Investment Shock Absorbers

April 18, 2017

Ever ridden in a car with worn-out shock absorbers? Every bump is jarring, every corner stomach-churning, and every red light an excuse to assume the brace position. Owning an undiversified portfolio can trigger similar reactions.

You can drive a car with a broken suspension system, but it will be an extremely uncomfortable ride and the vehicle will be much harder to control, particularly in difficult conditions. Throw in the risk of a breakdown or running off the road altogether, and there’s a real chance you may not reach your destination.

In the world of investment, a similarly bumpy and unpredictable ride can await those with concentrated and undiversified portfolios or those who constantly tinker with their allocation.

Of course, everyone feels in control when the surface is straight and smooth, but it’s harder to stay on the road during sudden turns and ups and downs in the market.

For that reason, the smart thing to do is to diversify, spreading your portfolio across different securities, sectors, and countries. That also means identifying the right mix of investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate) that aligns with your risk tolerance.

Using this approach, your returns from year to year may not match the top performing portfolio, but neither are they likely to match the worst. More importantly, this is a ride you are likelier to stick with.

Here’s an example. Among developed markets, Denmark was number one in US dollar terms in 2015 with a return of more than 23%. But a big bet on that country the following year would have backfired, as Denmark slid to bottom of the table with a loss of nearly 16%.1

It’s true that the US stock market (by far the world’s biggest) has been a strong performer in recent years. But a decade before, in 2004 and 2006, it was the second worst-performing developed market in the world.1

Predicting which part of a market will do best over a given period is tough. US small cap stocks were among the top performers in 2016 with a return of more than 21%. A year before, their results looked relatively disappointing with a loss of more than 4%. International small cap stocks had their turn in the sun in 2015, topping the performance tables with a return of just below 6%. But the year before that, they were the second worst with a loss of 5%.2

If you’ve ever taken a long road trip, you’ll know that conditions along the way can change quickly and unpredictably, which is why you need a vehicle that’s ready for the worst roads as well as the best. While diversification can never completely eliminate the impact of bumps along your particular investment road, it does help reduce the potential outsized impact that any individual investment can have on your journey.

With sufficient diversification, the jarring effects of performance extremes level out. That, in turn, helps you stay in your chosen lane and on the road to your investment destination.

Happy motoring and happy investing.


1. In US dollars. MSCI developed markets country indices (net dividends). MSCI data © MSCI 2017, all rights reserved.

2. In US dollars. US Small Cap is the Russell 2000 Index. Frank Russell Company is the source and owner of the trademarks, service marks, and copyrights related to the Russell Indexes. International Small Cap is the MSCI World ex USA Small Cap Index (gross dividends). MSCI data copyright MSCI 2017, all rights reserved.

Adapted from “Investment Shock Absorbers,” Outside the Flags, February 2017. Dimensional Fund Advisors LP is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. All expressions of opinion are subject to change. This information is intended for educational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, products, or services.


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