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How portfolio diversification can save you from the next crash

As the stock market sets new multiyear highs and many stocks are at or near all-time record levels, many investors are getting greedy. But prudent investors look at the recent optimism from a more balanced view, trying to figure out whether the strong advance in the market is sustainable. For them, the protection that portfolio diversification can provide may be what saves them from substantial losses whenever the next downturn strikes.

The basics of diversification
Many people think of having a diversified portfolio as meaning owning a lot of different stocks or funds. But much of the time, investors aren’t nearly as diversified as they think they are. Especially among funds, you’ll often find the same well-known big-company names prominently displayed on multiple top holdings lists, strongly suggesting that those funds will typically move in the same direction and therefore be useless in providing protection from downturns in those stocks.

Even if you don’t own exactly the same type of stocks, that doesn’t mean that you’ll avoid the dangers of a concentrated set of investments. A portfolio with similar stocks might be slightly better diversified than just owning a single stock. But if all are subject to many of the same factors and will therefore respond in similar fashion to some events, that has broad implications for the entire sector.

The same is even true across industries in some cases. The stocks won’t necessarily move in exactly the same way, but market-moving news can push their stocks in the same direction.

How to get diversified
In order to have true diversification, you need to have investments whose movements aren’t correlated. For instance, bonds have traditionally been a good counterbalance against stocks, as a booming stock market draws money out of bonds and sends their prices downward, whereas risk-averse investors fleeing stocks when markets fall tend to prefer the safe-harbour status that bonds have historically provided.

That’s tougher to accomplish than you might think, because relationships among markets tend to change over time. For instance, international stocks used to give investors much different results, largely because economic conditions in individual countries differed greatly from nation to nation. With the economy having gotten increasingly global, however, correlations among those markets have gotten greater, and thus they’ve tended to move much more closely together in recent years — especially in times of crisis.

Similarly, commodities were once seen as being independent of stocks. But some of the same factors that drive liquidity into the stock market also encourage commodity investing, and with the rise of exchange-traded funds that allow individual investors to take commodity positions easily, commodities have started moving more closely with stocks.

That’s not to say that seeking portfolio diversification is a hopeless cause. What it does mean, though, is that you can’t count on a particular strategy working forever. It takes constant diligence to make sure you have as much protection as you can find.

Stay smart
Whenever markets are doing well, it pays to take a look to make sure you won’t give back all the hard-earned gains you’ve gotten. Making sure you’re truly diversified is an important step toward protecting your portfolio.

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More reading

The Motley Fools purpose is to help the world invest, better. Take Stock is The Motley Fool’s free investing newsletter. Packed with stock ideas and investing advice, it is essential reading for anyone looking to build and grow their wealth in the years ahead. Click here now to request your free subscription, whilst it’s still available. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

A version of this article, written by Dan Caplinger, originally appeared on fool.com

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