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Understanding Investment Diversification

October 24, 2010 1 comment

“Diversification is a time-honored investment principle” (Gibson, 2004). Early documentation of diversification may be traced back as far as 1200 BC, where the Jewish Talmud preached that “every man divide his money into three parts, and invest a third in land, a third in business, and a third let him keep in reserve” (Gibson, 2004). People have recognized, from an early stage, the benefits of risk spreading brought upon by diversification; even if that was at an intuitive level. And as the world continues to take on varying forms, as a result of changes brought upon by one generation inheriting it from the next, part of what remains constant across time, is that “investors want high returns, [all the while not incurring] risk in securing those returns” (Gibson, 2004).

But why do investors want returns in the first place? And what risks are they trying to avoid? In answering these questions, we must first establish that when investing in any asset, an investor is taking on a certain level of risk. This degree of risk, may be divided into two parts: systematic and non-systematic. The systematic portion is association with market risk, and is ingrained in each asset; meaning it cannot be diversified away. As for the unsystematic risk portion, this type of risk is asset specific. Unsystematic risk is the amount of possible deviation between the expected and actual return on an asset. The higher the possible deviation, the higher the unsystematic risk. As a result of the risk investors take when giving up their capital to invest in a given asset, they expect to be compensated. Naturally, the higher the associated risk, the higher the compensation; or in other words, the expected returns.

Diversification, refers to the selection and investing in various assets, so as to spread the risks associated with investing in each asset. Since each asset inherently contains the same market risks, that is systematic risk, then diversification “could be conceptualized as a reduction in unsystematic risk” (Hight, 2010). The selection criteria for the assets when achieving diversification, includes [but not limited to]:
– Geographic location [i.e. different international markets]
– Industry [i.e different industry types]
– Asset type [i.e. Bonds, stocks, treasury bills, etc].
– The relationship between the returns of the different assets [also known as correlation]

So up until this point, we have determined that:
> Any type of asset bares some form of risk [systematic and non-systematic]
> Investors, whom are giving up their capital to invest in assets, want returns to be compensated for the risk they are baring. Preferably, the investors want as high a return as possible; and as low a risk as possible.
> What diversification does effectively is spread an investor’s capital across a portfolio of assets, reducing the “risks that bear no compensation” (Wagner and Lau, 1971). Generally, the “more securities in a portfolio, the greater the likelihood that sufficient good fortune will appear to balance off the bad fortune” (Sharpe, 1995). This gives the investor the benefit of higher predictability when if comes to the expected return on investment. Diversification facilities for less investment volatility.

But so far, this discussion has only tackled diversification from a very theoretical point of view. In the real world, certain impediments exist, as to lessen the benefits gained from diversification. Such hurdles include:

> Markets are not as uniform as mathematical formulas make them to be: the diversification process relies on formulas and probabilities [such as the quadratic formula and normal distribution] that provide good approximations of the expected asset returns. Also, these formulas rely on data input that is based on sample historical data; as it would be too costly and difficult to take into account all of the historical data. Thus, given that formulas are not exact, and the underlying data is only a partial set, a lot of estimation error is introduced.
> Returns are not symmetric: what diversification aims to achieve, is to create a portfolio of assets, where the correlation between the different assets is low; as when one asset goes down, the other goes up. But “paradoxically, [the correlations of] well-diversified portfolios… tend to increase during crisis situations, reducing the effectiveness of diversification when it is needed most” (Levy and Post, p.237, 2005).
> The diversification effect has become less due to globalization: lower costs in information and capital accessibility, has had the effect of increasing the correlation between the various markets. This dampened the diversification effect, as “economic events in one part of the world affect markets on the other side of the globe” (Gibson, 2004)
> Limited possibility sets due to regulations: investors may have to adhere to certain rules and regulations when it comes to investing; for example: a set percentage limit in investing in a given asset type,  or investing in only environmentally friendly companies. Such restrictions, whether enforced or voluntary, end up reducing the diversification effect as the number of investment options [the possibility set] shrinks.
> Market timing: a lot of underlying variables in the diversification formulas must be ‘tweaked’ to reflect the best diversification strategy. But such tweaking is highly dependent on the market conditions, and thus timing is crucial. Yet, since we still do not have a way to tell how future events may unfold, market timing is at best a guess-timate!
> The human factor: steering away from all the mathematics and number crunching, there are some human elements that cannot be capturing by formulas, such as: what defines an acceptable risk level? what defines an acceptable return for a given risk level? etc. Each person may answer these questions different, and as such, a given diversification strategy/formula may not apply to everyone.

