Achieving True Diversification in Your Portfolio

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” I’m sure you’ve heard that expression before. Most people at least understand the idea of diversification. The idea is to prevent you from losing all of your investments if something bad were to happen.

The idea is simple, but many investors fail to achieve true diversification in their portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone talk about their diversified portfolio that consists of 10 stocks. Ten stocks isn’t anywhere close to diversified. This false sense of diversification is a very popular financial weakness that many adhere to. To have a truly diverse portfolio that mitigates risk, you need dozens or even hundreds of investments across different industries, currencies, geographic regions and asset classes.

The Value of Mutual Funds

The same group that calls their 10-stock portfolio diversified is the same group that scoffs at mutual funds. They say something like, “why would I pay a fund manager to pick my investments when I can do it myself just fine?” Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that they have the same expertise as a fund manager who’s full time job is to evaluate investments, how can one individual keep up with dozens or hundreds of investments necessary to be truly diversified? What kind of capital does it take to hold that many positions?

Natalie Cooper of BankingSense.com says, “Put simply, a mutual fund gives investors the ability to invest in cash, bonds, stocks and other securities while never requiring investors to make separate trades or purchases. To build a portfolio that has a similar level of diversification, an investor would need $100,000 or more. A mutual fund provides the same level of diversification for far less money. An individual investor can obtain great diversification with about $1,000.”

It’s true that there is a cost to investing in mutual funds. Depending on the fund type, there may be an up-front fee with smaller annual management fees or the fund may be no-load, but carry a higher annual fee. Regardless, the fees on most funds are nominal and the benefits easily outweigh the costs.

Avoiding False Diversification

Even if your portfolio consists entirely of mutual funds, you need to take care to avoid overlap. Kent Thune of About.com says, “This [investing strategy] has great potential for overlap, which occurs when an investor owns two or more mutual funds that hold similar securities.” He goes on to provide an example of two funds, the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX) and Vanguard Growth Equity (VGEQX), who’s portfolios consist of 97% of the same investments.

Buying a number of highly rated mutual funds isn’t enough to make sure you are truly diversified. You need to review the portfolios of each to make sure there isn’t any overlap. Your investments should also cover multiple asset classes. Laura Dogu of Forbes.com recommends a simple strategy to achieve this, “The three funds you should own now are the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index fund, Vanguard Total International Stock Market Index fund, and the Vanguard Total Bond Market fund…With only these three funds, investors can create a low cost, broadly diversified portfolio that is very easy to manage and rebalance.”

Achieving Balance

A good portfolio provides opportunity for growth while mitigating risk. Your level of risk aversion combined with the amount of time that you have to invest will dictate your proper portfolio mix. You can even include single stocks in your portfolio, but they should be a small part of your overall investments.

It’s easy to get blinded by the potential for high returns. A bond with a 5% coupon doesn’t look very enticing when compared with an emerging market that’s seeing 20% or 30% growth; however, high return investments cannot be separated from their risk. You need a balanced portfolio that’s truly diversified. You need to provide opportunity for your money to grow, but you need to make sure that it will still be there when you need it most.

How Much Leveraged Risk is Too Much?

On January 15th, 2015, the Swiss National Bank eliminated it’s cap on the Swiss Franc in regards to the Euro.  What does that mean?  Well, up until that day, the SNB had said that the value of a Franc would be tied to the value of a Euro.  Under that policy, they had maintained the Franc at a value of 1.20 Francs to 1 Euro.

Disclaimer: This post is being sponsored by ETX Capital.  The content is mine, however, and isn’t influenced by their sponsorship.

Artificial Currency Valuation

In other words, they were artificially changing the value of their currency.  And when they stopped artificially changing the value of their currency?  The market corrected, and the Franc rose to a more reasonable exchange rate. At the same time, the Euro dropped.  The big problem with all of that?  There was no warning that it was going to happen.  And as we all know from the housing crash in 2008, when there’s no warning, bad things can happen.  Banks across Europe immediately felt the pressure.  Within a day, it wasn’t just banks.  It reached all the way down to many small investors around the globe.  Most of those investors were FOREX investors. You see, FOREX investors invest in foreign currency with the expectation that the currency will increase in value.  For years, the Franc was artificially stuck in one place.  And then it wasn’t.

