How and When to Rebalance
By Walid Petiri, AAMS, RFC, (Guest Contributor)
With the stock market reaching new all-time highs while continuing its longest bull market stampede in history, many investors are compelled to ask: How frequently should I rebalance my 401(k), IRA, 529 education plan or non-retirement portfolio?
Though it’s a clear and specific question asked often in up, down or even flat markets, the answer is not nearly as clear cut. As illustrated in the Nobel Prize-winning work of University of Chicago finance professors Harry Markowitz and William Sharpe, asset allocation is the most important factor in determining the best long-term investment portfolio outcomes. Their study indicated that 91% of a portfolio’s positive performance was based on the right asset allocation.
One common investing adage is that you subtract your age from 100 to find the percentage of your portfolio that you should keep in stocks. If you're 40, for instance, you should keep 60% of your portfolio in stocks. If you're 70, you should keep 30% of your portfolio in stocks.
So today, with a more than 10-year climb in the U.S stock market specifically and with global equities as a whole having risen sharply since March of 2009, how and when do you rebalance.
According to thebalance.com, lifestyle can also influence allocation. A widow with $1 million to invest and no other source of income will want a significant portion of her wealth in fixed-income obligations that will generate a steady source of retirement income for the rest of her life. A young corporate employee just out of college, on the other hand, will want to build wealth; she can ignore market fluctuations as she doesn’t depend on her investments to live day to day.
First, though you should review your monthly statements for basic accuracy and your portfolio quarterly for performance measures and trends, asset allocation changes do not have one set rule. They blend science and art simultaneously.
Timing and luck can matter, too. Notes The Retirement Researcher, a portfolio that was rebalanced every five years and that happened to have been rebalanced right before 2008 would’ve fared better than one rebalanced in 2004. (The portfolio that hadn’t been rebalanced in a while likely would have had a higher level of equities, and hence a more vulnerable composition when the bottom fell out of the market.)
The Researcher recommends two approaches. The first is the time-based rebalancing, on a schedule. The other is the rebalancing band approach, which doesn’t rebalance until an asset class moves outside of pre-specified bands. Enter the science: Once you’ve established a good portfolio mix, as the portfolio asset classes move beyond 5% outside of target range – that is, you originally committed 40% to U.S stocks and the bull market now has your portfolio at 48% U.S. stocks – you need to take action.
The art of this practice is when to take action – and how frequently? Some would advise rebalancing every quarter, back to your target ranges, and reviewing the overall portfolio every year for asset allocation changes. Others would say semi-annually is when rebalancing should occur; still, others would say annually rebalance your portfolio to start the year anew and review your asset allocation yearly. Make changes only when the markets clearly shift.
The best answer for you is likely any or all of these. The most important part of the answer is that you consistently practice whichever rebalancing strategy you adopt. Whenever you rebalance there’s room for second-guessing, but discipline is your ally in the long term.
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