What makes a portfolio “good”

What are the ingredients of a good portfolio?

If you do a little research, you will likely discover the three characteristics or criteria of a ‘good’ portfolio: (1) it should be diversified, (2) uses indexes, and (3) keeps costs low. All valid characteristics, to a point. In reality, this amounts to an over simplification that tells only part of the story. Applied to a poorly constructed portfolio, these characteristics will not help you create a good portfolio and you will not feel the confidence you need to see you through a market downturn. So, what is the best recipe for a ‘good’ portfolio—one that doesn’t cause you anxiety and keeps you up at night while generating long-term reasonable returns?

Here is my list of five ingredients for an effective long-term portfolio:

1.      HAS A STRATEGY. First and foremost, your portfolio should follow a strategy that you believe will be effective. You need to understand and believe in it enough that you can allow it to capture value over time (while others are off chasing the latest trend). At AIKAPA we use a global investment strategy that leans towards value (rather than growth) allocations.

2.      IS DIVERSIFIED. Select a diversification that represents your strategy and provides exposure to asset classes that behave significantly different from each other. In AIKAPA’s portfolio we are diversified across equities (that include large and small US and non-US equities) and across bonds, each global asset class providing opportunities to capture value. Using the chart below, you can compare global asset classes and how their volatility and returns differ from each other.


3.      IS LOW-COST/HIGH-QUALITY (i.e., often an index fund). Implementing your diversified strategy needs to be completed using low cost, high quality securities. Use of baskets of securities (such as proven index funds) to represent chosen asset classes in your portfolio will permit the needed diversification while eliminating the risk associated with the failure of any one company (mutual funds or exchange traded funds are the baskets we use for your portfolio).

4.      IS LOCATION SENSITIVE and TAX MINDFUL.  Being mindful and “tax sensitive” when purchasing securities and locating them in the appropriate type of account can result in higher NET gains. Tax free, tax deferred, and taxable accounts should hold securities that will provide needed diversification, but will also yield the best AFTER tax returns. This approach is termed asset LOCATION selection. Taxable accounts are particularly valuable in the short and long-term but should hold assets that will not dramatically increase personal tax liability (particularly for those already in the higher tax brackets). As an example, two similar US Small capitalization funds can create very different tax liability simply by the level of “turnover” inside the fund. This turnover is often caused by frequent trading by the fund managers and can significantly reduce after tax net returns.

5.      IS REGULARLY REBALANCED. Finally, we have rebalancing of a portfolio. Rebalancing by conventional wisdom is what enhances your long-term returns by periodically selling what is overpriced (over-valued) and buying those that are underpriced (under-valued). The reality is not quite that simple. Automatic rebalancing software, for example, is tempting owing to its simplicity, BUT can lead to high turnover and reduced gains. Keep in mind, rebalancing has at least two different purposes. Rebalancing across unlike return assets (for example between equities and bonds) will result in a decrease in long-term returns, while reducing volatility (or risk). Yes, you trade some upside to reduce the downside. On the other hand, rebalancing between similar return assets (such as, between equity funds of large and small capitalized companies) will capture gains and lead to enhanced long-term returns as long as you don’t trade too often.

Assuming you’ve got all the correct characteristics in place, a ‘good’ portfolio ensures you’ve got adequate exposure to the market while assuming a measured level of risk, tax sensitivity, and an appropriate degree of rebalancing.

At the end of the day, a good portfolio can only succeed if you believe in the strategy and, most importantly, allow it to perform as designed over the long-term. To do this you, you must be certain that it is a good portfolio for you.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


Converting Sweat Equity to Personal Wealth


If you are a small business owner, you’re probably familiar with the term “sweat equity.” Essentially, sweat equity is a measure of the added interest or increased value that you’ve created in your business through plain hard work (that is to say, through physical labor and intellectual effort). Typically, business owners just starting out don’t have the necessary capital or don’t want to hire a large staff to run the business or to purchase high-tech, so they put in untold extra hours, do much of the work themselves and try to “think smart” in terms of marketing or production. They often use this opportunity to develop a clientele and a business process they enjoy. If well designed it can be profitable, but at some point the owner must put in place strategies that can convert business profit into personal wealth.

In other words, to be considered a truly viable business, at least two things must happen (there are others, but for the purposes of this article we’ll just focus on two). One, you must evolve the business to the point where it is sustainable with only the amount of personal labor you want to dedicate and in a way that allows you to maximally build Owner Wealth while covering business cash flow needs. Moreover, the goal is a process that gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This is what we call a “life-style” business. Or two, you must organize and prepare the business to a degree or footing that it can be sold for a profit, at least enough and in a manner that will allow you to retain the profit as personal or “Owner Wealth.”

