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What do You Know about Asset Allocation Risk? October 8, 2010

Posted by retirementwithaplan in 401(k), assets, mutual funds, retirement, risk.
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Dan Solin is right when he suggests that no one ever brags about their ability to achieve optimum asset allocation. Its not all that sexy and quite frankly, lacks the sexiness that doing something extreme often nets you. Something like not using asset allocation.

Asset allocation is something of a mystery to most of us although no writer worth her/his mettle would bypass the opportunity to tell you it is one of the keys to investment success. You will hear those who use index funds as a primary driver in their portfolios selling the notion that once you embrace this passive sort of investment, asset allocation becomes second nature. It certainly becomes easier.

To allocate assets is to take and spread risk across many different stocks and bonds. The idea here is that no market performs in tandem. Some corners will remain sluggish while others shoot for the moon. Asset allocation keeps you in both but keeps you involved in a measured way.

Too much of any asset class usually means that asset is doing really well. This is where the tough part comes in. If that asset is doing so well, you probably should begin selling some of it in favor of the assets in your portfolio that aren’t doing so well. This sounds sort of counterintuitive and I’ll explain why it shouldn’t. Even if afterwards, it still does.

Because we are talking mutual funds and not individual stocks, and we will for the sake of the argument, use index funds as an example. A large cap index fund may be in favor with investors because investors are looking favorably upon the companies in the index. But you also hold an index of small-cap companies that seem to be lagging behind – at least as a comparison. To continue to send money to the ever-rising fund, you should take some of the profit off the table and transfer it to your other allocations, balancing your investments at the point you began.

But, you stammer, that fund could go higher. Why sell a winner? Because that is what you do to make money: sell winners. But in order to keep your allocation in balance you shift those dollars to the other funds in your portfolio, buying shares in those funds when they are less expensive.

Should you consider using actively managed funds in this process? Depends on your age and whether you plan on focusing on the balance among the funds in your portfolio. If you have a fifteen year or longer time horizon until you estimate you will begin to tap your account for income, feel free to take your chances.

Index fund users will never stop stressing the importance of fees and the low cost index funds have. And this is important. But fans of the actively traded mutual fund are also focused on fees and equate performance against this measure. But the comparisons are difficult and calling this type of investing successful depends on numerous variables. (From which benchmark is being used to how many funds are spread across how many asset classes, the variables can astound and compound.)

The importance lies in keeping that balance and maintaining it. The only risk you can add to your portfolio is not adjusting your allocations at lest once a year. We are in for a volatile decade, as unemployment strings out, debt continues to be an issue and the tax debates continue and that is not without some pressures in the stock and bond markets. This balancing act wil take time and effort. But the person who bothers will end up with more years of positive returns than someone who fails at this decidedly unsexy task.