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Smart Advice for the HuffPost Investor: Investing in Commodities -- Smart Move or Fool's Gold?

06/11/2008 09:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Question: Is now the right time to invest in commodities?

Answer: With oil prices reaching record highs almost daily, it is no wonder that assets in commodities funds have exploded to $260 billion.

Adding commodities as a separate asset class to your portfolio can be justified if doing so reduces risk, increases returns or acts as a hedge against inflation.

Unfortunately, the data on whether it accomplishes any of these objectives is conflicted.

One private study used the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) and reached these conclusions:

-- There was no excess return over T-Bills from adding the GSCI to portfolios;

-- There was no reduction in the volatility of a stock and bond portfolio when the GSCI was added; and

-- Adding the GSCI did not improve protection against inflation.

However, there is some historical data indicating that adding commodities to a broadly diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds increased returns and lowered risks. One study found that, over a 20 year period, a mix of energy, real estate and metals and mining funds, achieved these goals.

If you are persuaded by the positive data on commodities, you could consider index funds like the iPath Dow Jones AIG Commodity Index Fund (DJP) or the iPath GSCI Total Return Index Fund (GSP).

DJP is less volatile and more diversified. GSP has a large percentage of its assets invested in oil and gas (which explains why is up 24.05% in the past year!).

Personally, I am content with the commodities exposure I receive by owning a broadly diversified domestic index stock fund. I do not have exposure to commodities as a separate asset class in my portfolio and I do not recommend it for inclusion in the portfolios of my clients.


Question: What are the past performances of these world index stock and bond funds and compared to what ? Are you assuming that all emerging and all world markets in aggregate will go up with time in the future as the U.S. market did in the past ?

Answer: For the period 1986-2007 (when the most reliable data is available), the world portfolio generally under performed the Smart Investor portfolios which are set forth in The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read.

For example, a 60% (stocks) and 40% (bond) portfolio consisting of a mix of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX), the Vanguard total International Stock Index Fund (VGTSX) and the Vanguard Total Bond Index Fund (VBMFX) had an annual return of 10.09% during this period. The world portfolio had an annualized return of 9.87.

The Vanguard portfolio had 100% domestic bonds. The world portfolio has a majority of its funds invested in foreign bonds. During this period, domestic bonds out performed foreign bonds.

Let's put these returns in perspective.

One study showed that, for the 20 year period from 1986 through 2006, the average equity investor earned only 4.3% on her investments. During that same period, the S&P 500 had an annualized return of 11.8%.

I am making no assumptions about the direction of either the foreign or the domestic markets. Historical data tells us that the global markets in the aggregate have increased in value in the past. We also know that broad asset class diversification is a critical element to investing success.

Investors who believe that global diversification of the stock and bond portion of their portfolios is preferable to a portfolio of globally diversified stocks and domestic bonds would be well advised to consider a world portfolio.

Either choice would have yielded a return more than 200% better than the returns of the average equity investor, who was following the advice of her "market beating" broker or advisor.


The views set forth in this blog are the opinions of the author alone and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with whom he is affiliated. The data, information, and content on this blog are for information, education, and non-commercial purposes only. Returns from index funds do not represent the performance of any investment advisory firm. The information on this blog does not involve the rendering of personalized investment advice and is limited to the dissemination of opinions on investing. No reader should construe these opinions as an offer of advisory services. Readers who require investment advice should retain the services of a competent investment professional. The information on this blog is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any securities or class of securities mentioned herein.