Building Your Portfolio
When you allocate your assets, you decide—usually on a percentage basis—what portion of your total portfolio to invest in different asset classes, usually stock, bonds, and cash or cash equivalents. You can make these investments either directly by purchasing individual securities or indirectly by choosing funds that invest in those securities.
As you build a more extensive portfolio, you may also include other asset classes, such as real estate, which can also help to spread out your investment risk and so moderate it.
Asset allocation is a useful tool in managing systematic risk because different categories of investments respond to changing economic and political conditions in different ways. By including different asset classes in your portfolio, you increase the probability that some of your investments will provide satisfactory returns even if others are flat or losing value. Put another way, you're reducing the risk of major losses that can result from over-emphasizing a single asset class, however resilient you might expect that class to be.
For example, in periods of strong corporate earnings and relative stability, many investors choose to own stock or stock mutual funds. The effect of this demand is to drive stock prices up, increasing their total return, which is the sum of the dividends they pay plus any change in value. If investors find the money to invest in stock by selling some of their bond holdings or by simply not putting any new money into bonds, then bond prices will tend to fall because there is a greater supply of bonds than of investors competing for them. Falling prices reduce the bonds' total return. In contrast, in periods of rising interest rates and economic uncertainty, many investors prefer to own bonds or keep a substantial percentage of their portfolio in cash. That can depress the total return that stock provides while increasing the return from bonds.
While you can recognize historical patterns that seem to indicate a strong period for a particular asset class or classes, the length and intensity of these cyclical patterns are not predictable. That's why it's important to have money in multiple asset classes at all times. You can always adjust your portfolio allocation if economic signs seem to favor one asset class over another.
Financial services companies make adjustments to the asset mix they recommend for portfolios on a regular basis, based on their assessment of the current market environment. For example, a firm might suggest that you increase your cash allocation by a certain percentage and reduce your equity holdings by a similar percentage in a period of rising interest rates and increasing international tension. Companies frequently display their recommended portfolio mix as a pie chart, showing the percentage allocated to each asset class.
Modifying your asset allocation modestly from time to time is not the same thing as market timing, which typically involves making frequent shifts in your portfolio holdings in anticipation of which way the markets will turn. Because no one knows what will happen, this technique rarely produces positive long-term results.