While pondering whether I should get a flu shot this year, it dawned on me that I should follow our thinking on diversification. Volunteering to get poked by a sharp object may not be high on my wish list, but over time I believe it helps me stay healthy. Similarly, after two decades of studying and employing global diversification at Russell, I’ve come to the conclusion that when diversification is out of favor, it may the right time to bet on its potentialfinancial health benefits.

During my first month as Russell’s CIO, I’ve enjoyed talking with hundreds of clients. In my interactions during at least three client conferences, I’ve encountered a range of generally happy folks. Of course, buoyant equity returns across most market segments year-to-date in 2013 tend to make for upbeat conversations.

Even so, I heard one recurring thread of concern: Are our portfolios too diversified relative to the home country bias at play in our peers’ portfolios?

A little context: U.S. small cap stocks, as reflected by the Russell 2000® Index, are up 40.6% for the 12-month period ending Nov. 8, 2013; international developed markets are up roughly 25.5%[1], emerging market equities up 5.1%[2], while commodities at -12.1%[3] and bonds[4] at -2.1% are not faring as well for the same period.

Why not get a second helping of the good stuff?

So, in this rewarding climate, why do we purposefully constrain the potential rewards by designing portfolios that are more diversified? If the table is set for extra portions, why not help ourselves to seconds?

…Because we believe diversification is the closest thing to a “free lunch” that the marketplace has to offer, even though diversification does not assure a profit or protect against loss. Periodically, however, over shorter horizons, I believe John Authers’ astute observation at the beginning of this post takes hold of many investors.

So, how does diversification help when you don’t appear to need it?

The investor who looks backward to conclude that they really didn’t need diversification is the same investor who simply wants to always invest in the asset class that will deliver the highest return. Well, the wanting and the doing of such prescient practices are about as far apart as the partisan debate over debt ceilings in Washington.

In fact, when I posed this value-of-diversification question to Steve Murray, our director of asset allocation strategies, he gave me that “look” I often get from our researchers, and pointed me to some of the core asset allocation concepts we often provide to clients. Several take-aways jumped off the page at me, so here are some key points from a research perspective, along my own interpretations:

  • Researcher: Diversification is the cheapest mechanism for managing portfolio volatility and protects against imprecise inputs. Translation: Safeguard your money from hubris.
  • Researcher: Concentrated positions reflect an allocation that is premised on only a subset of the available input data and is likely to favor investments with the largest (positive) estimation error. Translated: Shiny objects may appear larger in the rearview mirror.
  • Researcher: Diversification includes not just asset classes, but factor and regional exposures as well as various active and passive return sources. Translation: Our best friends don’t always live next door.
  • Reseacher: Portfolios should have representation across asset types including equities, fixed income, real assets and alternative investments based on what has been assessed as within the bounds of a client’s risk tolerance. Translation: Eat a balanced diet, and don’t overlook your vegetables.

In short, diversification, although it doesn’t promise gains nor protect against loss, remains even more essential when the market environment tempts us to shift increasingly toward concentrated exposures. Tilting a portfolio in response to market opportunity, as Russell has done with some success over the last year, often makes good sense, as long as we recognize the difference between reasonable diversification and radical diversification — more on this in my next post.

OK, bring on the flu shot.

[1] Russell Developed ex-U.S. Index, for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013

[2] Russell Emerging Markets Index, for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013

[3] Dow Jones UBS Commodity Index, for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013

[4] Barclay’s U.S. Aggregate Bond Index , for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013

Disclosures:

Nothing contained in this material is intended to constitute legal, tax, securities, or investment advice, nor an opinion regarding the appropriateness of any investment, nor a solicitation of any type. The general information contained in this publication should not be acted upon without obtaining specific legal, tax, and investment advice from a licensed professional.

Index returns represent past performance, are not a guarantee of future performance and are not indicative of any specific investment.

Russell Investments is the owner of the trademarks, service marks and copyrights related to its indexes.

Russell Investment Group is a Washington, USA corporation, which operates through subsidiaries worldwide, including Russell Investments, and is a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

The Russell 2000 Index measures the performance of the small-cap segment of the U.S. equity universe. The Russell 2000 is a subset of the Russell 3000® Index representing approximately 10% of the total market capitalization of that index. It includes approximately 2000 of the smallest securities based on a combination of their market cap and current index membership.

The Russell 2000 Index is constructed to provide a comprehensive and unbiased small-cap barometer and is completely reconstituted annually to ensure larger stocks do not distort the performance and characteristics of the true small-cap opportunity set.

The Russell Global ex-U.S. Index measures the performance of the global equity market based on all investable equity securities, excluding companies assigned to the United States.

The Russell Global ex-U.S. Index is constructed to provide a comprehensive and unbiased barometer for the global segment and is completely reconstituted annually to accurately reflect the changes in the market over time.

For more information on Dow Jones UBS Commodity Index, for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013 and Barclay’s U.S. Aggregate Bond Index , for the 12-month period ending November 8, 2013, please see associated sites by clicking on related links.

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