Why Asset Allocation Doesn’t Matter In The Long Run
(The following is the fourth of a special five part series meant to be shared by professionals and non-professionals alike. This particular series covers
only one of the 7 Deadly Sins Every ERISA Fiduciary Must Avoid.)
Asset allocation cannot produce consistent results when applied to short-term time periods, whether the duration is a single year or an entire decade. The real world evidence of this was revealed in our previous installment. But this conclusion should not surprise anyone. For years, industry pundits have questioned the use of “tactical” – or short-term – asset allocation. Speaking with Morningstar’s Christine Benz in 2010, Jason Zweig, a personal finance columnist for The Wall Street Journal, said, “There are tactical asset allocation mutual funds that have been around for a long, long time. There are also many more that no longer exist because they were closed down, because the people with multimillion dollar budgets and supercomputers, and the world’s best investing software failed at it. So I don’t think that the average investor is likely to succeed at it, and I’m really not persuaded that most professionals will either.”1
Why Long-Term Asset Allocation Might be a Better Alternative
One of the corollaries of asset allocation is the need to rebalance. This is theoretically most effective when practiced over extremely long time periods. The focus on the long-term is critical because, as 2002 and 2008/2009 attest, there always remains the possibility of a short-term “anomaly.” Mark Lund, author of The Effective Investor and located in Draper, Utah, says, “The secret to making asset allocation work is having structured funds in the portfolio mix, rebalancing, and staying with it for the long run. One must know that there will be years when the market goes down but discipline is what wins the game.”
Establishing a fixed asset allocation with regular rebalancing is said to offer the advantage of systematizing the “buy low/sell high” philosophy that investment gurus have long touted as the secret to attaining a winning investment record. Robert R. Johnson, President and CEO, The American College of Financial Services located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, says, “Asset allocation is not only a valid concept, it is an essential part of a client’s investment plan. It is the rough guide and as part of an investment policy statement, the contract between an advisor and client. Target asset allocations help the client and advisor navigate rough waters. If, for instance, a client has a target stock/bond mix of 60/40, when equity markets have outperformed bond markets, periodic rebalancing will ensure that an investor’s asset allocation doesn’t vary too much from the target. It provides a discipline of buying the asset class that has underperformed and selling the asset class that has outperformed. Straying too far from the target asset allocation can subject the client to unintended risks.”
Again, as with the short-term hypothesis in Part III of this series, it’s easy to conduct an experiment that tests a similar long-term hypothesis.
The Long-Term Test
Like the short-term test, we used the Ibbotson data for annual stock and bond returns from 1926 – 2013. Unlike the short-term test, we’ve kept the mix limited to stocks and bonds. Also unlike the short-term test, we won’t guise this test in a story loosely based on characters from a classic Hollywood movie. This time we’ll go straight to the data.
First, we had to decide upon an appropriate long-term time period. Here, for reasons made obvious in Part V of this series, we picked a 40-year time frame. Next, we determined which stock/bond allocations to use. We went with 10% increments from 100% stocks to 100% bonds, figuring this was the only sure way to include the favorite balances of 70/30, 60/40, 50/50, and 40/60. There were a total of 49 40-year periods. The hypothesis here states there exists some allocation – not either 100% stocks or 100% bonds – that will provide the optimal portfolio mix. Here’s how they charted:
What’s interesting with this graph is that it shows the best allocation is no allocation – just put everything in stocks. Across the board, the 100% stock allocation has the highest high annual return, the highest median annual return, and the highest low return. This suggests, for 40-year time periods – not an unusual time duration for someone saving for retirement – the best returns comes from not using asset allocation.
And before you can say “risk-adjusted returns,” a statistical analysis shows the 100% stock portfolio possesses one of the lowest standard deviations. Only 90/10 (0.90%) and 80/20 (0.88%) have a lower standard deviation than 100% stocks (0.99%). All other asset allocations have standard deviations in excess of 1.00%, with the figuring increasing progressively until you have 100% bonds, which has a standard deviation of 2.34%.
We can conclude, with no rebalancing, a portfolio consisting of 100% stocks both performs better and is nearly as, if not more, reliable than all other stock/bond asset allocations.
But this leaves us with a question – What about rebalancing? Does rebalancing improve performance? That’s another hypothesis we can easily test.
The Rebalancing Test
In this test we pick one of the more popular asset allocations – the 60% stock/40% bond mix. Again using the annual data provided by Ibbotson from 1926-2013, this time we rebalanced annually. We used a 5% variance to trigger a rebalancing. In real life, to avoid the “blinker” problem (i.e., excessive trading caused by too small a rebalancing trigger), professionals will often use a larger variance (like 5%) before rebalancing. In our case, if at the end of the year stocks exceeded 65% of the portfolio, we sold down to 60% and put the balance in bonds. Likewise, if at the end of the year bonds exceeded 45% of the portfolio, we sold down to 40% and put the balance in stocks.
Remember, the concept of rebalancing is to “sell high” and “buy low.” The hypothesis would therefore state that, by rebalancing, the buy low-sell high asset class trading would yield a higher return. We ran the numbers with the 60/40 split to test this hypothesis. Here are the results:
Again, the results of this test will disappoint the asset allocation believer. It turns out an investor who does not rebalance will receive a higher return in all areas compared to an investor who rebalances. Needless to say, if rebalancing a stock/bond asset allocation mix doesn’t beat the results of the static case, then it certainly won’t beat the 100% stock mix. Again, in this variation of the long-term test, asset allocation fails.
Why does rebalancing fail? It appears, because stocks routinely (and to a significantly higher degree) perform better than bonds. That means annual rebalancing has you selling stocks in more years than you’re selling bonds.
Analyzing the results
More than a half century ago, a group of soon-to-be Nobel Prize winners made a guess. Built on the Capital Asset Pricing Model, The Efficient Frontier, and the primacy of rational markets, it became known as Modern Portfolio Theory. The consequence was asset allocation. We computed the consequences of that guess. We just now compared those consequences to experiment. The consequences disagreed with experiment. Therefore, it – asset allocation – is wrong. It’s that simple. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful the guess was. It doesn’t make a difference how smart the proponents of asset allocation are, that its creators won a Nobel Prize, or that a lot of really famous – and even successful people – will go to their grave believing in asset allocation. It disagrees with experiment. It’s wrong.
If not short-term, if not long-term, does asset allocation offer any value? Intuitively, it seems as though we’re missing something. The practice of “asset allocation” existed long before Modern Portfolio Theory, portfolio optimization, and high-end computing power. There has to be a reason why it’s been used for so long. It had to have added some value to investors.
Maybe it was the way it was used. Maybe it would be beneficial to review how old-time portfolio managers determined whether to invest in stocks or bonds. Maybe, just maybe, knowing this might be the best way professional (human) advisers will be able to survive the coming Robo-Advisor apocalypse.
We’ll cover this in our next and final installment.
Part I: 7 Deadly Sins Every ERISA Fiduciary Must Avoid: The 5th Deadly Sin – Asset Allocation
Part II: How’d an Innocent Fiduciary Like You End Up Asset Allocating?
Part III: Asset Allocation’s Greatest Failure: Short-Term Investing
Part IV: Why Asset Allocation Doesn’t Matter In The Long Run
Part V: The Hows, Whys, and Right and Wrong Way to Use Asset Allocation
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1Benz, Christine, “Zweig: Tactical Asset Allocation Has a Lot to Prove,” Morningstar, September 29, 2010