Kit Kats, Blow Pops, and the Benefits of Diversification

“But international stocks are underperforming the S&P 500! Why are you buying international mutual funds in my account?”

We hear this question a lot. People often wonder why we include various sectors and asset classes in our portfolios, but the one that tends to get the most scrutiny is international equity. Many investors exhibit what is known as “home bias,” or the tendency to invest primarily in domestic securities, whether it stems from a nationalistic desire to “buy local” or simply the belief that international investing carries additional costs and complexities. Often, investors eschew international diversification to their detriment, as many studies have shown that the inclusion of international equities lowers portfolio volatility while increasing risk-adjusted return. However, these metrics are not what investors see – they see performance. They see that the return on their international fund is lower than the return on the S&P 500 and fear that it will be a drag on their returns forever. So why don’t we sell it?

Quite simply, we keep it for the diversification benefits. With Halloween just around the corner, perhaps an analogy will help. When you’re trick-or-treating, you knock on the door of every lighted house and collect as much candy as you can carry home. Then you dump it out on the floor and sort through it to revel in the spoils. Hopefully you’ll come home with lots of chocolate candy bars, M&Ms, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, and Reese’s cups. Then there might be a smattering of Smarties, Starburst, and Skittles, which are fine. Invariably there will be a few of those orange and black-wrapped peanut butter taffies, some chalky Dubble Bubble and a handful of Dum Dums – but that’s OK. A few crummy candies won’t ruin the night, since you have so much more of the good stuff. And you never know which houses are going to hand out what candy, so you have to hit them all. (And to the person handing out raisins, just stop. Don’t be that guy.)

Now imagine that your portfolio is a bag of Halloween candy. Even if you love Snickers, it would be pretty disappointing if your entire haul was nothing but Snickers – that would defeat the purpose of trick-or-treating, because you could simply go to the store and buy a bag. No, you want a wide variety from which to choose, based on changing moods and cravings! In a similar way, you need to diversify your investments so that the mood of the day doesn’t destroy your savings in one fell swoop. If your entire portfolio consists of the stock of one bank and the bank goes under, you lose all of your money. If you buy the stock of 5 different banks, but the entire banking industry hits a rough patch, your portfolio plummets…so you buy the stock of 40 different companies in different sectors and industries to spread the risk. But what if they’re all domestic companies and the domestic economy tanks? I think you see where this is going. Different investments zig and zag, moving in opposite directions simultaneously, which dampens the overall volatility of the portfolio.

You may not be a huge fan of Blow-Pops, but what happens if you fill your bag with Kit Kats and you’re suddenly in the mood for Sour Apple? What if you leave your bag in the sun and all the Kit Kats melt? It’s true that if particular sector (such as international equity) underperforms and you have it in your portfolio, you might get a lower return on your portfolio for that period. But when that sector rallies, you’ll be happy you had a couple of Blow-Pops in your bag.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA

Portfolio Manager

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