Diversification: It’s Not Beauty and the Beast, but Still a Tale as Old as Time

Crosby_2015Dr. Daniel Crosby, Executive Director, The Center for Outcomes & Founder, Nocturne Capital

Hedge fund guru Cliff Asness calls it “the only free lunch in investing.” Toby Moskowitz calls it “the lowest hanging fruit in investing.” Dr. Brian Portnoy says that doing it “means always having to say you’re sorry.” We’re speaking, of course, of diversification.

Diversification, or the reduction of non-market risk by investing in a variety of assets, is one of the hallmarks of traditional approaches to investing. What is less appreciated, however, are the ways in which it makes emotional as well as economic sense not to have all of your eggs in one basket. As is so often the case, the poets, philosophers and aesthetes beat the mathematicians to understanding this basic tenet of emotional self-regulation. The Bible mentions the benefits of diversification as a risk management technique in Ecclesiastes, a book estimated to have been written roughly 935 BC. It reads:

But divide your investments among many places, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead. (Ecclesiastes 11:2)

The Talmud too references an early form of diversification, the prescription there being to split one’s assets into three parts—one third in business, another third in currency and the final third in real estate.

The most famous, and perhaps most eloquent, early mention of diversification is found in Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice, where we read:

My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,

Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate

Upon the fortune of this present year:

Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (I.i.42-45)

It is interesting to note how these early mentions of diversification focus as much on human psychology as they do the economic benefits of diversification, for investing broadly is as much about managing fear and uncertainty as it is making money.

Don't put your eggs in one basketBrought to the forefront by Harry Markowitz in the 1950s, diversification across a number of asset classes reduced volatility and the impact of what is known as “variance drain.” Variance drain sounds heady, but in a nutshell, it refers to the detrimental effects of compounding wealth off of low lows when investing in a highly volatile manner. Even when arithmetic means are the same, the impact on accumulated wealth can be dramatic. (This is not the same as the more widely used annualized return numbers, as they account for variance drain, but for this illustration, we’ll look specifically at variance drain.)

Say you invest $100,000 each in two products that both average 10% returns per year, one with great volatility and the other with managed volatility. The managed volatility money rises 10% for each of two years, yielding a final result of $121,000. The more volatile investment returns -20% in year one and a whopping 40% in year two, also resulting in a similar 10% average yearly gain. The good news is that you can brag to your golf buddies about having achieved an average return of 40%—you are an investment wizard! The bad news, however, is that your investment will sit at a mere $112,000, fully $9,000 less than your investment in the less volatile investment since your gains compounded off of lower lows. (To account for this, the investment industry uses annualized returns, which account for variance drain, rather than average returns.)

Managing variance drain is important, but a second, more important benefit of diversification is that it constrains bad behavior. As we’ve said on many occasions, the average equity investor lags the returns of the equity market significantly. It is simply hard to overstate the wealth-destroying impact of volatility-borne irrationality. The behavioral implication of volatile holdings is that the ride is harder to bear for loss-averse investors (yes, that means you).

As volatility increases, so too does the chance of a paper loss, which is likely to decrease holding periods and increase trading behavior, both of which are correlated with decreased returns. Warren Buffett’s first rule of investing is to never lose money. His second rule? Never forget the first rule. The Oracle of Omaha understands both the financial and behavioral ruin that come from taking oversized risk, and more importantly, the power of winning by not losing.

DiversificationAt Brinker Capital, we follow a multi-asset class investing approach because we believe that broad diversification is humility in practice. As much as experts would like to convince you otherwise, the simple fact is that no one knows which asset classes will perform well at any given time and that diversification is the only logical response to such uncertainty. But far from being a lame concession to uncertainty, the power of a multi-asset class approach has the potential to deliver powerful results. Take, for example, the “Lost Decade” of the early aughts, thusly named because investors in large capitalization U.S. stocks (e.g., the S&P 500) would have realized losses of 1% per annum over that 10-year stretch. Ouch. Those who were evenly diversified across five asset classes (U.S. stocks, foreign stocks, commodities, real estate, and bonds), however, didn’t experience a lost decade at all, realizing a respectable annualized gain of 7.2% per year. Other years, the shoe is on the other foot. Over the seven years following the Great Recession, stocks have exploded upward while a diversified basket of assets has had more tepid growth. But the recent underperformance of a diversified basket of assets does nothing to change the wisdom of diversification; a principle that has been around for millennia and will serve investors well for centuries to come.

Diversification does not assure a profit or protection against loss. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, a Registered Investment Advisor.