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Managing Risk Instead of Trying to Beat the Market

The usual investor experience is a recurring cycle of euphoria and disappointment. Fortunately, there is a better alternative that can put an end to the emotional and financial rollercoaster that is all too common in traditional investing. This alternative requires a serious examination of what are the right priorities that should drive the portfolio management process.

Attempting to Beat the Market

One of the most dangerous goals individual investors have embraced is trying to “beat the market.” This objective can cause tremendous damage to their portfolios. Here is why: Beating the market (i.e. “getting a better return than the index”) does not accomplish much when the market goes down in a big way. A portfolio that declines by 30% when the index goes down 40% beats the market handily, but it hardly qualifies as “success.” This issue became clear during the market crash of 2008-2009. (For more, see: Don't Let Emotions Hinder Your Investing Goals.)

Another reason is that for a portfolio to beat the return of an average basket of stocks, it has to be more aggressive than the basket itself. If the market goes up, a portfolio heavy on conservative assets is unlikely to show higher returns than the market. That means that it needs to be over exposed to aggressive stocks, which magnifies losses when the market sooner or later takes a turn for the worse. This is what happened to investors who loaded up on Dotcom stocks during the late 90s, only to see them crash back to earth after the internet bubble burst.

Another issue is that “beating the market” is a pointless goal by itself. An elderly individual with many millions of dollars in the bank, modest expenses and no legacy goals is much better off with hyper-conservative investments to protect his or her savings rather than with a stock portfolio. Equity exposure is inherently risky, and potential returns would offer no marginal benefit to a portfolio that has already achieved the investor’s goal of paying all living expenses many times over.

Managing Risk

These three reasons – limiting the downside, determining the risk/return portfolio profile, aligning risk to goals – have a common thread: managing risk is more important than targeting returns. As a bonus, concentrating on risk rather than returns may actually lead to stronger portfolio performance.

Chasing returns often leads to this kind of unsatisfying experience:

In the last 20 years alone, investors have been badly bruised by several legs of bull and bear markets that leave them disappointed with their investment results. This is one of the reasons why the current bull market, although one of the strongest ever, has been called “the most hated rally in history.” Many investors are still stuck on the “I should have bought earlier” “I still don’t trust it” phase or have finally entered in the last 18 months, only to witness a market largely trapped in a range. (For more, see: Stock Picking: Keys to Successful Investments.)

Ironically, this dispiriting cycle reinforces the idea that beating the market is a do-or-die goal. As the thinking goes, eking out a market-beating return while the market goes up may well be the only way to cushion the downside when the cycle inevitably turns. Compounding this mistake, most investors think they will be able to identify the early stages of a bear market and exit early enough to prevent a big loss.

A much better approach is to focus on managing risk using a systematic, disciplined approach. This can result in a much more satisfying pattern that may require investors to accept lower returns than the market during a bull run in exchange for a considerably gentler experience during times of crisis.

That's why investors need portfolios intended to provide such a smoother experience. It requires a dynamic management of positions to ensure that the level of targeted protection is consistent with the market cycle. Most importantly, it focuses on risk management over return targeting as a source of investment performance.

As an example, we tested how a hypothetical portfolio of mutual funds would perform under some of our process rules. We chose mutual funds that have been around for a long time in order to cover many market cycles of boom and bust, and selected a group representing a broad array of domestic and foreign equity, bond and commodity baskets.

Long-Term Ride

As the graph shows, this hypothetical portfolio managed according to the risk-based approach could provide a much smoother long-term ride than the stock market or than a more typical 60% stocks, 40% bonds mix. It captures a positive return when the market goes up, and drastically cuts the downside in times of crisis. The process focuses on controlling risk over producing high returns, and yet it delivers a comparable performance to a much riskier all-equity exposure over the long term.

To achieve these results investors must take a long-term view and turn their focus away from trying to find market-beating positions, which is a largely impossible task other than by luck. Once they embrace the idea that risk management alone can produce much more stable long-term returns, they will be in a far better position to leave behind the frustrating cycle of euphoria and disappointment they often experience. (For more, see: Why Investors Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy.)