My name is Mark Goodfield. Welcome to The Blunt Bean Counter ™, a blog that shares my thoughts on income taxes, finance and the psychology of money. I am a Chartered Professional Accountant. This blog is meant for everyone, but in particular for high net worth individuals and owners of private corporations. My posts are blunt, opinionated and even have a twist of humour/sarcasm. You've been warned. Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation or law.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Benchmarking your investments - now and forever

As I write this introduction on June 13, the stock markets have recovered spectacularly from their March lows.

Whether they continue to climb is subject to debate. Some market watchers think the recovery will be quicker than expected. They remind us that the indexes are made up of several large companies that have weathered the COVID storm to date. Those companies will also likely benefit in the near term, as they will be able to acquire less fortunate companies at attractive prices. These market watchers suggest the markets are just reflecting the future.

Others think the markets are not reflecting reality either currently or down the road, as consumer spending will be dampened for years. I have no idea who is correct, and I am not sure anyone really does.

Today’s blog post on benchmarking was initially conceived by my colleague Carmen McHale to be an education piece on what benchmarking is and how it can be used. It morphed, however, to include some discussion on benchmarking and COVID.

I have read and been inundated with articles, commentary and newsletters on investing during COVID and have been considering how my clients and I have fared during COVID. As you will quickly realize after reading Carmen’s post, benchmarking is not as simple as it seems. Neither is finding the right benchmarks for your investments. A 60% equity/40% fixed income portfolio can vary widely. The 60% can be all equities, mostly U.S., an even mix across Canada, U.S. and international, or 40% equities, 10% hedges, 10% real estate; and the 40% fixed income can be all bonds, or bonds and preferred shares (personal pet peeve, I don’t like preferred being classified as fixed income, but that is a topic for another day). So finding an apples-to-apples benchmark is very difficult.

So how does one benchmark their advisors’ investment returns (if they are not provided appropriate comparisons by their advisor) during COVID – or their own for that matter? Personally, I like the suggestion made by Ian McGugan in a recent Globe and Mail article (if you are not a Globe and Mail subscriber, access to the article may not be available).

While Ian’s article is on constructing a portfolio going forward, he makes a valuable remark near the end of the article on balanced portfolios: “even if you conclude these products aren’t right for you, they can provide a good baseline for comparison with other approaches in these unclear, unsettled and unknowable times.” For the week ending June 12, I looked at the year-to-date returns of a few balanced funds (typically 58% equity/42% bond or so) and their YTD losses ranged, but were about 1.6% on average. As Ian says, these may not be appropriate funds or benchmarks for you, but they are good baseline comparatives.

I think this just became my most long-winded introduction in the history of the blog, so without further ado, here is Carmen.


By Carmen McHale

A benchmark is information that helps you compare the performance of your investments. I tell clients that if they are going to pay someone to manage their investments, they should expect to get returns that are at least as good as the benchmark after fees.

Indexes such as the S&P 500 are common benchmarks to assess investment performance. In fact, some investors invest through mutual funds or exchange traded funds that simply follow the index – this is often called passive investing.

By comparing your performance against a relevant benchmark index, it is possible to see how much value an active manager adds (or does not add) over a passive approach. It allows you to evaluate the performance of your portfolio and how much of the total return comes from investment decisions that were made by the advisor versus the movements of the financial markets overall.

Benchmarking for risk

When comparing your returns against the benchmarks, it is equally important to see how much risk your portfolio is taking verses the benchmarks. Benchmarking for risk allows you to see how consistent the returns are over time, and can give you an idea of if your investments are taking on more risk than the benchmark.

Risk can be measured in many ways. However, I personally like to use standard deviation, as most investors can easily understand this metric, and it is published by most mutual funds. A fund with higher standard deviation has more price volatility, while a lower standard deviation tends to produce returns that are more predictable.

See this example of balanced fund returns over the last five years. In this fairly typical case, the portfolio consists of 35% fixed income, 32.5% Canadian equities, 27.5% global equities and 5% cash.

 Year         Portfolio Return
(Net of fees)
 Benchmark Return
 2015 5.33%3.87% 
 2016 5.86%8.32% 
 2017 9.54%7.88% 
 2018 -1.66% -2.26%
 2019 16.73% 15.65%
 5 -YEAR AVERAGE 7.16% 6.69%
 Range of returns at 1 Standard Deviation 0.45% to 13.87% 0.12% to 13.26%
 Range of returns at 2 Standard Deviations -6.26% to 20.58% -6.45% to 19.83%
 Range of returns at 3 Standard Deviations -12.97% to 27.29% -13.02% to 26.4%

The standard deviation of this portfolio is 6.71% while the standard deviation of the benchmark over the five years was 6.57%, but what does that mean?

