European exposure and global diversification

Some of our clients occasionally express concern about the situation in Europe. Here’s what our Director of Research, Larry Katz, has to say about Merriman portfolio exposure to those markets:

Europe’s ongoing debt problems have prompted many investors to consider their European exposure, especially to the euro zone’s weaker countries. While there certainly could be global impacts emanating from any area of the world, a major benefit of true global diversification is the controlled direct exposure to the problems of any given geography.

For example, one of our major portfolios is MarketWise Tax-Deferred, a globally diversified, buy-and-hold portfolio with a value and small-cap tilt.  Half of the stock exposure of this portfolio is in the United States. The other half is distributed throughout the world.

Of the 50% overseas exposure, as of the end of March 2012 just over 22% was in Europe. Notably, most of that exposure was to the stronger European countries. The top six European countries by exposure (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands) comprised almost 18% of the total invested in Europe. The weaker countries of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy totaled only 1.73%.

So a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio had just over 1% exposure to these five troubled countries.

Every portfolio has to incur various risks to generate returns. The key is to intelligently diversify so that, under a variety of market conditions, those risks remain under control.

Tracking Error: What is it, and why does it matter?

During several recent discussions with clients, I’ve heard a common question, “Why isn’t my portfolio doing as well as the market?”  This inquiry, of course, leads to another question: “What is the market?” To most investors, the market is either the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Index. While these two indices are often cited by news outlets, they only cover portions of the larger global market.

At Merriman, we have long advocated that the allocation of the equity portion of your portfolio include large company stocks, small company stocks, international stocks, emerging market stocks and real estate investment trusts. Each of these asset classes perform differently over time, sometimes dramatically so. Tracking error, the way we refer to it here, is the amount by which the performance of a portfolio differs from that of the major market indices. In some years, this difference will be positive, meaning your portfolio outperformed a major index like the S&P 500. However, there will be years like 2011 when these additional asset classes will lead your portfolio to underperform the S&P 500.

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What’s the best way to transition from stocks to index funds and ETFs?

I have read Paul Merriman’s book, Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money and watched some of Paul’s videos and listened to his podcasts. I have a question that hasn’t been addressed: What’s the best way to transition a portfolio from individual stocks to index funds and ETFs?

I would like to make the change quickly, but I’m worried that my timing might turn out to be all wrong. Should I do it all at once, or gradually over a period of time?


We believe that the move you are describing is a good way to reduce your risk and potentially improve your return, because index funds and ETFs will give you much greater diversification. I recommend you follow the recommendations that you’ll find in Paul Merriman’s article “The Ultimate Buy and Hold Strategy.”

Once you have made this decision, I cannot see any good reason to spread it out. If you do it all at once, you will get it over with quickly so you can focus on other things. I recommend you sell all the stocks in a single day. Stock trades typically take three business days to settle, so there will be a short delay before you can reinvest the proceeds.

During that brief period while your money is in cash, the market may go up or it may go down – or it could remain largely unchanged. You can’t control that, so you will have to accept it as an unknown price you’ll have to pay (if you must reinvest at higher prices) or an unknown bonus you receive (if you reinvest at lower prices). Either way, make the change and get it over with.

If you try to control this, you’ll have to predict or guess future stock prices, and that’s likely to lead to second-guessing your plan and not getting it accomplished.

There’s an exception to that advice. If the stocks you own are in a taxable account, it’s important that you consult your tax advisor before you move forward. Tax consequences in some cases should dictate the timing of your sales.

Lessons learned in a market downturn

It was not that long ago when the equity markets were down over 50%, buy-and-hold investing had been declared dead, and many investors had little faith that the markets would recover during their lifetime.  Two years later the equity markets have risen significantly.  Many investors may not understand why as the recovery has occurred during a period of soaring deficits, major bank failures, increased tensions in the Middle East, rising prices for oil and gold, and uncertainty over the financial stability of the European Union.

This article by David Callaway offers lessons that many investors have learned during this most recent downturn:  The market has always recovered without the ability to see nor predict the turning point until after the fact. Buy-and-hold investment strategies are not dead, and investors who stayed the course through thick and thin did quite well. Diversification works, and diversified portfolios have helped to capture the best of market movements.  Quite possibly the most important lesson we can all learn is that as the daily noise of the news grows louder and louder, often times the best thing we can do is tune it out.