Selecting the Right Asset Allocation – Part 2

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Your asset allocation is the basic structure of your investment portfolio defining the target percentage you want to hold in different categories of assets.   Start creating your asset allocation by deciding how much you want to invest in the two major categories, stock mutual funds and interest earning assets.  Next break your allocation down into more specific categories including cash, CDs, bonds, large cap stock, mid-cap stock, small cap stock, international stock, emerging markets stock and real estate.  Setting an appropriate, well diversified asset allocation helps you balance risk and return within your portfolio.  Your asset allocation may change over time as your financial circumstances change.  However, avoid changing your allocation too frequently based on short term fluctuations in the market.

The appropriate allocation depends on several factors including your age and investment time horizon, your financial goals, other risk factors in your life, your experience with investing and your emotional risk tolerance.  Regardless of your investment goals, you need to maintain an emergency fund of readily available funds equal to at least four months of expenses.

Your financial goals are a major determinant in setting your allocation.  Identify your major financial goals and when money is needed to support these goals.  Design an asset allocation to meet these goals.  Money needed in the short term should be held in safer, interest earning investments. The stock market should only be used for long term needs – generally at least five to seven years out.

You may be able to assume more risk in your portfolio if the timetable for your goals is flexible.  The timeframe for money to cover things like college education or your emergency fund may be firm but there may be some flexibility on when you take a major vacation, remodel your home or plan to retire.   Money needed for retirement is generally spent over twenty or thirty years.  You won’t need your entire nest egg on the first day.

Your allocation is also dependent on risks taken in other areas of your life.  For example, if you work in a volatile career with unpredictable earnings, own a small business or own rental property, you may want to reduce the risk in your investment portfolio. On the other hand, if you have a secure job and anticipate a generous pension, you may be comfortable taking more risk.

Regardless of your situation you need to feel emotionally comfortable with your allocation. If you are constantly worried about market fluctuations you may need a more conservative allocation.   Historically the stock market has trended upward, but there will be years with negative returns.  Create an allocation that gives you adequate emotional security to ride out swings in the stock market and helps you avoid selling when the market is down. If you are new to investing, start out slowly and test the water to see how you will react in a volatile market.

Risk and Your Investment Portfolio – Part 1

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Deciding upon an asset allocation is one of the first and most significant decisions to be made when you start investing.  Your asset allocation is the percentage of different types of investments such as cash, bonds, stock or real estate that make up your investment portfolio.  Probably one of the most important allocations is that between investments in the stock market and investments in interest earning vehicles such as bank accounts, CDs and bonds.  An ideal asset allocation provides a balance between risk and return that helps you meet your goals but doesn’t keep you awake at night.

There is a trade-off between risk and return.  Generally, if you want a higher return you need to assume a higher level of risk.  Investment risk comes in many different forms with the most common being stock market risk.  Historically, over long periods of time, the stock market has out-performed most other investments.  However, in the short term it can be extremely volatile, including years with negative returns.  In the extreme case you could lose your entire investment in an individual stock.  To reduce risk in the stock portion of your portfolio, consider buying diversified stock mutual funds. You will still experience swings in the market but fluctuations in any one stock will have less impact.

On the other hand, interest earning investments such as bank accounts, CDs, bonds and bond funds are generally less risky and are not subject to stock market fluctuations.  Unfortunately, in exchange for this lower level of risk you may earn a much lower rate of return.

Additionally, bonds and bond funds are subject to interest rate risk and default risk.  If you purchase a bond or bond fund and interest rates increase, the value of your investment will decrease.  To make matters worse, when interest rates rise bond funds commonly experience a flood of redemptions forcing them to sell bonds within the fund at a loss.  Even if you hold on to your shares you can experience a drop in value. However, if you purchase an individual bond and hold it till maturity you will receive the full value upon redemption.   Use caution when buying low quality bonds or bond funds; you may get a higher return but you are subject to a much greater risk of default.

Many investors don’t consider inflation risk.  This results from taking too little risk with a conservative portfolio containing little or no stock.  Over time inflation has averaged about 3% annually, if you are only earning 2% on your portfolio your real return after inflation will be negative.  This is compounded if inflation rates rise significantly.  Consider increasing your allocation in the stock market to hedge against inflation risk.

In the current environment of low interest rates and high volatility it’s crucial to build a portfolio that balances risk and return to support your financial goals and provide you with peace of mind.

Investment Risk Comes in Many Forms

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

One of the first steps when investing money is evaluating your tolerance for risk.  The amount of return you can earn is heavily dependent on how much risk you are willing to take.   We generally associate investment risk with market risk, or the possibility of losing money due to fluctuations in the stock market.   The stock market is volatile and can be a high risk investment if you have a short time horizon.  However, over long periods of time, the stock market has trended upward.  It’s important to consider your tolerance for stock market risk when building your portfolio.  However, the risk of losing money due to a drop in the stock market is only one of many risks that can adversely impact your financial security.

Although fixed income investments are generally considered safer than the stock market, they are not without risk.  Fixed income investments can include CD’s, bonds, bond funds and cash accounts such as money market or savings accounts.  The most common types of risk associated with fixed income investments are interest rate risk and default risk.

Interest rate risk is the possibility of your bonds dropping in value when interest rates increase.  When interest rates increase, the value of an existing bond decreases to compensate for higher interest rates available on the market.  Generally, if you buy and hold an individual bond till maturity, you will get back the full face value plus any interest that was earned.   However, when you own a bond fund,  you don’t have control over when bonds within the fund are sold.  When interest rates rise, bond managers may be forced to sell bonds at inopportune times due to the large number of withdrawals.

