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What Is An Asset Class? Get Higher Returns From Your Portfolio

To be an above-average investor you need to get the basics of assets classes. Fortunately, it is not hard. Let's give you an overview.

Understanding what asset classes are means getting higher returns, so if you want to be an above-average investor you need to get the basics of assets classes. Fortunately, it is not hard. Let’s give you an overview.

Asset classes are like the pieces of a puzzle. The puzzle is your entire portfolio. Together the puzzles form your portfolio. All portfolios have asset classes. And all portfolios can be broken down into their respective asset classes.

So why are asset classes important to understand?

This is because some asset classes like “value” have performed better in the past than other asset classes. That means you should consider adding a portion of the best historical performing asset classes to your portfolio if you want to be an above-average investor.

But what is an asset class? We’ll cover that next.

What Is An Asset Class? Get Higher Returns From Your Portfolio

What is an asset class?

There are many definitions of asset classes. Here’s one from Investopedia:

“An asset class is a group of securities that exhibits similar characteristics, behaves similarly in the marketplace and is subject to the same laws and regulations.”

The 3 major asset classes are:

  1. Stocks,
  2. Bonds
  3. Cash.

They each behave very differently to each other in the marketplace. For example, bonds typically go up when stocks go down. There are many more asset class to be considered. See below for a much larger list.

Larry Swedroe of BAM alliance has an even better one in his educational and fantastic book Your Complete Guide to Factor-Based Investing: The Way Smart Money Invests Today. Here he lists the requirement for how an asset class must behave to be considered an asset class:

  • Persistent — It holds across long periods of time and different economic regimes.
  • Pervasive — It holds across countries, regions, sectors,
  • Robust — It holds for various definitions (for example, there is a value premium whether it is measured by price-to-book, earnings, cash flow, or sales).
  • Investable — It holds up not just on paper, but also after considering actual implementation issues, such as trading costs.
  • Intuitive — There are logical risk-based or behavioral-based explanations for the asset class and why it should continue to exist.

Larry Swedrow talks about factors here, but it can easily be applied to asset classes. The factors versus asset class discussion is a post in itself.

So how do you make an asset class?

There are at least two ways to define an asset class:

  • In absolute terms
  • In relative terms

Both are used in the investing world. Here’s how we do it using small-cap as an example.

Defining an asset class in absolute terms: Take all the stocks under a $2 billion market cap and put them in an index. These are now a small-cap blend asset class.

Defining an asset class in relative terms: Take all the stocks and measure their market. Now take the bottom 10% and put them in an index. These are now a small-cap blend asset class.

Both are used but the relative is more prevalent.

For growth and value, the relative is almost always used. Growth and value are defined in relation to each other. They are merged at the hip as Warren Buffet says.

That’s the end of this very short primer on asset classes. A longer and more detailed post is upcoming.

If you want to know waay more about asset classes I can recommend 3 books:

Rick Ferri’s book All About Asset Allocation

Roger Gibson’s Asset Allocation: Balancing Financial Risk, Fifth Edition: Balancing Financial Risk

Larry Swedroe’s Your Complete Guide to Factor-Based Investing: The Way Smart Money Invests Today

Performance of asset classes

There are a lot of asset classes if you really start looking for them. The important thing to have in mind is that diversifying across many asset class is a good idea and often yields higher returns.

For example, U.S stocks seem to zig when foreign stocks zag so it is a good idea to have both in your portfolio.

asset class returns
Asset class returns 1989-2017 – Sources

Below is a table of returns along with standard deviation, drawdown, and market correlation. It is sorted by highest returning asset class to lowest.

