The new paradigm of portfolio construction

Today's investment vehicles can help better deliver what clients truly seek

Jun 13, 2019 @ 12:01 am

By Evan Cooper

Current thinking about the best way to construct investment portfolios stems from seminal events in 1952, 1993 and 1605. Yes, 1605.

That was the year when perhaps the cornerstone of portfolio construction — the value of diversification — first was articulated in print. While the context had nothing to do with securities, because they didn't yet exist, Miguel de Cervantes observed in his classic novel “Don Quixote” that “it is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.”

A more contemporary and securities-specific perspective on diversification, and one that revolutionized portfolio construction, came in 1952 when Harry Markowitz introduced Modern Portfolio Theory. Honored for his work with the Nobel Prize in Economics, Markowitz emphasized the importance of diversification and posited that risk-averse investors can construct portfolios to maximize their expected return based on the level of market risk they wish to assume. The zone of acceptable trade-offs was termed the “efficient frontier.”

When put to use in portfolio construction, the Markowitz view of risk as directly proportional to the variability of returns bolsters the diversification argument made by Cervantes centuries earlier. An investor who owns only equities, for example, has the potential to earn considerable returns, but since stock prices are so variable, loading up on stocks is risky. Ergo, dialing down stocks and adding some bonds and real estate, whose prices tend to zig when equity prices zag, can reduce portfolio risk.*

In recent years, new developments in economic theory and in securities themselves have further widened our thinking on the value of diversification and risk management in portfolio construction. One big change has been the emergence of the body of knowledge known as behavioral finance, which contrary to the assumption in classical economic theory that investors are rational, has demonstrated that investors also are irrational. This results in them tending to buy high, sell low and misperceive risk, and also leading them to make portfolio choices and decisions that are not always in their best long-term interests. In constructing portfolios for their clients, therefore, financial advisers must take into account that an optimal portfolio based on objective criteria may not necessarily be suitable or “best” in the context of the client's actual risk tolerance as demonstrated by their reaction to actual market declines, not questionnaire responses.

Another change has come in the form of investment vehicles themselves. The increasing popularity of mutual funds in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s made portfolio diversification among asset classes and within asset classes much easier to achieve than when investors largely had to choose among individual stocks and bonds. The mid-1970s also saw the creation of the first passively managed index mutual fund, which enabled investors to capture the performance of the broad market at low cost.**

A major innovation leading to changes in portfolio construction came in 1993 with the launch of the first U.S. listed exchange-traded index fund — the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust — which built on the diversification advantages of conventional index mutual funds by lowering costs further and by providing more flexible trading choices. This was followed by the introduction of more targeted and complex exchange-traded securities, including smart-beta ETFs, in which stocks are selected based on particular factors, such as lower valuation, smaller capitalization or lower volatility. Since stocks characterized by such factors have tended to outperform other stocks over time, smart beta funds have become increasingly popular.***

Employing today's innovative financial vehicles in addition to traditional investments, advisers now can create portfolios, or use portfolio models devised and managed by experts, that are diversified by asset class and within asset classes and better match an investor's true risk tolerance. In fact, many advisors now use a “hub and spoke” approach to portfolio construction in which a mix of broad and narrow exchange-traded index funds serve as a core to deliver market returns at low cost, while a variety of actively managed funds, direct investments and alternative investments are used in an effort to generate above-market and non-correlated returns.

These and other portfolio construction strategies use today's investment vehicles to attain the diversification and level of risk that advisers — working with clients — deem optimal. Using modern tools that build on the insights of earlier thinkers, today's advisers have a new paradigm for portfolio construction.

Important Risk Discussion This material has been prepared or is distributed solely for informational purposes and is not a solicitation or an offer to buy any security or instrument or to participate in any trading strategy. *There are risks associated with investing in Real Assets and the Real Assets sector, including real estate, precious metals and natural resources. Investments can be significantly affected by events relating to these industries. Bonds generally present less short-term risk and volatility than stocks, but contain interest rate risk (as interest rates raise, bond prices usually fall); issuer default risk; issuer credit risk; liquidity risk; and inflation risk. These effects are usually pronounced for longer-term securities. **Passive Index Investing in the aggregate, approximates the full Index in terms of key risk factors and other characteristics. ***The factors to which a Smart Beta strategy seeks to deliver exposure may themselves undergo cyclical performance, and as such, a Smart Beta strategy may underperform the market. Diversification does not ensure a profit or guarantee against loss. A smart beta ETF is a type of exchange traded fund that uses a rules-based system for selecting investments to be included in the fund. ETFs generally have lower expenses than actively managed mutual funds due to their different management styles. Most ETFs are passively managed and are structured to track an index, whereas many mutual funds are actively managed and thus have higher management fees. Unlike ETFs, actively managed mutual funds have the ability to react to market changes and the potential to outperform a stated benchmark. Since ordinary brokerage commissions apply for each ETF buy and sell transaction, frequent trading activity may increase the cost of ETFs. ETFs can be traded throughout the day, whereas mutual funds are traded only once a day. While extreme market conditions could result in illiquidity for ETFs, typically, some are more liquid than most traditional mutual funds because they trade on exchanges. State Street Global Advisors and InvestmentNews are not affiliated. SPDR®, S&P and S&P 500 are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC (S&P), a division of S&P Global, and have been licensed for use by State Street Corporation. No financial product offered by State Street or its affiliates if sponsored, endorsed, sold or promoted by S&P. State Street Global Advisors Funds Distributors LLC, member FINRA SIPC. ALPS Distributors, Inc., member FINRA, is the distributor for SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, a unit investment trust. ALPS Distributors, Inc. is not affiliated with State Street Global Advisors Funds Distributors, LLC. 2535587.2.1.AM.RTL Before investing, consider the funds' investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses. To obtain a prospectus or summary prospectus which contains this and other information, call 1-866-787-2257 or visit Read it carefully. Not FDIC Insured — No Bank Guarantee — May Lose Value Exp date 6/30/2020


What do you think?

View comments

Recommended next

Upcoming event

Dec 05


ESG & Impact Forum

Thought leaders, investment strategists and practitioners will gather at the United Nations Headquarters to translate global ESG and impact investing perspectives into strategies that resonate with investors and produce desired outcomes.... Learn more


Hi! Glad you're here and we hope you like all the great work we do here at InvestmentNews. But what we do is expensive and is funded in part by our sponsors. So won't you show our sponsors a little love by whitelisting It'll help us continue to serve you.

Yes, show me how to whitelist

Ad blocker detected. Please whitelist us or give premium a try.


Subscribe and Save 60%

Premium Access
Print + Digital

Learn more
Subscribe to Print