Individual bonds have less interest rate risk than bond funds, but they have a higher degree of default risk.  Default risk is the possibility of losing your principal if the bond issuer becomes insolvent.  Bond funds are able to reduce the default risk by pooling your money with others and investing in a large number of different companies or municipalities.

 Treasury bonds and FDIC insured CD’s provide what is generally considered a risk free rate.  If held to maturity, there is very little chance of losing principal.  Your investment is insured by the Federal government against default risk, and you have control over when you sell.  The primary downfall with this type of investment is the extremely low rate of return.

Investing too much in extremely safe, low earning investments often results in inflation risk.  Money placed in “safe” investments with a low rate of return can’t keep up with inflation, resulting in a negative real return.   You also lose the opportunity to earn a reasonable rate of return needed to grow your retirement account.   It’s all about balance; you need to take some market risk to build and maintain your retirement account and stay ahead of inflation.

You May Need to Take Some Risk to Meet Your Goals

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Before you start investing, it is important to understand the relationship between risk and return and as well as what level of risk you are comfortable taking.  Generally, an investment with a higher return will involve taking on more risk.    If all investment opportunities provided the same return, everyone would select the least risky choice.  As a result, a more risky investment must provide a higher return to attract investors.  At the most basic level, an investment is where one party needs money and another party has money to lend or invest.  The investor does not want to lose his money, so he demands an increasing level of return as the risk increases.

There are many different kinds of risk.  One of the most common is market risk, or the risk of losing money in the stock market when the price of stock falls.  This can be caused by a change in the overall economic situation, impacting the entire market, or by a change within a specific company.  A commonly accepted practice for decreasing this type of risk is diversification into many companies in different industries and different geographical locations. 

When investing in fixed income or interest earning investments, such as bonds and CDs, the most common risks are default risk and interest rate risk.  Default risk is the risk that the bond issuer will become financially insolvent or bankrupt.  Bond issuers are rated based on their stability to help investors gauge how much risk they are taking.  Interest rate risk is the risk that interest rates will increase after you have purchased a bond or CD, resulting in a drop in the current market value. This is of greatest concern if you own a bond fund or don’t hold an individual bond to maturity.

Two additional risks that many investors fail to consider include opportunity loss and inflationary risk.  If you try to avoid risk by avoiding the stock market, you may hurt your chances to earn a decent return.  With current interest rates on CDs and Treasury Bonds so low, conservative investors may be unable to keep up with inflation and build their retirement plans to desired levels.   Volatility in the stock market can be very scary, but over long periods of time it has outperformed most other investments.  By avoiding the stock market you take the risk of missing out on the higher returns provided with a more balanced portfolio.  You may even lose money, if inflation exceeds the interest rate on your CDs.

Moderation is the key.  Investing your entire portfolio in the stock market is far too risky, but investing your entire portfolio in fixed income is also risky.  You risk losing the opportunity to earn a reasonable rate of return, to keep up with inflation and to meet your investment goals.  The best plan is a diversified portfolio that meets your investment timeframe and long-term goals.

Living Dangerously in the World of Fixed Income

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Jane M. Young CFP, EA

It is important for us to stay diversified and keep a prudent amount of our portfolio in fixed income investments – but where? We can avoid interest rate risk and default risk with CDs; however, we may sacrifice on return. Currently most short term CDs are paying less than one percent. We can get a slightly better return for a longer term CD but does this make sense in such a low interest rate environment? With CDs, the biggest downfall is the lost opportunity for a higher return.

If you want a higher return and you are willing to take some additional risk, consider short term bond funds. A short term bond fund that invests primarily in treasuries and government agency bonds has a very low default risk. However, there is some interest rate risk. Interest rate risk is due to the cause and effect relationship between bonds and interest rates. When interest rates rise, after the purchase of a bond or a bond fund, the value of the bond will decrease. For example, you purchase a $20,000, 10 year bond that pays 3% interest. A few years later interest rates go up to 5% and you decide to sell your bond that only pays you 3%. When you try to sell your bond you can’t get $20,000 for it because it pays 2% less than the market rate. However, several buyers may be willing to buy your bond for a discounted value to make up for the lower than market interest rate. If you hold your bond until maturity it should sell for the full purchase value of $20,000. The inverse is also true, if interest rates go down your bond will be worth more than what you paid. The degree to which this occurs is magnified by the term or duration of the bond. Short term bonds have less interest rate risk than do long term bonds.

Default risk is the risk that the company or entity issuing the bond will be unable to pay you back. In essence a bond is a loan made to a company or a government entity for a specified interest rate over an agreed upon period of time. US Government bonds and bonds backed by the US Government have an extremely low risk of default. Corporations, Municipalities, and other governmental entities have varying degrees of risk depending on their financial stability. Most bond issuers are assigned a rating to help investors assess the potential default risk of a bond.

A mutual fund has less default risk than an individual bond because you are buying an ownership share in several different bonds. However, you have less control over interest rate risk. If you own an individual bond you can hold it until maturity. If you own a mutual fund, the fund manager may be forced to sell bonds at an inopportune time due to a high rate of withdrawals. If the fund manager could hold all of the bonds to maturity there would not be an actual drop in value. However, bond funds must reflect a share price based on the current value of the bonds held in the portfolio.

If you want a higher return you may want to consider intermediate term bonds but be prepared for a corresponding increase in the level of interest rate risk. If you want to maximize return you could consider high yield or junk bonds. However, be very careful in this arena because high yield bonds are subject to both interest rate risk and default risk. In the current environment, interest rate risk and default risk are very high. Unless you are an expert in high yield bonds, this is a lot of risk to take on the portion of your portfolio that is designed to be less risky and serve as a buffer against the stock market.

Most of my clients are best served by investing in a combination of CDs, high quality short term bonds, and some high quality intermediate term bond funds. Unfortunately, there are few really good options in the current fixed income market.