Three Ways to Skin the Asset Allocation Cat

Over the past several weeks, you’ve heard me talk a lot about investing and for good reason. Investing is one of the most important parts of any financial goal or wealth accumulation strategy. The problem, like with most things, is that there is no one perfect way to do it. You probably know the basics—diversify, re-balance, dollar-cost average—but did you realize that there are at least three forms of asset allocation? Knowing what they are, how they are different, and which one may be right for you could make you a better investor over time.

Strategic asset allocation

Strategic asset allocation is the one you are probably most familiar with and the one most often used by financial advisors and professionals. The objective of strategic asset allocation is to find an optimal portfolio that offers the highest potential return for any given level of risk. It usually starts with a risk tolerance assessment, followed by a recommendation of how you should split up your assets between stocks, bonds and cash.

Rather than being a typical buy-and-hold strategy, strategic asset allocation requires ongoing attention as certain asset classes perform differently at different times. As such, rebalancing is a key component of strategic asset allocation. Since rebalancing causes investors to sell out of asset classes that are outperforming in order to buy into asset classes that are underperforming, it forces the investor to buy low and sell high. For this reason, some might consider it a contrarian approach to investing.

Buying low and selling high is one potential advantage of strategic asset allocation. Another is reduced volatility. By keeping the ratio of stocks to bonds within a targeted range, potential returns are also expected to stay within a certain range. Investors can implement a strategic asset allocation strategy in a number of ways, including following the guidance of a financial advisor, using an online financial advisory service, or by investing in a target-date fund.

Tactical asset allocation

Ironically, what a lot of investors may think they are getting when they hire a financial professional is tactical asset allocation. The objective of tactical asset allocation is to improve portfolio returns by periodically changing the investment mix to reflect changes in the market. It may seem logical to move assets into fixed income when interest rates are high and away from fixed income when interest rates are low, but tactical asset allocation involves security selection and market timing—two things that are often considered taboo in the investment universe.

Tactical asset allocation can be as simple as sector rotation, such as moving assets away from the best performing sector to the worst performing sector, or as sophisticated as using charts and graphs to try and predict market movements. Style preference (growth v. value) can also be important when using a tactical asset allocation strategy. Investors should exercise caution when using a tactical asset allocation approach as market trends can sometimes last longer or shorter than expected.

Since the goal of tactical asset allocation is to try and increase performance by timing the market and moving money around, it would be appropriate for an investor with a high tolerance for risk, a low sensitivity to taxes, and an ability to devote time to developing and monitoring buy and sell indicators. Investors that wish to utilize a tactical asset allocation strategy should decide whether they will use actively-managed mutual funds, passively-managed index funds or ETFs, or individual securities. Investors may be able to implement this strategy with a financial advisor or on their own through a self-directed brokerage account.

Core/satellite asset allocation

If you are not sure which approach to take, why not take both? The objective of core/satellite asset allocation is to enhance performance by investing in two portfolios. The larger of the two (i.e., the core) typically represents 60-80% of the total portfolio and uses strategic asset allocation for determining its holdings. The remaining share (i.e., the satellite) uses tactical asset allocation to take advantage of market opportunities as they arise. For the core component, you may want to use low-cost index or exchange traded funds (ETFs) and rebalance periodically. For the satellite portion, you can use any combination of funds, individual securities, real estate (e.g. REIT), commodities, options, etc., based on where you see market opportunity.

The benefit of this approach is that it gives you a disciplined investment strategy via the core while still allowing you to “play” the market with the satellite portion. If you make some good investment decisions with the satellite, you enhance your return. If your investment instincts are not so great, you still have the core working for you.

The core/satellite approach may be appropriate for investors that want to test their knowledge of investing against the market by comparing the performance of the satellite to that of the core. It would also be appropriate for investors that want to get more involved in investing but not all at once. Because there is a tactical component, investors will need to consider how much time they can devote to managing the portfolio before taking this approach.

As you can see, there are several ways to build an investment portfolio. Choose the one that is right for you based on your objective and level of involvement. And don’t forget to get help when needed.

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