I should note, for those who are not self-employed, that employees can also generate sweat equity for their firm by creating additional ways to increase the bottom line. For startups, you may defer your vacation and even put off earnings. All these things add value to the company, but employees will expect to receive some form of compensation either in the form of existing benefits (bonus, parental leave, or nonqualified plans) or in shares of company value.
As a business owner, the first question you must ask yourself is “What do I want my life to look like while I’m creating this equity, and what do I want to accomplish in the long term?” Once you answer this question, and only then, can we come up with a proper plan to support your direction.

It is our experience that business owners without such a plan likely encounter challenges that can undermine their ability to convert their equity to personal wealth. These challenges come either in terms of selling the business or ensuring that the life-style business is sustainable. For instance, there is a good chance that instead of generating wealth to your maximum potential, you’ll be funding Uncle Sam (and the California Franchise Tax Board) and coping with cash flow problems.

Presupposing your business is already generating profits, a well-tailored plan can (at least potentially) make a big difference in terms of retaining or accumulating Owner Wealth. Aside from using earnings to support current lifestyle, your business can create benefits that permit the owner to retain earnings for future use and reduce current tax liability, particularly important in California, where the tax liability on business owners with profitable business can exceed 50% of their business profit.

For example, a business owner with sweat equity from their start-up or life-style business that yields around $500K per year (after business expenses) might have a tax liability of $110K (IRS only) or $155K in California (see table below). Using available benefit tools/strategy an owner can (in this scenario) build wealth annually of about $230K. Much of their wealth is built from deferring taxable income and lowering their tax liability to $45K (or $70K within California).


Allowed to grow over 5, 10, or 20 years this strategy could (at a conservative 5% annual return) yield wealth of $1.3M, $2.9M and $7M respectively for the business owner. On its own, tax and benefit planning can yield a high conversion of sweat equity to Owner Wealth.

When starting a business, the last thing we ever think about is how we’ll exit from it and collect on all the hard-earned sweat equity we’ve invested. We’re usually focused on creating value and determining how we can generate sufficient earnings. Yet for some businesses it is only from a well-designed and planned sale that the owner will realize any personal wealth from their risk and hard work. For the owner of a life-style business, selling your firm may seem akin to selling off your first-born, but there comes a time in all our lives when such decisions are unavoidable, even advantageous. At the very least, it may be worth considering selling part interest in the business as a way of reducing workload and simultaneously augmenting Owner Wealth.

As an owner ready to sell you will want to be confident that you are choosing the right time, securing the best price, and structuring the transaction wisely. You’d be well advised to seek expertise in selling your business (particularly new entrepreneurs), and give plenty of thought to how it will impact Owner Wealth, which is all too often overlooked.

When considering how to exit from their business, entrepreneurs need to at least follow these 7 steps to maximize Owner Wealth.

  1. Plan your exit well in advance since the best fit team and solution may take time to identify and develop.
  2. Understand and acknowledge your emotional connection to the business. It can be deeply personal and leave you unsatisfied if not fully addressed – regardless of profit.
  3. Prepare the business for the sale so that it is financially attractive to the financial advisors of potential buyers.
  4. Choose experienced individuals in your specific type of business to guide you through the process of selling your business BUT include your personal advisor to ensure that the best exit also meets with your personal financial goals. Again, building a team that is right for you.
  5. Think clearly about family succession – don’t make assumptions on how your family or key employees feel about the business.
  6. Gauge the interest for a friendly buyer from co-owners, family, employees, vendors, and even customers.
  7. Develop a thorough wealth strategy plan. The wealth strategy plan should NOT be just about the business but should address how your efforts will be used to build your personal wealth and meet your personal goals.

Take the time to know yourself, know your goals and make absolutely sure your financial advisor has a clear picture of your objectives. Together, your plan will convert all that valuable sweat equity into wealth to fuel your dreams.

Building Wealth: Your Real Estate Asset

Real estate is often purchased as a lifestyle asset (to live in) or as a commercial investment (to generate rental income). It’s also quite common for people to think of their home as both lifestyle and an investment. Certainly, the most common near-term goal for families is home ownership – many think it amounts to a “no brainer” investment (meaning they think their home is a great investment) when it actually costs them much more than they realize.

In our examination of annual return rates on residential and commercial real estate we find that real estate is by no means a no brainer investment. Real estate assets can indeed contribute to wealth creation if the purchaser buys for value, carefully manages maintenance/renovation costs, and the sale is handled with an eye to minimizing taxes on gain from the sale.

Your residence has the potential to be a large part of your wealth, particularly in the Bay Area, but it can also be your largest liability.

