Tuesday, May 8, 2012

AI: Alpha and Index Funds

A current theme among Wall Street wealth managers is for individual investors to have index funds as their core holdings and to focus the remainder of their assets in high alpha investments, which will produce returns not correlated with the market.

A quick digression for those of you who aren't familiar with alpha and beta. In traditional finance, return not correlated with a broad market index, such as the S& P 500, is referred to as alpha.

The return which is correlated to the market is beta. An index fund should have the same return (positive or negative) as the index it mimics. (One of the controversies surrounding some ETFs is their performance has not tracked their underlying index.)

The theory behind Alpha and Index Funds is multi fold: 1. the major indices are a good place for an investor to be, both from a risk and return perspective; 2. you can't outperform the major indices, so don't waste your time; 3. find those investment niches with high alphas to increase your return and reduce the overall risk in your portfolio.

Even if you don't subscribe to this theory, you might find it an interesting exercise to review the alphas -- every investment has one -- of your current holdings. They will tell you something about the correlation and diversification of your portfolio.

Where to focus your alpha energy? Investments in real estate, commodities, and energy are less correlated with the stock market (although I've never thought commodities were suitable for individual investors).

The Wall Street pros also recommend stock fund mangers who have unique strategies and can demonstrate a high alpha relative to the market (and, of course, positive relative performance).

Ask your investment adviser for suggestions. The alphas for individual mutual funds (and individual stocks) are available from some brokers and online premium services.

Alpha and index fund investing makes a great deal of sense. You know what to expect in terms of risk and return when you invest in an index fund.

Having a portion of your portfolio in index funds leaves you free to concentrate your investment time and energy (think alpha waves) on those investments which can make a difference.

Picking high alpha investments, which by their nature are less correlated with the stock market, should reduce the risk/volatility of your portfolio and, depending upon the investment, provide above market returns.

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