In the latest piece from Research Affiliates, John West, Managing Director, Head of Client Strategies, explores unconscious rebalancing—such as firing a “bad” manager and hiring a “good” manager—a returns-chasing trade that may result in unintended consequences for the portfolio. Maintaining a well-balanced portfolio when one or more of its strategies is underperforming may be—just like getting a preschooler to eat a well-balanced diet—viewed as a most unpalatable option!

Behavior Biases That Lead To ‘Debalancing’

Eat a balanced diet. Drilled into our brains since preschool, this advice falls squarely in the “duh, everybody knows that” camp. But it’s not just kids who need reminding. Parents and grandparents, as role models and dietary enforcers, do too. Common sense alone tells us this universally applicable dictum is the right way to eat. Different foods have different nutritional and caloric values. If we eat a wide variety of food groups, or as a five-year-old child is taught, “Eat a rainbow,” good nutrition is likely to take care of itself.1

The hardest part of coloring in the rainbow for most eaters is adding the greens, yellows, and oranges that represent fresh fruits and vegetables. Everyone has an excuse: the taste, the texture, the expense. We try our best to make fruits and veggies more appealing to ourselves and to our children. One seemingly easy option is to eat prepackaged dried fruit or veggie chips. Both can be quickly packed for school or work lunches, and many prefer the taste. Yeah! Balance achieved. Or is it?

Indeed, closer examination finds that the drying and packaging processes can significantly diminish the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. The drying process concentrates the sugars in the fruit so if we eat the same amount of dried as we do of fresh, the amount of sugar we’re consuming skyrockets. And for some fruits, such as cranberries, sugar is even added to counteract natural tartness. As for veggie chips, they have many more calories than their fresh counterpart, while adding salt and fat and subtracting vitamins.  Our well-intentioned effort to maintain or improve dietary balance actually backfires. Our imbalances are only exacerbated through poor substitution!

Likewise, investors intuitively understand that they should broadly diversify the portfolio of assets that they hold. In other words, their asset allocation should “look like a rainbow.” But maintaining the optimal level of diversification is hard. As our colleague Jason Hsu says, “Diversification is the strategy of maximum regret because some part of the investor’s portfolio is always underperforming its benchmark!” For most investors, staying diversified is like trying to get a five-year-old preschooler to eat broccoli—it’s just plain “yucky” despite all the well-meaning, repeated pleadings of advisors and parents, respectively.

Our Investment Beliefs in Action: Rebalancing

[drizzle]Last fall, in concert with the release of Research Affiliates’ interactive Asset Allocation site,2 we published our investment beliefs. These beliefs share a central philosophy:  the largest and most persistent active investment opportunity is long-horizon mean reversion.3  The one investment activity that flows from this central assertion is rebalancing, a contrarian exercise that forces the investor to sell recent winners and buy recent losers. There are two key reasons to undertake this inherently uncomfortable trade:

  1. Excess Return. Although each instance of rebalancing is not perfectly timed to produce a massive windfall, or even to make money, over the course of a portfolio’s life as the mean-reversion cycle plays out and the investor repeatedly sells recent winners and buys recent losers, excess return should be generated. Rebalancing, when practiced consistently over time, has been demonstrated to produce long-term excess return in a broadly diversified portfolio.4Rebalancing also allows investors to potentially realize a higher dollar-weighted return because of an increased exposure to a security or sector after its recent poor results and before a subsequent performance uptick, and vice versa. Not surprisingly, this activity is hardwired in nearly all of Research Affiliates’ investment solutions, from our RAFI™ strategies to our work in GTAA.
  1. Targeted Risk. Rebalancing keeps a portfolio’s risk posture at the desired level; for example, rebalancing back to a 60/40 equity/bond allocation maintains the portfolio’s volatility at approximately 10%. After a period in which stocks have outperformed, the equity allocation will likely rise above 60%, causing the portfolio to have a higher risk profile than desired. Conversely, when bonds have outperformed, the bond allocation will be larger than desired, causing the portfolio’s risk profile to fall below the targeted 10%.

So whereas rebalancing may not achieve excess return in every instance, its ability to fine tune the risk posture of a portfolio is more or less a constant, if underappreciated, benefit of the practice.

Debalancing: Conscious vs. Unconscious

We call the opposite side of a rebalancing trade “debalancing,” an admittedly provocative label. But let us explain. If, through rebalancing, investors can achieve excess return and maintain portfolio risk at the desired level, the contrary approach (i.e., selling recent losers and buying recent winners) should be expected to produce the opposite results, or poor performance. The underperformance occurs because the higher allocation to recent winners, exactly the securities most penalized by a reversion in market sentiment, creates a huge drag on return. At the same time, portfolio risk drifts higher than the target level as the investor chases the winners and consequently increases the equity allocation of the portfolio.

The act of debalancing can be conscious or unconscious. We have no quarrel with investors who consciously debalance, and they do so for a number of reasons. Investors tend to have a time-varying risk aversion; their attitudes toward risk change as the economy and the markets ebb and flow. Some investors choose to sell recent losers. Two good examples of this are when certain investors sold equities in 2002 and 2008 in favor of plain old cash, and when they dumped bonds or small-cap value stocks in favor of the NASDAQ around 1999. These debalancers know they are abandoning diversification and deliberately changing their risk posture, but because they are uncomfortable taking a contrarian position or being labeled imprudent they proceed. It is bad behavior, but at least it’s done consciously with full awareness.

The more insidious trade is when investors unconsciously debalance.  All too often this is done under the guise of switching from a “bad manager” to a “good manager.” You know the routine. One manager hasn’t performed well, so the decision is made to hire a new one, which is an inherently returns-chasing exercise. What investor fires a bottom-quartile manager to hire another one with bad performance? They don’t. This returns-driven manager selection process ups the ante that the new manager will move the portfolio away from the previous strategy or sector allocation that has been underperforming. The result is less diversification in the portfolio.

Let’s rewind to the late 1990s when many investors were selling value stocks as technology stocks were advancing. Some—no doubt counseled by their disciplined advisors and consultants—kept a value equity allocation despite brutal relative results. To keep the allocation intact, however, they fired deep-value managers to buy relative-value managers, a new breed that would express a negative view on Microsoft by underweighting it rather than by not owning it. Investors believed their exposure to value was still in place, because they had simply replaced a poor value manager with a better one. In fact, this was unconscious debalancing in action. Finally, when a value strategy redeemed

1, 23  - View Full Page