Lending institutions have different requirements when lending for an owner occupied residence than for commercial real estate. A primary residence can often be purchased with lower down payments and lower mortgage rates than non-owner occupied real estate. In addition, on the sale of the owner occupied residence the gain will often fall under the capital gain exclusion rules which allow couples to exclude $500K from their income, tax free. This is one of the few opportunities to realize gain completely tax free. Couples who want their residence to be an investment rather than a lifestyle asset should consider selling their home once the gain (market value above basis) in their home approaches the $500K cap gain exclusion. This doesn’t mean you have to buy bigger or smaller or move away from your neighborhood but it does mean that you must sell a property to capture this tax free gain.

If a couple bought a home for $600K, made no renovations and 5-10 years later it is worth $1M they could choose to sell their home and retain the $400K gain tax free. They could repeat this process several times in a couple’s lives and each time a sale is completed the gain can be retained tax free. At the end of 3 rounds (there are residence requirements for each exclusion to be allowed) this couple could have managed to clear (net) well over $1M tax free. Despite this unparalleled opportunity to build tax free wealth, most home owners will buy one home and live in it until retirement. A well purchased property will still yield gain but much of it will be taxed. A home purchased at $600K that sells for $1.8M in retirement will have $500K of the gain tax free but $700K will be taxed at capital gain rates federally and at regular income rates by the state.

A residence can turn into a large liability when the debt burden is too high, when the home renovations do not yield increased value for resale, when the home requires a lot of maintenance, and when the location is no longer appealing (loss of home value appreciation).

Unlike residential home purchases, real estate purchased for investment is first valued on its ability to generate sufficient income and not as much on its appreciation. Before buying an investment property the property is thoroughly analyzed from various perspectives. An APOD (Annual Property Operating Data) is the principal tool to understand the cash flow, return rate, and profitability that can be expected from a prospective property. Once a property passes the APOD test (primarily for risk assessment) then the tax shelter provided by such an investment and the impact of the time value can be used to determine if this is an appropriate investment. Not surprisingly, much of the success of these investments stem from proper usage of tax rules. The value of the annual depreciation (using Schedule E) is well known. An equally important tax tool is a 1031 exchange. In a 1031 exchange the value of the investment property you own can be used to buy a second investment property of the same or greater market value while deferring tax payments on the gain.

In short, both residential and non-owner occupied real estate can be part of your investment plan. Unlike market investments it is more difficult to identify and protect against unexpected events and the illiquid nature of ‘real’ assets. Managing real estate to attain investment value requires thoughtful deliberate actions that may not always be aligned with your personal wishes (far from being a “no brainer”). Investing in real estate can reap big rewards, but entails doing a lot of meticulous research, taking only risks that are necessary, covering for contingencies, working with an experienced team, and then allowing time to do the work.

If you need help deciding whether a real estate purchase fits with your long term goals, give Aikapa a call.


Role of Bonds in a Portfolio – Bonds and a rising interest rate

In an age when data can be churned out for hungry consumers in the blink of an eye (in fact, much faster than it can be studied and the underlying meaning accurately assessed) there is never a shortage of pundits ready to point the way to a new and better ways to invest. With all that hype, it is understandable how you might sometimes feel like abandoning your current investment plan for on recommended by the latest ‘experts’.

In the last quarter of 2013, the bond gurus accepted that it was time to exit bonds and to move to equity assets. The evidence was clear that bonds were ready to collapse since rising interest rate and the end of QE3 would not support bond investments in early 2014.

What actually came to pass was quite different. The first quarter of 2014 was one of the best for US bonds, much better than most equity asset classes. In addition, this last month when all asset classes swooned for about 3-4 weeks, the bond assets of your portfolio remained unchanged or grew. But when have bonds been useful in a real portfolio? I want to draw your attention to the role that bonds played in these specific years between 1997 and 2013: Below, I’ve selected years when large company equity (in developed markets) was down while bonds were up. Note that in each of these year it is the bonds that help a well-diversified portfolio retain its value.

The applicable percentage for US Large Cap, then Non-US Large Cap, then US Bonds, then Global Bonds follow after each listed year from 2000 to 2011:

2000 -9% -14% 11% 9%

2001 -12% -21% 8% 6%

2002 -22% -15% 8% 11%

2007 5% 12% 7% 7%

2008 -37% -41% 5% 1%

2011 2% -12% 8% 9%

This is an example of how bonds play an important role in a diversified portfolio. It is also a reminder of the value that rebalancing plays between asset classes.

In summary, we must not forget the importance of bonds as diversifiers of equity risk in a balanced portfolio, even during low-interest rate periods.