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Part Two — Bonds: Why you should love the unloved investment

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Count bonds. Forget about sheep.

5-year chart comparing Canadian government bonds and the S&P/TSX 60

In the two years before the financial crisis, government bonds underperformed. Stock markets were hitting all-time highs and few investors were interested in bonds. However, as the risk premium for stocks was rising and stock indices in Canada and the U.S. were hitting highs, shrewd investors were reallocating their portfolios to include more bonds.

Bonds were unloved, but they were cheap, and when stock markets came down in a hurry, bonds acted like the buffers they are: they rose while stocks were coming down in portfolios.

The case for bonds in a portfolio as a permanent asset seems pretty solid. Let’s take a look at the last six months.

6-month chart comparing Canadian government bonds and the S&P TSX 60

Over the last six months, stocks have finally gone into a correction. Stocks have been incredibly buoyant since the bottom of the 2009 crisis and have performed very well. But corrections are a normal part of the investing landscape. Corrections are healthy since they clean out the speculative element in the market periodically. Investors, on the other hand, especially average investors, aren’t huge fans of volatility.

Looking at the chart over the last six months, we can see that government bonds turned up as the markets headed down. Bonds are doing what they do, once again: smoothing out returns by acting like insurance in your portfolio.

Equities hit home runs, but bonds keep you from crashing into the catcher’s mitt and getting called out at the plate.

Equities should outperform bonds in the next few years because bonds have made out well recently, but good diversification together with prudent asset allocation suggest the average investor should have some bonds in the asset mix. Recent news has shown us how commodities and stock markets can change direction in a hurry.

The debt situations in Europe and the U.S. illustrate the importance of having Canadian bonds in a diversified portfolio. Canadian bonds are in a good place when it comes to quality these days.  Just when many were saying Canadian bond returns had peaked and there was no future investing in them, boom, sovereign debt issues exploded in the media – again. Both recent history and the last few days are excellent reminders of why bonds have a place in the average investor’s portfolio.

Canadian government bonds may not work in a get-rich-quick scheme, yet when it comes to your portfolio, it pays to think. Think of bonds as insurance. Think of bonds before you go to sleep. In times of volatility, count bonds and forget about the sheep.

Part One is here.

Update: Foreign investors are also loving the unloved investment in Canada.

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Bad news, gold and dividends: When it’s pouring through the roof – what’s pouring into your portfolio?

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In “Gold Riot”, I wrote about gold , discussing how it might be overvalued. My post was a little early.

We recently saw a couple of interesting days in the gold market while silver corrected heavily. It’s rarely a good time to take a position in a commodity after an enormous run up. After all, when investments get sold off, there are some powerful players out there, and they can cause some big price movements. For example, Goldman Sachs.

Some investors are now taking positions at better prices, still, the behaviour of gold and other metals has melted some hearts. Newbie investors heavy on silver must have had some palpitations during the spectacular volatility.

With everyone talking about gold, and with it seemingly pouring bad economic news at the moment, how do dividend stocks fit into the picture?

My focus is more on average investors than speculators, and the average investor generally has less of a stomach for volatility. Many investors aren’t even aware there’s quite a difference between gold stocks and gold bullion and how they both perform. There’s a lot more volatility in gold stocks, and gold stocks’ performance is based on the outlook of the underlying companies. (For more on this, see the above link “Gold Riot”.)

While silver was making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, dividend-paying stocks have outperformed. “Get paid to wait” is the mantra of investors in dividend-payers. During difficult periods of volatility, those dividends are smoothing out some of the volatility in price movements. When comparing the iShares Dow Jones Canadian Select Dividend Index to gold as a commodity, gold still did pretty well if you bought early, however, many bought very late — rarely a good thing. It would have been better to wait for a correction.

iShares Dow Jones Canadian Select Dividend Index Fund, S&P TSX Global Gold Index and XIU (nearly a proxy for the S&P TSX 60)

Many investors don’t have the time or don’t want to spend the time glued to the markets. While nothing is ever guaranteed with any investment, dividend-paying stocks will give you a little more comfort. The highs may not be as high, but the lows are also not quite as low.

When news is uniformly bad, remember that stream of dividend payments pouring into your portfolio. The managements’ of dividend-paying companies believe enough in their businesses to share some of the wealth with you.

So how did these asset classes make out? Dividend-paying stocks returned more than 10 per cent while gold stocks were down 15 per cent over the last year. Gold stocks have disconnected from bullion for now as regards performance. It happens.

Bullion had a good return at about 18 per cent but with a lot more volatility than dividend-payers. Gold stocks are potentially even more volatile. My target audience is more the average investor, so I won’t over complicate this — gold bullion has had a lot of its recent increase because of bad economic news — this is a bit of a simplification. More is involved in the price of gold, but does the average investor need complication? What is important is that if the news outlook changes, so might the performance of gold.