Standard deviation explained

From a high level, it is apparent that this portfolio manager managed to get higher average returns over the five years, despite taking on similar risk as did the benchmark.

Now think back to your statistics classes. If you can’t quite recall the details, here’s a refresher on the basics of standard deviation. When assessing how much risk you have in your portfolio, it is wise to look at three standard deviations so you can get an idea of the potential downside you could experience in any one year (like the beginning of 2020). Here’s what three standard deviations mean with our portfolio and benchmark:
  • One standard deviation - If the data behaves in a normal curve, then 68% of the data points will fall within one standard deviation of the average, which means 68% of the time your portfolio should produce returns between 0.45% and 13.87%, while the benchmark should produce returns between 0.12% and 13.26%.
  • Two standard deviations - If you want to capture what happens 95% of the time, you go to two standard deviations from the mean. Returns should fall between -6.26% and 20.58%, while the benchmark should produce a range from -6.45% to 19.83%.
  • Three standard deviations - How about the other 5% of the time? Take it to three standard deviations to get 99.73% of the time – which means your portfolio in any given year should return between -12.97% and 27.29%, while the comparable benchmark should produce a range between -13.02% and 26.4%.
To keep matters, as simple as possible, I like to boil it down to one number to compare by dividing the five-year average return over the standard deviation (return to risk ratio):

                    Portfolio return/risk = 106.71%; Benchmark return/risk = 101.83%.

The higher the ratio, the better, so our model portfolio should perform well against the benchmark.

Our typical portfolio during COVID-19

The onset of COVID-19 can be considered an extreme shock to the economic environment, so let’s examine how this typical portfolio performed against the benchmark during this time.

The same portfolio example above had a negative return of -8.94% as of March 31, 2020 compared to the benchmark return of -9.44%. The returns of the portfolio were well within three standard deviations (-13.02% noted above). The portfolio not only has superior returns when they are in positive territory, but also demonstrated less downside in a volatile market environment.

Minimum acceptable return

When benchmarking investments for my clients, I also like to calculate something called Roy’s Safety-First Ratio, or simply SFRatio. This allows clients to see what would happen if their investments perform at less than expected returns. To do this, we create a minimum acceptable return, or threshold return. By fixing a minimum return, an investor aims to reduce the risk of not achieving the investment return.

Let’s imagine your financial plan indicates a minimum required average return of 4.25%. Now you have three portfolios to choose from:

  • Portfolio A: expected return - 13%; standard deviation - 20%
  • Portfolio B: expected return - 9%; standard deviation - 11%
  • Portfolio C: expected return - 8%; standard deviation - 6%

Which portfolio should you choose?

If you want to have the portfolio that has the highest likelihood of meeting your required return, you can calculate the SFRatio. Here is that formula:
  • Expected return of the portfolio; minus 
  • Minimum required return; divided by 
  • Standard deviation of the portfolio. 
Using this formula, here are your three SFRatios for these portfolios:
  • Portfolio A: (13% - 4.25%)/20% = 0.4375
  • Portfolio B: (9% - 4.25%)/11% = 0.4318
  • Portfolio C: (8% - 4.25%)/6% = 0.625
As you can see, Portfolio C has the highest SFRatio, and therefore has the highest probability of earning the investor their required rate of return.

Benchmarking during COVID-19

These days, financial projections are a bit of a tough call. It’s not just that the economy may look quite different in the next five to 10 years from its profile over the past decade. It’s also that their impact on the markets is difficult to predict.

Benchmarking for performance during COVID-19 is as relevant as it’s ever been. The benchmarks you use should cover the same periods of time, and you will see how your investments perform against other potential investments.

The true difference-marker during COVID-19 is benchmarking for risk. With volatility so high, risk skyrockets, so keep on the eye on the ups and downs of your investments. If there ever was a time to know that your portfolio is taking on more risk than the benchmark, COVID-19 is that time.

For more in investing during COVID-19, check out this recent roundtable discussion on protecting your wealth in the COVID-10 economy.

The content on this blog has been carefully prepared, but it has been written in general terms and should be seen as broad guidance only. The blog cannot be relied upon to cover specific situations and you should not act, or refrain from acting, upon the information contained therein without obtaining specific professional advice. Please contact BDO Canada LLP to discuss these matters in the context of your particular circumstances. BDO Canada LLP, its partners, employees and agents do not accept or assume any liability or duty of care for any loss arising from any action taken or not taken by anyone in reliance on the information on this blog or for any decision based on it.

Please note the blog posts are time sensitive and subject to changes in legislation.

BDO Canada LLP, a Canadian limited liability partnership, is a member of BDO International Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, and forms part of the international BDO network of independent member firms. BDO is the brand name for the BDO network and for each of the BDO Member Firms.

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