Friday, 11 September 2009

Diversification Challenge

Some of us have been discussing the need to diversify more.

There are numerous tips on how to make sure that not all your eggs are in one basket. But they all assume that you have a great deal of time and a pretty sophisticated understanding of finance and financial services.

Like it or not, even with plenty of time on his/her hands, the 'man on the Clapham omnibus' is no financial giant.

So most people need diversification explained as simply as possible, and in a way that enables them to achieve it easily and conveniently.

What is diversification? The eggs in one basket idea is pretty simple, but needs some numbers: you are less likely to have all your eggs broken if you have 10 eggs in each of 10 baskets, rather than 100 eggs in one basket. Following this principle, you become automatically better off every time you add another basket for the same number of eggs. So you’d be much better protected against egg breakage if you had 5 eggs in each of 20 different baskets.

An interesting challenge would be to start with what a truly diversified portfolio of assets looks like, based on using a small amount of money. For argument's sake, one could start with a figure of £10,680 - the most the government allows you to salt away without locking it up til you're 98 years old, or paying tax on the returns.

But such government policy actually prohibits diversification, yet heavily subsidises regulated investments at the expense of alternatives.

That’s because most people with surplus cash should use up their tax-free allowances first, and few will have anything left over. Research cited by the Guardian in June 2011 suggests the average UK person can afford to save £97.10 per month.

The list of asset classes is long, yet the money allocated to those tax-free allowances can't be invested in the full range of potential assets, even by putting their money in the hands of managers who can invest more widely. Generally, you may only invest your tax-free allowances in regulated investments. And all sorts of rules, policies and other restrictions limit the types of assets in which regulated fund managers can invest. So even regulated fund managers are unable to adequately diversify the investment pots they manage. This must necessarily affect the value and performance of the funds they manage. Such effects may be market-driven and/or behavioural.

Then there's the tricky subject of asset correlations: if all the assets you've invested in behave the same way at the same time, then you aren't diversified. Apparently the correlation in the performance of assets has been increasing of late, but may be about to unwind in some cases.

First step along the way to meeting the diversification challenge should be to figure out a reasonably detailed list of asset classes. Then we should modify the regulatory framework to enable people to invest at least their tax free allowance in each of them. The list of assets can divide and divide, but I don't think we start out with a sufficiently granular picture. In reality, I think such a list might look like the following - note that I include different types of 'funds', and separate regulated from unregulated, because their performance can be affected by the differing levels of regulation and permitted classes of investments they can make. However, I'm not including instruments like spread bets, contracts for differences or futures, since these are merely contracts that get you exposure to the various assets. Am I right or wrong?

  1. cash
  2. savings accounts
  3. fixed interest savings/bonds - government, corporate
  4. person-to-person loans
  5. shares listed on a regulated or 'recognised' exchange
  6. shares not listed on a regulated exchange
  7. exchange traded funds (ETFs) listed on a regulated exchange
  8. ETFs not listed on a regulated exchange
  9. regulated managed funds
  10. unregulated managed funds
  11. regulated hedge funds
  12. unregulated hedge funds
  13. venture capital funds
  14. venture capital trusts
  15. regulated funds of funds
  16. unregulated funds of funds
  17. commercial property
  18. rural property
  19. residential property (owner occupied)
  20. residential property (buy-to-let)
  21. perishable commodities (e.g. cocoa, wheat)
  22. non-perishable commodities (e.g. oil, gold and other precious metals)
  23. art
  24. classic cars
  25. fine wine
  26. currencies
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