Explaining a Barbell Portfolio

I get frequent questions about my personal portfolio, especially the trend following portfolio in my non-registered investment account. One of the questions I get is why I don't use the Leveraged Barbell Portfolio strategy that I talk about in the blog.

My answer is that I do use a leveraged barbell portfolio strategy in my non-registered account. It's simply not as passive as the strategy I shared.

A barbell is an iconic, effective, and simple piece of weightlifting equipment. The lifter loads a 220 cm bar with an equal number of iron plates on each side to the desired total weight.

If you look at the loaded bar lengthwise, it is mostly just an empty bar. But that weight on the extreme ends of the bar can weigh hundreds of pounds. A small part of the total bar carries all the weight!

An investor could break down this same idea into an investing concept. Most of a barbell portfolio is invested in pretty boring assets that generate a reliable, moderate return.

However, like the ends of the barbell, a smaller amount of the total portfolio is invested in risky assets that can generate large returns and does the heavy lifting for your portfolio.

The barbell portfolio tries to minimize big losses, provides great risk control, and the investor has the opportunity to experience great returns.

Barbell Portfolio Structure

Safe Assets

In a barbell portfolio, 60 to 90 percent of the portfolio should be invested in safe assets. We are looking for stability and security with dependable returns.

Of course, the returns for assets with these characteristics won't be that high. Even 2 to 3 percent real returns (4 to 6 percent gross nominal) are okay here.

The exact amount of safe assets you choose should depend on what you use for your risky assets and your overall risk tolerance.

A portfolio with just 60 percent in safe assets could see a 40 percent decline.

Some examples of good safe assets include:

  • Broad bond funds (AGG, BND, XBB.TO, HBB.TO)
  • Short-term government bonds (SHY, VGSH, XSB.TO, VSB.TO)
  • Short-term corporate investment grade bond funds (IGSB, VCSH, XSH.TO, VSC.TO)
  • Intermediate-term government bonds (IEF, VGIT, XGB.TO, ZGB.TO)
  • Split bond portfolio (half short-term bonds, half long-term government bonds)

Risk Assets

The remaining 10 to 40 percent of your portfolio will be invested in risk assets. On this side, we are looking for high period returns.

The assets invested in here should, at minimum, have shown themselves to double in value in a year or less on several occasions in the past.

The precise assets you use will depend on your overall risk tolerance and your allocation to safe assets. If you are allocating 40 percent of your portfolio to risky assets, you should choose less extreme options.

Some examples of potential high return assets include:

  • Leveraged ETFs
  • Options
  • Small cap stocks
  • Technology stocks
  • Biotech stocks
  • Private equity
  • IPOs

Principles

Always protect your portfolio! Commit to a very hands off approach with your safe asset allocation and do not pursue outsized returns here. You do not want to lose this money.

Generally speaking, the higher your allocation to the safe assets is, the more durable and stable your overall returns will be. While a modified barbell portfolio might contain just 60 percent safe assets paired with a 40 percent exposure to a leveraged index fund, a true barbell portfolio would have at least 80 percent safe assets paired with the highest risk choices like options.

Leveraged Barbell Portfolio

In the Leveraged Barbell strategy which I so enthusiastically share on this blog, I talk about an extremely passive method for employing the barbell strategy.

Using leveraged ETFs and short-term bond ETFs, you only need to adjust your portfolio allocation once per year. That's as easy as the Couch Potato strategy, but your returns and protection are better.

Since the Leveraged Barbell Portfolio I share uses broad equity index ETFs, the 3x daily leveraged S&P 500, you can safely allocate higher amounts to the risk side. Still, I would recommend the average investor allocate between 60 and 70 percent of their portfolio to bonds.

My Leveraged Barbell Portfolio

Knowing that a barbell portfolio is one mostly invested in safe assets with a smaller allocation to risk assets, you will see that my trend following portfolio is actually a leveraged barbell portfolio.

In my trend following portfolio, I track U.S. equities, developed international equities, emerging international equities, gold, silver, and currencies.

Safe Assets

Currencies can be thought of as a safe asset in many ways. I do not use any leverage when making bets on currencies, they are easy to trade on the upside or downside as currencies are pair-traded, and the markets are extremely liquid and price efficient. I also take pretty small positions on currencies.

I use currencies, including the U.S. dollar and Canadian dollar, as they are more flexible and tax efficient than investing in bonds in my non-registered account. I would rather earn capital gains than interest income.

To get some perspective on my current position, I am a little over 90 percent in currencies at the moment. Most of that is U.S. dollars.

Risk Assets

I use leverage to invest in each equity and commodity position. This was done with leveraged ETFs and I am going to start using LEAPS options for more efficient capital use.

As I slowly get out of the last of my leveraged ETFs and the market begins to send upside signals on equities, I will be investing via LEAPS options only. It is likely that my portfolio will rarely be more than 20 percent allocated to risky assets.

I am very cautious about shorting (betting against) many assets, particularly equities. It is extremely difficult to short equity index funds and make money. This means I will primarily only bet on the upside signals for equities; when the signal is down, I will be in cash.

I see potential for upside and downside bets on gold and silver when using LEAPS options. This means as I get my LEAPS options trading going, I may be invested in gold and silver calls or puts at all times, depending on the signal and sized based on volatility.

