(from Carl Richards’ in the 8/12/2013 New York Times – click here for the original post. Carl is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah and director of investor education at the BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published last year. His sketches are archived on the New York Times’ Bucks blog.)
It’s a classic moment in sports history. With less than 20 seconds left in Game 6 of the 1998 N.B.A. finals and the Chicago Bulls down by one, Michael Jordan goes one-on-one with Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz. He pushes off (clearly!), Russell stumbles and the ball hits nothing but net. Game over. Bulls win.
Now let’s imagine that something different happened. Jordan misses the shot in Game 6, and Game 7 comes down to the same spot: fewer than 20 seconds left with the Bulls down by one. If you’re Phil Jackson, the head coach, do you set up the last play for Jordan, or does the ball go to someone else? Remember, Jordan missed the night before.
Of course the right strategy is to put the ball in Jordan’s hands. Just because he missed the shot before doesn’t mean it was the wrong strategy to have Jordan shooting the ball in the final seconds. The odds are incredibly high that he will make the shot even though he missed it the night before.
I bring this up because it perfectly captures the investing adage that never seems to die: diversification is “broken.” It seems as if this story pops up every year, but it’s not really about anything new. Both Joshua M. Brown at The Reformed Broker and Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture have written blog posts about it recently. Mr. Brown quoted an adviser who said:
“Why bother diversifying at all? It’s just a drag on performance. What’s the point of owning any bonds or international stocks?”
So here’s the 2013 version of the diversification story.
Let’s say at the beginning of 2013 you finally decided you were going to stop pretending to be a trader and instead be a long-term investor. You were going to do what most of the academic research recommends and build a diversified portfolio of low-cost investments. Then you planned to hold on to it for a long time.
As part of your new plan, you put something like 30 percent of your portfolio in international mutual funds. Now seven months into the year, you’re disappointed because international has done poorly relative to your Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fund. In fact, year to date, your S&P 500 index fund is clearly the only place you should have put all your money. Its gains have been twice those of almost any other major asset class.
Obviously, it was a mistake to diversify, right? Wait. Before you answer, let me share one of my favorite stories about diversification.
In 1998, the S&P 500 ended the year up 28.6 percent. But nothing else was really performing. Small-capitalization stocks were down 2.2 percent, and small-cap value stocks were in the tank. The temptation to go all in on large-cap technology stocks proved to be too much for most of us. After all, nothing else was working.
Now fast forward to 2001. The tech bubble had burst. The S&P 500 was down a bunch in 2000 and ended 2001 down 11.9 percent. Based on those numbers, it’s fair to assume the stock market was terrible, right? Well, it depends on which market you were talking about.
Remember those small-cap stocks that everyone was complaining about in 1998 and 99? Sit down for this. In 2001, while the S&P 500 was getting crushed, small-cap stocks returned 17.6 percent. And small-cap value stocks, down 10 percent in 1998, ended 2001 up 40.6 percent.
I suspect your first thought to this example is, “Why not just buy things right before they go up and sell before they go down?” Let me save you a lot of money and many headaches. It’s all but impossible for investors to catch all the up while avoiding all the down. But it can be equally difficult for us mere mortals to stick with diversification because it looks as if we should be able to time the market, and, well, diversification isn’t sexy or exciting.
First, diversification works over time, and no, seven months doesn’t count. When we talk about diversification working, we’re talking in terms of years, even decades. Not just days, weeks or even months. In other words, we’re talking in investing terms, not trading terms. We don’t like things that take a long time to work. We want to know what’s working now.
Second, diversification is not exciting. It’s the investing equivalent of hitting singles and doubles your whole life, and who grows up wanting to do that? We want to hit home runs. Players who try to hit home runs every time (like timing the market) are going down swinging in a blaze of glory or knocking it out of the park. Either way, it’s cool, sexy and exciting — all the things diversification is not.
Finally, diversification can look like a mistake at any given moment. A well-designed and diversified portfolio will always have something that’s not doing well, a few things that are average, and, hopefully, one or two things that are exciting. The problem, of course, is that the investments change places about the time you’ve had enough and you decide it’s time to boot out the underperformers. It’s human nature to run from things that cause us pain and get more of the things that bring us pleasure. It’s why we look for ways to “fix” our portfolios.
It may seem counterintuitive, but if you have something in your portfolio that you’re complaining about, it’s a good sign you’ve built a diversified portfolio. And if that’s the case, you’re probably complaining right now about international mutual funds and wondering why you aren’t invested 100 percent in the S&P 500. But as Mr. Brown so wisely notes, “Five months still to go, anything can happen…”
Next year, there will be a different story about why diversification is “broken,” but all it takes is looking at the year before that, then 5, 10, 15 and 20 years before that to see why you want to hit singles and doubles for the rest of your investing life. Personally, I’d rather save my energy for other things besides trying to second-guess which market will take off next. I’ve got better things to do. Don’t you?