In years of answering people’s questions about investing, I’ve come to classify two major sources of problems: One, investing without thinking enough, and two, thinking too much about investments. We all know at least a few hypochondriacs who continuously suspect themselves to be suffering from dangerous illnesses and require frequent visits to specialists and get exotic medical tests done to allay their fears.
Similarly, there are a vast number of investment hypochondriacs who suspect their asset portfolios to be suffering from some dangerous disease. Generally, they believe that this disease can only be diagnosed by having a specialist examine the portfolio and test it by applying exotic formulae that will perform some magical analysis. Somewhat like its medical version, investment hypochondria, too, is encouraged by these specialists who claim to detect and cure exotic diseases suffered by investment portfolios.
One of the most popular type of diseases in this field is a faulty asset allocation. Many people are worried sick about whether their investment portfolios have the correct amount of money allocated to debt and equity. Periodically, I get asked about what the formula for calculating asset allocation is and sometimes I’m actually asked this not by a patient but by a budding specialist.
The problem, of course, is that there is no formula, nor can there ever be. Asset allocation is just a fancy term for investing according to your needs.
Try to get anyone like this to plan your investments and they’ll start by putting up a charade whose purpose is to convince you that finding out correct asset allocation is a complex process that requires proprietary formula being churned up in complex looking spreadsheets.
By this process, deciding on an asset allocation starts by figuring out how risk-averse you are and how much risk you are willing to take to get the returns you want. This sounds so logical and systematic but is actually completely useless. Professional investors who are investing other people’s money may be able to find out their location on a risk-vs-return continuum, but at the back of their mind, everyone else wants zero risk. And guess what, zero risk is effectively possible if you do asset allocation the right way.
The key to really figuring out asset allocation is simply to make a rough time table of the future, one where you try and lay down when you will need how much money. Now, what you need to understand is that over some time horizon, most asset types turn zero risk, or as least as close to it as humanly possible. What you need to do is to match your investment time horizon (and not some theoretical risk level) to the asset type.
Assets like bank Term Deposits and cash mutual funds are always zero risk, short-term income funds are zero risk after six months, and a good stock portfolio like a well-chosen set of diversified equity funds are close to zero risk after maybe seven years.
I’ll admit this is a slightly simplified view but what I’m trying to do here is to demonstrate the principal on which individuals should base their asset allocation. There is no formula for asset allocation. The right way to do this is to figure out what you plan to do with your money in the future. Risk and reward. They are two sides of the same coin – at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work for stock investors. If you assume the risk of investing in a stock, you should expect a reward that is appropriate to the risk.