Interactive Investor

Aligning an ETF-based portfolio with objectives

20th August 2020 11:57

Henry Cobbe from ii contributor


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This is the first in a series of articles by Henry Cobbe exploring the world of index investing.

This is the first in a series of articles by Henry Cobbe, head of research at Elston Consulting, exploring the world of index investing. Henry is author of How to Invest With Exchange-Traded Funds.

Investing can be defined as putting capital at risk of gain or loss to earn a return in excess of what can be received from a risk-free asset such as cash or a government bond over the medium-to long-term.

There can be any number of motives for investing: it could be to fund a future retirement via a SIPP, or to fund future university fees via a JISA.

Online tools and calculators can help estimate how much is required to invest today to fund goals in the future.

Investors can target a particular return, but learn to understand that the higher the required return, the higher the required level of portfolio risk.  Risk and return are the “ying and yang” of investment.  You can’t get one without the other.

Total return can be broken down into income yield (dividends from equities and interest from bonds) and capital growth. In the UK, income and gains are taxed at different rates. If you are investing within a tax-efficient account, such as a SIPP or an ISA, then income and gains are tax-free. If you are investing outside a tax-efficient account, investors must also then consider in their objectives how they want to receive total return – with a bias towards income or with a bias towards growth.

Given the majority of DIY investors are able to make use of tax-efficient accounts, there is less need to consider income or growth, with many investors opting to focus on total returns and to use funds that offer “Accumulating” units that reinvest income, and reflect a fund’s total return.

How then to build a portfolio to deliver an appropriate level of risk-return?

What matters most when investing?

For the purposes of these articles, I assume that interactive investor readers need no reminder of the basic checklist of investing: to start early, to maximise allowances, keep topping up regularly, and to keep costs down. Then comes the key decision – what to invest in.

The main driver of portfolio risk and return is not which stocks or equity funds are within a portfolio, but what the proportion is between higher risk-return assets such as equities, and lower risk-return assets such as shorter duration bonds.

Put simply, whether to invest 20%, 60% or 100% of a portfolio in equities, will have a greater impact on overall portfolio returns, than the selection of shares or funds within that equity allocation.

For example, when making spaghetti bolognese, the ratio between spaghetti and bolognese impacts the “outcome” of the overall meal, more than how finely chopped the onions are within the bolognese recipe.

While this may seem obvious, it gets lost in all the noise and news that focuses on hot stocks, star managers and performance rankings.

For those that want to back up common sense with academic theory, the academic articles most referenced that explore this topic are Brinson Hood & Beebower (1986), Ibboton & Kaplan (2000), and Ibbotson, Xiong, Idzorek & Cheng (2010), all referenced and summarised in my book.

Building a multi-asset portfolio to an optimised asset allocation to align to a particular risk-return objectives sounds like hard work, and it is. That’s why multi-asset funds exist.

The rise of multi-asset funds

As investing becomes more accessible to more people, there is less interest in the detail of how investments work and more interest in portfolios that get people from A to B, for a given level of risk-return. After all, there are fewer people who are interested in the detail of how engines work than there are who are interested in how a car looks, how it drives and what they need it for.

There is nothing new about multi-asset funds, indeed one could argue that the earliest investment trust, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust, founded in 1868, invested in both equities and bonds to give the investor of moderate means the same advantages as the large capitalists in diminishing the risk by spreading the investment over a number of stocks”. In the unit-trust world, managed balanced funds have been around for decades. I would define a multi-asset fund as a strategy that invests across a diversified range of asset classes to achieve a particular asset allocation and/or risk-return objective.

They offer a ready-made “portfolio within a fund”, thereby enabling a managed portfolio service for the investor from a minimum regular investment of £25 per month. In this respect, multi-asset funds help democratise investing, and satisfy the hardest part of the investor’s checklist – how to construct and manage a diversified portfolio. The different types of multi-asset fund available is a topic in itself.

The ability of investors to select a multi-asset fund for a given level, or risk-return characteristics for a given time frame, is one of the most straightforward ways to implement a strategy once that has been aligned to a given set of objectives.

Multi-asset fund or ETF portfolio?

The main advantage of a ready-made multi-asset fund is convenience. Asset allocation, and portfolio-construction decisions are made by the fund provider.

The main advantages of an ETF portfolio are timeliness, cost and flexibility. ETF portfolios are timely: you can adjust positions the same day without four to five-day dealing cycles associated with funds – an important feature in volatile times.  ETF portfolios are good value: you can construct a multi-asset ETF portfolio for a lower cost than even the cheapest multi-asset fund. ETF portfolios are flexible: you can tilt a core strategy to reflect your views on a particular region (e.g. US or Emerging Markets); sector (e.g. healthcare or technology); theme (e.g. sustainability or demographics); factor (e.g. momentum or value);  or to reflect views based on your research.


Setting the right objectives to meet a target financial outcome, such as funding future retirement, university fees, or creating a rainy day fund, is the primary consideration when making an investment plan.

Getting the asset allocation right – choosing a risk profile – in a way best suited to deliver that plan is the second most important decision.

Finding a straightforward way to deliver that risk-return profile, by building your own ETF portfolio or using a ready-made multi-asset index fund, is the final important step.

All the while, it makes sense to stick to the investing checklist: start early, keep topping up, and keep costs down.

Read the introductory article in the series here.

Henry Cobbe is a freelance contributor and not a direct employee of interactive investor.

These articles are provided for information purposes only.  Occasionally, an opinion about whether to buy or sell a specific investment may be provided by third parties.  The content is not intended to be a personal recommendation to buy or sell any financial instrument or product, or to adopt any investment strategy as it is not provided based on an assessment of your investing knowledge and experience, your financial situation or your investment objectives. The value of your investments, and the income derived from them, may go down as well as up. You may not get back all the money that you invest. The investments referred to in this article may not be suitable for all investors, and if in doubt, an investor should seek advice from a qualified investment adviser.

Full performance can be found on the company or index summary page on the interactive investor website. Simply click on the company's or index name highlighted in the article.

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