Does Rebalancing Improve Returns?

Like flossing, we’re told that we need to rebalance because it’s good for us. But does rebalancing improve returns? Like many financial questions, the unsatisfying answer is “it depends”. Today we are going to take a deeper dive into rebalancing, when it works, when it doesn’t, and why it is still a good idea.

You might choose a 60/40 allocation (60% stocks, 40% bonds) because that portfolio has certain risk and return characteristics which fit your needs. Over time, as the market moves, your portfolio is likely to diverge from its original allocation; rebalancing is placing the trades to restore your original 60/40 allocation.

If we assume that stocks grow at 8% and bonds at 3%, what would happen if you did not rebalance? With a higher return, the stocks would become a bigger portion of the portfolio. In fact, after 30 years, your allocation would have shifted from 60/40 to 86/14. It should be noted right at the outset that under the straight-line assumption of stocks outperforming bonds, your performance would be higher by never rebalancing. Selling stocks to maintain a 40% weighting in bonds would slow your growth.

However, if you wanted an aggressive portfolio, you wouldn’t have started with a 60/40 allocation. We should recognize from the outset that the primary goal of rebalancing is not to enhance returns but to maintain a target allocation.

But since the stock market does not move in a straight line and give us exactly 8% returns every year, rebalancing may have a benefit in taking advantage of temporary price disruptions. If the the market tumbles, rebalancing will buy stocks at those low prices. And when the market runs up and is high, rebalancing can sell overvalued stocks and add to the safety of bonds.

What is key to rebalancing, but poorly understood by investors, is that the frequency of rebalancing is a crucial consideration. There’s not just one way to rebalance. Let’s consider a couple of scenarios.

1) In a trending market, where stocks move in one direction for a long time, the more frequently you rebalance, the worse return you create.

For example, let’s imagine a Bull Market where stocks grow by 10% each quarter, and bonds only gain 0.75% per quarter. If you started with $100,000 in a 60/40 portfolio, and did nothing, you would have $129,059 at the end of one year. But if you rebalanced each quarter, your return would be $127,682. Here, rebalancing quarterly would have reduced your returns by $1,376.

But you thought rebalancing was supposed to enhance returns? When a market trend continues for a long period, you would be better off sticking with the trend, rather than rebalancing against the trend.

2) Interestingly, rebalancing also makes returns worse in prolonged bear markets, too.

Same situation: 60/40 portfolio with $100,000. Now let’s imagine a one-year Bear Market where stocks fall by 10% per quarter and bonds gain 0.75% per quarter. Without rebalancing, your portfolio would fall from $100,000 to $80.579. If you rebalanced each quarter, you would have made things even worse, with a drop from $100,000 to $79,076. Rebalancing would have extended your losses by $1,503, or 1.87%.

By rebalancing in a prolonged Bear Market, you were adding to stocks, even as they continued to lose value.

3) While rebalancing hurts returns in directional markets, it can improve returns in markets which are fluctuating. In this third example (still $100,000 in a 60/40 allocation), we assume that bonds return 0.75% per quarter, but that stocks go down 10%, then up 10%, then down 10% and then up 10%.

After one year, with no rebalancing, you’d have $100,019. If you rebalanced quarterly, you would have $100,482. That’s a nice difference in a basically flat market. While rebalancing hurts returns if there is a steady trend, it can improve returns when markets vacillate between positive and negative periods.

So what do we do? Not rebalancing (ever) is not a good choice because you will diverge from your risk preferences. We try to strike a balance in our rebalance frequency by doing it only once a year, and only when a position deviates by more than 5% from target levels.

By rebalancing annually, we allow for longer trends, since Bull or Bear markets can certainly last for at least 12 months. So if you see other firms that brag about rebalancing monthly or quarterly, please understand that more frequent rebalancing is not necessarily better or any guarantee that it will increase returns. As we have shown, there are reasons why more frequent rebalancing could actually make things worse in a Bear Market, which is right when you would want the most defense.

Additionally, we need to consider the costs of rebalancing. Besides transaction costs, in a taxable account, short-term gains are taxed as ordinary income. We hold our positions for at least 12 months before rebalancing to get preferential long-term rates. More frequent rebalancing could be creating an unnecessary tax bill.

With extremely low yields today, it may make sense for some young, aggressive investors to consider being 100% in stocks. Then rather than focusing on rebalancing, you can take advantage of market drops by dollar cost averaging with new purchases. However, even in a 100% stock portfolio, you still have target weights in categories such as Large Cap, Small Cap, International, Emerging Markets, Real Estate, etc. And often it still makes sense to rebalance when one of those categories has a large move up or down.