Leveraged RiskSNB Change Cost Many FOREX Traders

Many FOREX traders trade on margin, or leveraged investments.  They’re required to keep a certain percentage of their overall investment in a cash account.  Say $200 on a $10,000 investment.  And when that $10,000 investment tanks and is suddenly worth only say, $1000?  It’s not like they just get to walk away from that.  They still owe the $9,000 they lost to the brokerage.  But, just like in the housing crash, where many of the investing houses were over-leveraged on sub-prime mortgages, many of the investors simply didn’t have the cash to make up the difference.  And many of the FOREX brokerages were left holding the bag, which left many of them in the same situation as the banks in the housing crash.  Suddenly without much in the way of liquid funds and headed for bankruptcy.

Much like the housing crash, there were a few brokerages that had been cautious with their leveraging, and actually managed to escape relatively well from the SNB issue.  One such brokerage was ETX Capital in London. Not only did they come through the fray,  but, according to LeapRate, they’re buying up some of the brokerages that didn’t make it through so cleanly.

Limited Leverage and Risk Aversion Saves the Day

So, how did ETX Capital make it through the SNB fiasco?  According to a LeapRate interview with the CEO of ETX, it’s because they’re a more risk-averse brokerage.  In other words, they put additional limits on the leveraged investing of their users.  That risk-averse, limited leveraging, allowed them to take far smaller hits in the markets and recover much more quickly.

What can we learn from ETX?  Some risk might be good for us, but we have to be really careful about how much risk and leverage we have.

Limiting Leveraged Risk is Good for Personal Finance Too

Let me put it this way.  How many of you reading this have less than $1000 in the bank right now, and over $100,000 in mortgage, student loan, and credit card debt?  That’s leveraging.  Your credit score is a numerical indicator of the likely hood that you will repay a debt.  The higher the credit score, the higher the likely hood that you’ll repay the debt.  When you take on a mortgage, or use a credit card, you are leveraging your credit score (and future income) for that “investment” debt.  (*note: Debt is never really an investment.  Don’t treat it as such, please.)

Why do we leverage our credit and income for debt?  Because very few of us will ever have the patience or will power to save up for years so that we can pay for a house with cash.  Most of us can’t make it a year to save up for a good used car.  So, we leverage ourselves out to buy the things we can’t buy with cash.  The more debt we accumulate, the more leverage, and thus risk, we have.

What happened to people who bought houses with those sub-prime mortgages before the crash?  We all know the answer.  We saw it streaming across our televisions and the headlines of our newspapers for over a year.  They were foreclosed on.  The economy dipped so hard that there was serious discussion about it becoming another “Great Depression”.  And those people lost their homes.

What if we were more like ETX Capital and other brokerages and banks that self-limit their leveraged risk?

Lending Club Returns 2014 EOY Update

If you’ve been reading here for very long, you’ll know that I’ve been posting and discussing my Lending Club returns since the end of 2011.  For the first year or so, I updated with quarterly updates.   I didn’t do that in 2014.  Part of the reason for that was that it was a busy year for me, and the time to put together a full post on that every quarter just wasn’t always there.  The rest of the reason was that it was beginning to feel redundant to me, so I slowed them down a bit.  Now, I’ll be doing the updates on a yearly basis (twice a year at most) to hopefully avoid that feeling of repeating myself in each one.  On to the Lending Club Returns 2014 update.

If you don’t know what Lending Club is, the simple answer is that it’s a peer-to-peer lending network where people like you and me can both borrow and lend to people like you and me.  Want a little better explanation?  Head over to my Lending Club page to read more.

