It’s All Relative: Basics of Asset Allocation Valuations

Asset allocation is a basic discipline for diversifying your portfolio, especially if you have a long-term investing strategy. Relative valuations are important.

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Key Takeaways

  • Asset allocation involves dividing up an investment portfolio by asset classes, such as stocks and bonds

  • Relative valuations are important for asset allocation—what’s comparatively cheap or expensive?
  • Understanding asset allocation and valuations is critical in building a diversified portfolio

“It’s all relative.” We’ve probably all heard this phrase applied to a variety of questions and topics. It’s the verbal equivalent of a shrug. But in investment planning and portfolio strategy, a “theory of relativity” absolutely comes into play. It’s called asset allocation, or more specifically, asset allocation based on proportions. 

Asset allocation takes a portfolio pie and dedicates slices of varying sizes to different asset classes. Perhaps you give a healthy slice to stocks, another slice to bonds, maybe a sliver to cash, and so on. Asset allocation that’s well thought out goes hand-in-hand with portfolio diversification and long-term investing. It takes several factors into account, including individual goals, time horizon, risk tolerance, volatility, market performance, and more.

Let’s look at a few pointers on asset allocation.

Asset Allocation: Everything in Context

Think of a stock, a bond, or an overall market. None of these exists in isolation. The same applies to broader asset classes, like stocks in general or bonds in general. Most assets have prices, and therefore, they have a value that can be compared to other assets. Over time, the proportions of assets like stocks, bonds, and cash can change, not just as some assets grow and others shrink, but just from some assets growing or shrinking faster than others.

As part of asset allocation, investors may look at a particular asset class, not in terms of absolute values, but in the context of other asset classes in their portfolio. They try to determine if, for example, the equity positions have become overrepresented, that is, as an excessively large piece of the pie, relative to their holdings of bonds and other fixed income assets.

The basic idea: If you’re looking at an asset class that’s performed well compared to other investments, there may be an opportunity to trim that position and shift the proceeds into the other asset classes. This is called “rebalancing”. If a portfolio was 70% socks and 30% bonds, but now it’s 80% stocks and 20% bonds, rebalancing, selling stock, and buying bonds is meant to restore that original 80/20 mix. 

Remember, proper asset allocation is based on the investor goals, time horizon, and most of all risk tolerance. As a general rule, the lower the risk tolerance, or “risk appetite”, the lower the proportion of stocks in the portfolio. Similarly, the closer to the goal, the more “needing the money” becomes in view, the lower the risk tolerance, at least for most investors. As an investor approaches a retirement goal, the proportion of stocks in the portfolio may decline as bonds and perhaps cash increase in proportion.

Asset Classes Within Asset Classes

The stock market consists of dozens of industries or sectors and thousands of companies. The S&P 500 Index, for example, has 11 sectors: Communication Services, Consumer Discretionary, Consumer Staples, Energy, Financials, Real Estate, Health Care, Industrials, Materials, Technology, and Utilities.

Valuations in each of these sectors can be contrasted to other sectors, individual companies, and the broader market. Other ways to slice and dice equity valuations include:

  • Size/capitalization. Companies range from multinational, multibillion-dollar conglomerates to small startups. (The capitalization of a company is determined by the value of the company, defined as shares outstanding multiplied by the daily stock price.)
  • Growth versus value objectives. Some stocks are priced for growth; others for value. Some pay high dividends, while others reinvest profits back into the business.
  • Geography. Some professionals suggest considering a mixture of domestic and international stocks as part of a globally diversified portfolio.

How much of a portfolio to devote to equities may be one of the most important decisions you’ll make in asset class selection. One common guideline: Some investors can subtract their age from 110 and invest that percentage in equities. For example, if an investor is 50, they might consider putting 60% of their money in equities. Of course, each investor should consider their personal circumstances to decide the appropriate allocation.

Even after you allocate and diversify, the job is just starting. What was diversified a year ago may be concentrated now. It’s important to check your portfolio mix regularly and see how changes in market capitalization, international versus domestic holdings, and other factors may have altered your asset balance.

What About Bonds?

When it comes to bonds, pay attention to interest rates. That’s the primary driver of value, relative or otherwise, in fixed-income assets. Fixed income in the United States is a different animal compared to Europe, Latin America, and other regions. 

Many investors build diversified portfolios by sticking to equities and fixed income. There’s nothing wrong with that. Although stocks may hold a greater potential for growth, bonds often provide more potential for income, making them an appealing choice for those nearing retirement or who are more inclined toward conservative investment styles.

A bond’s interest rate depends on a few key risk factors, including time to maturity (longer is riskier) and the borrower’s credit (the U.S. government is assumed to be safer than an indebted startup). As with stocks, you can choose bonds from different sectors and geographies, although each comes with different risks.

One note of caution on asset allocation and bonds: be careful about “reaching for yield,” or taking risks that aren’t commensurate with the yield you’re reaching for. With outsize yields, there’s often a higher probability of default or some other credit event that could materially impact the bond or bond fund.

Cast a Wide Net: Considering Your “Alternatives”

Asset allocation and portfolio diversification aren’t just about owning stocks and bonds. You can often find opportunities as the market evolves to snap up assets that are relatively cheap or sell assets that may have gotten expensive. If assets in other parts of the world are trading at lower valuations than in the United States, you might want to look at those opportunities.

Think about casting a wide net. You can adapt as markets change and avoid getting confined to a traditional 50/50 or 60/40 allocation box. After all, the aim of a diversified portfolio is to have some positions zig while others zag.

Alternative assets can help you diversify if going beyond the traditional equities or fixed income is for you.

Real estate assets are available outside of buying actual property. For example, consider looking at publicly traded Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). 

Stay Disciplined and Seek Sound Advice

Asset allocation and long-term investing requires, among other things, a point of view, or many points of view. When you take a point of view, it’s got to be relative to something. Some behaviors are advantageous to a long-term investing plan, particularly discipline.

Discipline is essential for a relative allocation mindset. You’re already looking for opportunities and keeping close tabs on market conditions. Watch for periods of extreme emotion and volatility and try to avoid letting those conditions distract you from your plans. When people are greedy, you become fearful, and vice versa.

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Key Takeaways

  • Asset allocation involves dividing up an investment portfolio by asset classes, such as stocks and bonds

  • Relative valuations are important for asset allocation—what’s comparatively cheap or expensive?
  • Understanding asset allocation and valuations is critical in building a diversified portfolio

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