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Tackling Risk With Portfolio Diversification

Reading time: 9 minutes

Every so often, events occur that are so earth-shaking they send reverberations to every corner of the market. Fortunately, events of this magnitude are rare. Most of the time, there tend to be different factors affecting different parts of the market. Therefore, the chances of many independent markets being adversely affected at the same time are fairly small.

Portfolio Diversification - Why It Is Important in Trading

Herein lies the heart of portfolio diversification theory. Diversification is all about choosing to invest in several different areas of the market, in order to reduce the risk of your overall portfolio being adversely affected by any one factor. In other words, by choosing our asset allocation wisely, we can seek to shelter ourselves from risk.

Portfolio Diversification and Risk Reduction

So, the effect of portfolio diversification on risk is to reduce it, but we should note this doesn't apply to all types of risk. Of course, when we trade there is always some inherent risk, that's just the nature of trading and investing, and there are limits to the effect of tactical portfolio diversification. It's important here to qualify exactly which type of risk it is that we reduce with diversified portfolio strategies.

Systematic and Unsystematic Risk

Systematic risk is the inherent uncertainty of the entire market, and therefore cannot be mitigated by building a diversified portfolio. Unsystematic risk describes the types of risk that we can protect against, at least to some degree, by selecting a well-diversified investment portfolio. Occurrences that disproportionately affect one company, sector, or a type of instrument are examples of unsystematic risk.

Think about a stock market investor who is building an investment portfolio. If their investment allocation is varied, then news affecting one sector will affect only some of the stocks in their portfolio. In other words, their diversified investment portfolio helps to cushion against the effect of specific bad news. Failing to have a sufficiently diversified portfolio is akin to the well-known idiom of 'putting all your eggs in one basket'.

For example, consider an investor whose investment allocation focuses solely on energy sector stocks. If OPEC decides to increase oil output, it could depress the value of the entire portfolio. Now, consider if the investor had a cross-section of companies from a variety of sectors instead. This would ensure a portion of the portfolio was less exposed to the sudden changes in the energy sector.

Here you have the answer as to why portfolio diversification is so important. An investment diversification strategy seeks to take positions in sufficiently different instruments, so as to lower your exposure to risks tied to specific segments of the market. That being said, if you look back at the financial crisis of 2008, it wouldn't really matter how well you had employed CFD portfolio diversification if all your positions were in equities.

This is because the systematic nature of the problem stressed all sectors of the market. Share prices as a whole moved sharply lower, along with other types of investments, such as house prices. Events such as war, interest rate changes, and economic slumps tend to affect the whole market, and can't really be protected against via tactical asset allocation. The main strategy for protecting against this type of risk is hedging.

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Why is It Important to Diversify Your Investment Portfolio?

Diversification is important in investing because it reduces the chance of an adverse factor affecting the whole of your portfolio. Trading profitably is all about winning in the long run. You cannot win in the long run if you experience a drawdown severe enough to prevent you from trading. Diversification helps to avoid this negative scenario. Is there an advantage of portfolio diversification beyond just trying to diminish risk though? The answer is yes.

Here are the three benefits of portfolio diversification:

  • It reduces risks tied to specific assets classes
  • It increases the chances of encountering conditions favourable to your system
  • It delivers more signals

Let's consider a trader who only looks at a narrow set of currency pairs. Let's suppose that they are a trend-follower who only considers trading with the EUR/USD and GBP/USD FX pairs. If these currency pairs are range bound for an extended period, the trader isn't going to have any signals to trade on. Now consider the trader who looks at a diverse range of markets. This trader is likely to receive more entry signals.

But beyond that, trend following is all about locating a big winning trade amongst more frequent, smaller losing ones. By exposing themselves to more markets, our trader has increased the chances of encountering the favourable market conditions required for a big winning trade. In this case, they have widened the odds of finding a persistent trend.

Multi-Asset Diversification

If you're aiming to hold a number of financial instruments, the same principles of risk-balanced portfolio construction apply. So if you're a commodity trader, you'll be wise to consider some kind of commodity diversification. Of course, proper portfolio diversification also involves spreading your risk across multiple asset classes.

If you hold diversified financial investments, you are less likely to be overly exposed to one risk area. This means that with the right kind of tactical investing, you can achieve some simple reduction in overall risk. So how do you decide your portfolio allocation? As is usually the case with trading, the question really depends on the individual. What are you trying to achieve? If you are risk averse, portfolio diversification will be a big issue for you.

Diversified Portfolio Example

With a stock portfolio, it is quite easy to construct a diverse selection, where you can mix and match from different sectors. When it comes to Forex portfolio diversification, it can seem less straightforward. Generally speaking though, what we are trying to avoid is this: trading in the same direction on a number of currency pairs that are correlated.

If we can do this, then we have gone some way toward achieving a more balanced investment portfolio. So, how can we tell which Forex pairs are correlated? Here's where MetaTrader Supreme Edition for MetaTrader 4 and MetaTrader 5 is really handy. The MTSE plugin offers you a greatly enhanced suite of trading indicators and trading tools. Among these tools is the correlation matrix.

MT4 SE Correlation matrix

Source: MetaTrader 4 Supreme Edition - Correlation Matrix

The correlation matrix allows you to see at a glance the strength of correlation between currency pairs. It also allows you to view the correlation in different time frames. Here are some simple tips for a portfolio diversification strategy:

  • Check correlation in multiple time frames
  • Avoid trading in the same direction on strongly-correlated pairs
  • Alternatively, actively trade in the opposite direction to strongly-correlated pairs
  • Avoid similar positions involving currencies from the same regions
  • Diversify further by holding positions over different time frames
  • Also, consider diversifying your strategy style

Overall, the idea is to strip out commonalities between different positions within a portfolio. For example, if you were considering going long on AUD/GBP and NZD/USD, you might only choose one of the two in the interests of diversification. This is because NZD and AUD are both currencies from the Oceania region. We might reasonably expect them to be similarly affected by factors specific to that region.

The final point in the list above refers to the actual trading strategy you are using. You might find that a certain strategy only offers a few signals per month, while another offers 20 or 30. Dividing up your available risk capital amongst these strategies might help to complement each other. An excellent way to practice these techniques and work out what is the right mix for you is with our risk-free demo trading account. This way, you can try out your strategies first, and see what works best before you attempt trading with your capital at risk in the live markets.

A Final Word on Portfolio Diversification

We've looked at the basics of diversification, just one of a number of foreign exchange risk management strategies. You can very easily take these ideas and tweak them further so as to achieve greater Forex portfolio optimization. Remember that investment diversification is not a guarantee against loss, but it can be considered a broad safety net to help cushion against residual risk. Also, remember that the objectives of portfolio diversification are to protect the sum of the whole.

So even if you have diversified investments, individual segments of that portfolio are still going to be at risk. This is why it always makes sense to utilise other good Forex risk management strategies with every individual trade. Consider using stops, together with money management. Finally, you should never diversify into areas that you don't understand. There is an argument to be made for keeping your focus within your area of specialty, so don't feel obliged to diversify for the sake of it.

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This material does not contain and should not be construed as containing investment advice, investment recommendations, an offer of or solicitation for any transactions in financial instruments. Please note that such trading analysis is not a reliable indicator for any current or future performance, as circumstances may change over time. Before making any investment decisions, you should seek advice from independent financial advisors to ensure you understand the risks.

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CFDs are complex instruments and come with a high risk of losing money rapidly due to leverage. 84% of retail investor accounts lose money when trading CFDs with this provider. You should consider whether you understand how CFDs work and whether you can afford to take the high risk of losing your money.