Remember, if you own a broad-based Canadian equity fund, it probably has somewhere between 15 – 20 per cent of its holdings in gold or other mining stocks. How much gold do you want?

Better yet, how much gold does a proper weighting allow for? If you’re not a speculator, keep your gold holdings manageable at 5 – 10 per cent of your total portfolio. A good fund manager has a lot of intelligence when making decisions on gold stocks. Do you? If you’ve decided to hold a significant weighting in gold stocks or bullion, you have become a speculator. Do you have time to watch your holdings with the eye of a fund manager or a speculator? Probably not.

An investor holds shares in a business and shares in business ownership. The average investor would do better thinking like a business owner rather than a speculator.

Asset allocation: Diversification is king

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The king and you

Invest in different asset classes, across geographies, sectors and styles, and the impact of any one investment on your portfolio is diminished. Most investors, especially new investors, worry about poor performance but forget about the importance of diversification.

For example, if your only investment is your house, then you’re not very diversified. Ask anyone who was overloaded in U.S. residential real estate about how lack of diversification can negatively affect your portfolio.

These days diversifying is easier than ever. You can invest in real estate, international stock and bond markets, emerging markets and commodities. You don’t have to simply depend on domestic stock and bond markets as much as investors once did.

But what is important is considering the risk/reward features of these asset classes. You don’t want to invest too little or too much in any one asset.

The challenge of asset selection

The number of investments available today is truly staggering. Individual stocks and bonds, mutual funds, ETFs and managed accounts are only a few of the types of investment options. If you want to manage risk well, you have to evaluate how each investment will impact your portfolio.

Benchmark indices help financial professionals gauge the performance of their assets under management. Some investments are designed to very nearly track these indices. Many exchange-traded funds seek to offer investors nearly the same performance as indices.

Individual securities or actively managed funds hold out the potential to outperform the indices they are based on. However, these investments rarely do outperform. And they often carry higher risk and higher management fees that are a detriment to an investor’s overall portfolio depending on the extent of an investors understanding of markets, and the level of advice she may need.

Determining the level of risk you are comfortable with is crucial. Mixing index and active investments into your portfolio will benefit you when it comes to the end result of achieving your objectives.

Rebalancing

Rebalancing your investments is key. Periodically, investors should review their portfolios and re-assess their investments and long-term goals. Often, this requires selling your best-performing investments along with the discipline to execute your plan.

“Buy low and sell high” may be the mantra investors want to follow, but for many, it’s easier said than done. Risk management best practices suggest that an investor must pay just as much attention to selling high as buying low. Getting overly greedy after a good run in the markets is dangerous to your portfolio.

By rebalancing, you can stay on track. Proper asset allocation helps you stick to your risk/return objectives. Although this sounds easy on paper, it’s not. Systematizing the rebalancing process is one of the most important processes of a sound investment plan.

How to be a smarter investor

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Most people obsess about investment performance. While tracking the performance of your investments is without a doubt important, are you considering risk?

Investors generally understand risk. For example, not meeting investment goals stands out as a hazard when it comes to portfolios. But without risk, there is no return. You have to take some risk to earn better-than-average returns.

So, how should you consider risk? How does risk fit into your portfolio? If risk and reward are so heavily correlated, how much should you be taking? How can you manage risk properly?

Understand risk

What is risk, anyway?

You can’t control everything. The recent market meltdown was out of investors’ control. But how you organize your portfolio is within your control. And that’s empowering.

Most Americans investing in residential real estate didn’t think they were taking on a lot of risk. Yet U.S. residential real estate dropped by about 50 per cent from its peak. You definitely increase your risk with all your eggs in one basket. But you can manage risk. You can create less uncertainty and the stronger probability of meeting your investment goals.

Are you taking on too much risk? Is there overlap in the securities or funds you hold? You think you’re well-diversified, but are you really? On the other hand, if you’ve been holding only low-risk, low-return investments like GICs over the last ten years, you might feel sorry. Why? Because if you held a basket of Canadian financials (even with two major stock market corrections), you would still come out ahead. Yes, risk offers the potential for higher returns. However, you need to determine what the appropriate amount of risk in your portfolio is.

In order to create an intelligent investment plan, you need to evaluate your risk tolerance. You need to ask yourself questions like … How much risk are you willing to take? Is a very conservative strategy going to allow you to achieve your investment goals? Research shows that being too conservative also entails risk when it comes to achieving portfolio goals. Risk is not only about aggressive investments. Conservative investments carry risk, too.

Risk, by any other name, is still risk

Risk can take many shapes and forms. Do you have the right investments? Are you being too aggressive? Or maybe you’re not being aggressive enough? The best way to consider risk is by having a sound investment plan.

Considerations for your investment plan

• Asset allocation

• Choosing assets that will make up your allocation

• Rebalancing your portfolio

In an upcoming post, I will discuss the above fundamentals.

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