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William Gamble
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William Gamble has been active in the international business as a consultant, lawyer, investor, and corporate counsel for the past thirty years. He has written three books. The most recent is Investing in Emerging Markets: Rules of the Game (2012). He has also written Investing in China (2002)... More
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Emerging Market Strategies
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Investing in Emerging Markets: Rules of the Game
  • Asset Allocations 2 comments
    Oct 23, 2011 10:35 AM

    The concept of allocation is usually considered one of the main guiding principles for safe investing. The idea is that you are supposed to be diversified in various stocks or asset classes. This elementary risk management tool seems to be common sense. It is even reflected in the English expression “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket”. It is not only English. Almost the exact phase exists in French. The Chinese follow the example of an animal; the smart rabbit has three holes. I have no question that in life, it is always a good idea to have alternatives, but for investors, especially recently, the practice may not always result in achieving its goal.

    Money managers, financial analysts and even courts are fond of asset allocation rules. One of the most common involves the allocation between stocks and bonds. The ‘safe allocation’ is supposed to be 60% of a portfolio in equity and 40% in bonds. So sacred is this allocation that it has a corollary based on age. At age 25 you are supposed to have 75% of your assets in stocks and 25% in bonds. By age 50 the portfolios should be balanced, because as you approach retirement you naturally want less risk. I recently saw a form from a US bank that went even further. It had about eight categories of risk tolerance each with its own set of allocations from no risk which would be 100% cash to high risk which would be 100% equities.

    The problem with these rules is that they can be terribly misleading. For example, a solid portfolio is supposed to be made up of different stocks. The theory is that the movement of an individual stock is supposed to be based on an individual company’s financial fundamentals. This concept is the basis of a vast industry of stock analysis and stock picking. Recently this has not been the case. Stocks have risen and fallen together without regard to their fundamentals. The correlation of the 250 biggest stocks in the US S&P stock index over the past month had been the highest since 1987 at 81%.

    Other relationships have exhibited some novel patterns. In theory owning government bonds and gold should be a good allocation because they tend to move in opposite directions. Gold is traditionally a hedge against inflation. When an economy is growing rapidly and inflation is rising, you should own gold. In contrast inflation is the enemy of government bonds since their value is diminished and the returns may result in negative yields. But recently US treasuries and gold have risen together. The explanation is that they are both supposed to be “safe havens”. Although I can’t think of anything safe about buying either asset. Gold may be at the top of a bubble. Deflation may be more of a problem than inflation, while the value of dollar denominated US treasuries continues to fall relative to other currencies. 

    Owning both emerging and developed markets is a recommended allocation. The idea is based on the theory that emerging markets have somehow ‘decoupled’ from developed markets. Emerging markets are supposedly growing rapidly regardless of recessions in developed markets. The reality is that they are closely correlated. A perfect match would yield a beta of 1. An ETF that tracks the MSCI Emerging Market Index has a beta of 1.14. Emerging markets track developed markets, but are more volatile. They outperform when the S&P is in a bull market and underperform during bear markets.

    According to a recent theory commodities like oil, metals, or agriculture are supposed to be negatively correlated with markets. Such a negative correlation should make them ideal for asset allocation as a good hedge. Sadly this is not the case. Over some periods they are negatively correlated, but over the past three years booming equity markets have also meant booming commodities prices.

    Alternative investments like hedge funds and private equity are another asset class that are supposed to be a good place to put your eggs. This strategy gained popularity among pension funds due to the success in the 1980s of a manager of the endowment of Yale, a prestigious American university. What may have worked then does not necessarily work now. As many as 89% of hedge funds are below their 2006-2007 highs. It is difficult to value private equity except for the listed funds. Some famous ones like 3i has fallen 30% and Blackstone has fallen 64% since it was listed in 2007.

    Markets are dynamic systems. Creating models based on past data which are validated only against that past data have limited validity. In science we can create the theories with general applications because the rules are consistent and inviolable. Markets do not have this luxury as long as governments continue to introduce chaos into a system constantly changed by financial innovation.


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Comments (2)
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  • technopeasant
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    Comments (10) | Send Message
    If correlation isn't a reliable indicator for diversification then perhaps risk vs expected returns could be used? Of course that could backfire when what is expected to be less risky turns out to be more so.
    Then perhaps a volatility measure? Even if one could predict movement or quiesense some (most?) might find this too hard to sleep with.
    Maybe a contrarian fear index? Where one would do the opposite of the typical retail invester.
    25 Dec 2011, 10:20 PM Reply Like
  • William Gamble
    , contributor
    Comments (158) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » I have grave doubts about trying to quantify markets using any metric. for several reasons. One would be that the economic incentive of players would always be to hide information or lie. Second, the players are not rational. Third, governments are interfering with markets more than ever. Their motives are political not economic and there is no way to predict timing, degree or effects. Physic obeys the rules, people don't.


    You might want to read my latest book Investing in Emerging Markets Rules of the Game. Or Investing in China. Ten years old and still totally accurate.
    26 Dec 2011, 08:30 PM Reply Like
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