portfolio checkup

A friend who’s studying in the Netherlands and just starting out as an investor emailed me a question about what a portfolio checkup/cleanup is supposed to do.  I thought I’d reply in this post and in tomorrow’s.

two objectives

Basically, you analyze your portfolio carefully and at regular intervals to do two things:

–so you know for sure how your portfolio plan is working and what quantify which stocks or ideas are adding to or subtracting from your performance, and

–so you gradually learn about your investing personality.  By this I mean what things you typically do well and which ones you aren’t so good at.  You want this information, as painful as it may sometimes be to find out, so that you can emphasize the former and minimize the latter.  After all, the main goal is to earn/save money–not to massage your ego.

#1  figuring out performance

There’s a purely mechanical aspect to this.  You have a benchmark like the S&P 500, by which you judge your performance (you could achieve this return by buying an index fund.  You should only spend time and effort to select individual stocks or focused ETFs/mutual funds if you expect a return higher than the index fund will give you).

Over the past three months, the S&P 500 is down about 7.5% (ouch!).  Over the past month, it’s up about 9%.

Your first task is to calculate how your portfolio has performed vs the S&P over the interval you’re studying–both as a whole and each individual issue.  (For what it’s worth, after a long period of doing well, my stocks have been clobbered over the past month.)

what to do with this data, once it’s collected

a.  look for outliers, especially big losers.  Everyone has losers.  Everyone, even the most seasoned professional, also has an almost infinite capacity for denial.  My first mentor as a portfolio manager used to say that it took three winners to offset the damage that one big loser can do if it’s left to run amok and not caught early. So finding losers and eliminating them is important.

b.  ask if your plan is working.  This presupposes you have a plan.  A checkup may well bring out that you’re not bringing your intelligence, knowledge and experience to the party but are, so to speak, mailing it in and hoping that’s good enough.  (We all find out quickly that it isn’t.  Although individual market participants may not be the sharpest pencils, the collective entity is extremely acute.)

For example, in general my plan is:

–world economies are still expanding, although slowly.  So I’m still positioned for an up market.  The EU has me worried.  I’m thinking about shading toward larger, stodgy sort-of-growth stocks as a defensive measure but haven’t done anything much yet.

–there will continue to be a sharp separation between haves (mostly meaning having a job) and the have-nots (the 10% or so long-term unemployed in the US).  I want to own stocks that cater to the former and want to avoid stocks whose market is the latter.

–Asian, especially Greater China, exposure is a good thing, because that’s where most of the world’s economic energy is centered

–I think the continuing proliferation of smartphones, tablets and e-readers plus the rapid development of cloud computing mean there’s money to be made in at least some tech stocks.

For me, the relevant question is how this is working out for me overall.  The answer is:  great, until about a month ago.

A second aspect of figuring out performance is to look, stock by stock, at plan vs. performance.  Reading any of my posts about TIF will get you my stock-specific plan since I bought the security about a year ago.  Again, until about a month ago, things were working well  …since then, not so much.

c.  acting on this information

Even in the best of times, the stock market is always a process of two steps forward, one step back.  Also, all stocks, even the long-term winners, have periods of underperformance.  There’s a real experience-and temperament-based art to deciding how to react to the data that show your stocks are underperforming.

In my case, I’m thinking so far that this is a temporary adjustment phase.  But I’ve also got to at least begin to consider how I’d rearrange my holdings if the underperformance persisted.  This thought process–and the possible move to action–is partly a question of risk tolerance, partly of conviction in the correctness of my analysis of individual stocks, and partly a judgment, based on experience, of what is a normal trading pattern vs. a fundamental change in market direction.

More tomorrow.