Don't Overdo Portfolio Rebalancing

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If all went well during the first quarter, your investments did at least as well as the market. But since various stock and bond sectors grew at different rates, your asset allocation may have changed.

So, is the start of a new quarter a good time to rebalance your portfolio? Well, rebalancing is a good practice, but don’t go overboard.

Generally, the idea is to have a mix of assets that suits your investment goals, including your time horizon and tolerance for risk. Younger investors typically devote more of their portfolios to stocks and stock funds, hoping for lots of growth. Older investors reduce stocks and build up bonds to emphasize safety and income.

If you’re in your mid-40s and are skittish about risk, you might have about 60% of your portfolio in stocks, 30% in bonds and the rest in cash, commodities and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities.

But if you started the year that way, you could be off-target now. Mutual funds holding U.S. Treasury bonds, for instance, were about flat for the first three months, while diversified U.S. stock funds returned nearly 7%, according to Lipper, the fund-tracking firm.

The diligent investor might be tempted to lighten up on stocks and buy bonds to return to the target asset allocation. But there are two reasons not to.

First, if you’ve drifted off target by just a few percentage points in the first quarter, you might well drift back in the second without doing anything.

Second, asset-allocation guidelines are just general suggestions, not commandments carved in stone. Investing experts figure them by looking at the past performance of various asset classes. They can tell you to the second or third decimal place how any given mix did in the past.

But the future is a blank slate. There’s no guarantee U.S. stocks will return 10% a year, as they did, on average, in the 20th Century. So any estimate of future returns has a very wide margin of error. No one knows how wide, but certainly wide enough that returns can’t be predicted to the second or third decimal place. Or even the first. Or anywhere close to that.

So there’s no way to tell whether a 65% allocation to stocks will do better or worse than a 60% allocation. If your target is 60%, it really doesn’t matter if you’re at 65% or 55%.

As a rule of thumb, don’t worry about your asset allocation until your biggest holding stocks for the young, bonds for the old is off-target by at least 10 percentage points.

Taking it easy will allow you to avoid the hassle and expense of rebalancing at the end of one quarter only to reverse the move at the end of the next. Too much rebalancing can hurt by piling on commissions, and you could be taxed on investments sold at a profit.

Also remember than when you are ready to rebalance, you can save expenses by making the changes in your no-load mutual funds, since there’s generally no charge for redeeming and buying these funds.

Better yet, try to confine your rebalancing to no-load funds in tax-favored accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s. That way, there won’t be a tax bill, either.

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