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Far-Out Investment Strategies

Written by Jeffrey Steele - 2 Comments

Far-Out Investment Strategies

There’s no time like the recently-passed 10-year anniversary of the Enron wipeout to revisit some solid pieces of investment wisdom. And one of those nuggets is of such all-encompassing sagacity that it can be easily summarized in a single word.

Diversify.

If you’ll remember the Enron affair, so insightfully captured in “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” as the fraudulent energy giant teetered on disaster’s brink mere days before crashing and exploding in a spectacular fireball, CEO Ken Lay and his minions exhorted employees who had placed their life savings in Enron stock to avoid selling their shares.

I’m sure you know the rest of story… When Enron immolated, those workers had nothing left to show for years and years of faithful toil and investment. As we marked the decade anniversary, some former Enron workers who once enjoyed nice nest-eggs still struggled from the catastrophe that befell them in 2001.

I don’t claim to be an investment guru. But I have spent a lot of time chatting with financial oracles and savants, and have no reluctance passing along their guidance to investment novices. What I hear from the experts is that too many people invest too close to home for their own good. While they ought to be casting a wide net, their investments are about as far-flung as the confines of a toddler’s playpen.

In other words, diversification isn’t just about investing in diverse asset classes. It’s also about investing in a geographically diverse assortment of equities.

Doubly dangerous

The tendency of many to invest close to home begins with backing their own employers with their hard-earned dollars. They figure it’s a vote of confidence in their own futures to buy shares in the firms employing them. Nothing is further from the truth, as the “little people” at Enron discovered.

When their company died, not only were their jobs wiped out, but most or all of their portfolios were as well. Had they invested no more than four percent in any one stock, a figure often suggested, at least 96 percent of their stock investments would have been saved from the conflagration.

If it’s wise to ensure your portfolio is well diversified outside your own firm, it’s almost as brilliant to avoid investing heavily in companies in your home city, state, or region. Years ago, I spoke on that topic with Larry Swedroe, the St. Louis-based author of “Investment Mistakes Even Smart Investors Make and How to Avoid Them.”

“People make the mistake of confusing the familiar with the safe,” he told me. “Take a guess what people in Georgia own a disproportionate percentage of stock in. Coca-Cola. Guess what people in Rochester, N.Y. have traditionally owned more of. Not only is stock in Coca-Cola not a safer investment for people in Georgia, it may be a riskier investment. Because if something major happens to the company, what will happen to home values and job opportunities in Georgia?”

Imagine a regional economic shock impacts your neck of the woods. Your home turf is locked in a slump, affecting your job security and likely your home’s value. But it’s not just those items impacted, it’s also your portfolio, because you invested disproportionately in area firms. You need ready cash, but to get it, you may have to sell stocks in regional companies at the worst time, when their prices is low.

Adopting a world view

Taking this approach to the next logical level, does it also make sense to avoid having all your stock holdings in U.S. companies? You bet it does, and for many of the same reasons. Virtually any Yank is going to be tempted to feel the all-American firms he or she grew up with will be the ones that pose the least risk. But that’s just again confusing the familiar with the safe. “People in the United States think U.S. stocks are the safest,” Swedroe remarked to me. “And guess what people in France think?”

Gaining international diversification is like buying insurance that covers potential problems here in the United States, he noted. “Some years you collect, and some years you don’t,” he said.

“But you don’t complain in years you don’t collect on your insurance, because you didn’t die or your house didn’t burn down. Owning international stocks is like that. In years when they do poorly, that’s the price of insurance.

“But you get a smoother ride over the whole period.”

If you’re invested only in American companies, you’re ignoring a world of opportunity. More than half of all investment opportunities lie outside the borders of this country. And many of those in emerging economies have more upside than opportunities here. Some experts suggest even firms in other developed countries have more room to run than U.S. companies. That means you may be getting in on long-term growth potential by investing internationally.

All about correlation

What it all boils down to is you want low correlation in the stocks you own. When stocks are not correlated, they’re diverse. Stock holdings in many countries around the world? Lower correlation. Stock holdings only in the U.S.? Higher correlation. Stock holdings just in your city or region? Still higher correlation. And stock held only in the company in which you’re employed? If it could accurately be called correlation at all, that would be correlation on steroids.

If someone at the publicly-traded company that employs you suggests you place most of your investing bets on your own employer, keep this in mind. They’re likely not the smartest guys in the room. But they may be the most sinister.

Published on January 17th, 2012
Modified on January 30th, 2012 - 2 Comments
Filed under: Saving & Investing

About the author: is an independent writer in Chicago who has written over 2,000 articles appearing in publications such as Barron's, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times, and more.

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2 Responses to “Far-Out Investment Strategies”

  1. 1
    Peter Says:

    I have in the past had 90% of my wealth in my employers stock options. I was very glad, after the company’s shares tanked, that I had sold about 70% of the shares after the options vested. Having a job and wealth dependent on the same company is not so good and idea.

    Taleb (The Black Swan), as I remember, suggests that investing in lots of high risk, high return investments is a sensible way to go. This is because people under estimate the likelihood of unlikely events occurring.

    This might well have the benefit of minimizing the correlation between your investments as well. But which private investor has the time and ability to analyze many, different, risky, investments?

  2. 2
    Mike Says:

    I learned about the virtues of asset class diversification about a year ago, and I felt foolish after learning about it–for 20 years I have been investing 100% in US stock mutual funds, thinking all the while that I would get the best return that way.

    Seems I was wrong–I’d probably have done better if I had diversified more. Not that I’ve done particularly badly, but it seems that these “insurance policies” do smooth returns, preventing the big losses that take a long time to recover from–thus enhancing the effects of long term compound interest.

    The challenge though, is that it seems a lot of the major asset classes, including international stocks, are still highly correlated with US stocks. I’d like to put a percentage of my portfolio in the Rogers International Commodities Index or the DJ-AIG commodities index, which seems to have the least correlation, and aren’t overly weighted in things like gold or oil. Unfortunately I haven’t found any good low cost, no load mutual funds. I’m really surprised Vanguard seems to have no offering for this.

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