Imagine the sinking feeling you get when you open your statement for your RRSP or your 401k. The market has tumbled and your investments have tumbled with it. What could be worse? At least you were invested across blue chip stocks in a variety of industries and when the market turns around these blue chip companies will be firing on all cylinders and your investments will surge. This is a good news scenario since you are well diversified and this is just a blip in the long term investment strategy. You sit back and relax.
Meanwhile your neighbor also just got his investment statement. Instead of the tried and true diversification, he put all his investment into GM or Enron. Not only is it down, it is gone. Sure you had some in GM as well and lost a fraction of your investment. But your neighbor had it all in, sure that the company would pull out and the share price would rebound. The lesson we have all learned in the last two years is that investment diversification is key to a long term strategy that will yield financial returns for our retirement.
What Do They Really Mean by Investment Diversification
There are numerous ways to interpret diversification. The most simple and straightforward approach is to invest across a wide spectrum of companies, healthy companies with good balance sheets and a proven business plan. The fly by night companies simply cannot pass the business plan test so stay away from them.
You might also pick one company, the one with the best balance sheet and revenue in each industry. Choosing companies across industries is a great idea to diversify and also protect yourself if one part of the economy takes a dive for a short period of time.
Another approach is to also add to the mix mutual funds that meet your investment strategy. Today you can choose from mutual funds that invest in bonds to precious metals to foreign to dividend stocks and more. This gets a bit more complicated. You will need to decide how much risk you want to take, whether you want income generating funds or growth type mutual funds. There are many different types and it is easy to diversify, however you should pay attention to the risk of each type. Bond mutual funds are considered the least risky , while precious metals might qualify as the most risky.
Bonds, both corporate and government represent another area to invest in. Bonds are rated from junk bonds to triple A. For most investors A , AA and triple A are the way to go. Essentially there is a good chance you will get your money back when the bonds mature.
Spread Your Money
Many of the banks have good tools to help you decide what type of investor you are. Can you tolerate risk or do you need something really secure? Do you want income for your retirement or do you want to take more risk and focus on long term grown? There are a few categories that I have found that they do not always talk to investors about.
First of all they are only selling their own investments. Some banks for example will only sell you mutual funds run by their bank. Some will not offer investments directly in bonds. Instead you can invest in a bond fund. My suggestion is that you spread your total investment between two different investment advisers. This way you will get advice from more than one source and you will build a little competition between them.
Set Diversification Limits
Another area that investment advisers may not necessarily discuss is setting limits of how much you have invested in a given area. Someone nearing retirement might lean towards bonds and income generating investments higher than others. You might aim for 50% in bonds, 30% in stocks or mutual funds and 20% in GIC’s for rainy day needs. If the market starts to swing significantly, then only 30% of your portfolio is exposed. With proper bond laddering, interest rate changes will not have much impact on your bonds.
Bond laddering is simply splitting the maturity of your bonds across several years so that even if interest rates are low in the year your bonds are maturing, you only will need to reinvest a small portion of your investments. Bonds are a great vehicle providing you stick to A rated bonds. Generally they pay reasonable interest rates, however most have what is called a “Call Option” . This means that the bond issuer can decide to recall the bonds. They will pay back the principle to you plus any accrued interest. Corporations will do this to reduce debt load and also if interest rates are now lower than the original bond value.
Another area to think about is the amount of money you will invest in any individual investment. Even though the interest rate on a bond is fantastic, or you are buying into a stock that is very low relative to its overall value, do you really want to place a large percentage of your investment at risk.Some people will set a limit of 10% of their total investments for each individual investment. Others will set it between 5% and 10%.
Many Ways to Diversify Your 401K or RRSP
As we have discussed there are many ways to diversify. We will list them here for your consideration:
- Across investment vehicles e.g. bonds, mutual funds, GIC’s and stocks
- Diversify across investment advisers
- Across industries
- Foreign and domestic
- Set limits on the amount of any single investment
- Set limits on the amount of any investment type
Depending on the size of your investment you may want to develop this model over time for your personal needs. What ever you do, never put all of your investments in one basket. If it sounds to good to be true then it probably is too good to be true.