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®


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.

Edi Alvarez, CFP®


ETNs (as ETFs) are they a good idea in your portfolio?

ETNs (as ETFs) are they a good idea in your portfolio?

Unlike an exchange-traded fund (ETF), an ETN (exchange-traded note) is your uncollateralized loan to investment banks. The banks promise exposure to an index’s return, minus fees. The draw is that, many (but not all) ETNs are taxed like stocks, regardless of the ETN’s true exposure not as ordinary income. These benefits could be a godsend for a hard-to-implement, tax-unfriendly strategy. You might think that you can have your cake and eat it, too.  Did we learn nothing from the bail out?

In fact, ETNs are dangerous tools in the hands of ‘professionals’ and a disaster for the unsuspecting public. They are one of the easiest ways individual investors and advisors unwittingly enter into contract relationships with vastly more sophisticated investment banks. It is hard to believe that in the midst of ‘financial regulation’ that ETNs (unlike mutual funds and most exchange-traded funds) are not registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940, or the ’40 Act, which obliges funds to have a board of directors with fiduciary responsibility and to standardize their disclosures. ETNs, on the other hand, are weakly standardized contracts. Where an ETN investor should fear what s/he doesn’t know, s/he instead is gulled into thinking s/he understands the risks and costs s/he bears.  If you can’t get yourself to read the prospectus carefully and analyse the fee structure caveat emptor.

The ETN is a fantastic deal for banks. An ETN can’t help but be fabulously profitable to its issuer. Why? They’re dirt-cheap to run. They’re an extremely cheap source of funding. More important, this funding becomes more valuable the bleaker an investment bank’s health – they can have their cake and eat it too! Finally, investors pay hefty fees for the privilege of offering this benefit. Believe it or not this isn’t enough for some issuers. They’ve inserted egregious features in the terms of many ETNs. The worst appear to insert a fee calculation that shifts even more risk to the investor, earning banks fatter margins when their ETNs suddenly drop in value (examples include DJP and GSP but there are many more).

The above fees scratch the surface. Other examples of investor unfriendliness follow:  UBS’s ETRACS (AAVX and BBVX etc) have a 4% levy on top of the 1.35% fee called event risk hedge cost.  Barclays’ iPath (BCM, etc) add 0.1% fee futures execution cost.  Also an additional 0.5% index calculation fee charged for Credit Suisse’s Liquid Beta (CSLS, CSMA, etc).

When many players in the industry behave in ways that signal they can’t be trusted, it raises questions about all ETNs. What a shame. The best ETNs could be useful tools, fulfilling their promise of tax efficiency and perfect tracking but none of these do.

The ETN product creators have gotten away with such investor-unfriendly behavior by free-riding the goodwill conventional ETFs have created as simple, low-cost, transparent, tax-efficient products. Understandably, many investors have taken for granted that the ETNs’ headline fees are calculated just like expense ratios, that “gotcha” fees are not facts of life. Given how publicly accessible ETNs are I recommend that most stay away from them.

*Edi Alvarez, CFP®



*The above is my opinion based on readings and triggered by an excellent article in Seeking Alpha by By Samuel Lee  “Exchange-Traded Notes Are Worse Products Than You Think” March 23, 2012.