Rebalancing investments in two steps

A disciplined investment process begins with determining the asset mix that is right for you. By asset mix we refer to the portion you have in one of three broad categories of investments, including cash, fixed income and equities. Fixed income includes guaranteed investment certificates, term deposits, bonds, bond exchange traded funds, debentures, preferred shares, etc.. Equities are what many would refer to as the “stock market”. Life, markets and your asset mix all change with time. Decisions you made yesterday may not hold true with new information tomorrow. This is the reason that your investment strategy is not just about the markets. When you buy a house, have a child or approach retirement, your investment goals will change. As your goals change, so might your asset mix. For example, the asset mix of a very aggressive investor would not be suitable for someone who is retiring in the coming years. Just as major life events change us, we can also look at major market events as changing the way we look at our portfolio. For some investors this may be an opportunity for reflection. You may ask yourself if your “normal” asset allocation is still valid once you have considered any changes in your life. If that answer is yes, then when markets change as they do, it may also be time to consider rebalancing your portfolio back to its original mix.

Interest rate changes and market movement results in fluctuations between asset mix. From the day you begin investing, your asset mix is constantly changing. To illustrate, we will use Thomas and Heather Bennett who invested in a portfolio with the following asset mix: Cash 0 per cent, Fixed Income 40 per cent, and Equities 60 per cent. Asset classes do not change at the same rate. Over time, stocks may grow faster than bonds making the growth in your portfolio uneven. For example, the Bennett’s portfolio that started with 40 per cent bonds and 60 per cent equities could drift to 30 per cent bonds and 70 per cent equities if the stock markets rise, or alternatively the other way to 50 per cent bonds and 50 per cent equities if a stock market correction occurs. Regardless of the direction of the change in your portfolio, it is necessary to remember the importance of the reasoning behind your original asset allocation. Although it may seem counter intuitive to sell an asset class that is doing well or buy one that is not, however that is precisely what is required if the fundamental principle of “buy low – sell high” is to be followed. By rebalancing your portfolio, you are staying the course and increasing the potential to improve returns without increasing risk.

Disciplined rebalancing can provide comfort by taking the emotion out of your investment decisions. It does not seem natural to sell a portion of your investments that have done well and buy more of those that have been more sluggish. This discipline allows a reassuring way to buy when it is difficult and sell when it seems counterintuitive. When markets are down, human nature would have us get out rather than buy low, but a disciplined rebalancing process can prevail in the long run.

Although at times, the changes in the market may not be large enough for an investor to feel that there is any need to rebalance, the benefit to doing so can be significant over the long run with compounding returns. It is important to talk to your advisor initially to determine your optimal asset mix that you are comfortable with, often documented in an Investment Policy Statement (IPS). Once you have a documented IPS then your advisor can establish a customized portfolio that matches your IPS.

Rebalancing to your optimal asset mix should be done at least once a year. Prior to rebalancing, it is important to periodically review you IPS to ensure that you’re comfortable with the asset mix. Changes in market conditions and interest rate outlook are factors to discuss with your investment advisor when revising the asset mix within your IPS. Your personal goals, need for cash, and knowledge level may also result in your asset mix needing to be adjusted.

The asset mix is the macro decision within the IPS and is the first step in rebalancing. Step two of rebalancing is looking at the micro items, such as sector exposure and individual companies you have invested in. It also may involve looking at geographic exposure, credit quality and duration of fixed income, and mix between small, medium, and large capitalized companies. Up above, we noted that the Bennett’s initially wanted 60 per cent in equities and started with total investments of one million. The equity portion of $600,000 was divided into 30 companies with approximately $20,000 invested in each company. Over the last year, the Bennett’s now have a portfolio valued at $1,080,000 with 63 per cent in equities and 37 per cent in fixed income. Step one for the Bennett’s rebalancing of the asset mix would result in them selling three percent of equities, or $32,400, and allocating this to fixed income.

Step two in the rebalancing process highlighted that several stocks performed very well and are above the new individual recommended position size of $21,600 ($1,080,000 x 60 per cent divided by 30 companies). We also noted that stocks in two sectors performed very well and have resulted in the portfolio being too concentrated in those sectors. Step two of the rebalancing process resulted in the Bennett’s selling a portion of the star performers in the overweight sector.

When significant deposits and withdrawals are made then this is an ideal time to look at both macro (step one) and micro (step two) rebalancing. This could be when you are making an RRSP or TFSA contribution or when you have to decide what to sell to raise cash for your goals. If no deposits or withdrawals are made then periodic meetings with your investment advisor should have ‘rebalancing your portfolio’ as an agenda item. Some people may want to rebalance quarterly while others may feel an annual check up is sufficient.