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On Best Asset Allocation

value based indexing

From a reader who is a dear friend of mine:

There are obvious many disparate approaches to asset allocation.  Similar to the disparate approaches of any style of investing, each asset allocation approach has its own particular pitfalls.  Some of these you can plan for and perhaps hedge against or at least mitigate the potential negative impact from those pitfalls, while some booby traps spring up out of nowhere.  Risk Parity issues revolve around leverage, negative skew, and potential negative returns from certain levered asset classes.  Long-term strategic asset allocation may suffer from the quality of initial assumptions and typically relies on stable volatility profiles and correlations between asset classes.  And so on.  Every professional investor – let’s take an endowment for instance – diversified its portfolio among several asset classes and styles of management.  But what is interesting to me is that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an institutional (or even HNW) investor diversify its portfolio among multiple asset allocation approaches.  Theoretically, splitting up a portfolio between 3-5 different AA approaches (strategic, risk-based, tactical with an opportunistic value lens, tactical with a momentum/trend-riding lens, etc.) mitigates the pitfalls of each one.  What are your thoughts here?  I have a few of my own, but I don’t want to muddy your own intellectual waters ahead of time.  On Best Asset Allocation

My personal approach to asset allocation is similar to Warren Buffett, or Value Line.  I invest mostly in stocks, and keep a bunch of safe assets for liquidity.  As the market rises, I add to my safe assets.  As the market falls, I buy stocks.  In October of 2002, things were so bad that I depleted my safe assets, an everything was in stocks.

In general, I think most complex asset allocation strategies are overly complex.  In general, there are safe and risky assets.  Asset allocation should first focus on the division between the two.  Typically the safe assets are high quality bonds and cash equivalents.  Sometimes there are more opportunities, sometimes fewer.  Safe asset levels should reflect that.

The second focus of asset allocation should be liquidity needs.  Even if there are a lot of promising opportunities to deploy cash, if the liability that funds the assets needs cash, have cash ready for it.  If you invest in limited partnerships or private companies where the assets are locked up for a period of time, have a sense of what your maximum level of illiquidity is (what will you with certainty never need to tap?), and ladder the investments so that like a laddered bond portfolio, you always have some illiquid investments maturing each year, providing fresh cash for deployment where current opportunities are most promising.  These top two ideas are very basic, buteven experts neglect them at times.

The third focus of asset allocation is choice of risk assets, which is how I view your question.  There my view of asset allocation is like that of GMO.  Forecast future returns off of free cash flow yields; invest accordingly.

Don’t pay much attention to volatility, but aim for what is most likely, and bend a little in the direction of what can go wrong.  Most of the time, over longer periods of time, what is most likely happens on average; that’s why it is most likely.

Maybe “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”  I have enough trouble trying to work with momentum versus mean reversion.  I would lean toward having one AA strategy that fits with my broader asset management practices.  But on the other hand…

Suppose we did have five asset allocation models, and what their results were encouraging various investors to do.  If we thought that one of the models had been too hot of late, and was attracting too much money, and distorting ordinary market relationships, maybe that could give us a signal to make sure our asset allocation de-emphasized the results of that method.  Timing of course would be difficult, it always is, but seeing the results of the five methods could provide a fuller view of choices faced by our competitors.

I’m not sure that using the average of a number of asset allocation models will provide the best result, but I think that understanding what other players in the market are doing could lead to better decisions.

I’m open to your thoughts, and the thoughts of other readers here.  Anyone have a better idea?

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.