We had a roller coaster ride this past week in the market. Last Monday, the Dow dropped nearly 1000 points as investors spooked from the previous Friday’s sell-off sold positions en masse. By Friday, however, the major indices recouped their losses and several even finished slightly ahead for the week. Anyone who sold during Monday’s mayhem locked in their losses and lost out on the subsequent rebound.
No one can predict what the stock market will do in the future, so I genuinely believe it is futile to respond to this week’s activity by making trades. The media has detailed the concerns which “caused” the market to drop this week, but there are always going to be reasons which drive the short-term gyrations of markets. This noise can distract investors from staying focused on their financial goals.
After an extended period of low volatility, a tough week often raises questions about how much risk is in your portfolio and how a downturn might impact your ability to fulfill your financial objectives like retirement. Before we invest, we have all our clients take the FinaMetrica risk assessment to better understand your personal beliefs and comfort with taking risk. Given the choice, we’d all prefer to have less risk in our portfolios. The reality, however, is that the reason stocks outperform other asset classes is that stocks provide a risk premium – that is a higher rate of return – in exchange for the volatility and unpredictable path of their results.
I am always interested in ways of reducing risk. While I think investors will have the highest long-term return by embracing risk intelligently with a diversified, index allocation, the most important factor is actually each investor’s behavior. If you aren’t willing to stay invested through the inevitable ups and downs of the market cycle, you are likely to greatly hurt your performance. The most important part of my job is educating investors and encouraging them to stick with the plan.
Investors want options and we are happy to suggest ways to reduce risk. Below are six ideas to reduce price volatility in your equity portfolio. Just bear in mind that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” While each of these approaches can reduce risk, some may reduce your return as well. The first three strategies can be applied to a traditional portfolio; the second three options are slightly more unusual and may be unfamiliar to most investors.
- Diversify. This is the most basic step, but forgetting this can be a big mistake. If you are investing in individual stocks, you are taking on specific risks that those positions could implode. This is an uncompensated risk which we can avoid entirely by investing broadly across the whole market. Over time, the majority of stock pickers fail to outperform the index. We prefer to invest in index exchange traded funds (ETFs). Diversification doesn’t always work quite as planned, but having non-correlated holdings improves the likelihood that when one category is down that other categories can offset or reduce those losses.
- Increase your bond allocation. The biggest impact you can have on your overall portfolio risk is by changing your asset allocation. We run five model portfolios: Conservative (35% equities/65% fixed income), Balanced (50%/50%), Moderate (60%/40%), Growth (70%/30%), and Aggressive (85%/15%). If you want to shift to an allocation with less risk, the best time to change would be when the market is up. Be careful, because you are most likely to want to change at a market bottom, which is exactly the wrong time to become more conservative!
- Consider Low Volatility ETFs. I’ve written about these previously. A Low Volatility ETF selects stocks from an index, but instead of weighting the positions by market capitalization, it weights the positions to emphasize the stocks with the lowest volatility. Historically, this process can produce a similar long-term return as a regular index, but with a somewhat less bumpy ride. How have they done recently? Over the past month, the iShares USA Minimum Volatility ETF (USMV) is down 2.72%, versus the iShares S&P 500 (IVV), which is down 4.80%. Year to date, USMV is up 0.83% versus IVV which is down 2.08%. In this time frame, the low volatility fund has been more defensive. However, you should expect a low vol strategy to under perform a traditional index fund in a bull market. For example, over the past three years, USMV’s annualized return of 13.59% has lagged IVV’s return of 14.50%. (Source: Morningstar.com as of August 28, 2015)
- Bond + Options. Instead of buying an ETF that invests in the market, we can buy an option on the ETF or index. If you had $100,000 to invest in the S&P 500, we would purchase a zero coupon bond that would mature at $100,000 in several years. This bond would trade at a discount, say for $93,000. With the remaining $7,000, we would purchase an option on the S&P 500. At the end of the term, if the market was down, the option would expire worthless. However, you’d still get $100,000 back from the maturity of the bond and not lose any money. That’s a lot better than if you had put your $100,000 into an ETF, in which case, you could be down 30% or more. If the market was up, you’d receive the $100,000 from the bond and a gain from option on the index. While I love the simple elegance of this approach, there are three important considerations: i. With today’s low interest rates, the cost of bonds is quite high, leaving very little money to purchase an option. As a result, your option may not provide the same return as investing directly in the market. In other words, if the market was up 10%, your options may not return $10,000. ii. While this strategy eliminates stock market risk, it does introduce credit risk that the issuer of the bond defaults. iii. The option’s return will include price appreciation, but not dividends, so you will miss out on approximately 2% of yield that you would receive from investing in an ETF.
- Equity-Linked CD. This is an FDIC insured CD, but instead of paying a fixed rate of return (like 2%), the return is based on the performance of an equity index, such as the S&P 500. If the market goes down, you are guaranteed to get your original principal back. Even if the bank goes bust, your CD is insured by the FDIC like a regular CD. Before you get too excited about this option, let me explain that you do not get the full start-to-finish return of the index. Rather they have a formula to calculate the CD return. For example, a common approach for a 5-year CD is to add up the 20 quarterly returns of the S&P 500, subject to a cap of 5% per quarter. This sounds good, but there are three caveats: i. If the market is up 20% in a quarter, you only get credit for 5%. But if the market is down 20%, that is a minus 20% counted towards the sum. ii. Since this approach adds quarterly returns instead of multiplying, you miss out on compounding. iii. Again, no dividends. An Equity-Linked CD is not redeemable during the term, so your return is not guaranteed if you do not hold to maturity.
- Equity Indexed Annuity (EIA). Unlike the CD above where the return is unknown until the end of the term, most EIAs post a return annually using a “point to point” method. Typically this includes a cap on the annual return, and a floor of zero, so there are no negative years. These can be even more confusing than the CDs, however, because to access those returns and receive your money there may be withdrawal restrictions, surrender charges, and other complex rules. An annuity may work for someone who is close to retirement or in retirement and needing income with less market risk. For a younger investor, an annuity may not be the best fit.
The longer your time horizon, the less you should be concerned about short-term market volatility. We can implement any of these approaches for our investors and we’re happy to help you weigh your options to make the right choice for you. However, we don’t usually recommend numbers 4 through 6, because they’re likely to have a lower return. Let’s say that over 5 years, the market returns 8% a year, but one of these defensive strategies might only return 5%, because of no dividends (-2%) and because of caps or other weighting mechanisms (-1%). And over 5 years, that 3% difference in return on a $100,000 portfolio would make the difference between growing to $127,628 versus $146,923. What seems like just a small trade-off in performance becomes significant over time.
Risk may be a four-letter word, but you may be better served to think of risk as opportunity. This past week was a reminder that stock prices do go up and down, often randomly and sometimes quite painfully. This part of being an investor is challenging and frustrating, but also largely unimportant over time and out of our control. We are wiser to focus on the things we can control, including our saving, being diversified, and keeping costs and taxes to a minimum.