The IAA Revolution

Intelligent asset allocation doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves in the financial media. In some ways, I suppose that's not a surprise. It's not an especially sexy topic. Well-coifed pundits (or even poorly coifed ones) can't opine on its near-term performance prospects or castigate its management team for -- horror of horrors! -- missing earnings estimates by a penny. You're unlikely ever to hear anyone squawking about asset allocation on CNBC's Squawkbox, and hyperventilating financial writers can't point to the latest batch of analyst upgrades and downgrades to bolster their opinions.

Which is really too bad. Indeed, if over the past year asset allocation had gotten one-tenth of the column miles that have been devoted to such hot topics as, say, Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT  ) push for RFID (radio frequency identification, doncha know), or the Wi-Fi revolution (that'd be wireless fidelity, of course), investors would be infinitely better off.

So here's what I propose: Let's start referring to this critical tool by a mysterious-sounding abbreviation and see if it catches on. Just to get the ball rolling, for the remainder of this commentary, I'm going to refer to the hugely important (but admittedly humdrum-sounding) "intelligent asset allocation" by its new moniker, IAA.

Catchy, no?

Fickle beasts
For my money, smart investing for the long haul begins with IAA. Markets are fickle beasts, and if, for instance, small-cap stocks lead the way for a stretch of time (as they have over the last several years), no one should be at all surprised when the big boys eventually reassert their dominance. That's not a market call, mind you, just an acknowledgement that the market really does have cycles and that, eventually, investors really do gravitate toward the area of the market that has the most compelling valuations.

The upshot is that when it comes to building the perfect portfolio in a Foolish way, IAA should be job one. If you're serious about investing regular amounts over a significant length of time, you owe it to your nest egg to assemble a well-chosen basket of securities culled from across the market's cap ranges (small, mid, large) and styles (growth, value). That way, when one area of the market cools off, your investments from other areas can take up the slack, cushioning your returns in the process.

Surprise, surprise
All of which brings me -- surprise, surprise -- to mutual funds. While it's of course possible to build a portfolio of individual stocks that provides the kind of IAA I'm recommending, mutual funds make it a cinch. And c'mon, be honest: The last time you made an individual stock pick, how carefully did you consider where on the market-cap and style spectrums that stock landed or, more to the point, in which direction it tilted your IAA?

Thought so. (And for the record, me neither.)

By contrast, with even a cursory round of fund research, you can't help but bump into such terminology as "large blend," "mid-cap core," and "small value." Thanks to research and data houses such as Morningstar and Lipper, the fund world has evolved into an IAA devotee's paradise. To be sure, you need to be selective to the point of snobbishness when choosing funds for your portfolio -- that's what my Champion Funds newsletter is all about. But before you build the team, so to speak, you have to formulate your game plan.

That's where IAA comes in. Once you've gotten a bead on your tolerance for risk and your investing timeline, you'll be in a much better position to determine how much of your portfolio should be devoted to small-cap growth funds, for example, or mid-cap value picks. Most equity investors likely will want to begin with a solid large-cap fund and diversify from there. After choosing a first core holding, you can tilt your portfolio in the direction of your investing temperament with each of your subsequent picks.

A moving target
But IAA isn't a one-time proposition. It's a moving target, a goal that will be informed by each of the investment choices you make. If, for instance, you opt to anchor your portfolio with a growth-oriented large-cap fund that invests in such relative highfliers as Zimmer Holdings (NYSE: ZMH  ) , Genentech (NYSE: DNA  ) , eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) , and Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR  ) , you may want to balance that choice with smaller-cap funds whose managers are penny-pinching types. Conversely, if you choose a value-leaning large-cap fund first -- one, for instance, that invests in such low P/E names as Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM  ) , Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE  ) , or ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) -- the tenets of IAA suggest that you should at least consider growthier funds when you next go fund shopping.

I have more to say about IAA in the next issue of Champion Funds, which hits the streets this Thursday. If you're interested in following up on this, ahem, hot topic, be sure to sign up for a free trial. And if, in the meantime, you happen to find yourself calling in a question to your favorite CNBC show, be sure to let 'em know that the IAA revolution is coming -- and that we'd like it to be televised. Hey, it's worth a shot.

Shannon Zimmerman, editor and analyst of Motley Fool Champion Funds, doesn't own any of the companies mentioned above, but he has spent a small fortune on eBay. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors, and we have a disclosure policy.

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