Many years ago, Jerry Wagner, Flexible Plan Investments’ founder and president, recognized the value of incorporating multiple asset classes into a portfolio—not statically but dynamically. Using multiple asset classes was not a new concept at the time, but using them dynamically was.
Over the years, investors and their advisers have occasionally pushed back on the use of multiple asset classes. They fear they won’t achieve the returns that a portfolio of stocks alone may provide. But something is missing from that argument: The returns that stocks alone provide come with the substantial risks associated with the stock market.
Market lessons about the importance of a risk-managed, diversified core
Many of my recent discussions with advisers have been about the importance of including a substantial core strategy allocation in every portfolio. I start by noting that stocks (as represented by the S&P 500) are up approximately 20% this year. I then explain that the core strategy allocation serves as the foundation of the portfolio. It provides exposure to stocks, bonds, and alternatives (which we represent here by gold). The core strategy also provides exposure to intermediate-term and long-term strategy time horizons.
Next, I explain the benefits of core and satellite strategies and highlight the value of our approach to portfolio construction, which we call “strategic diversification” (see the following graph).
Our implementation of strategic diversification is systematic. That means it is objective and rules-based. As investing rules are developed and tested, it is common to use lookback periods to determine the current state of the markets: bull, bear, or sideways.
When talking to advisers about strategic diversification and core holdings, I first present a three-month lookback. Many may be surprised to learn that both gold and bonds have performed better than stocks over the last three months. For this period, the multi-asset-class exposure of the core holdings would have worked to an investor’s benefit—both from a performance and a risk-management perspective.
Next, I present a six-month lookback. Once again, both gold and bonds have performed better than stocks. And, once again, the multi-asset-class exposure of the core holdings would have provided performance and risk-management benefits to an investor.
At this point, the conversation may turn to durable portfolio construction. At that point, I stretch the lookback of the markets further back in time. I then presented a graph of the past nine months. In the case of the last nine months, once again, both gold and bonds have performed better than stocks. And, once again, the multi-asset-class exposure of the core holdings would have provided performance and risk-management benefits to an investor.
At the risk of overstating my point, I will also stretch the lookback period of the markets to one year. As you may have guessed, gold and bonds performed better than stocks—and, once again, the multi-asset-class exposure of the core holdings would have provided performance and risk-management benefits to an investor.
To show that the past 12 months are not a rare example of market behavior, here is a graph of the first half of 2016. During that period, gold and bonds outperformed stocks while all three were positive. This is very similar to the last six months. Also worth noting is the tendency for bonds, and often gold, to move higher when stocks decline. This occurred multiple times in just the six-month period shown in the following graph. It is also one of the market phenomena on which strategic diversification was designed to capitalize.
After presenting these examples of the stock, bond, and alternative (as represented by gold) markets, the discussion about the core foundation of a portfolio takes on a new level of importance. While forecasting which of these asset classes is going to outperform the others in the future is difficult, responding to which asset classes are performing better is where our “dynamic” approach comes in.
By continually monitoring and measuring the markets for many years, we have been able to develop rules that direct us in changing our allocations to each of these asset classes as market conditions change. This ability to adapt to changing market conditions also means that success is not dependent on the performance of any one asset class.
There is another lesson unfolding in the markets these days: that all three asset classes do not all move higher together for prolonged periods of time. The money to drive an asset class higher generally has to come from another asset class. Therefore, to have all three asset classes move higher simultaneously, money generally has to come from cash reserves. Once those reserves are reduced, money has to come from other asset classes to sustain the leadership of any one or two of the asset classes.
In 2011, the leading asset class was gold. In 2013, the leading asset class was stocks. In 2014, the leading asset class was bonds. This brings us back to the need to have a dynamic core rather than a static, or fixed, core allocation.
At Flexible Plan, we have taken the dynamic core of a portfolio to a whole new level with our QFC Multi-Strategy Core offering. This approach provides a dynamic allocation among core strategies that are each dynamically managed using mutual funds that are also dynamically managed. This provides a core allocation that is dynamic among the included strategies, between the asset classes in each strategy, and within each of the mutual funds used by each strategy.
This approach to the core provides, in a single allocation, three layers of dynamic management that can be tailored to five different risk profiles from conservative to aggressive. In addition to all of these features, using Flexible Plan’s Multi-Strategy Core in a portfolio carries with it a fee credit that reduces the management expense incurred by the investor.
My hope is that after reading this, you will think of the dynamic core of a portfolio differently, appreciating it as the foundation of every portfolio.
Market update by FPI Research
Equity markets closed near record highs last week, rising for the third consecutive week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.70%, the S&P 500 gained 1.22%, and the NASDAQ finished the week up 1.90%. Corporate earnings were the main driver of market movements. So far, third-quarter results are better than expected. Also boosting investor sentiment were reports that the U.S. and China are getting closer to finalizing sections of the trade deal.
Since the beginning of the current reporting period (mid-October), around 500 companies have reported third-quarter earnings. As of Friday, 73% of companies have reported stronger-than-expected bottom-line earnings per share (EPS). According to Bespoke Investment Group, “The reading is unlikely to remain this high, but it shows that we’re off to a very strong start when it comes to earnings beats.” Bespoke adds, “There have only been six quarters out of eighty-five earnings seasons over the last 20 years where the EPS beat rate has been 70% or higher, and we might have a chance to make it seven this quarter.”
We are also approaching a typically more favorable environment for markets based on historical performance: the holiday season. Good corporate results, steady economic data, and price action around new highs may allow markets to break through prior highs and enter all-time new trading zones.
With the markets looking likely to set new highs, let’s take a look at two of our trend-following strategies to see how they are positioned within the current environment. QFC Self-adjusting Trend Following remained 2X long last week, ending with a gain of 3.69% after fees for the week. QFC Classic, one of our main market-beta strategies, remained fully exposed to equities and gained 1.60% after fees last week. If markets break through to new highs and continue their upward momentum, both strategies are well-positioned to capture the move. However, if markets fail to maintain higher levels and revert back to the prior trading range or sell-off hard into the fourth quarter, the active risk-management components of both strategies will allow them to take risk off the table and enter more defensive positioning. This ability is the benefit of employing actively managed strategies. The goal is to preserve capital for the next favorable market environment.
PAST PERFORMANCE DOES NOT GUARANTEE FUTURE RESULTS. Inherent in any investment is the potential for loss as well as profit. A list of all recommendations made within the immediately preceding twelve months is available upon written request. Please read Flexible Plan Investments’ Brochure Form ADV Part 2A carefully before investing. View full disclosures.