Asset allocation is the implementation of an investment strategy that attempts to balance risk versus reward by adjusting the percentage of each asset in an investment portfolio according to the investor’s risk tolerance, goals and investment time frame. The focus is on the characteristics of the overall portfolio. Such a strategy contrasts with an approach that focuses on individual assets.
Many financial experts argue that asset allocation is an important factor in determining returns for an investment portfolio. Asset allocation is based on the principle that different assets perform differently in different market and economic conditions.
A fundamental justification for asset allocation is the notion that different asset classes offer returns that are not perfectly correlated, hence diversification reduces the overall risk in terms of the variability of returns for a given level of expected return. Asset diversification has been described as “the only free lunch you will find in the investment game”. Academic research has painstakingly explained the importance and benefits of asset allocation and the problems of active management (see academic studies section below).
Although the risk is reduced as long as correlations are not perfect, it is typically forecast (wholly or in part) based on statistical relationships (like correlation and variance) that existed over some past period. Expectations for return are often derived in the same way. Studies of these forecasting methods constitute an important direction of academic research.
When such backward-looking approaches are used to forecast future returns or risks using the traditional mean-variance optimization approach to the asset allocation of modern portfolio theory (MPT), the strategy is, in fact, predicting future risks and returns based on history. As there is no guarantee that past relationships will continue in the future, this is one of the “weak links” in traditional asset allocation strategies as derived from MPT. Other, more subtle weaknesses include seemingly minor errors in forecasting leading to recommended allocations that are grossly skewed from investment mandates and/or impractical often even violating an investment manager’s “common sense” understanding of a tenable portfolio-allocation strategy.
There are several types of asset allocation strategies based on investment goals, risk tolerance, time frames and diversification. The most common forms of asset allocation are: strategic, dynamic, tactical, and core-satellite.
Strategic asset allocation
The primary goal of strategic asset allocation is to create an asset mix that seeks to provide the optimal balance between expected risk and return for a long-term investment horizon. Generally speaking, strategic asset allocation strategies are agnostic to economic environments, i.e., they do not change their allocation postures relative to changing market or economic conditions.
Dynamic asset allocation
Dynamic asset allocation is similar to strategic asset allocation in that portfolios are built by allocating to an asset mix that seeks to provide the optimal balance between expected risk and return for a long-term investment horizon. Like strategic allocation strategies, dynamic strategies largely retain exposure to their original asset classes; however, unlike strategic strategies, dynamic asset allocation portfolios will adjust their postures over time relative to changes in the economic environment.
Tactical asset allocation
Tactical asset allocation is a strategy in which an investor takes a more active approach that tries to position a portfolio into those assets, sectors, or individual stocks that show the most potential for perceived gains. While an original asset mix is formulated much like strategic and dynamic portfolio, tactical strategies are often traded more actively and are free to move entirely in and out of their core asset classes.
Core-satellite asset allocation
Core-satellite allocation strategies generally contain a ‘core’ strategic element making up the most significant portion of the portfolio, while applying a dynamic or tactical ‘satellite’ strategy that makes up a smaller part of the portfolio. In this way, core-satellite allocation strategies are a hybrid of the strategic and dynamic/tactical allocation strategies mentioned above.