4 biggest portfolio mistakes

Jul 17, 2023

My annual Portfolio Makeover series of Morningstar.com readers provides a bird’s-eye view of real people’s financial lives: their goals, their worries, and their pain points. It gives me the chance to interact with real people and it also affords me a close look at their holdings and their plans. In other words, I get to do a bit of snooping on the way to improving their portfolios.

In my years of conducting these portfolio makeovers, I’ve observed that investors get a lot more right than they get wrong.

They do their homework and they populate their portfolios with low-cost mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). They tend to be pretty hands-off, and if they delve into niche investments, they usually limit them to a small share of their portfolios.

The caricature of individual investors being dumb-money performance-chasers is wrong. At the same time, there are some issues that I see—and address—again and again in the course of these makeovers.

Here are some of the most common ones.

Portfolio Sprawl

This is by far the biggest issue that I observe: too many accounts, too many holdings, too much redundancy. The unwieldy-portfolio problem isn’t just the domain of those who have been investing a long time and have amassed a lot of assets; I also see it with more-modest portfolios. (For the latter group, the armchair psychologist in me can’t help but wonder if holding a lot of securities—even if the amounts invested in them are quite small—provides people with a feeling of wealth.)

For portfolios with more holdings than are truly necessary, I often find myself leaning on index funds as a simple way to clean everything up while achieving diversification and the desired asset-class exposures.

Redundant individual-stock portfolio

A sub-problem I often see in cases of portfolio sprawl is a basket of large-cap individual stocks that all but duplicates what’s already in the mutual funds or ETFs in the portfolio. Mega-cap stocks like Apple, Amazon.com, and Microsoft are common holdings, and they’re also big positions in most U.S. stock funds; those three take up more than 16% of the S&P 500 and a bit less of total market indexes today.

I suppose that some investors might have good reason to double down on the market’s biggest names, but I mostly see extra risk (the most highly valued stocks in the market usually don’t trade cheaply) and oversight responsibilities associated with monitoring the individual stocks. For those reasons, the “afterthought stock portfolio” usually goes on the cutting-room floor when I do makeovers.

Do an honest accounting of your performance, comparing your long-run results to an inexpensive index mutual fund that’s focused on the same part of the market. Everyone—not just individual-stock investors—should be using a custom benchmark to assess what value they’re adding with security selection.

Also-ran mutual funds

Investors generally do a good job of being hands-off with their investments, and that kind of patience usually redounds to the benefit of their long-run returns. But I’ve also observed cases when investors were too patient and hands-off: They purchased mutual funds and set up their portfolios a number of years ago and apparently never looked at or touched them again.

The telltale signs are when a fund has had multiple manager changes, extended runs of poor returns, and huge asset outflows—sometimes all at once—and yet it still sits in the portfolio.

I’m not talking about short-term underperformance, which can actually be a buying opportunity if the underlying management team and strategy remain solid; I’m talking about lemons that earn negative ratings. The lesson is that even very hands-off investors should take a look at their portfolios once in a while to assess their overall asset allocations, make sure the savings or spending plan are on track, and yes, prune losers.

Asset Allocation not informed by the plan

Another issue that I see frequently—but one that’s a bit harder to fix—is when a portfolio’s asset allocation doesn’t connect with the investor’s actual plans. The most frequent example is when an individual is getting close to or in retirement yet the portfolio doesn’t contain enough safe(r) assets to address the anticipated portfolio spending. Many such investors have enjoyed wonderful gains in stocks for decades, so they’re hesitant to derisk their portfolios in favor of assets with lower return potential.

But sequence risk is a big issue for the soon-to-retire and newly retired, in that overspending from a portfolio that’s simultaneously declining reduces the probability that the assets will last through the whole of someone’s retirement time horizon.

That’s why I like the idea of aligning the portfolio with anticipated spending needs, creating a runway of safe assets that the retiree could “spend through” if a bear market for stocks materialized early on in their retirements.

That’s the Bucket approach to retirement portfolio construction, where I organize the portfolio from very safe to risky.

  1. Bucket I: Highly liquid to meet near-term living expenses for one year or more.
  2. Bucket II: Five or more years’ worth of living expenses, with a goal of income production and stability.
  3. Bucket III: Equity assets for long-term growth and inflation protection.

Christine Benz: My failings as an investor: Christine Benz is director of personal finance and retirement planning, Morningstar

Larissa Fernand: My biggest investing goof-ups: Larissa Fernand is senior editor and investment specialist, Morningstar India

James Gruber: My dumb equity investment mistake: James Gruber is assistant editor, Morningstar Australia

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Rajneesh Vashisht
Sep 9 2023 02:36 PM
Hi, Good observations! As I'm gradually learning the ropes, does it not make sense for markets to cool down a bit (in today's context) and hten deploy cash (or/and bonds) in market?
I mean there is so much of noise that Small caps are high, higher and eventually these Do come down! Does it not make a good strategy for better returns, in small caps, alongwith continuing SIP I am having.
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