Return Versus Risk and Tips from Terry Smith

There was an interesting article by Fundsmith founder Terry Smith in the Financial Times on Saturday under the heading “Think globally and add a dash of small caps”. His articles are usually full of wisdom.

In this case he first tackled the issue that the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) tells you that your returns relate to how much investment risk you are willing to take on. This might be seen as common sense – why would anyone take more risks if they did not get a better return? But based on an academic study of actual stock market returns, low risk seems to give better returns. This is a persistent anomaly.

But my reservation on this truth is that risk was measured by the volatility of the share price, which is a conventional way to calculate the risk of an individual share. But it simply does not tell you the major risks that a company faces. It only tells you about the level of variability in the share price over the short term, or the amount of speculation there is in the stock. For example, it will not tell you that the company operates in a market that is rapidly changing or the company’s products are subject to technological obsolescence. There are many risks that are simply not reflected in conventional risk metrics which only a study of the market in which the company operators and its business model will reveal the truth about.

Terry also discussed the other conventional wisdom that asset allocation is responsible for most of the returns one obtains – he quoted a figure of 91.5% from another academic study. He said this has led “a large portion of the investment industry to focus almost exclusively on asset allocation”. That’s as opposed to the choice of individual assets.

Mr Smith also criticized the parochial approach of many investors who only invest in their home markets (e.g. UK listed shares for UK investors even though many such companies have very international businesses). He went on to suggest a portfolio of global large-cap stocks plus some small/mid-cap stocks can “achieve the seemingly impossible feat of generating additional return whilst reducing risk”. This is because such a portfolio that might comprise 35% of small cap stocks is more likely to be near the “efficient frontier” for which investment professionals aim.

He concluded by saying that “we should all manage equity portfolios on a global basis and add an element of small-cap exposure”. That might be a puff to some extent for his Fundsmith fund, which I hold – perhaps suggesting Fundsmith could provide one element in this strategy. But it is certainly an approach I have found to be a wise one.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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