Warren Buffett once said, “diversification is a protection against ignorance. It makes very little sense for those who know what they’re doing”. But then again, diversification does have some merits, so as long as its effectiveness is not over estimated. It has been proven that as more assets are included in the diversified portfolio, the marginal benefits diminish quickly. Thus wide-diversification is essentially harmful to the investor. This theme extends to all types of investments, regardless of the underlying asset. For example, in the real estate business, “marginal risk reduction from expanding into more cities diminishes quickly, making the choice of staying geographically concentrated a sensible portfolio strategy” (Ping and Roulac, 2007).  Effectively, it might be best if one utilizes a more focus-diversified strategy.

— Youssef Aboul-Naja

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The Pros & Cons of Financial Globalization

October 10, 2010 4 comments
Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, once stated that “… arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity”. “From a historical perspective … globalization is not a new phenomenon” (Schmukler, 2004); though given the technological advancements in the most recent decade or two, globalization has manifested itself in all fields, “flattening the world” (p.51)  as Thomas Friedman called it. Technological advancements facilitated cheaper means of communication and transportation, effectively bridging the distance disparities between nations. From a financials’ industry perspective, this brought good news to both investors and businesses alike; or so it appeared from first glance!

There is no denying the advantages that are brought upon by financial globalization. Due to the interconnectedness of the world markets, a given country’s market will gain a “deeper degree of financial integration” (Schmukler, 2004). This translates to further market stability and regulation, strengthening investors’ trust in a given country’s market. Thus, businesses seeking to raise funds, will have a larger pool of investors to chose from. Due to the access of a larger pool of investors, “increased competitiveness” (Moldovan, 2010) will drive down the cost of funds for businesses. So not only will businesses have access to more funds, but the cost of raising the funds will be lower. From a global perspective, this will lead to “better allocation of capital” (Moldovan, 2010). From a specific business perspective, this may lead to businesses raising their required capital at the very least; it might even accelerate the business’s growth plans and funding requirements. This is most notable in low income countries, where a study conducted by the International Monetary Fund shows that private flows have “grown more than fourfold since the 1980s” (Dorsey, 2008).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Dorsey, 2008)

 

 

Financial globalization also bares benefits to investors.  For example, it does promote for a “better financial infrastructure” (Schmukler, 2004). As a result, lenders and borrowers operate in a financial system that is more “transparent, competitive, and efficient” (Schmukler, 2004). This leads, from the investor’s perspective, to more trust in the financial system. It also enables the investor to make varied investments; allowing for the spreading of risk via  diversification.

But just like falling to the ground due to gravity, globalization has its dark side. Kofi Annon continued elsewhere to say that although “… globalization is a fact of life … we have underestimated its fragility”.

As the financial markets of the world become ever connected due to globalization, if a problem occurred in one part of the globe, it would “cascade [and echo] uncontrollably” (Beinhocker et al., 2009) in other corners of the world. The latest of such crises is the housing bubble burst in the United States. Therefore, the risk of financial globalization is market disturbance due to factors beyond that of the domestic market. What this may mean for businesses seeking capital at such times, is that it will not find any; or if it does, it will be at a very high cost. This will always be true, even in the case if a given country’s government takes necessary precautionary measures to support its financial market in times of needs

For example, Saudi Arabia has been preparing its yearly budget with the assumption that the price of the oil barrel is USD 40; though in reality, the oil barrel was being sold for over USD 100.  This created a lot of surplus for the Saudi government. When the housing bubble burst in end of 2008, the Saudi government tried to inject a lot of liquidity in its market. And although, Saudi Arabia was able to recover much quicker than other countries, the truth of the matter is that liquidity dried up in the country, and businesses seeking capital at that time, had to pay a higher premium to obtain it.

One benefit that was cited in regards to financial globalization is that capital, on a global scale, is distributed in the most efficient manner. But this same benefit may be viewed in a negative light by some business owners whom are seeking capital, due to the emerging trend of “imbalances in trade and financial flows” (Wyss, 2009). To such business owners, financial globalization dried up their pool of potential investors; or increased substantially their cost of capital.

Looking at things from an investor’s point of view, it can be argued that globalization of financial markets aid in spreading their risk via diversification, but when a crisis does occur, no financial market or industry is shielded. Thus, the spreading of risk efforts would be dampened due to globalization of financial markets. Sort of a double edge sword.

Another aspect that must be analyzed, from an investor’s point of view, is that due to the globalization of financial markets, capital is allocated in the most efficient manner; irrespective of other non profit oriented criteria. Rarely is a criterion such as the likes of morality, humanitarianism and environmentalism are incorporated in the definition of efficiency. Thus globalization of financial markets will penalize investors who don’t regard profits as their only priority.

— Youssef Aboul-Naja