Amid unprecedented uncertainty, target allocation should be your investment guide

As published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune 04/18/2020.

Economic uncertainty has never been higher in our lifetimes than it is now.

The quantifiable effects from coronavirus and the global shutdown it triggered remains as difficult to predict as April weather in Minnesota. Thanks to historic amounts of stimulus from Congress and the Federal Reserve, the stock market has dumped more sunshine than snow on weary investors in recent weeks. But while the S&P 500 recapturing half its losses certainly soothes some financial pain, a schizophrenic market remains clouded with questions.

At a time when shopping for toilet paper presents major quandaries, how do you look at your stock portfolio and decide whether to buy, sell or hold? Let your target allocation guide you.

If you do not have a formal long-term target allocation, add it to your priority list. And to be clear, when we say “buy, sell or hold,” we are referring to the decision about increasing, reducing, or maintain your current equity exposure.

Many individual investors, especially those who manage their own money, might argue a formal target allocation is unnecessary. In the institutional investment world, however, the absence of a target allocation is often a breach of fiduciary duty.

Organizations like endowments, foundations and pension funds have formal investment policies they rely upon to guide allocation decisions and rebalancing. These are entities with portfolios worth millions (or billions) of dollars shepherded by board members who themselves are often financial professionals. With very few exceptions, those investment policies include formal allocations that must maintained.

That’s not a coincidence. Building a formal allocation then proactively rebalancing those targets add discipline to the decision-making process. Institutions tend to record better long-term performance than individuals for the same reasons the average investor significantly underperforms the S&P 500. More discipline leads to less emotion, which results in better investment decisions.

For individuals and families, a formal target allocation serves as a guidebook to help them navigate dangerous market conditions. We don’t need to look back very far to see the benefits this can offer. The fourth quarter of 2018 gave us the S&P’s first 20% sell-off (if you consider intraday movements) in nearly a decade. If you had an allocation target and stuck to it, you bought equities during that pullback.

Soon after, equities began a climb that resulted in annual gains around 30% in 2019. Sure, sticking to your target meant you probably sold equities a time or two as stock prices kept rising, but taking some profits and reducing risk looks pretty smart after the S&P just sunk to its lowest level in more than three years. Sticking to your target allocation means you would have forced yourself to buy stocks last month. Painful as it may have felt, that ultimately paid off too as the S&P bounced 30% in three weeks off its March 23 low.

In each of those periods, no one knew what would happen next, but that’s the point. Uncertain times are what disciplined strategies are made for. A target allocation will not guarantee outperformance. Statistically, though, it will improve your odds. Plus, it will make your decision-making process easier.

In uncertain times, that’s worth even more.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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