Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Diversification: Don't Grow Only Tomatoes!

Returning to our garden metaphor, let's assume you have a large parcel of agricultural land and that you want to make money by growing crops on it. While an analysis could be done to indicate, from crop yield and historical crop selling prices, what one crop would give you the most money per area for your farm land. Indeed, if your only goal is to have the largest statistical return on your farm investment, growing that one crop is the best choice.

Let's say you have determined that the optimum crop is tomatoes. If you have only one crop though, your risk will be higher when you grow just tomatoes than if you had a mixed garden. The reason for this is an event such as a late frost, a blight, or a pest that affects only tomatoes could wipe out almost the entire crop for a year.

If instead you grow a number of different crops, it is likely that environmental or other factors will not affect them all equally.  In fact, a cold wet season that is bad for some crops may be good for other crops.


The idea of investing in different sectors to limit risk is called diversification. For individual investors while return on investment is important, limiting risk is also crucial.  For those in or near retirement, the need to limit investment is even more critical, since there is less time to rebuild after major stock losses.

A similar situation applies to investments, where diversification across different investments can help limit the amount of risk.  This is because changes in the economy affect different regions and industries differently. While rising interest rates might be negative for one industry, it  might be positive for another, while another is not interest rate sensitive at all.

We can diversify by making sure we hold enough different stocks, and that those stocks represent different types of companies from different regions.  It is also critical to hold bonds as part of your diversified portfolio, and possibly other investment types.  The next section provides more detail.

Types of Diversification

So how do you effectively diversify?
  • Stocks and Bonds  Generally speaking high quality bonds go up in value when stocks go down, and vice versa, so having a mix of stocks and bonds is the first rule of diversification.  The exact mix will depend on your risk tolerance and financial situation, generally holding a higher amount in bonds later in life.
  • Different Industries Sometimes overlooked is the importance of having a good mix of different types of industries represented in your portfolio.  You could be invested across the entire Canadian stock exchange, and still not have good industry diversification, since financial institutions and energy play such a large role in the exchange.
  • Different Regions While the global financial world is interconnected, and it is likely that major stock losses in one region will influence others, that does not mean that they will be equally affected.  As well as Canada and the United States it is important that you have holdings in the rest of the developed and emerging markets too.
  • Alternative Investments While stocks and bonds have been the traditional base for most investment portfolios, alternative investments, things like real estate trusts (REIT) or infrastructure, can further diversify your portfolio. These alternative investments can be particularly important if you need regular income from your investments.
  • Types of Bonds As well as having bonds as part of your diversified portfolio, those bonds themselves should be diversified.  Your rate of return will be higher on bonds with longer durations, but longer duration bonds will be more sensitive to interest rate changes.  Also, a mix of government and corporate bonds is probably appropriate. Finally, it may make sense to hold some bonds, or similar instruments, that adjust their value according to interest rates.
  • Different Sizes Sometimes the largest companies in a market perform better or worse than the smaller companies.  Therefore we can add a bit of diversification by having instruments that hold companies of varying sizes, not just the largest 60 in the TSX or the largest 500 in the Dow stock exchange in the US.
  • Commodities I do not personally hold commodities in my investment funds, but some argue that this is yet another way to diversify, especially if one holds a mix of precious metals, oil, minerals and other commodities.
  • Cash-Like Instruments Sometimes overlooked is the importance of having some funds in things like investment savings accounts or GICs.  With these a part of your portfolio is fully protected, and they can help you weather a significant stock market crash. If you use your investments to fund your retirement through income, we recommend at least a year worth of funds in these instruments.
Our list is somewhat longer than many diversified portfolios. In our view the current economic climate, with interest rates very low, the major developed economies having high valuations, and considerable political and economic uncertainty around the world, we feel it is important to be more diversified than was required in the past.

Achieving Diversification

Upcoming posts will show how you can achieve a diversified portfolio using different instruments - mutual funds, ETFs and other options.  At this point we will briefly mention two possibilities that may appeal to starting investors.
  1. Tangerine Investment Funds  If you are a Tangerine customer, it is easy to add one (or more) of their balanced investment funds. These have relatively low MER, are easily purchased in small amounts, funds can be transferred from existing accounts, and you don't need a discount brokerage account. There are a family of funds with differing stock to bond ratios.  For example, their IN220 Balanced Fund has 40% Canadian bonds, 20% Canadian stocks, 20% US stocks and 20% international stocks.  The fund has a 5 year average annual performance of 8.1%, and the MER is 1.07% with the TER an additional 0.02% (see here for a description of these terms). There is no exposure to alternative investment classes in this fund.
  2. Balanced Mutual Fund There are thousands of balanced mutual funds, we will mention only one  choice here as representative of the better choices. The PH&N RBF1350 fund, now part of the RBF family, is a solid balanced mutual fund with a reasonable MER of 0.88% (if purchased in the D form through your discount brokerage). It holds about 36% bonds (mainly Canadian), 29% Canadian stocks, 17% US stocks and 15% international stocks, along with a few percent in cash. Over the past five years it has averaged almost 8.7% return. You may need a discount brokerage to get this MER with no other fees, but you can readily buy forms of this fund through financial institutions. You can start with as little as $500 initial investment.
  3. Balanced ETF Fund While there are ETFs that are a balance of stocks, bonds and other investments, as Andrew Hallam has lamented, the time is long overdue for a simplified, effective couch potato type of balanced ETF. iShares do offer a number of options, including the XGR Growth Core Portfolio ETF that is well diversified, including alternative investment classes. It has a comprehensive MER of 0.64%, and the 5 year average annual performance has been 5.5%. You will need a discount brokerage to purchase it, and unfortunately it is only thinly traded so you may need to be patient or pay a bit of premium to get units of it.  Two other 'fund of funds' from iShares that you may want to consider as a one stop ETF are CBD and CBN.  We will analyze these in more detail in a future post, but CBD has a tilt towards bonds and other income products, while CBN is tilted towards a balance of equities from around the world.
  4. Set of ETFs Of course it is easy to build your own diversified balanced set of holdings within a discount brokerage. The Canadian Couch Potato provide guidance on how you can do exactly that, at a very low cost. I am a fan of their approach, and especially for those far from retirement, I think one of their model portfolios makes good sense.  Nearer or in retirement, I personally choose to add some additional types of diversification (see above). In a future post I will look at ETF options for balanced accounts in more detail.
Final Thoughts
While the degree of diversification depends on your investment horizon (how long until you probably need to access funds), all of us need diversification. Any one type of investment vehicle can suffer possibly large losses, and while often markets rebound quickly, this is not always the case. Also, emotionally large shifts in book value are difficult to take calmly.  A major theme in our site will always be on ways to lessen volatility while maintaining a reasonable expected performance and low investment costs. So keep following us at fundsgarden and @FundsGarden!

This posting is intended for education only. The reader is responsible for their own financial decisions.  The writer is not a financial planner and reading this column should not be interpreted as obtaining individual financial planning advice. For major financial decisions it is always wise to consult skilled financial professionals. While an effort has been made to be accurate, any statements of fact should be independently checked if important to the reader.

Disclosure:  The author of this column holds funds in the RBF1350 Balanced Fund and in the iShares CBD, CBN and XGR ETFs mentioned.  I am a Tangerine customer, but do not hold any of their investment funds at the current time.

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