American investors lost trillions of dollars as a result of the bear markets of 2000-2002 and 2008. As a result of such losses, mutual funds companies are beginning to offer so called absolute return mutual funds. The goal of an absolute returns strategy is to achieve, positive, more consistent returns under all market conditions. While the power of consistent returns has long been recognized, investors should be aware that the new absolute return funds often use different approaches in trying to achieve such results, some more questionable than others.
The focus on absolute returns has been long overdue. While many investors and investment advisers focus primarily on returns, smart investors realize that the true secret to successful investing is managing investment risk. Legendary investor Benjamin Graham first advanced this concept decades ago. Investors would be well advised to read Charles Ellis’ classic, “Investment Policy-Winning the Loser’s Game” (the more recent edition simply goes under the title of “Winning the Loser’s Game”) for a simple explanation of the concept. Simply put, the concept of absolute returns simply follows the Wall Street axiom of “don’t tell how much you made, tell how much you were able to keep.”
Many investors lost money in the recent bear markets because they adopted the popular static buy-and-hold approach to investing. But the recent bear markets offered further proof that the buy-and-hold approach is fatally flawed in that it fails to recognize the cyclical nature of the stock market. What most investors do not realize is that the buy-and-hold approach is based largely on a famous study known as the BHB report and a misrepresentation of the study’s findings.
Some financial advisors will mislead investors and tell them that that there is no reason to make adjustments in one’s portfolio since the BHB study found that asset allocation, not individual investments, accounted for 93.6% of investment returns. What the BHB study actually found was that asset allocation accounted for 93.6% of the variability of investment returns, not the returns themselves,
Looking at only three types of investments, stocks, bonds and cash, the BHB study concluded that the variability of a portfolio’s investment returns increased as more money was allocated to the more volatile investments. In retrospect, this seems to simply be common sense. The key takeaway for investors is that the BHB study, however, did not study the determinants of actual investment returns, did not claim to do so, and made no representations regarding same.
Advocates of the buy-and-hold approach to investing often offer numbers regarding the cost of missing the “best” days of the stock market. As a trial attorney, I am always interested in the other side of the story, what is not being said. In this case, what is not being said is that recent research indicates that the benefits of avoiding the “worst” days of the market far outweigh the cost of missing the “best” days of the market.
A recent study by Javier Estrada of the IESE Business School found that missing the “best” 10, 20 and 100 days of the stock market (defined as the Dow Jones Industrial Average) during the period 1990-2006 reduced an investor’s returns by 38%, 56.8%% and 93.8%, respectively. On the other hand, Estrada found that avoiding the “worst” 10, 20 and 100 days of the stock market improved an investor’s returns by 70.1%, 140.6% and 1,691%, respectively. The study found similar results for the period 1900-2006. The difference in the numbers is due in large part to the fact that investors have to earn more, sometimes significantly more, than they lost just to break even and the time spent in making up for such losses constitutes an opportunity cost for an investor.
So what does this mean for investors? Does this mean that investors should engage in short-term market timing to avoid market corrections? Not at all, as trying to time the short-term swings in the stock market would be both costly and virtually impossible.
Absolute return investing simply acknowledges the cyclical nature of the market and then takes advantage of such nature to maximize potential performance. Those familiar with the classic book,“The Art of War,” will recognize this strategy of using the nature of things to one’s advantage as a cornerstone of General SunTzu’s strategies, but it is equally applicable to investing.
The truth is that most investment portfolios fail to take advantage of the nature of the market, as they contain too many investments with a high correlation of returns, meaning that the investments react in like manner to market conditions and therefore fail to provide an investor with adequate protection against downside risk. A 2007 study by Schwab Institutional reported that 75% of investor portfolios studied were inappropriate for the investor in light of the investor’s goals and/or financial situation. This unfortunate situation is often due to the shortcomings of the commercial asset allocation/portfolio optimization software often used by financial planners and investment advisers. These software issues and the unnecessary investment risks they create are addressed more fully in other articles on the InvestSense web site.
Fortunately, investors wishing to implement an absolute returns strategy can do so on their own and save the costs and expenses involved with mutual funds. There are a number of investment products currently on the market that can greatly simplify the process of constructing an absolute returns portfolio. By heeding the advice of General Tzu and focusing on investment alternatives that have varying levels of correlation of returns and monitoring the stock market to determine when portfolio reallocations or substitutions may be appropriate, an investor can effectively manage investment risk and improve their potential for investment success.