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How ‘Modern’ Is Your Portfolio?

37166961 - marketing positioning and marketing strategy - segmentation, targeting, and positioning. visualization of marketing marketing positioning. My girls came in to the office last week to fulfill their summer duties as the official Cutter Financial Group landscaping crew. I have to admit, they do good work, although with the size of our office front lawn, they don’t have a sprawling forest to contend with. Next time you drive past our office on Teaticket Highway, you’ll have to judge their work for yourself.
 
Anyway, when they came inside last week to let me know they were finished and their work was ready for my check, Phoebe, one of my two youngest, who always seems to say more than is necessary—oftentimes getting her into hot water—looked at me and said, “Dad, what is up with that shirt?” Her twin Sophie agreed and exclaimed, “It’s hurting my eyes!”
 
It was a new button-up shirt with a regular blue pattern, a shirt that I happened to really like. Regardless of the shirt, the girls learned an important lesson that I learned many years ago while at Massachusetts Maritime Academy: never insult your commanding officer before inspection.
 
After I sent the girls back outside to clear out every stray piece of grass, I couldn’t help but take a closer look at my shirt. After all, I consider myself a pretty well dressed guy, not flashy by any means, but I try to stay up with the trends. I try to stay modern.
 
It was that word, “modern,” that made me think about a recent conversation I had with a gentleman—let’s call him Gary—and I suddenly felt much more insecure about my new shirt.
 
Gary’s a good hardworking guy, about 58, and from Sandwich. Gary 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 (like my shirt!). 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 Gary 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 Gary 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 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.
 
Another question is, “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?”
 
Hmm.
 
I then asked Gary 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 Gary’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, Gary 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 Gary 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 Gary is about to retire), the market tanks. Under this scenario, 75 percent of his portfolio would be at risk, and he could lose half of that. How modern is that? Essentially, Gary and his advisor have created a “set it and forget it” portfolio based upon MPT.
 
To put it plainly, Gary’s strategy, is not modern, and certainly is not vigilant and very alert.