Once you have accumulated some wealth, whether that is $300,000 or $3 million, you really have to think about how you would feel if the market fell by 50%. From a behavioral perspective, having a target allocation and a rebalancing process means that you have created a framework, a discipline, for how you will respond to the inevitable Bull and Bear market cycles. And the process of rebalancing – to buy low and sell high – is definitely preferable to our innate response, which is often to buy when there is euphoria and to throw in the towel when the market plunges.

Hopefully, you now understand that rebalancing is not a guarantee to enhance returns. In fluctuating markets, it can help you buy low and sell high. But in long-trending markets, the more frequently you rebalance, the more you will reduce your returns, whether it is a Bull Market or a Bear Market. So we can’t blindly just say that rebalancing is good, we have to use it intelligently.

Five Things To Do When The Market Is Down


When the market is down, it hurts to look at your portfolio and see your account values dropping. And when we experience pain, we feel the need to do something. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to sell everything almost always ends up being the wrong move, a fact which although obvious in hindsight, is nevertheless a very tempting idea when we feel panicked.

Even when we know that market cycles are an inevitable part of being a long-term investor, it is still frustrating to just sit there and not do anything when we have a drop. What should you do when the market is down? Most of the time, the best answer is to do nothing. However, if you are looking for ways to capitalize on the current downturn, here are five things you can do today.

1) Put cash to work. The market is on sale, so if you have cash on the sidelines, I wouldn’t hesitate to make some purchases. Stick with high quality, low-cost ETFs or mutual funds, and avoid taking a flyer on individual stocks. If you’ve been waiting to fund your IRA contributions for 2015 or 2016, do it now. Continue to dollar cost average in your 401k or other automatic investment account.

2) If you are fully invested, rebalance now; sell some of your fixed income and use the proceeds to buy more stocks to get back to your target asset allocation. Of course, most investors who do it themselves don’t have a target allocation, which is their first mistake. If you don’t have a pre-determined asset allocation, now is a good time to diversify.

3) Harvest losses. In your taxable account, look for positions with losses and exchange those for a different ETF in the same category. For example, if you have a loss on a small cap mutual fund, you could sell it to harvest the loss, and immediately replace it with a different small cap ETF or fund.

By doing an immediate swap, you maintain your overall allocation and remain invested for any subsequent rally. The loss you generate can be used to offset any capital gains distributions that may occur later in the year. If the realized losses exceed your gains for the year, you can apply $3,000 of the losses against ordinary income, and the remaining unused losses will carry forward to future years indefinitely. My favorite thing about harvesting losses: being able to use long-term losses (taxed at 15%) to offset short-term gains (taxed as ordinary income, which could be as high as 43.4%).

4) Trade your under-performing, high expense mutual funds for a low cost ETF. This is a great time to clean up your portfolio. I often see individual investors who have 8, 10, or more different mutual funds, but when we look at them, they’re all US large cap funds. That’s not diversification, that’s being a fund collector! While you are getting rid of the dogs in your portfolio, make sure you are going into a truly diversified, global allocation.

5) Roth Conversion. If positions in your IRA are down significantly, and you plan to hold on to them, consider converting those assets to a Roth IRA. That means paying tax on the conversion amount today, but once in the Roth, all future growth and distributions will be tax-free. For example, if you had $10,000 invested in a stock, and it has dropped to $6,000, you could convert the IRA position to a Roth, pay taxes on the $6,000, and then it will be in a tax-free account.

Before making a Roth Conversion, talk with your financial planner and CPA to make sure you understand all the tax ramifications that will apply to your individual situation. I am not necessarily recommending everyone do a Roth Conversion, but if you want to do one, the best time is when the market is down.

What many investors say to me is that they don’t want to do anything right now, because if they hold on, those positions might come back. If they don’t sell, the loss isn’t real. This is a cognitive trap, called “loss aversion”. Investors are much more willing to sell stocks that have a gain than stocks that are at a loss. And unfortunately, this mindset can prevent investors from efficiently managing their assets.

Hopefully, now, you will realize that there are ways to help your portfolio when the market is down, through putting cash to work, rebalancing, harvesting losses for tax purposes, upgrading your funds to low-cost ETFs, or doing a Roth Conversion. Remember that market volatility creates opportunities. It may be painful to see losses today, but experiencing the ups and downs of the market cycle is an inevitable part of being a long-term investor.

