Gold and its Glitter: Role of Gold in Portfolio Asset Allocation

“You can fondle it, you can polish it, you can stare at it. But it isn’t going to do anything.”

That’s what Warren Buffett had to say about gold. Essentially it is a useless commodity. But it has gone up every year for the last 10 years. It has given returns that are, perhaps, better than almost all asset classes over the last decade, including stocks and real estate.

goldimagesFor investors like Buffett, having gold in their portfolio may not make sense, but for an individual investor, it might make some sense to have a part of his money in gold. The reasons are not far to see.

As an asset class, gold is a funny asset which is difficult to understand and value. It has no inherent value as such. Neither does it produce anything useful, nor does it go as input into producing anything useful in a meaningful way.

Gold is different from other metals or commodities. To some extent, commodities and metals have material value as inputs to something, and their prices can vary based on supply and demand cycles. You may not like the extent to which they may fluctuate, but at least there is some basis on which someone can say that it does not make sense to pay so much for a particular commodity, or that it is cheap at a particular price.

Gold is also different from stocks – which are productive business activities and have the potential to give you both dividends and capital gains if selected well. There are multiple ways in which you may value stocks or companies, but there is a clear economic rationale for each of these. Opinions may never reach a common point, due to which you have markets and all the related volatility, but at least one can have an opinion based on a method of valuing stocks or businesses on their own.

Gold is different from real estate too – in the sense that one can broadly estimate the cost of constructing a property including land and material prices as the base minimum value,  a potential rental income based on economic conditions as the minimum rate of income return, and add capital gains which are broadly in line with inflation as the long-term returns from real estate. It is possible to, at least, broadly value it.

It is even possible to value currencies – based on the country’s macro-economic situation and speculation on what might happen.

goldeggimagesBut Gold? How does one value it? It is just there. One can calculate the cost of mining it as the base – but it is far too low, and not increasing at the rate at which gold prices are. Gold has historically been a hedge against almost everything. Most of the time it is useless as a productive asset. It may at best match inflation, thereby growing at a rate at which currency falls. But in times of crisis, it tends to become a currency of its own. Specially when people want to sell all their stock and run (not exactly that – but are jittery in general), are not confident of real estate prices going up due to some reason, and also do not believe in the value of currencies due to huge economic problems, the thing they seem to rely the most on is Gold. For some reason, some of these fears have been around in the global economy for the past few years, and perhaps will stay on for a few more. So Gold has risen, and may keep doing so – till those conditions continue.

Individual investors should still have stocks, real estate and cash/fixed income as core to their assets. But have a bit of gold too – anywhere from 5% to 20% based on your preference. A chaotic environment favors gold, and if it subsides, you anyway have the other assets. Gold will help provide some stability when others are unstable. Purely as an insurance and for diversification, there is still some truth in grandma’s advice to buy some gold.

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How to use Diversification to reduce 3 types of risks

The core objective of diversification is to reduce risk – the idea being that peaks and troughs in a specific investment does not affect overall portfolio return objectives.

diversification-risk

If one defines risk less as volatility, and more as a either a complete or partial, but permanent loss of capital, then an individual investor would be well-advised to consider diversification to reduce risk of a few primary types:

1. Asset Market or Systematic Risk: What if I am invested in the wrong asset class or market? This is best reduced by a prudent asset allocation decision. Investors should identify different types of asset classes that they want to be invested in along with ideal target percentages in each asset class. This will minimize the impact of being invested in the wrong asset class.

2. Unsystematic Risk: What if I choose the wrong stock or bond or property? This is best reduced by investing in a pool of candidates within the same asset class. So if it is equities, it is best to be invested in a bucket of unrelated good businesses, or in commodities or real estate, again try and be invested in unrelated asset candidates. This will minimize the impact of being invested in the wrong securities.

3. Timing risk: What if I invest at the wrong time? Well – you may have a well-diversified pool of securities in a well adjusted portfolio of asset types, but what if you invest at the peak of the markets? This is best reduced by making periodic investments in the assets of your choice, so that timing risk is reduced. This will minimize the impact of being invested in any asset at purely the wrong time.

