The practice of spreading money among different investments to reduce risk is known as diversification. By picking the right group of investments, you may be able to limit your losses and reduce the fluctuations of investment returns without sacrificing too much potential gain.
In addition, asset allocation is important because it has a major impact on whether you will meet your financial goal. If you don’t include enough risk in your portfolio, your investments may not earn a large enough return to meet your goal. For example, if you are saving for a long-term goal, such as retirement or college, most financial experts agree that you will likely need to include at least some stock or stock mutual funds in your portfolio. On the other hand, if you include too much risk in your portfolio, the money for your goal may not be there when you need it. A portfolio heavily weighted in stock or stock mutual funds, for instance, would be inappropriate for a short-term goal, such as saving for a family’s summer vacation.
How to Get Started
Determining the appropriate asset allocation model for a financial goal is a complicated task. Basically, you’re trying to pick a mix of assets that has the highest probability of meeting your goal at a level of risk you can live with. As you get closer to meeting your goal, you’ll need to be able to adjust the mix of assets.
If you understand your time horizon and risk tolerance – and have some investing experience – you may feel comfortable creating your own asset allocation model. “How to” books on investing often discuss general “rules of thumb,” and various online resources can help you with your decision. For example, although the SEC cannot endorse any particular formula or methodology, the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System (www.ipers.org) offers an online asset allocation calculator. In the end, you’ll be making a very personal choice. There is no single asset allocation model that is right for every financial goal. You’ll need to use the one that is right for you.
Some financial experts believe that determining your asset allocation is the most important decision that you’ll make with respect to your investments – which it’s even more important than the individual investments you buy. With that in mind, you may want to consider asking a financial professional to help you determine your initial asset allocation and suggest adjustments for the future. But before you hire anyone to help you with these enormously important decisions, be sure to do a thorough check of his or her credentials and disciplinary history.
The Connection between Asset Allocation and Diversification
Diversification is a strategy that can be neatly summed up by the timeless adage, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” The strategy involves spreading your money among various investments in the hope that if one investment loses money, the other investments will more than make up for those losses.
Many investors use asset allocation as a way to diversify their investments among asset categories. But other investors deliberately do not. For example, investing entirely in stock, in the case of a twenty-five year-old investing for retirement, or investing entirely in cash equivalents, in the case of a family saving for the down payment on a house, might be reasonable asset allocation strategies under certain circumstances. But neither strategy attempts to reduce risk by holding different types of asset categories. So choosing an asset allocation model won’t necessarily diversify your portfolio. Whether your portfolio is diversified will depend on how you spread the money in your portfolio among different types of investments.
A diversified portfolio should be diversified at two levels: between asset categories and within asset categories. So in addition to allocating your investments among stocks, bonds, cash equivalents, and possibly other asset categories, you’ll also need to spread out your investments within each asset category. The key is to identify investments in segments of each asset category that may perform differently under different market conditions.
One way of diversifying your investments within an asset category is to identify and invest in a wide range of companies and industry sectors. But the stock portion of your investment portfolio won’t be diversified, for example, if you only invest in only four or five individual stocks. You’ll need at least a dozen carefully selected individual stocks to be truly diversified.
Because achieving diversification can be so challenging, some investors may find it easier to diversify within each asset category through the ownership of mutual funds rather than through individual investments from each asset category. A mutual fund is a company that pools money from many investors and invests the money in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. Mutual funds make it easy for investors to own a small portion of many investments. A total stock market index fund, for example, owns stock in thousands of companies. That’s a lot of diversification for one investment!
Be aware, however, that a mutual fund investment doesn’t necessarily provide instant diversification, especially if the fund focuses on only one particular industry sector. If you invest in narrowly focused mutual funds, you may need to invest in more than one mutual fund to get the diversification you seek. Within asset categories, that may mean considering, for instance, large company stock funds as well as some small company and international stock funds. Between asset categories, that may mean considering stock funds, bond funds, and money market funds. Of course, as you add more investments to your portfolio, you’ll likely pay additional fees and expenses, which will, in turn, lower your investment returns. So you’ll need to consider these costs when deciding the best way to diversify your portfolio.