For many planners, passive and strategic investment management is the way to go. As such planners often point out, the evidence is mixed at best that any money manager can ever consistently generate alpha by outperforming their appropriate benchmark. Accordingly, as those planners advocate, the best path is to minimize investment costs as much as possible (since we know expenses we don't pay is more money we keep in our pockets), and investment allocation changes should only occur via a regular rebalancing process. Yet rebalancing does not always improve your returns; sometimes, it actually reduces future wealth. So if you try to come up with a "passive" rebalancing strategy that only enhances returns and doesn't ever reduce them... does that mean you're actually being active after all?
The debate about which is better - passive versus active investing - has been around for a long time. But in a world of pooled investment vehicles, especially with such a breadth of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), there are technically two levels on which decisions must be made: within the funds, and amongst the funds. Consequently, to describe the approach of an investment advisor, we should ultimately describe the process at both levels, to make clearer distinctions. For instance, are you strategically passive, or would strategically active be a better description. Wait, strategically active? What does THAT mean!?
If there’s one new asset class that seems to have truly caught the imagination of clients, it’s gold. Technology, real estate, and emerging markets have all caught fire for some period of time in recent years, but gold still seems to stir something emotional in us, above and beyond just the pangs of greed that have characterized the other hot investments of the decade. Perhaps it’s the fact that gold is something that theoretically performs well in times of distress; it can serve as a hedge in times of inflation, help protect against the declining value of our currency, and be a safe harbor when everything else is in trouble. Given so much client anxiety about today’s economic environment, it’s not difficult to understand the appeal. In the end, there is perhaps only one significant problem: gold doesn’t actually have any value; it can only accomplish these financial feats of strength because we believe that it can.
Under classic Modern Portfolio Theory, there is a single portfolio that is considered to have the most efficient risk/return balance for a given target return or target risk level; any portfolio which deviates from the "optimal" allocation must, by definition, either offer lower returns for a comparable level of risk, or result in higher risk for the same level of return. Accordingly, as the theory is extended, advisors should avoid making portfolio shifts that constitute tactical "bets" in particular stocks, sectors, asset classes, etc., as it must by definition result in a portfolio that is not on the efficient frontier; one that will be accepting a lower return for a given level of risk, or higher risk for a comparable return. Unfortunately, though, this perspective on MPT with respect to making tactical portfolio shifts is not accurate, for one simple reason: it is based on an invalid assumption that there is a single answer for the "right" return, volatility, and correlation assumptions that will never change over time, even though Markowitz himself didn't think that was a good way to apply his theory!
With the financial crisis of 2008-2009, some planners appear to be considering - if not adopting - a somewhat more active approach. Unfortunately, though, for many planners any investment strategy that is not purely passive and strategic must be equated to "market timing" - a pejorative term. Yet the planners who have implemented some form of tactical asset allocation generally do not call themselves market timers; they recoil at the term as much as passive, strategic investors do. So where do you draw the line... what IS the difference between being "tactical" and being a "market timer"? In truth, it seems that once you dig under the hood, the differences are nuanced, but they are many, and significant.
Determining whether an active manager is having a positive impact is a difficult thing to measure, without a doubt. Yet before one can even begin to determine if a manager is delivering value, you must first consider what it takes to constitute "value" in the first place. How much does an active manager need to outperform, in order to be delivering value to the client, to be worth the fee that is paid to the manager? Yet for some reason, we scale we use to measure the cost is very different than how we measure (out)performance. Is there a double-standard here?
Once again the charge of being a “market timer” is being hurled at active portfolio managers in a recent discussion thread initiated by Bob Veres on Financial-Planning.com. The term itself seems to get planners into such a tizzy, though, while the actual definition of what constitutes “market timing” is unclear at best; perhaps a new definition of market timing is in order. To say the least, the most common definition of market timing, the one that implies that market timers are similar to “retail” day-traders willing to take their portfolios to extreme asset allocations based on their very short-term predictions of future market behavior, is badly in need of an upgrade.
Although financial planners often rely on long-term averages when making capital market assumptions - whether to design a portfolio or create a retirement plan - there is a growing body of research that makes it clear: not all starting points are the same. Even over time horizons as long as 20-30 years or more, investing in high valuation environments tends to lead to below-average returns (and a notable dearth of results significantly above average), and the reverse is true if valuation is low when the investor begins. While many have written about the investment implications of market valuation, my interest is broader - how would it change our financial planning recommendations, beyond just the portfolio composition?
In the traditional investment world, it is considered crucial for an active investment manager to stick to their style box. After all, if the manager "drifts" from small cap to large cap, the investor may suddenly find themselves with an under-allocation to small cap, and an excess of large cap, violating their goal of maintaining a well diversified portfolio. Yet there is a growing recognition that for many mutual funds, constraint to a style box may be eliminating the very value that active management was intended to achieve!
Most planners have struggled at times to deal with "difficult" clients. Sometimes it's the client who says he's really tolerant of risk and wants 30% returns... until the decline comes. Other times it's the client who refuses to tolerate any risk whatsoever... yet laments the low returns that entails. Accordingly, most planners try to avoid working with clients at the extremes of risk tolerance (or lack thereof). But the truth is, these challenging clients usually do not really have extreme levels of risk (in-)tolerance... instead, the problem is actually with their risk perceptions, and it requires a different solution.