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In addition, asset allocation is important because it has major impact on whether you will meet your financial goal. If you don't include enough risk in your portfolio, your investments may not earn a large enough return to meet your goal. For example, if you are saving for a long-term goal, such as retirement or college, most financial experts agree that you will likely need to include at least some stock or stock mutual funds in your portfolio. On the other hand, if you include too much risk in your portfolio, the money for your goal may not be there when you need it. A portfolio heavily weighted in stock or stock mutual funds, for instance, would be inappropriate for a short-term goal, such as saving for a family's summer vacation.
How to Get Started
Determining the appropriate asset allocation model for a financial goal is a complicated task. Basically, you're trying to pick a mix of assets that has the highest probability of meeting your goal at a level of risk you can live with. As you get closer to meeting your goal, you'll need to be able to adjust the mix of assets.
If you understand your time horizon and risk tolerance - and have some investing experience - you may feel comfortable creating your own asset allocation model. "How to" books on investing often discuss general "rules of thumb," and various online resources can help you with your decision. For example, although the SEC cannot endorse any particular formula or methodology, the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System offers an online asset allocation calculator. In the end, you'll be making a very personal choice. There is no single asset allocation model that is right for every financial goal. You'll need to use the one that is right for you.
Some financial experts believe that determining your asset allocation is the most important decision that you'll make with respect to your investments - that it's even more important than the individual investments you buy. With that in mind, you may want to consider asking a financial professional to help you determine your initial asset allocation and suggest adjustments for the future. But before you hire anyone to help you with these enormously important decisions, be sure to do a thorough check of his or her credentials and disciplinary history.
The Connection Between Asset Allocation and Diversification
Diversification is a strategy that can be neatly summed up by the timeless adage "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." The strategy involves spreading your money among various investments in the hope that if one investment loses money, the other investments will more than make up for those losses.
Many investors use asset allocation as a way to diversify their investments among asset categories. But other investors deliberately do not. For example, investing entirely in stock, in the case of a twenty-five year-old investing for retirement, or investing entirely in cash equivalents, in the case of a family saving for the down payment on a house, might be reasonable asset allocation strategies under certain circumstances. But neither strategy attempts to reduce risk by holding different types of asset categories. So choosing an asset allocation model won't necessarily diversify your portfolio. Whether your portfolio is diversified will depend on how you spread the money in your portfolio among different types of investments.
A diversified portfolio should be diversified at two levels: between asset categories and within asset categories. So in addition to allocating your investments among stocks, bonds, cash equivalents, and possibly other asset categories, you'll also need to spread out your investments within each asset category. The key is to identify investments in segments of each asset category that may perform differently under different market conditions.
One of way of diversifying your investments within an asset category is to identify and invest in a wide range of companies and industry sectors. But the stock portion of your investment portfolio won't be diversified, for example, if you only invest in only four or five individual stocks. You'll need at least a dozen carefully selected individual stocks to be truly diversified.
Because achieving diversification can be so challenging, some investors may find it easier to diversify within each asset category through the ownership of mutual funds rather than through individual investments from each asset category. A mutual fund is a company that pools money from many investors and invests the money in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. Mutual funds make it easy for investors to own a small portion of many investments. A total stock market index fund, for example, owns stock in thousands of companies. That's a lot of diversification for one investment!
Be aware, however, that a mutual fund investment doesn't necessarily provide instant diversification, especially if the fund focuses on only one particular industry sector. If you invest in narrowly focused mutual funds, you may need to invest in more than one mutual fund to get the diversification you seek. Within asset categories, that may mean considering, for instance, large company stock funds as well as some small company and international stock funds. Between asset categories, that may mean considering stock funds, bond funds, and money market funds. Of course, as you add more investments to your portfolio, you'll likely pay additional fees and expenses, which will, in turn, lower your investment returns. So you'll need to consider these costs when deciding the best way to diversify your portfolio.
Changing Your Asset Allocation
The most common reason for changing your asset allocation is a change in your time horizon. In other words, as you get closer to your investment goal, you'll likely need to change your asset allocation. For example, most people investing for retirement hold less stock and more bonds and cash equivalents as they get closer to retirement age. You may also need to change your asset allocation if there is a change in your risk tolerance, financial situation, or the financial goal itself.
But savvy investors typically do not change their asset allocation based on the relative performance of asset categories - for example, increasing the proportion of stocks in one's portfolio when the stock market is hot. Instead, that's when they "rebalance" their portfolios.
Rebalancing is bringing your portfolio back to your original asset allocation mix. This is necessary because over time some of your investments may become out of alignment with your investment goals. You'll find that some of your investments will grow faster than others. By rebalancing, you'll ensure that your portfolio does not overemphasize one or more asset categories, and you'll return your portfolio to a comfortable level of risk.
For example, let's say you determined that stock investments should represent 60% of your portfolio. But after a recent stock market increase, stock investments represent 80% of your portfolio. You'll need to either sell some of your stock investments or purchase investments from an under-weighted asset category in order to reestablish your original asset allocation mix.
When you rebalance, you'll also need to review the investments within each asset allocation category. If any of these investments are out of alignment with your investment goals, you'll need to make changes to bring them back to their original allocation within the asset category.
There are basically three different ways you can rebalance your portfolio:
Before you rebalance your portfolio, you should consider whether the method of rebalancing you decide to use will trigger transaction fees or tax consequences. Your financial professional or tax adviser can help you identify ways that you can minimize these potential costs.
When to Consider Rebalancing
You can rebalance your portfolio based either on the calendar or on your investments. Many financial experts recommend that investors rebalance their portfolios on a regular time interval, such as every six or twelve months. The advantage of this method is that the calendar is a reminder of when you should consider rebalancing.
Others recommend rebalancing only when the relative weight of an asset class increases or decreases more than a certain percentage that you've identified in advance. The advantage of this method is that your investments tell you when to rebalance. In either case, rebalancing tends to work best when done on a relatively infrequent basis.
Where to Find More Information
For more information on investing wisely and avoiding costly mistakes, please visit the Investor Information section of the SEC's website. You also can learn more about several investment topics, including asset allocation, diversification and rebalancing in the context of saving for retirement by visiting NASD's Smart 401(k) Investing website as well as the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration website.
You can find out more about your risk tolerance by completing free online questionnaires available on numerous websites maintained by investment publications, mutual fund companies, and other financial professionals. Some of the websites will even estimate asset allocations based on responses to the questionnaires. While the suggested asset allocations may be a useful starting point for determining an appropriate allocation for a particular goal, investors should keep in mind that the results may be biased towards financial products or services sold by companies or individuals maintaining the websites.
Once you've started investing, you'll typically have access to online resources that can help you manage your portfolio. The websites of many mutual fund companies, for example, give customers the ability to run a "portfolio analysis" of their investments. The results of a portfolio analysis can help you analyze your asset allocation, determine whether your investments are diversified, and decide whether you need to rebalance your portfolio.
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