Hit the Bullseye of Your Portfolio

As any personal trainer will tell you, the key to staying in shape is keeping your core muscles strong so that you can build on that foundation. That’s also good investment advice because having too much money in weak, flabby assets often leads to bigger losses than you expect in a stock market correction.

That’s why this issue of Personal Finance includes several articles about investments that make excellent core holdings and how they can help your portfolio stand up under pressure. The stock market has been on a nice run lately, and we hope it continues. But it wouldn’t take much to send stocks reeling, so now is the time to take inventory of what you own and identify a group of core holdings that can serve as the portfolio’s backbone.

Core holdings can be stocks, bonds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. But to qualify as a core holding, an investment must meet two requirements. First, it should be consistent with your performance goals. Second, it should limit your risk to an acceptable level. That description is intentionally broad because every investor defines performance goals and acceptable risk differently.

Begin at the Center

Then build your portfolio around core holdings. Think of your portfolio as a series of concentric rings, like the ones on a dartboard. Except unlike a dartboard, the biggest ring is in the center, with the circles becoming narrower the further you get from the bull’s-eye. The idea is to put most of your money in the bull’s-eye and less in the outer rings.

The bull’s-eye consists of an investment that closely matches the rate of return you expect long term. For example, an investor wanting to match the overall return of the stock market might select an S&P 500 exchange-traded fund as a core holding for the bull’s-eye, while a more conservative investor might choose a bond ETF instead.

Whatever the core investment happens to be, it must have a high probability of behaving exactly as you’d expect given certain market conditions. If the stock market doubles over the next five years, so should the investment you selected to mimic that performance. If the market crashes and drops in half, you also must be willing to accept similar losses from that holding.

Expand Outward

Not all core holdings belong in the center ring. In fact, you can define your portfolio further by surrounding the holdings in the center with investments that may be vastly different. For instance, an aggressive growth investor might add a tech sector ETF (or a group of tech stocks) in the next ring to supplement the core S&P 500 index fund holding and juice up the portfolio’s total return.

A more conservative growth investor, however, might use the same S&P 500 index fund as the core but add a defense sector ETF (like the one described on the facing page) to emphasize income and share price stability. An income investor, on the other hand, might start out with a diversified bond fund as the core but use the same defense sector ETF in the second ring to emphasize growth and provide a hedge against inflation.

The third ring should fine-tune your portfolio by accounting for any risks you want to address. If a spike in gold prices might ruin the performance of your other core holdings, then counterbalance that effect by adding a gold fund. If you’re already betting on higher inflation by holding several commodity funds in the core, a bond fund that offers protection from an unexpected drop in interest rates might be better in the outer ring.

Size Up Your Rings

How much money you should put in each ring depends on your financial situation. A retiree living on a fixed monthly pension might have a wide second ring that emphasizes growth and protects against the possibility of inflation whittling away the core’s purchasing power. But a retiree already withdrawing from an IRA may want a big center circle, with more income-producing investments as the core.

Over time, most investors inadvertently end up with a mixed bag of investments that bear little resemblance to their performance goals. If this happens and you’re not sure how to fIx it, ask a financial planner to evaluate your portfolio and help you rebuild its core holdings.

Jim Pearce is chief investment strategist for Personal Finance.

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