Spread your money around

Diversifying won't totally protect you from losses, but it can boost your returns by limited your risk.

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By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine senior editor

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Walter Updegrave is a senior editor with Money Magazine and is the author of "How to Retire Rich in a Totally Changed World: Why You're Not in Kansas Anymore" (Three Rivers Press 2005).

NEW YORK (Money) -- Question: All the financial gurus tell me to diversify my investments. But if I am making money on some investments but losing on others, how is this a great investment plan? Why not just buy a CD and not worry? --John D., Idabel, Oklahoma

Answer: There have always been a lot of misconceptions and erroneous expectations when it comes to the benefits of diversification.

Back in the go-go '90s I remember having lunch with a financial planner who sarcastically referred to diversification as "di-worse-ification." His contention was that it made no sense to diversify into different asset classes. Stocks clearly offered the highest returns over long periods, so it was foolhardy for anyone investing for the long-term to put their money in anything but stocks. You were just lowering your potential return. Funny thing is, back then, this "hooray, hooray, stocks all the way" approach wasn't that uncommon.

Today, many people are having second thoughts about diversification because they feel that diversifying didn't offer their portfolio the protection they thought it should. For example, all but a handful of Morningstar's 69 fund categories were down in 2008. So even if you spread your money around quite liberally, you still might have eked out only a paltry return or suffered significant losses last year.

Looked at from these two vantage points, it's easy to see why you and others would question the value of diversifying. If it holds you back in bull markets and doesn't offer much shelter during bears, what's the point?

In fact, there is a real benefit to diversifying. But in order to make reasonable investing choices and set a coherent investment strategy, it's important to understand what its advantages are, as opposed to what we might think they are or wish they were. Otherwise, you may be investing on the basis of false hopes, which is a good recipe for disappointment.

What diversification can do for you

The first thing you should know is that it can't guarantee you the highest possible return. In fact, it guarantees you won't earn the highest possible return. By spreading your money around you assure that you will have at least some of your money in lagging investments, which will reduce your portfolio's potential return.

By the same token, diversification can't totally immunize you from losses. To do that, you would have to do the opposite of diversifying -- i.e., plow all your money into the most secure investments, such as Treasury bills or short-term bank CDs.

What diversification can do for you, though, is give you a shot at higher returns than you will get in the most secure investments while limiting your risk somewhat.

Notice I said "somewhat." Fact is, if you want the value of your money to grow more than it will in T-bills and the like, you've got to invest in asset classes that have the potential for higher long-term returns, such as stocks and bonds. But those higher returns come with more risk. In the investment world, that risk can take several forms, but generally the riskier an investment, the more volatile it is, the more its value will jump around from year to year.

You can't eliminate that risk. But by investing your money in a mix of secure and more volatile assets, you can reduce the potential downside in a given year. For example, if you'd had all your money in a diversified portfolio of U.S. stocks last year, you'd have lost just under 40%. If, on the other hand, you'd had 60% of your money in stocks, 30% in a broad bond index fund and 10% in cash last year, you would have lost roughly half that amount, or around 20%.(See editor's note.)

That kind of cushion is important for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it makes you less likely to panic in a bad year and sell off riskier investments with higher long-term return potential at what may be the worst possible time. A less volatile portfolio is also less likely to take a devastating hit that may be difficult to recover from. That's an especially important consideration when you're dealing with 401(k)s or other retirement accounts and you're nearing retirement age or are already retired and withdrawing money from such accounts.

So the key to getting the benefit of diversification is settling on a mix that's right for you.

Ideally, your mix should consist of assets that don't all move in sync with each other or, to put it in investing terms, that aren't too highly correlated with each other.

It's okay for gains in some investments to offset losses in others in some years. But on balance your gains should outweigh losses most years. And, while down years are inevitable with growth-oriented investments, whatever assets you're investing in should have a positive long-term return. Diversification isn't a magic formula that can turn recurring sizeable losses in your investments or your portfolio overall into long-term wealth.

What diversification can't do for you

But as big an advocate as I am of diversifying among a variety of asset classes, I also feel that the concept has been stretched out of shape over the years, in some cases even beyond recognition.

Specifically, I think the benefits of diversifying have been oversold by some advisers who seem intent on making themselves come off like investment wizards capable of creating all-upside-no-downside portfolios. But I'm wary of these supposedly more sophisticated portfolios.

So I suggest keeping things simple. Start with a realistic sense of how much risk you can handle and then build a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds and cash. If you want to get more fancy, you can throw in some foreign stock funds and maybe some REITs or real estate-related mutual funds. But don't go overboard. The more complicated your portfolio is and the more wide-flung your holdings, the more attention and care it will need.

Finally, remember that to get the full benefit of diversifying you ought to rebalance periodically to restore your portfolio to its proper proportions.

For guidance on how to divvy up your money given your goals and risk tolerance, you can use our asset allocator tool. And if you want to see how different combos of assets might perform, check out the asset allocator tool on T. Rowe Price's site.

Of course, you can always take the other route you suggest and just buy CDs. But unless you have so much money that you can accumulate a large enough nest egg despite their low yields, I'm not sure that you can do this and also not worry.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a theoretical portfolio of 60% stocks, 10% broad bond index fund and 10% cash would have lost around 20% last year. The correct example is 60% stocks, 30% broad bond index fund and 10% cash.

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