In effect, this will be a barbell portfolio where the risk assets (up to about 20 percent of the portfolio) are LEAPS options that are entered or exited based on trend following signals.

Comments & Questions

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Forget About Good Deals

There a few investors who can buy stocks, or other financial assets, on sale and succeed over the long haul. The winners are household names, the value kings. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Joel Greenblatt, Seth Klarman, David Tepper, and maybe a few others.

Interestingly, many of these famous value investors have actually strayed a bit from their true value roots. Buffett and Munger are now better described as "quality" investors, choosing factors like growing free cash flow, low debt, and profitability over price. This has evolved into the famous line "great companies at fair prices".

On the other hand, Klarman and Tepper run hedge funds using a lot of derivatives and leverage and are noted for being contrarians--a very different strategy from value investing as most amateur investors know it.

Value Investing

While it's certainly extremely difficult, I'm not suggesting that it is impossible to be a profitable value investor. There are clearly people out there who do well in value investing, scouring the markets for deals based on factors like Price/Book, Price/Earnings, Price/Free Cash Flow, and Enterprise Value/EBIT ratios.

The challenge is that you, the amateur investor, must be firmly rational in all your investment decisions in a systematic manner. At the same time, you must believe the entire market is irrational in its pricing of those same investment positions. That takes cojones.

Aside from the contrarian nature of value investing, there is also a massive built-in problem: the "Value Trap". A stock that is falling in price can look like a better and better buy based on value metrics right up to the point where it's essentially worthless. To protect yourself, a successful value investor needs to know exactly when to buy, how much to buy, and, maybe more importantly, when to cut your losses.

Broad-based value investing, in the form of buying the lower valued chunks of broad markets, seems to be failing in many ways. Over the past ten years, traditional, passive value funds have under-performed the whole U.S. stock market by more than 1.3% per year. Over that ten years, that translates to a cumulative investment growth of 136% versus just 106% for value. It's too soon to say if passive value is dead, or if its a temporary blip, or anything else in particular.

Every strategy has periods of out-performance and under-performance, but the widely believed value premium is certainly not a given. Even Jack Bogle, a noted proponent of passive investing, has suggested that historical analysis demonstrating a value premium is flawed. The suggestion is the value premium is actually a case of cherry-picking a good time for value investing, but over long time periods passive value will perform equal to or less than the broad market.

Trend Investing

This is why I choose trend investing instead, using leverage and a range of markets. Although buying something that appears to be on sale appeals to the frugality in me, I would rather buy something that is going up in price. I am content to following the collective rational and irrational players in the markets who slog it out every day determining the price of everything.

If the participants of a liquid market are bidding the price of a particular stock higher and higher, there's something going on under the surface. A company might be producing highly profitable products that are selling faster and faster, a company may have cut costs to increase profitability, maybe there's a takeover coming that hasn't been announced yet.

If the market is bidding down a currency, maybe the country is in economic trouble. Perhaps interest rates in the country are too high and the market is betting that rates will fall. Maybe the country is intentionally devaluing to try boost exports as part of their economic policy.

The same logic applies to interest rates. Interest rates are a great measure of risk and perceived risk. In general, the more financially responsible a borrower is, the better their rates will be. If national debt rates are going down, chances are the country is doing well, the government is going down a more fiscally responsible path, there might be a positive trade balance meaning foreign currency is pouring into the local economy.

On the other hand, if interest rates are going up, lets say on corporate debt, it might be a good signal to sell. Rates on corporate debt often begin to rise when the markets believe a company is getting into some kind of trouble. Maybe they have too much debt on their books, it could be an issue of declining market prospects in that company's sector, sometimes sales and profitability are an issue. Other times the market believes the assets held by the corporation might not be worth as much as the company has stated in the past.

It is difficult and maybe even impossible to decipher the exact reasons why price is going one way or another. However, it's easy to decipher the price itself. The price is published every day, every hour, every minute, every second and it tends to trend.

Where Valuation Comes Into Play

Just because I invest based on the market price and the trends in those prices doesn't mean I believe the price is correct relative to fundamentals. More often than not, I ignore fundamentals. To me, fundamentals and valuation come a distant second to the trend of the price alone.

No matter how cheap an asset is, I will not buy it because it is cheap. The asset only comes into consideration if the price is moving up and has entered an up-trend. I understand that means I don't buy at the cheapest price possible, but that's precisely my goal.

I would rather have the market as a whole identify a bottom and turn around a price than try finding that bottom myself only to miss over and over.

For me, cheapness, or valuation, are only important when cash is limited and I have to decide between two or more investments that are in a price up-trend. In this situation, I will go with the cheaper asset provided other factors are more or less equal.

For example, lets say I have 10% of my portfolio in cash that can be allocated to investments. There are two markets that I am following which have recently entered an uptrend. I can only buy one of those two assets, which one should I choose? Well, this is where valuation comes into play. If Market A is in the 99th percentile of its historical valuation and Market B is at the 60th percentile of its historical valuation, I will choose Market B.

Sure, Market A might go completely crazy and hit the moon. But a reasonable person making disciplined bets would have to agree that Market B has more room to run before the price gets into unprecedented territory. On a balance of probabilities, Market B is the better market to invest in.

Always buy into an up-trend and ignore value unless resources are limited while opportunities are plentiful.

Comments & Questions

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Comments containing links or "trolling" will not be posted. Comments with profane language or those which reveal personal information will be edited by moderator.