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.
Most planners doing financial planning reviews with clients have witnessed the phenomenon: when markets go up, clients look at their growth rates; when markets go down, clients look at the dollars they have lost. What can behavioral finance tell us about why we have such an asymmetric view of the market’s ups and downs?
Recent research on the reaction of investors to the 2008-2009 market downturn has confirmed an interesting tendency of investors that I have long believed – the better our returns, the more we’re willing to save. Yet the irony is that theoretically, the better our returns, the LESS we need to save, because we’ll have more growth from our investments. Nonetheless, if we don’t account for this very human behavior about saving, we can end out with some disastrous financial planning advice.
The news this week has been abuzz with Monday’s Federal government auction of Treasury Inflation-protected Securities (TIPS) that resulted in a yield of -0.55%. Surely, an investor willingness to accept a negative return in exchange for inflation-protection means investors are panicked about an impending surge of inflation, right? Actually, no, in this case, it doesn’t.