Monday, September 29, 2008

Market Tremors Series - Market Exposure

Market Exposure

This is the final installment, #6, in the Market Tremors series.

In prior postings, I stated that few retail investors ask and answer the right questions before portfolio construction, with the result that they panic during both bear and bull markets. This panic, whether due to significant market decline or portfolio lag, is the cause of most market underperformance. That is primarily because the investor panics and begins chasing the wrong asset class, at the wrong time.

I suggest that all investors need to deal with these five questions, in order to have a good chance to outperform the market:

1. Process;
2. Rationale;
3. Emotions;
4. Holdings;
5. Market Exposure

Today, we are looking at Market Exposure, through the lens of my own recent portfolio reconstitution. Here’s how I define Market Exposure:

Am I comfortable with the levels of equities I hold?

This is one of those questions that many investors spend a great deal of time on, as the market is cresting or crashing, with the idea of then repositioning the portfolio to better take advantage of whatever has already occured and is now in the rear view mirror.

There are basically only two types of investments: debt and equity. There are many sectors against which your debt or equity might be backstopped, but really, you only have two real underlying investment choices. It’s worthwhile thinking about that.

Equity is always the most volatile portion of any asset holding. As Warren Buffett once said “the company’s assets were questionable, but its liabilities were rock solid”.

So, with this in mind, you can be an owner, or a loaner.

Owners often borrow money, are subject to business and financial risk, strategy failure, management miscues, and so forth.

Loaners try to protect themselves against these risk factors by securing against assets valued at more than the debt. The price of debt (the interest rate, generally) is very clear. It’s relatively easy to make a decision on whether or not it appears attractive to you, relative to its risk profile.

Ownership, on the other hand, whether complete or partial (as in stock ownership) is more complicated. In addition to all those aforementioned factors, one has to judge whether the offering is at an attractive price. While there are lots of objective criteria upon which a purchase can be judged, the subjective portion is, and will always remain, large. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the statistical expert who is perceived to be the father of the Japanese quality miracle, stated that “The most important things are unknown or unknowable” and “The most important things cannot be measured”– and he was talking to the insiders who could both measure and effect corporate change!

Given all these attributes that equities have, it’s not surprising that their pricing is volatile. During buoyant markets, the subjective portion will be perceived favourably, and priced accordingly. During bear markets, all those subjectives take on a negative hue, and are thus “properly” discounted off the price.

Its also worthwhile thinking about debt too – over the long term, it just barely matches inflation. If you are an extraordinarily strong saver, with a very low risk tolerance, then this might be a good match for you.

On the other hand, if that isn’t you, then you’ll likely want some equities exposure. However, you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared for market declines, and how much of your portfolio you will accept as being subject to those types of risk. For instance, as Barry Ritholtz has pointed out, the market had numerous large downward moves during the period between 1966 and 1982 – three times of around -25%, and twice between -36% and -45%. These types of moves are always possible in a weakened business and consumer environment.

While it’s always attractive to believe you can get rid of the downside risk, the reality is that you usually will miss having some real portfolio growth if you try to eliminate it all.

Where you stand on the amount of market exposure you are willing to accept depends upon many things: your risk tolerance in general, your emotional readiness to handle market and portfolio declines, the amount of time you can realistically be in the market (i.e. are you 25 or 75?) and your willingness to see your portfolio lag your friends during nice bull markets.

Nevertheless, its useful to model a couple of different equity exposures and think about how that might support your portfolio during bear markets, but possibly hold it back during bulls. There are no pat answers, and formulaic answers fail to account for investment strategies and investor differences. It is something you have to think about and model in your head at a minimum.

Finally, it’s unusually beneficial to think about these things well before the cresting of the bull market when greed is in full force, and before the nasty bear is clawing at your portfolio.

This concludes the Market Tremors series – I hope you enjoyed it, and I welcome any feedback you’d like to give.

Disclosure: Significantly invested, long, equities.


The Confused Capitalist


chris said...

Hi there,

I tried contacting you a while ago but never received a response, can you please email me at chris.hamilton @ so we can discuss my proposal?


Stocks said...

Excellent post! I think that given the current market situation with the mortgage bailout, that holding equities is a lot riskier than holding onto Government Bonds for the near future— at least until the dust settles and we have a good understanding of how bad the situation is, because if it is as bad as I think it could be, then we are in for a long downward trend as far as the market goes.