Lending Club Adjusted NAR

Beating Broke Lending Club UpdateWhen we left 2013 behind, my NAR on my Lending Club account was sitting at 13.16%.  A full year of lending has passed, and, as I’ll explain in just a bit, there’s been some changes to the account.  At the end of 2014, my NAR is now showing at 9.61%.  Down from 2013’s EOY number, but still a very healthy return on my investment.  For comparison’s sake, the S&P 500 returned about 11% for 2014.  So, ultimately, I could be getting more of a return on my money in an S&P 500 index fund.  The biggest difference for me is that each of the loans I’ve invested in on Lending Club has a set rate of return.  The only thing that changes that rate of return is a default.  I’ll talk about defaults in a minute, but the rate of default is pretty low.  Try and get a set rate of return on an index fund.  Your brokerage will laugh you out of the office.

Lending Club Defaults and Late Notes

As of the time of this writing, there are no late notes listed on my account.  In 2014, three notes went into a default status.  At the end of 2013, only one had gone into default.  It’s a little bit higher rate, obviously, than it had been previously.  But, as my portfolio on Lending Club has grown, the odds of a default here and there also has grown.  The full picture looks pretty good still.  Since I began investing in Lending Club, I’ve invested in 118 loans.  Only 4 of those have gone into default.  That’s a default rate of about 3.4%.  Flip that around, and if the trend holds, 96.6% of the loans I invest in will not default.  96.6% is a pretty good success rate if I do say so myself.

The 4 loans that have gone into default meant a total of $52.17 in written off principle.  Of that $52.17 that was written off, $10.74 has been recovered through collections for a total loss of principle of $41.43.  I’ll go into further detail in the next section, but the interest I make on the non-default loans more than makes up for that lost principle.

Lending Club Income

The biggest reason that I invest in Lending Club is for the higher rates of return and the income that it provides to continue building my portfolio.  I bank the interest payments and then reinvest them into new loans when I’ve passed $25 in available funds.  Those interest payments, after fees, totaled $115.69 for 2014.  That’s up from $109.88 in 2013.  Less of an increase than I expected, honestly, but still $115.69 that I didn’t have before.  And it still leaves me with about $75 in income on the account after you account for the lost principle that was written off.  And that’s $75 that I’ve reinvested into principle and am now earning interest on.  Given my current rate of return, I can expect that to increase by about $12 next year.

Another of the metrics that I like to look at is the average amount of interest earned each month.  I reached point where the payments (principle+interest) each month exceeded $25, and I could make reinvestments each month, but the next benchmark I’d like to reach is to make $25 in interest each month to reinvest.  That’s one new loan to invest in each month.  The average for 2014 was $9.64, so I still have a way to go, but it’s increasing year over year.  It was $9.16 in 2013, $5.94 in 2012, and $1.91 in 2011.

I think the thing that I like the most about Lending Club is the income potential and the growth I’ve managed with my portfolio.  I haven’t deposited any new money into the account since November of 2012.  Through active investing and reinvesting, my portfolio has increased by almost $200.   I think that’s pretty good on deposits of just a hair over $700.

The Future of my Lending Club Portfolio

In the past, I’ve talked about changes I planned on making to my investing strategy in this section.  I’m pretty happy with my returns, and with the numbers that I’ve just shown you, and so there won’t be any immediate large changes.  If the default rate jumps by a lot, there’s a good chance that I might begin investing a bit more conservatively. But, if it holds steady, I see no real reason to do so.  My portfolio is pretty heavily weighted towards the B and C grade loans in any case.  And I don’t know that moving to A grade loans would give me the return I’m looking for.  So, short term, there won’t be any changes to my investing strategy.  I’ll just continue to reinvest the payments and see what kind of growth I get in 2015.

Do you have any questions I can answer about my experience with Lending Club?  Other things related to peer-to-peer lending that you want to know?  Let me know in the comments below, or through the contact form linked in the bar on the left.

Want to open an Investment account with Lending Club?  Click here to start the process.