Astute investors realize the appeal of finding investment options that do not move in step with one another. Over time, we expect the stock market to increase in value, albeit with short-term fluctuations. Ideally, it would be great to identify an investment that increased in value when stocks faltered which would smooth out the volatility in a portfolio.
Traditionally, there are several asset categories that have this type of relationship: stocks and bonds, US stocks and international stocks, large cap stocks and small cap stocks, etc. Over time, the strength of the correlations between these asset classes has varied. To avoid having all your investment eggs in one basket, it is important to have appropriate asset allocation and diversification strategies, and to understand the difference between the two.
Asset allocation is the most basic and important component of investing. An asset allocation is simply the percentage of your portfolio invested in stocks, bonds, and cash. Your asset allocation is the primary determinate of how risky your investment portfolio is. Stocks are the most aggressive investment, bonds are a middle-of-the-road option, and cash is the safest way to invest your money. Of course, the higher the risk of your portfolio, the higher the return you should expect.
Asset allocation, not market timing or asset selection, will account for approximately 92% of your investment return. An appropriate allocation that matches your risk tolerance will help you obtain the rate of return necessary to achieve your investment goals while limiting volatility so you can sleep at night.
A well-devised asset allocation does not ensure you are appropriately diversified, however. For example, if you have determined that you should have 60% of your investments in stocks, you should not invest that full 60% in one stock. In fact, you should not have the bulk of your investments in the same asset category (large cap, mid cap, small cap, international, growth, or value).
To be adequately diversified you should have representation in each of the major asset categories. Further, you should own at least 50 stocks in each category. (Owning a large amount of your employer's stock in your 401k is a common way of breaking this rule.) This steps will prevent your portfolio from plummeting due to the performance of one under-performing stock.
Diversification applies not only to stocks, but also to the bond side of your portfolio. Many people invest solely in US corporate bonds, but they should be rounding out their portfolio and reducing risk by also investing in US Government bonds and international bonds.
If done properly, determining an asset allocation that is right for you will help ensure your portfolio is correctly positioned on the risk-return continuum. Diversification is an additional step that spreads your investment bets across various asset classes to prevent your entire portfolio from suffering losses all at once. Incorporating both strategies will lessen the volatility in your portfolio and increase your chances of reaching your investment goals.