Benchmarking in Investing: Tools to track relative performance

 Ever wonder how to know whether your portfolio is performing well?  Some people will simply look at the overall return, and if it’s higher than their neighbor’s, they figure they are doing well!  However, simply looking at the bottom line rate of return doesn’t tell the whole story because returns are directly related to how much underlying risk you have taken in the portfolio. To an amateur investor an annual rate of return of 7-8% might feel good, but a professional looks at how much risk you had to take to achieve such a result.  One method everyone should use to better understand the relative performance of an individual portfolio is referred to as “benchmarking”. 

Performance tracking methods

A few commonly used benchmarks for large U.S. stocks are the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (more commonly known as the S&P 500).  You will hear these two indexes referred to constantly in the news. If you hear the Dow was up 100 points, you may find yourself checking how your portfolio’s performance compares.  The problem with this is that you might not own anything in your portfolio that looks anything like the Dow Jones Index. This is why you need to understand what makes up your portfolio and what indexes to track to understand relative performance. 

Benchmarking Best Practices

Hypothetically, let’s say you have a portfolio that looks like this:

30% Large International Stocks

30% Large U.S. Stocks

40% highly rated U.S. corporate bonds   

You look at the annual return for the Dow Jones, see that this particular index was up 9% at the end of the year, and then check your portfolio’s overall return to see that it was only up 4%.  Before you rush to the phone to fire your financial advisor, first get the full picture!  Your portfolio only has 30% of the money invested in Large U.S. companies and 70% of the money invested elsewhere. To expect 100% of the money to perform the same as the Dow Jones is highly unrealistic.  Instead, you should look at a few other “benchmarks” that are commonly used in financial circles to track different types of stocks and bonds.

Here is a list of benchmarks to track different asset classes to help you make a fair comparison about your portfolio’s performance compared to the types of risk you took:

S&P 500-  Large U.S. Stocks

Russell 2000- Small U.S. Stocks

MSCI EAFE- International Stocks

Barclays Aggregate U.S. Bond Index- U.S. Bonds

Back to the example, our hypothetical investor decides to look up the returns for the Barclays Aggregate Index and MSCI EAFE since he has money invested in those types of asset classes as well as Large U.S. Stocks.  Our investor sees that bonds actually had a negative 2% rate of return for the same time frame, and that the MSCI EAFE was essentially flat.  So 30% of his money he expects to be up somewhere near 9%, 30% of his money he expects to be right around 0%, and 40% of his money he expects to be down 2%. 

Putting Performance Benchmarking to Work

If our investor had $100,000 at the beginning of the year invested in our hypothetical portfolio here’s how it breaks down:

Add it up and the ending portfolio balance is $101,900 or a rate of return of 1.9%.  When you understand the whole picture, you might be more satisfied with a 4% return knowing that a portfolio with very similar holdings should only be up about 1.9% according to the benchmarks.

Talk to your financial advisor to find out what makes up your portfolio and what benchmarks to use for your particular situation.

Matthew Trujillo, CFP®, is a Certified Financial Planner™ at Center for Financial Planning, Inc. Matt currently assists Center planners and clients, and is a contributor to Money Centered.

Information contained in this report was received from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is an unmanaged index of 30 widely held securities. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. C14-038979