It pays to diversify. It’s become a truism about investing because the evidence demonstrates that it works. When you diversify holdings in your investment portfolio, you gain three key benefits:

  1. More opportunities. Owning a variety of investments gives you far more opportunities to earn strong returns because you are exposed to a wider range of markets.
  2. Risk management. If you spread out your holdings, you don’t have to worry about the declines in any one specific market having an outsized impact on your returns.
  3. A counter to the temptation of performance chasing. If you regularly follow the financial media, by reading The Wall Street Journal or watching CNBC, it can become a natural temptation to focus on the category of investments that currently seem hot. The problem with that strategy is that this year’s market leaders often aren’t next year’s. In fact, the category that is at the top of the performance charts one year often falls to the bottom of the charts the next. History suggests the average annual return you realize over time will be much higher if you pursue a diversified strategy rather than chase performance. It generally leads to a more a consistent, predictable level of return.

Think broader

Once you commit to diversifying your investment portfolio, the next question is, “How do I do it?” The traditional formula for achieving diversification was a simple one. The earliest “balanced” funds simply offered at 60%/40% split between stocks and fixed income investments. The stock allocation was generally large-cap U.S. stocks, and the fixed-income portion was U.S. Treasury bonds. Today, there are far more opportunities to diversify your holdings.

Go deeper into each major asset class

U.S. large-cap stocks are not the only game in town. The equity markets offer many opportunities to mix things up.

Similarly, the bond market offers far more opportunities than U.S. Treasury bonds. There are multiple ways to diversify your fixed-income holdings.

Consider alternative asset classes

Stocks and bonds are traditional asset classes. But they tend to be influenced by the same factors – like the state of the economy and the level of interest rates – even if they respond quite differently to these same factors. Alternative asset classes – like commodities or real estate – offer you the opportunity to own assets whose value is often determined by a completely different set of factors.

Alternatives used to be an optional allocation for investors, and perhaps better suited only to affluent and sophisticated investors, who could manage the lack of liquidity and transparency that was often associated with these investments. Today, though, all investors have to contend with the slow rates of growth around the world, and the low levels of income available as short-term interest rates are close to zero or even negative in many countries. Allocations to alternatives have become essential for every investor to achieve the growth rates they need in their long-term portfolios.

The definition of alternatives also has to be broadened. Private equity, private credit and hedge funds have entered the mix. Now more investors may even want to consider digital assets, like bitcoin, or royalty financing, an investment structure through which funds are provided to new businesses in exchange for a fixed percentage, or royalty-rate, of the companies’ future revenues.

These alternative options, once available only to select investors, are becoming increasingly democratized and can provide investors with a range of attractive, uncorrelated investments for their portfolios.

Finding investments whose returns have low correlations is key

When you diversify, you want to own investments that won’t move in tandem. One way to evaluate whether investments move in lockstep or not is to look at their correlations. This is a measure of how closely different asset classes’ historical performance has tracked. Correlation is measured on a scale of -1 to 1. A correlation of 1 means the two asset classes move in the same direction and in total synch with each other. A correlation of -1 means they move in completely opposite directions but to the same degree. Using some examples from the correlations outlined in the chart below, you can see that the returns of large-cap growth stocks are not at all related to the performance of municipal bonds (a 0.01 correlation), while bonds would have moved in the opposite direction of whatever large-growth stocks are doing (a -0.22 correlation).

Correlations to diversify

Source: J.P. Morgan Asset Management, data as of March 31, 2021.

Find the mix that is right for your investment style and risk tolerance

Diversifying doesn’t mean you need to own everything. Knowing all the choices just helps you realize there is a large menu from which you can choose. You don’t have to order everything on the menu to build a solid portfolio. Pick the opportunities that interest you and that you know you’ll be comfortable with, but be sure you’re taking a balanced approach and selecting the investments that match your return goal, risk tolerance and personal preferences. That is the strategy that will likely deliver the best outcome for you.

Tags: Diversification