with higher cash needs or who desires lower volatility may use the same long term core as the one who wants maximum potential returns. One may want a ‘cash-ballast-long term core’ allocation of 10%-25%-65% and the next one 4%-0%-96%.

The adaptations we’ve made have generated efficiencies and therefore time—time to work individually with you on your plans and planning, time for more frequent portfolio reviews, time for more intensive research.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this structure might fit your needs, please email us or call us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Art Versus Science

© Can Stock Photo / karandaev

For most of human existence, our primary occupation was trying to get enough food to keep ourselves going. Countless millions of manpower-hours have been spent hunting, gathering, farming, and fishing to put food on the table; millions more were spent preparing, preserving, and cooking.

The upshot of this is, we got really good at it. Thousands of years of practice gave us a lot of room for trial and error. We figured out how to create healthy, sustainable diets from practically every environment on the planet. Every culture came up with their own answer for how to feed and support their population. But if you asked any of them why their diet worked, they wouldn’t really be able to give you an answer. All they knew was that this was how they had traditionally made their food. It was an art, not a science.

As humans we are inquisitive creatures by nature, so some of us were unsatisfied by this answer. So scientists began to study what made our food tick. They isolated essential vitamins and minerals and determined their effects on our body. Armed with this knowledge, they devised newer and more “scientific” diets. According to their theories, we could make cheap mechanically processed food and insert vitamins to give us all the nutrition we needed. We would be free of having to slave away in the kitchen and wind up healthier than ever.

Unfortunately, this never really panned out. It turns out we still don’t understand nutrition as well as we thought we did. We’ve revised our nutritional models again and again, and yet we are still not substantially healthier or wiser than we were when we were slaving away in the kitchen doing things the way grandma did.

This is an elucidating story on the limitations of scientific study, but it also has practical applications for our work. Just as our food scientists try to figure out what makes our food tick, financial professors try to figure out what makes our investments tick. They isolate factors that they believe account for investment performance and construct portfolios on the theory that they can reduce holdings to simple factors and whip up a balanced “diet” that has a little of everything.

Sometimes, the theories work. But anyone who thinks that they have unlocked the secret to guaranteed wealth is going to be just as disappointed as the food scientists who were certain they had unlocked the secret to guaranteed health.

We believe that we are likely to do better by sticking to the same timeless investment principles that our predecessors in the market made their money by. We are not Luddites—we are more than happy to include scientific investment analyses in our research. But we still believe that investment is as much art as it is science.

Perhaps someday in the distant future someone will manage to reduce investment success to an algorithm. Until then, we will trust our “artistic” judgment over what a computer tells us we should buy. If you would like to have an unscientific discussion about this or any other money topic, please call or write.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Our Three Principles, or Postmodern Portfolio Theory

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / nahlik

We recently wrote about the conventional investment wisdom, as embodied in Modern Portfolio Theory. No surprise here: we don’t like it. The pie charts, talk of asset classes and correlation…it is all wonderful until it isn’t. Our alternative approach relies on three fundamental principles. We believe they apply in every season.

Our first principle, avoid stampedes in the markets, is based on our understanding that the stampede is usually going the wrong way. There was a stampede into tech stocks in 1999, which ended badly. There was a stampede into real estate in the early 2000’s, which ended badly. There was a stampede into commodities after that, which ended badly. In short, major peaks are usually accompanied by a stampede of money that drives prices to extremes.

Our second principle, seek the best bargains, lets us sort “the market” into its pieces. The three major asset classes are stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives. Cash and its alternatives currently earn practically zero-point-nothing interest rates; bonds are barely better. Diving one level deeper into stocks, we find that some sectors and industries are expensive and others appear to be bargains.

Our third principle is to seek to own the orchard for the fruit crop. Portfolio income is an important component of total returns, and those among us who rely on our portfolios to buy groceries surely understand the importance of cash income. As noted above, interest rates remain very close to zero—we do not believe that bonds or cash alternatives are a good way to generate income these days. But we are currently enjoying generous dividends from many companies in the bargain sectors, including the oil and natural resource companies. Other holdings purchased in past years continue to pay regular dividends, from pipelines to telecom to auto stocks.

We must note that, in actual practice, these principles require patience. One should always know where needed cash and necessary income will come from. Please see our post ‘The Fruits of Investment (link)’ for a fuller treatment of the three principles in action.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Philosophy Lurking in Your Portfolio

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Paul_Cowan

Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose from the far-reaching transformations Western society underwent in the late 19th century. This gave way to the skepticism of the late 20th century which led to the movement we call Post-Modernism.

This sets the stage for our discussion of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), and our response to it.

If you have ever seen the customary asset allocation pie chart or heard talk of getting exposure to all the major ‘asset classes’ then you have been exposed to MPT. It presumes that historical data about the behavior of all the various kinds of investments enables computers to calculate the best mix of holdings to get the returns we desire with the lowest level of risk. One investment zigs when another one zags, leaving the total portfolio steadier than it otherwise would be.

Great theory. Here are the problems that arise in practice:

1. At times of greatest stress in the markets, when you most need MPT to work, the historical correlations go away and the most overpriced assets get slammed regardless of what the computer thought.
2. Common sense and fundamental investment analysis often reveal that one slice of the asset pie is likely to leave a very bitter taste. Large growth stocks in 2000, real estate in 2007, commodities in 2011…everybody knows now that the best allocation to these overpriced bubbles was ZERO.
3. Although the discipline of MPT reduces the damage from counterproductive crowd behavior, it neither eliminates the damage nor allows one to profit from the madness of crowds.

Our investment management approach, forged in the skepticism born of deep knowledge of MPT, is based on three fundamental principles. We believe these principles are timeless, suitable for any market. We have written about them before, we will write about them again, and we have talked incessantly about them for twenty years. For now let us simply note that, as a reaction to Modern Portfolio Theory, they might collectively best be known as “Postmodern Portfolio Theory.”


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.