Demystifying Investment Jargon: What Is Correlation?

Here at Align Wealth Management, we try to keep financial jargon to a minimum. But some references are worth translating, because there is valuable information behind the mumbo-jumbo.

Consider us your interpreter. Today, we’ll explore correlation, and why it is a key element of evidence-based investing.

Correlation helps people invest more efficiently. It’s expressed as a number between -1.0 and +1.0. It quantifies whether—and by how much—two holdings have behaved differently or alike in various markets. Correlation matters because if we can identify holdings with weak or no expected correlation with one another, we can combine these diverse “pieces” (your individual investments) into a greater “whole (your investment portfolio.) By doing so, we can help investors – you! – to better weather the market’s many moods.

Correlation is more than just a quality; it’s also a quantity – a measurement – offering two important insights along a spectrum of possibilities between –1.0 and +1.0. Correlation can be positive or negative, which tells us whether two correlated subjects are behaving similarly to or opposite of one another. And correlation can be strong or weak (or high/low), which tells us how powerful the similar or opposite behavior has been.

Experienced investors have probably heard about the benefits of diversification, or owning many, as well as different, kinds of holdings. A well-diversified portfolio helps you invest more efficiently and effectively over time. Diversification also offers a smoother ride, which helps you better stay on course toward your personal financial goals.

But in a world of nearly infinite possibilities, how do we:

  • Compare existing funds – If one fund is expected to perform a certain way according to its averages, and another fund is supposed to perform differently according to its own averages, how do you know if they’re really performing differently as expected?
  • Compare new factors – What about when a researcher claims they’ve found a new factor, or source of expected returns? As a University of Chicago paper explained, “factors are being discovered almost as quickly as they can be packaged and sold to the waiting public.” How do we determine which are actually worth considering out of the hundreds proposed?
  • Compare one portfolio to another – Even perfectly good factors don’t always fit well together. You want factors that are not only strong on their own, but that are expected to create the strongest possible total portfolio once they’re combined.

 

Correlation is the answer to these and other portfolio analysis challenges. By quantifying and comparing the behaviors and relationships found among various funds, factors and portfolios, we at Align Wealth Management help our clients to better determine which combinations are expected to produce optimal outcomes over time.

Fortunately, as an investor, you don’t necessarily need to know how to precisely calculate correlations – that’s our job. But it’s useful to know what correlation measurements mean when you see them.

  • Strong (high), positive correlation tells us that two investments seem to be playing a highly similar role; when that’s the case, you may not need to hold both of them.
  • Strong (high), negative correlation offers the most diversification, but it’s hard to find. Prone as they are to herd mentality, most holdings follow general trends at least a little.
  • Weak (low) or no (zero) correlation is thus the preferred relationship we typically seek between and among the funds we use to build a diversified portfolio.

It’s worth adding a couple more clarifying points before we wrap.

First, the correlation between two holdings is not calculated by directly comparing the returns of each holding. Instead, we compare how each holding’s returns move up and down relative to its own average returns. In other words, two investments may seem quite different at a glance. But if you compare them to their own usual performance, and they both tend to sink or soar in reaction to the same market conditions, they are unlikely to offer strong diversification benefits if you pair them together.

Also, correlation is not a “set it and forget it” number. For example, two funds may usually exhibit weak correlation, but this can shift if a bear or bull market roars in and wreaks havoc on business as usual. In short, solid analysis calls for studying correlation data across multiple markets and over time, to better understand what to expect during various market conditions. This is another reason to proceed with caution and consult carefully with your investment advisor before adding new factors to your portfolio. Even if a new opportunity seems promising, you may want to wait and see how it performs over time and around the globe before you buy into the latest popular find.

In Conclusion…

Heeding correlation data is a lot like having a full line-up on your favorite sports team. If each player on the roster adds a distinct, useful and well-played talent to the mix, odds are, your team will go far. Similarly, your investment portfolio is best built from a global “team” of distinct factors, or sources of returns. A winning approach combines quality components that exhibit weak or no correlation among or between them across varied, long-term market conditions.

We’d be happy to speak with you about how to use correlation to enhance your own investment experience. We know we must earn your business every day, and we appreciate your trust and confidence. Please remember that we are just a phone call or email away if you have any questions, comments, or concerns. And thank you for stopping by our blog!