Register For Our Mailing List

Register to receive our free weekly newsletter including editorials.

Home / 67

Diversification: past, present and future

Diversification. The word once appeared to suggest higher returns delivered with lower risk. Through the GFC however, diversification’s fabled benefits appeared to vanish just when needed most, leaving many disillusioned. So what does diversification actually promise, and what can it realistically deliver? In this trilogy of articles we’ll look at diversification through a retirement planning lens, from its earlier incarnations to its potential future applications.

Diversification through the ages – from Shakespeare to Sharpe

One of the earliest references to diversification appears in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The merchant, Antonio, when asked whether his melancholy might be due to worrying about his ships at sea, says…

Believe me no. I thank my fortune for it –

My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,

Nor to one place, nor is my whole estate

Upon the fortune of this present year.

Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad.

Antonio, in owning more than just one vessel, was applying the principles of diversification. He knew that while it was possible that one of his ships might be lost on any one voyage (denting his wealth a little), it was extremely unlikely that all his ships would be lost (in different seas and weather conditions) at the same time, leaving him destitute. Thus from the earliest days, diversification was recognised as a tool better suited to avoiding financial disaster than to maximising wealth. Another 350 odd years passed before diversification’s investment benefits were quantified in a 1952 paper titled ‘Portfolio Selection’ written by a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.

Enter the diversification engineers

In writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of risk in investing, Harry Markowitz applied the concept of variance, a statistical measure of ‘spread’ around an average outcome. He used variance as a measure of risk, with a risky investment being one with a large range of possible outcomes around its expected return. Markowitz was thus the first person to put a number on investment risk, albeit a risk metric that primarily measures the volatility of returns. Today a close relative, standard deviation, is the most commonly used measure of risk in institutional asset management.

Markowitz demonstrated in mathematical terms how investment diversification works: you can have two individually risky assets (high standard deviations) and yet combine them to produce a less risky portfolio (his choice of words) provided the two assets do not move in identical fashion in response to the same stimulus. This co-movement is known as correlation, and the lower the better. Thus a portfolio consisting of just two shareholdings, one an ice cream maker and the other an overcoat maker, should result in a less risky outcome than holding either in isolation. The seasonal variations in temperature would benefit one if not the other.

William Sharpe wrote part of his doctoral dissertation under Markowitz and took his supervisor’s ideas further in the early 1960s when he recognised that the single biggest influence on the direction of a company’s share price was the direction of the share market as a whole. He also noted that investors were, by then, able to diversify their shareholdings relatively easily and at low cost. Sharpe surmised that the benefits of diversification were available to all, and as such investors should not expect to be compensated for risk that could be diversified away by holding a broadly-based share portfolio.

Sharpe introduced the dichotomy of diversifiable (company-specific) idiosyncratic risk and non-diversifiable systematic (market) risk. He felt that investors in competitive share markets should only expect above-market returns from any systematic risk they choose to hold in excess of market risk. In short, in the absence of superior and enduring investment insight, to beat the market you have to accept more risk than the market.

Together Markowitz and Sharpe provided a theoretical foundation for diversification. These efforts saw both awarded (along with Merton Miller) the 1990 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences “for their pioneering work in the theory of financial economics”. At heart however Markowitz and Sharpe were merely expressing mathematically the practical wisdom in two age-old sayings: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” and “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”. The aim of all prudent investing is to find the right balance between these two adages.

Asset classes – Diversification grows up

Markowitz and Sharpe were concerned primarily with risk and return from a share market perspective. Investors tend to hold their wealth in assets other than just shares. Prudent investors will allocate wealth across a number of asset classes, each with its own risk/return characteristics. At the highest level these asset classes are cash, fixed interest (debt), shares (equity) and property.

The diversification principles underlying portfolio construction have changed little in the past 50-odd years. The process starts with an investment policy which states the overarching investment objective(s) and the acceptable risk/return trade-offs. Asset classes are named as are their policy weights. Taken together these form the portfolio’s ‘Strategic Asset Allocation’ (SAA).  Each asset class will have a benchmark against which performance is monitored. Finally an allowable limit might be set for intentionally deviating from the SAA to take advantage of perceived shorter-term valuation anomalies (often termed tactical or dynamic asset allocation).

How does all the above translate into the real world? As the SAA ‘pie chart’ that has become a ubiquitous part of investing today. Below is the current asset allocation of the average default superannuation fund option, offered by Australian super funds, as compiled by global consulting firm Mercer:HC Chart1 200614

HC Chart1 200614

Source: Financial Services Council, Asset Allocation of Pension Funds Around the World (February 2014)

As the chart indicates, some 51.4% is allocated to equities, both domestic and international. Together with property, the total allocation to ‘growth’ assets sum to almost 61%. Part of the 16.5% in ‘Other’ might also have growth-like characteristics, such as allocations to private equity, hedge funds and certain types of infrastructure.

