What Is a Diversified Investment?

6 Assets You Should Own Now

diversified investment
A well diversified portfolio has a little of six asset classes. Photo: Craig McCausland/Getty Images

Definition: A diversified investment is a portfolio of various assets that earns the highest return for the least risk. That's because assets, such as stocks, fixed income, and commodities, react differently to the same economic event. That means they don't correlate with each other. When one rises, the other falls. In a diversified investment, no matter what the economy does, some asset classes will benefit.

They offset losses of the others. That reduces the risk of the total portfolio over time.  There's also little chance that the portfolio will be wiped out by any single event. That's why a diversified portfolio is your best defense against a financial crisis.

Example of How Diversification Works

Stocks do well when the economy grows. Investors want the highest returns, so they bid up the price of stocks. They are willing to accept a greater risk of a downturn because they are optimistic about the future. Bonds and other fixed income securities do well when the economy slows. Investors are more interested in protecting their holdings in a downturn. They are willing to accept lower returns for that reduction of risk. The price of commodities, such as wheat, oil, and gold, vary with supply and demand. They don't follow the phases of the business cycle as closely as stocks and bonds. 

What Is Considered a Diversified Investment?

A diversified portfolio should contain securities from the following six asset classes.

U.S. stocks. These include small-cap, mid-cap, and large-cap.

U.S. fixed income. The safest are U.S. Treasuries and savings bonds. These are guaranteed by the federal government. Municipal bonds  are also very safe.You can also buy Short-term Bond Funds and Money Market Funds that invest in these safe securities.

 Corporate bonds provide a higher return with greater risk. The highest returns and risk come with junk bonds.

Foreign stocks. These include companies from both developed and emerging markets. You can achieve greater diversification if you invest overseas. International investments can generate a higher return because emerging markets countries are growing faster. However, they are riskier investments because these countries have fewer central bank safeguards in place, can be susceptible to political changes, and are less transparent. Foreign investments also hedge against a declining dollar. That's because U.S. companies do well when the dollar is weak, because it boosts exports. Foreign companies do well when the dollar is strong, and their exports into the U.S. are relatively cheaper.

Foreign fixed income. These include both corporate and government issues. They provide protection from a dollar decline. They are safer than foreign stocks. 

Commodities. This includes natural resources such as gold, oil, and real estate. Gold should be a part of any diversified investment because it's the best hedge against a stock market crash. Research shows that gold prices rise dramatically for 15 days after the crash.

For more, see Why Invest in Gold?.

You should include the equity in your home in your diversification strategy. If your equity goes up, you can sell other real estate investments, such as REITS, in your portfolio. You might also consider selling your home, taking some profits, and moving into a smaller house. This will prevent you from being house-rich but cash-poor. In other words, you won't have all your investment eggs in your home basket. Most investment advisors don't count the equity in your home as a real estate investment. That's because they assume you will continue to live there for the rest of your life. In other words, they saw it as a consumable product, like a car or a refrigerator, not an investment. That encouraged many homeowners to borrow against the equity in their homes to buy other consumer goods.

When housing prices declined, they owed more than the house was worth. Many people walked away from their homes while others declared bankruptcy.

Diversification and Asset Allocation

How much should you own of each asset class? There is no one-size-fits-all best diversified investment. Investors use asset allocation to determine the exact mix of stocks, bonds, and commodities. It depends on your comfort with different risk levels, your goals, and where you are in life. For example, stocks are riskier than bonds. If you need the money in the next few years, you should hold more bonds than someone who could wait ten years. Therefore, the percent of each type of asset class depends on your personal goals. They should be developed with a financial planner. 

You should also rebalance depending on the current phase of the business cycle. In the early stage of a recovery, small businesses do the best. They are the first to recognize opportunity and can react more quickly than big corporations. Large-cap stocks do well in the latter part of a recovery. They have more funds to out-market the smaller companies.

Beware of asset bubbles. That's when the price of any asset class rises rapidly. It's being bid up by speculators. It is not supported by underlying real values. Here are current and recent Asset Bubbles.

Is a Mutual Fund or an Index Fund a Diversified Investment?

A mutual fund or index fund provides more diversification than an individual security. That's because they track a bundle of stocks, bonds, or commodities. A mutual or index fund would be a diversified investment if it contained all six asset classes. To meet your needs, it would also have to balance those assets according to your goals. Then, it would adjust depending on the stage of the business cycle. 

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