Keeping Your Porfolio Healthy

An important portfolio construction idea I have harped on is simple avoidance.

Another thing I have harped has been the extent to which I have been underweight U.S. financials for a long time. Both in articles for TheStreet and on my blog I wrote about warnings from the market about the weighting of the financial sector in the S&P 500, greater than 20%, along with the inverted yield curve as indicating some sort of problem coming.

As the crisis unfolded and then the market started to rally a year and half ago, including some huge trading moves up from financials, I wrote frequently that it made no sense that the worst financial crisis in 80 years could wrap up in 18 months. There would be more shoes to drop.

The latest business with robo-signing foreclosures might be another shoe or not but I continue to have no interest in the U.S. banks. I simply want to avoid the exposure and whatever headaches, real or perceived, might go with them.

In the past I have disclosed on my blog owning MSCI ( MSCI) for clients for a little while. It has a couple of different business lines but is most known for index licensing which would seem to be a growth industry thanks to global ETF proliferation and other trends related to passive investing.

This idea will either pan out or it won't but whatever happens with the stock there is no reasonable fundamental link to all that ails the banks -- that which we already know and that which we may learn about in the future.

Not surprisingly MSCI went down about half as much as the Financial Sector SPDR ( XLF) during the worst of the crisis and is now higher than where it was back in late 2007 while XLF is still down more than 50% from its peak.

ETFs are very useful but some stock picking is important too. Where this one sector might be polluted for a long time, financial sector ETFs might not be a great way to go, certainly not my first choice.

A stock like MSCI has an easy catalyst to understand, growth in indexing as an aging population gets more serious about saving and investing, and the lack of fundamental connection to the crisis is also easy to understand.

In the time I've held the name it has been quite volatile, got hit hard for a little bit, did a large transaction but has done noticeably better than the XLF albeit with a bumpy ride. Going forward there can be no certainty about how it will do but from the top down it avoids what I think is a lousy part of the market and offers a chance for growth.

The point here is not that you should buy this stock but maybe think about the concept of avoidance, how uncomplicated themes can be and that ETFs have drawbacks that at times will make them unattractive.

An ETF that is heavy in the biggest domestic banks like Bank of America ( BAC) or Citigroup ( C) may not be attractive for years, the tech wreck is 10 years on and most of those stocks still struggle.

Foreign financial sector ETFs like the iShares MSCI European Financial Sector Index Fund ( EUFN) are heavy in the largest European banks which might be even worse off than the U.S. banks while some other Asian financial sector ETFs like the iShares MSCI Far East Financial Sector Index Fund ( FEFN) are heavy in Japan and China by way of Hong Kong.

Japan seems like it is still a long way from solving its deflation and recessionary problems and if China is going to ever have a serious problem it will tie into overcapacity, overbuilding, misusing off balance sheet debt and mistakes with monetary policy which would be a big problem for the Chinese banks and real estate companies.

Simply avoiding the least healthy parts of the market is an easy way to reduce the volatility of your portfolio.

At the time of publication, Nusbaum's client had a position in MSCI.

Roger Nusbaum is a portfolio manager with Your Source Financial of Phoenix, and the author of Random Roger's Big Picture Blog. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Nusbaum appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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