Asset classReturnsSTDDrawdownMarket correlation
Emerging Markets – Value12.41%38.77%53.94%0.48
Mid-Cap Value – MCV12.38%18.06%39.41%0.81
Emerging Markets – Small12.38%38.60%54.53%0.47
Mid-Cap Blend – MCB12.05%17.89%41.82%0.90
Small-Cap Value – SCV11.43%18.42%36.86%0.74
Large-Cap Growth – LCG10.80%20.50%48.30%0.96
Small-Cap Blend – SCB10.72%19.01%36.07%0.89
Small-Cap Growth – SCG10.60%19.46%40.00%0.90
Emerging Markets – EM10.51%32.97%52.81%0.57
Mid-Cap Growth – MCG10.47%24.16%55.29%0.90
Total US Market – TSM10.42%17.58%37.07%1.00
Real Estate – REIT10.38%18.16%47.41%0.48
Large-Cap Blend – LCB10.37%17.51%37.71%0.99
Large-Cap Value – LCV10.07%16.36%35.97%0.95
International Europe8.08%19.53%44.73%0.86
Long-Term Treasury – LTT7.90%11.44%13.03%-0.21
Total World Market7.31%17.59%41.88%0.90
High Yield Corporate Bonds7.21%10.99%21.29%0.70
Inter. Term Corporate Bond7.18%6.85%6.99%0.42
Inter. Term Treasury – ITT6.19%6.27%4.33%-0.20
Total Bond Market – TBM6.08%4.82%2.66%0.12
Long-Term Tax-Exempt Munis6.06%6.05%5.76%0.27
International Bond Fund5.83%4.47%4.85%0.18
International Small5.78%24.85%50.37%0.61
International Value5.53%19.74%43.92%0.74
Inter Tem Tax Exempt Munis5.39%4.20%2.12%0.21
Short-Term Investment Grade5.18%4.25%4.74%0.44
Total International5.04%19.94%44.10%0.75
Short-Term Bonds – STB4.95%3.84%0.86%0.06
International Developed – EAFE4.88%19.02%43.67%0.77
Precious Metals Fund4.76%35.46%72.37%0.23
Short-Term Treasury – STT4.62%3.99%0.58%-0.06
Short-term Tax Exempt Munis3.08%2.07%0.00%0.01
Tbills/Treasury Money Mkt3.00%2.55%0.00%0.06
International Pacific1.93%22.32%50.39%0.55


You can find the best-in-class ETF for each asset class in the article What Is The Best ETF And Mutual Fund?

As you can see value, small-cap and emerging markets have performed very well. The ones that have performed the worst are commodities, cash (t-bills), Pacific stocks (due to the Nikkei asset bubble), gold and precious metals. Gold is just barely keeping up with inflation. Gold has never been a very good investment nor a good speculation. This is because it does not produce anything like companies.

Emerging markets may have had the highest return but they also have the highest risk in the form of standard deviation and largest drawdowns.

A special mention to the all-time worst performing asset class: Commodities. It has the distinct displeasure of having the worst returns and the most severe drawdown since 1987. It also takes the 2nd place as the riskiest asset as measured by standard deviation.

Benefits of having multiple asset classes

When you visit the portfolios on you see that the best performing portfolios are the ones with more than 1 asset class.

This is because when one asset class zigs the other zags. This helps to stabilize your portfolio. It also helps your returns. This is due to the rebalancing effect. When you rebalance you buy more of the asset class that has gone down in value and sell more of the asset class that has gone up in price. It is a buy low and sell high in action and automated. If you have more asset classes there are more opportunities for this. This is evident from the Morningstar Target date index which performed particularly well. See What Is The Best Target Date Fund?

Before you go all in in the best performing asset class you should be aware of a few things:

  • This is historical data and future performance may not look like the past
  • An asset class can underperform for very long periods of time. For example, growth has outperformed value for almost 10 years now but historically value beats growth.
  • The risk of holding one asset class is best shown during the 2008 financial crisis when REITs (real estate) were decimated (along with everything else). But it did take longer for REIT to recover.

The best course of action is to pick a portfolio with a light to heavy overweight of the best performing asset classes. You can find the all the portfolios here.

On the portfolio allocation page, you can see the holdings of the portfolios. You can see which asset classes are needed to construct the portfolio along with their ticker symbols for the corresponding ETF. You can also find our best-in-class ETFs here.

Summary, the takeaway, and your next steps

This has been a very short introduction to asset classes. The takeaway is that you need more than one asset class in your portfolio so that you can lower your risk and increase your returns. Don’t worry about the returns of the asset classes, however, worry about the portfolio you want to go with.

You should select a portfolio that has a high probability of reaching your financial goals while being aware of the risks.

We’re planning a follow up where we go into details about which asset classes will do best under certain conditions.

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