Reversion to the Mean


One of the more counter-intuitive financial concepts to embrace is reversion to the mean. Markets tend to behave in fairly consistent ways over the long-term. Wharton Finance Professor Jeremy Siegel examined 200 years of stock market returns and found that the average after-inflation rate of return of stocks, in all periods, was between 6.5% and 7.0%. This phenomenon has been named “Siegel’s constant” by economists. Even though the market can be down for 1 year or even 10 years, when we look at longer periods of 20 or more years, real returns have been remarkably uniform.

Investors are rewarded for their patience because returns do revert to the mean. This is an easy concept to understand, but the resulting decisions are often difficult to embrace, because they often require doing the opposite of what is currently working. When the tech sector was booming in the 1990’s, Blue Chip dividend stocks lagged, but that is precisely what you should have been buying in 1999 to avoid the subsequent meltdown in the over-valued tech stocks. This is obvious in hindsight, but at the time, it was very difficult to choose a lagging value fund, when you could have put your money into a hot sector fund that had returned 50% or more in the previous year.

One of the easiest ways to use mean reversion to your benefit is through rebalancing. When our positions deviate by more than 10% from our targets, we trim what has out performed and we purchase what has under performed. Besides helping us maintain our target allocation and risk profile, rebalancing can be beneficial by buying what is out of favor when it is on sale. The same benefit occurs when you dollar cost average in a volatile or declining market, or when you reinvest dividends over time.

A number of years ago, an analyst from Research Affiliates was visiting Dallas and dropped by my office to share a recent white paper they had produced on factors effecting index performance. They ranked stocks by factors such as momentum, and then tracked the performance of the stocks with either high or low momentum. Strangely, both the high and low momentum segments had a better long-term number the overall Index. At first, I thought this must have been a mistake, thinking both halves should equal the average of the whole index. But what was actually occurring was that the ranking process was in effect an annual rebalancing, dropping stocks from that segment when they peaked (in the high momentum category), and then adding them when they were out of favor (to the low momentum category). This annual rebalancing was actually a significant driver of investment returns.

The counter-intuitive part of rebalancing is that instead of buying what is working, you must buy what is lagging. This works for broad asset classes, but you should not apply this approach to individual stocks, lest you buy more of the next Enron. Stocks can go to zero, but categories do not.

And that brings us to today’s market. With volatility spiking in the third quarter, we have leading and lagging segments for 2015. Here are three categories of special interest today, in terms of reversion to the mean.

1. Growth continues to outperform value in 2015. Through October 16, the iShares S&P 500 Growth (IVW) is up 3.53% while the S&P 500 Value (IVE) is down 3.27%. The Growth ETF outperformed the Value ETF in 2014, 2013, and 2011. Over the past five years, the annualized return on the Growth ETF is 14.88% versus 12.52% for the Value ETF. Historically, Value outperforms Growth, and that is the case over the past 15 years for these two ETFs. Currently, Growth is in favor, but I think the smart approach for investors is to believe that the returns will be mean-reverting, and we will eventually, if not soon, see Value return to favor. Currently, Growth is benefiting from high returns from tech and health care sectors, which appear to be getting frothy. Value is being held back by energy stocks, which have been very weak this year. Our approach: we own a broad market index (iShares Russell 1000) which has both Growth and Value segments, plus we own a Value fund with a terrific long-term record of good risk-adjusted returns.

2. Emerging Markets have lagged Developed Markets. Through October 16, the Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO) is down 6.82%, compared to the iShares Russell 1000 (IWB) which is up 0.20%. The Emerging Markets ETF was also down in 2014, 2013, and 2011. Why would we want to hold such a perennial loser? Mean reversion, of course. While EM is currently out of favor, those stocks are becoming cheaper and cheaper while developed stocks are becoming increasingly expensive. Let’s look at a couple of metrics: for VWO, the Price to Earnings ratio is 11.75 and the Price to Book ratio is only 1.46. US Stocks (IWB) are much more expensive, with a PE ratio of 17.16 and a PB ratio of 2.26. The more concerned you are about US Stocks, the more you should want to own EM stocks. So despite a very difficult Q3 for Emerging Markets, we will continue to own the segment and will rebalance as needed in portfolios.

3. High Yield Bonds are down. The SPDR Short-Term High Yield (SJNK) is down 1.88% through October 16, while the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index is up 1.56% to the same date. As the price of high yield bonds declined this year, yields increased and the spread over Treasury bonds has widened, offering a better risk/return profile than previously. The yield on the 10-year Treasury remains around 2.1% today, while the SEC yield on SJNK has increased to 6.81%. But this is more like a series of popular online friv games than what is described above. That’s not to suggest that high yield bonds are risk-free, but the mean reverting approach suggests that the sell-off in high yield presents an opportunity relative to Treasuries.