For individual investors, more than chasing returns, if prudence is exercised in constructing a portfolio with the objective of reducing risk of the above three types, there are good chances that the returns will take care of themselves.

Is direct stock investing worth it or should mutual funds do?

Assuming that I want to “invest” in the stock market, and not “trade” or “speculate”, getting average market returns is a no-brainer. I just need to buy an open-ended index fund or an exchange traded index fund, and I am done. At the lowest cost, I am guaranteed returns that the market index will give – day on day, month on month, year on year.

stocks-vs-mutual-funds

Why, then, should I be even interested in investing in actively managed mutual funds? There can be only a few reasons for that. First – they give returns better than the index after deducing costs.  Second – I want an exposure to companies outside the index in a specific market cap or sector or style that I am bullish about. So it may make sense to supplement my index fund holdings by some actively managed funds that suit these requirements.

After that, why should I directly invest in stocks? Is it really worth the time and effort? There are few reasons when it may make sense. First – I am a better investor and can beat markets consistently. Easier said than done, but if that is the case, there is no reason I need to invest through the fund route. It is likely to take sufficient time and effort, but if indeed one can beat the index, why depend on mutual funds? Second – I want to invest in some businesses that are either small or in under-researched sectors that funds are not allowed to, or not able to invest in. There is a section of the market that institutions are not interested in. An individual investor who understands those businesses and has conviction on a particular company, has an advantage by investing directly. Third – this is perhaps due to the structural constraints of mutual funds. Due to the inherent requirement of funds to keep beating the index, some great businesses cannot be held by funds for long periods of time. For example, a mid-cap fund has identified a great mid-cap company, but once it becomes successful and actually becomes large-cap, the fund has to sell it. Or, during a market crash, a fund has to sell some companies to honor redemptions – so a buy and hold is not possible, even in case of great businesses.

In such scenarios, it may be worth it for individual investors to invest directly in stocks instead of the mutual fund route. But as index returns are easy to get, one has to be sure that these additional investments will actually help better portfolio returns rather than dilute them. Therefore, overall – allotting majority of your equity allocation to mutual funds (index or active based on performance) might be a prudent strategy for individual investors. Investments through direct stock holding can be a small part of your equity allocation – only in situations where there are valid reasons for the same.

5 Steps to Simplifying Portfolio Strategy using Asset Allocation

A lot of individual investors are so interested in getting answers to questions like which stocks to buy, at what price and when to sell – that they do not realize that these are the least important questions to get answered when it comes to building long term wealth.

Perhaps the single most important decision that influences long term returns has got to do with allocation ratio of asset types. That is – how much of my income after expenses – i.e. savings – do I put in various types of assets across stocks, fixed income, real estate, gold and cash? This is broadly referred to as portfolio asset allocation in financial parlance – and is the single most decision that impacts long term returns.

assetallocation

For simplifying portfolio strategy, all the opinions and advice can be essentially reduced to, in my view, a set of few simple steps:

1. Decide your asset allocation based on your life circumstances: For an individual who does not intend to do investments full time (i.e. has a job or business for his regular income), an allocation of up to 60% in equity, 10% in gold and the remaining 30% in cash and fixed income might be the optimal allocation. It may not give best returns, but is likely to be something that is practically followed over the long term.

2. Select your core and peripheral assets within the allocation: For most individual investors, index funds or select actively managed mutual funds are the best vehicles for equity participation.

3. Review once a year, and Rebalance when allocation ratios go out of whack: i.e. if equities have grown and now account for 70% of assets, shift 10% into others by selling; similarly if cash/fixed income or gold value has increased, shift proportionately into equity.

4. Set up a system for this: both contributions and rebalancing, so that you do not have to take decisions frequently.

5. Keep increasing absolute amounts or relative asset allocation, as your income levels increase or decrease, life circumstances change or ability to take risk alters.

This can be a framework for deducing a simple investment portfolio strategy for most individual investors. Once this is set up, the investor is likely to realize how unimportant the question of which stock to buy and when to sell really is.

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