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Are Rising Correlations a Threat to Your Portfolio?


May 10, 2013
Chad Karnes, Chief Market Strategist

In the brave new world we inhabit, everything is interrelated. 

The butterfly effect has grown exponentially.

When Cyprus sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold.  When the ECB speaks, the markets around the world stop to listen. 

Put another way, U.S. investors must care whether or not tiny countries on the other side of the world will have an impact on their portfolio. 

Traditional finance theory suggests that the more eggs you put in your basket, the less likely it is you will be adversely affected by an isolated event.  The more diversified, the lower the risk.  But I am not so sure anymore.

Causation or Correlation? It Doesn’t Matter Either Way
Take a look at the correlation chart below.

It is hard to argue whether you own U.S. domestic stocks or European equities the results would be much different.  With a correlation approaching .90, for all intents and purposes the U.S. and European stock markets (NYSEARCA:VGK) perform very similarly, to a point of almost being indistinguishable. 

This affects you many ways, but here are a few of the adverse potentials:

--Having a diversified portfolio may actually be doing you a disservice because of the increased transaction costs in maintaining a diversified portfolio.  The bang for the buck just may not be there.

--Your portfolio is probably not nearly as protected as you or your financial advisor thinks. Why? Because correlations gravitate during sharp market declines, causing diversification to fail just when you need it most.

--Traditional portfolio analysis typically overestimates correlations during good times and assumes wrongly they will persist when markets decline.

The new highly correlated paradigm trickles all the way down to individual stocks. Do individual company earnings per share (EPS) really matter any more? The macro environment has become so interrelated that individual stock picking is not nearly as effective as it once was. Stocks - both bad and good - rise and fall together.

“To be diversified, which means that returns on your assets don’t move up and down together, you have to think very hard. Today, if you own stocks of various countries, particularly American and European stocks, you’re diversified in terms of currency exposure but you’re really buying the same merchandise. They’ll tend to go up and down together," once said  Peter L. Bernstein, founding editor of the Journal of Portfolio Management and author of several books, including Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. “The main point is to avoid being wiped out if something happens to your main asset holdings.”

Rising Correlations Elsewhere 
Many investors may not see this as an issue, because equities generally always had a high correlation with each other (not this high, though).

A major concern now though is that high correlations have also shifted not only among assets of the same class, but among asset classes themselves.

Today, Oil (NYSEARCA:OIL), gold (NYSEARCA:NUGT), housing (NYSEARCA:XHB), and currencies (NYSEARCA:FXE) all have a significantly higher correlation with each other today than they did historically.

What to Do About It

One way to find a little comfort with this big issue is to embrace it.  Here is an example.

On 4/24 in our ETF Technical Forecast we provided the following chart and identified how to take advantage of the high correlation between the U.S. and European markets.  “A breakout of the upper range of the flag pattern shown in the chart below would constitute an aggressive buy signal.  A breakout of the European markets also likely means a continued rally for the U.S. equity markets (NYSEARCA:VTI).”

We were able to suggest buying VGK at $50.50 on a breakout.  Since then it hit our 4% profit target a week later at $52.50, and we have moved our stops up accordingly.

If Europe broke out, it was safe to assume the extremely high correlation would hold, and therefore the U.S. markets would also move higher.  They of course also did.

A Little Sweet with a Lot of Sour

One positive of the extremely high correlations among equities is the clues we can get from their relationships, as we did with our recent trade.

But, the larger issue still looms large as correlations amongst almost all asset classes float near extreme highs.  This likely means your portfolio is still at a large risk if another major market decline occurs.

In the next issue of the ETF Profit Strategy Newsletter, I'll dig deeper into correlations, how they impact your investments, and what you can do to protect yourself from the globalization of asset classes. combines technical, fundamental, and sentiment analysis along with common sense to stay ahead of global macro trends.

CommentsAdd Comment

Doug said on September 30, 2013
  The 3 Lion Global (asset mgmt group of OCBC) Infinity funds are actually fdeeer funds into 3 Vanguard funds.At the Vanguard level, the mgmt fees are all less than 0.3%pa. Unfortunately, Lion Global tacks on an extra 0.48%pa for each of the funds. I don't see why Lion should charge more when they are not even the people running the funds. They are merely doing admin work to facilitate the fdeeer fund structure.Hence for all 3 Infinity funds, the expense ratios all greater than 1%pa. Which is too high for indexed funds -- Jack Bogle himself will not be able to recommend these in good faith.Below are snapshots of the 3 funds. Charges and expense ratios taken from the funds' latest annual or semi-annual reports.
Channer said on May 16, 2013
  Obtaining true diversification has never been so hard. That's what happens when multi-trillion dollar QE skews the market.
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