By investing across various asset classes, superannuation funds seek to apply Markowitz and Sharpe’s principals of diversification. Pie charts tell us how capital is allocated. They tell us little, however, about how risk is allocated. In the next article we turn our attention to the risks embedded in diversified portfolios such as the one above.

 

Harry Chemay is a Certified Investment Management Analyst who consults across both retail and institutional superannuation, focusing on post-retirement outcomes. He has previously practised as a specialist SMSF advisor, and as an investment consultant to APRA-regulated superannuation funds.

 

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Diversification lessons from the GFC

SMSFs drop the ball on risk in asset allocation

John Woods on diversification using asset allocation

banner

Most viewed in recent weeks

Lessons when a fund manager of the year is down 25%

Every successful fund manager suffers periods of underperformance, and investors who jump from fund to fund chasing results are likely to do badly. Selecting a manager is a long-term decision but what else?

2022 election survey results: disillusion and disappointment

In almost 1,000 responses, our readers differ in voting intentions versus polling of the general population, but they have little doubt who will win and there is widespread disappointment with our politics.

Now you can earn 5% on bonds but stay with quality

Conservative investors who want the greater capital security of bonds can now lock in 5% but they should stay at the higher end of credit quality. Rises in rates and defaults mean it's not as easy as it looks.

30 ETFs in one ecosystem but is there a favourite?

In the last decade, ETFs have become a mainstay of many portfolios, with broad market access to most asset types, as well as a wide array of sectors and themes. Is there a favourite of a CEO who oversees 30 funds?

Welcome to Firstlinks Election Edition 458

At around 10.30pm on Saturday night, Scott Morrison called Anthony Albanese to concede defeat in the 2022 election. As voting continued the next day, it became likely that Labor would reach the magic number of 76 seats to form a majority government.   

  • 19 May 2022

Betting markets as election predictors

Believe it or not, betting agencies are in the business of making money, not predicting outcomes. Is there anything we can learn from the current odds on the election results?

Latest Updates

Superannuation

'It’s your money' schemes transfer super from young to old

With the Coalition losing the 2022 election, its policy to allow young people to access super goes back on the shelf. But lowering the downsizer age to 55 was supported by Labor. Check the merits of both policies.

Investment strategies

Rising recession risk and what it means for your portfolio

In this environment, safe-haven assets like Government bonds act as a diversifier given the uncorrelated nature to equities during periods of risk-off, while offering a yield above term deposit rates.

Investment strategies

‘Multidiscipline’: the secret of Bezos' and Buffett’s wild success

A key attribute of great investors is the ability to abstract away the specifics of a particular domain, leaving only the important underlying principles upon which great investments can be made.

Superannuation

Keep mandatory super pension drawdowns halved

The Transfer Balance Cap limits the tax concessions available in super pension funds, removing the need for large, compulsory drawdowns. Plus there are no requirements to draw money out of an accumulation fund.

Shares

Confession season is upon us: What’s next for equity markets

Companies tend to pre-position weak results ahead of 30 June, leading to earnings downgrades. The next two months will be critical for investors as a shift from ‘great expectations’ to ‘clear explanations’ gets underway.

Economy

Australia, the Lucky Country again?

We may have been extremely unlucky with the unforgiving weather plaguing the East Coast of Australia this year. However, on the economic front we are by many measures in a strong position relative to the rest of the world.

Exchange traded products

LIC discounts widening with the market sell-off

Discounts on LICs and LITs vary with market conditions, and many prominent managers have seen the value of their assets fall as well as discount widen. There may be opportunities for gains if discounts narrow.

Sponsors

Alliances

© 2022 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer
The data, research and opinions provided here are for information purposes; are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. Morningstar, its affiliates, and third-party content providers are not responsible for any investment decisions, damages or losses resulting from, or related to, the data and analyses or their use. Any general advice or ‘regulated financial advice’ under New Zealand law has been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892) and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. For more information refer to our Financial Services Guide (AU) and Financial Advice Provider Disclosure Statement (NZ). You should consider the advice in light of these matters and if applicable, the relevant Product Disclosure Statement before making any decision to invest. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product’s future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a professional financial adviser. Articles are current as at date of publication.
This website contains information and opinions provided by third parties. Inclusion of this information does not necessarily represent Morningstar’s positions, strategies or opinions and should not be considered an endorsement by Morningstar.

Website Development by Master Publisher.