Correlation: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Market and Love Diversification
This year has seen further gains in the stock market both in Canada and the United States. But after five straight years of gains (the US is having its third longest period without a 10% drop) many are calling for an end to the party.
Calling for a correction in the markets isn’t unheard of, especially after such a long run of good performance. The question is what should investors do about it? Most financial advisors and responsible journalists will tell you to hold tight until it 1. happens, and 2. passes. But for investors, especially post 2008, such advice seems difficult to follow. Most Canadians with any significant savings aren’t just five years closer to retiring than they were in 2008, they are also likely considering retirement within the next 10 years. Another significant correction in the market could drastically change their retirement plans.
Complicating matters is that the investing world has yet to return to “normal”. Interest rates are at all time lows, reducing the returns from holding fixed income and creating a long term threat to bond values. The economy is still quite sluggish, and while labour numbers are still slack, labour participation will likely never return to previous highs as more and more people start retiring. Meanwhile corporations are still sitting on mountains of cash and haven’t really done much in the way of revenue growth, but share prices continue to rise making market watchers nervous about unsustainable valuations.
In short, it’s a confusing mess.
My answer to this is to stay true to principles of diversification. Diversification has to be the most boring and un-fun elements of being invested and it runs counter to our natural instincts to maximize our returns by holding investments that may not perform consistently. Diversification is like driving in a race with your brakes on. And yet it’s still the single most effective way to minimize the impacts of a market correction. It’s the insurance of the investing world.
The challenge for Canadians when it comes to diversifying is to understand the difference between problems that are systemic and those that are unique. The idea is explained well by Joseph Heath in his book Filthy Lucre. Using hunters trying to avoid starvation he notes that “10 hunters agree to share with one another, so that those who were lucky had a good day give some of their catch to those who were unlucky and had a bad day…the result will be a decrease in variance.” This type of risk pooling is premised off the idea “that one hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed must be unrelated to any other hunter’s chances of coming home empty handed.” Systemic risk is when “something happens that simultaneously reduces everyone’s chances of catching some game.” This is why it is unhelpful to have more than one Canadian equity mutual fund in a portfolio, and to be cognizant of high correlation between funds.
The question investors should be asking is about the correlation between their investments. That information isn’t usually available except to people (like myself) who pay for services to provide that kind of data. But a financial advisor should be able to give you insight into not just the historic volatility of your investments, but also how closely they correlate with the rest of the portfolio.
Sadly I have no insights as to whether the market might have a correction this year, nor what the magnitude of such a correction could be. For my portfolio, and all the portfolios I manage the goal will be to continue to seek returns from the markets while at the same time finding protection through a diversified set of holdings.