Understanding the reversion to the mean is crucial for investors to offset the behavioral influence of recency bias. Recency bias is the natural tendency to mentally overweight the importance of recent events and to disregard a more rational decision making process. For example, if a coin turns up “heads” four times in a row, people are more likely to assume that the streak continues, even though the chance of the next coin toss remains 50% heads and 50% tails. The more coin tosses you make, the closer you will get to 50/50 over time. That’s mean reversion. If you understand this concept, you are less likely to make the mistake of assuming that last year’s hot sector, fund, or stock is the best place for your money today. Instead, you’ll realize that rebalancing is a smarter process than chasing past returns.

Data from Morningstar, as of October 18, 2015.

Are Equities Overvalued?


In last week’s blog, we reviewed the fixed income market and discussed how we are positioned for the year ahead.  Today, we will turn our attention to the equity portion of our portfolios.  Perhaps the top question on most investors’ minds is whether the 5-year bull market can continue in 2015.  At this point, are equities overvalued or do they still have room to run?

I don’t think it’s useful to try to make predictions about what the market will do in the near future, but I’m certainly interested in understanding what risks we face and what areas may offer the best value for our Good Life Wealth model portfolios.  We use a “Core + Satellite” approach which holds low-cost index funds as long-term “Core” positions, and tactically selects “Satellite” funds which we believe may enhance the portfolio over the medium-term (12-months to a couple of years).

The US stock market was a top performer globally in 2014.  The S&P 500 Index was up over 13% for the year, and US REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) returned 30%.  Those are remarkable numbers, especially on the heels of a 32% return for the S&P in 2013.  With six years in a row of positive returns, valuations have increased noticeably for US stocks.  The S&P now has a forward P/E (Price/Earnings ratio) of 18, slightly above the long term average of 15-16.

While US stocks are no longer cheap, that doesn’t automatically mean that the party is over.  With a strong dollar, foreign investors are continuing to buy US equities (and enjoyed a greater than 13% gain in 2014, in their local currency).  The US economic recovery is ahead of Europe, where growth remains elusive and structural challenges are firmly in place.   Compared to many of the Emerging Market countries, the US economy is very stable.  Emerging economies face a number of economic and political issues, and struggle with declining energy prices, often their largest export.

US Stocks remain the most sought-after.  While today’s P/E is above average, “average” is not a ceiling.  Bull Markets can certainly exceed the average P/E for an extended period.  And given today’s unprecedented low bond yields, it’s tough to make a comparison to past stock markets; equities are the only place we can hope to find growth.  Current valuations are not in bubble territory, but it seems prudent to set lower expectations for 2015 than what we achieved in the previous five years.  And of course, stocks do not only go up; there are any number of possible events which could cause stocks to drop in 2015.

Given the current strength of the US market, you might wonder why we own foreign stocks at all.  They certainly were a drag on performance in 2014.  In Behavioral Finance, there is a cognitive error called “recency bias”, which means that our brains tend to automatically overweight our most recent experiences.  For example, if we did a coin-toss  and came up with “heads” four times in a row, we’d be more likely to bet that the fifth toss would also be heads, even though statistically, the odds remain 50/50 for heads or tails.

Checking valuations is a important step to avoid making these types of mistakes.  Looking at the current markets, Foreign Developed Stocks do indeed have better value than US stocks, with a P/E of 15.5 versus 18.  And Emerging Market stocks, which were expensive a few short years ago, now trade at an attractive P/E of 13.  We cannot simply look at which stocks are performing best to create an optimal portfolio allocation.  Diversification remains best not just because we don’t know what will happen next year, but because we want to buy tomorrow’s top performers when they are on sale today.

Our greatest tool then is rebalancing, which trims the positions which have soared (and become expensive), to purchase the laggards (which have often become cheap).  So we’re making very few changes to the models for 2015, because we want to own what is cheap and want to avoid buying more of what is expensive, even if it does continue to work.  We will slightly reduce International Small Cap, and add the proceeds to US Large Cap Value.  US Small Cap has become quite expensive, but small cap value now trades at a bit of a discount (or is less over-valued, perhaps), so that is another shift we will make this year.

Each year, I do an in-depth review of our portfolio models and I always find the process interesting and worthwhile.  This year, looking at relative valuations in equities reminds me that our best path is to remain diversified, even if owning out-of-favor categories appears to be contrarian in the short-term.