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Portfolio Review 2008, Part 1: Where Is The Alpha?

Contributed by mm | January 14, 2008 2:54 PM PST

portfolioreview2008.jpgYesterday I shared my grand plan to thoroughly review my portfolio management again in 2008. My first stop is to drill down to my 2007 results, and understand where the benchmark-beating results come from. Yes, I beat my benchmark index by 1.77%, and that's what is called alpha in portfolio management.

To refresh some memory, earlier in 2007 I set my target asset allocation as follows:

• 50% Domestic Equity
• 35% International Equity
• 15% Cash & Equivalent

Furthermore, I built the following benchmark portfolio to measure my relative performance:

• 50% in Vanguard Total Markets ETF (VTI)
• 35% in iShares MSCI EAFE Index (EFA)
• 15% in Cash (assuming yielding 5% every year)

So conceptually, any deviation from the benchmark performance can only come from two sources:

1) The relative performance in each asset class (i.e. whether my domestic equity holdings are returning more than simply holding VTI for the year.)
2) The difference of actual asset allocation vs. the target allocation (i.e. whether my opportunistic deviation from the target asset allocation has delivered better or worse relative performance.

To understand my relative performance in each asset class, I grouped my investments by the asset class, and tabulated the monthly gains or losses of each asset class separately, and compared them against my benchmark holdings (VTI and EFA). Giving that I use both individual stocks and mutual funds to build my domestic equity holdings, I calculated my gains separately for individual stocks and domestic equity mutual funds -- therefore I can gauge my stock picking and fund picking skills individually.

I have to admit it is a tedious exercise, but skipping all technical details, here is the result:


To my surprise, in each bucket of individual (domestic) stocks, domestic equity mutual funds, and foreign equity mutual funds, my portfolio has delivered benchmark-beating results, ranging from beating VTI by about 0.8% in my domestic equity fund choices, to beating EFA by 4.7% in my foreign equity picks.

To translate the relative performance in each asset class to the contribution to the entire portfolio can be done by multiplying that with my average portfolio exposure in each asset class in percentage:


In my December 2007 update of portfolio performance, I claimed that "[f]or the year of 2007, my portfolio recorded a gain of 8.77%, besting my benchmark's 6.98% gain by a good margin." So how should I reconcile the 2.18% in alpha from my calculation above with the 1.79% I claimed in the December flash?

That's where the mix comes to play. I was actually considerably under-weighted in my equity positions -- my cash position averages to 21% throughout the year, dragging the performance in the year where equity return largely outsized the cash.

So conclusion on 2007 portfolio results:

1) Good stock picking and fund picking resulted in outsized performance in every single asset class;
2) Results were partially hurt by conservative deviation from target asset allocation.

In the next episode, we will be discussing the lessons learned in 2007. Stay tuned.

This Post Has Received 39 Comments. Share Your Opinions Too.

moom Commented on January 14, 2008

Well, the excess return is only equal to alpha if you had a beta of 1 to the benchmark?

Amit C Commented on January 14, 2008

>1) Good stock picking....
I thought the stock picking was not so good,
.80% (the extra over funds) of say U$ 300k is about 3k. Assumming extra time and effort was spent on stock v/s funds, say about 4 hrs per month, that is 3k/48 ~ U$60 per hour return which is on the lower side and with higher risk.

Did I miss something?

Wei Commented on January 15, 2008

MM, just curious why you just use EFA in your international coverage of your benchmark? EFA is for developed stock markets. You are missing the emerging markets. would EFA + EEM be a little better?

MM Commented on January 15, 2008

moom - yes, you are technically right. i should calculate the beta too but obviously it will be challenging. now that my average cash holding is way above the benchmark, i would assume my beta will be less than 1.

Amit C - it doesn't take 4 hours per month to pick funds. it probably only took me 4 hours altogether in 2007 to pick all funds.

Wei - yes, i was conservative on the emerging markets.

moom Commented on January 16, 2008

It's pretty easy to compute alpha and beta using Excel as long as you have data on your percent returns in each month.

mister65 Commented on January 16, 2008

I would agree with Wei. VEU might be a better foreign benchmarking instrument since it captures emerging markets as well. I am assuming your fund picks most likley had emerging market exposure which would explain their 4.7% excess return above EFA.

Pat Commented on January 16, 2008

What will happen with Berkshire after Buffett is gone?

MM Commented on January 16, 2008

moon, yes, but then some people will hold me to the higher standard of calculation alpha and beta based on daily results.

shadox Commented on January 20, 2008

Congratulations. However, before you celebrate too much, beating your benchmarks in any given year is not an indicator of systematic success. In other words this could be... good luck playing on your side.

Also, you can also beat your benchmark by accepting a higher degree of risk. While your average return may be higher, the volatility of your portfolio (i.e. your risk) will also be higher. So, while you have beaten your benchmark, it may be that you selected an incorrect benchmark - one that has a lower return and lower risk profile.

It has been repeatedly demonstrated that beating market benchmarks OVER THE LONGHAUL is a very VERY hard thing to do. You may be one of those few unique individuals who are able to do so consistently, but the other explanations are more probable.

Creative Investor Commented on January 20, 2008

Don't forget to take into account the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from beating the benchmark instead of just investing in the index fund. (Of course such logic would also explain why most people don't invest into index funds, but hey, to each his own!) In any case, nice job dissecting your performance!

CPA1298 Commented on January 27, 2008

2 things:

1) VTI (Vanguard Total Stock Market Index) returned > 5.5% last year, so your actual vs. benchmark in this category seems high; it should be closer to a 1.46% excess return on the individual stocks and .65% on the mutual funds.

2) EEM (MSCI Foreign Emerging Markets) returned about 38% last year; EFA (MSCI Foreign Developed Markets) returned 12%. Averaging these two returns would give a 25% return, which beats your actual performance by 10%.

To conclude, I think your domestic equity performance vs the benchmark is subpar, when calculating the extra volatility of owning individual stocks. I think your performance was inferior to the foreign benchmarks, when they are (properly) calculated to reflect emerging markets.

I think your portfolio would look a lot better if it was simply 50% VTI, 25% EFA, and 25% EEM. You could hold all these funds at Zecco at an absolutely minimal cost.

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