Overcoming Home Bias: Why You Should Invest Globally

Not surprisingly, for vast majority of British investors, domestic stocks and particularly the FTSE 100 index represent a substantial portion of their portfolios – often to the extent of neglecting or completely ignoring other markets. Today we will have a closer look at this phenomenon, known as home bias, and discuss the benefits (and costs) of taking a more global approach to asset allocation, particularly in light of the uncertainties ahead.

Home Bias

The home bias, or the home bias puzzle, was first recognised in the early 1990’s. It has been observed that investors tend to over-allocate funds to their domestic market – more than what would be justified when taking a purely rational risk and return optimisation approach. Numerous research reports have been published by bank analysts and academics, examining the causes of home bias and its effects on investment performance and risk.

Costs of International Investing and Causes of Home Bias

In general, there are three groups of factors which discourage investors from investing internationally:

  • Financial, such as currency conversion costs, higher fund management fees or custody fees. The significance of these has declined (but not disappeared) in the last two decades due to technology and the rise of ETFs and other passively managed funds.
  • Administrative, such regulatory restrictions, paperwork or tax issues.
  • Psychological. For instance, for someone living in the UK it makes more sense to invest in shares of familiar companies like Tesco or Marks & Spencer, rather than their foreign counterparts. Being able to see actual products or stores behind a stock symbol helps with trust and comfort – essential ingredients of the psychology of investing.

Benefits of International Investing.

If your portfolio only contains a negligible portion of international equities, or even worse, if you have all your funds in the FTSE 100, your risk and return profile is far from efficient. It is very likely that in the long run you will see lower performance and higher volatility than you otherwise would with a portfolio containing just a bit more of international equities. Of course, the actual future performance of equity markets in individual countries is impossible to predict, but it is the probabilities and the outcomes across a wide range of possible scenarios which must be considered. In one word, diversification.

Geographical, Sectoral and Idiosyncratic Diversification

One argument against international investing is that shares in the domestically listed corporations already provide sufficient exposure to economic developments in other regions, as many of these companies trade worldwide. The FTSE 100 is a good example, as 77% of its constituents’ revenues come from outside the UK.

That being said, the FTSE 100 lacks sufficient exposure to important parts of the global economy which you may not want to ignore. It is traditionally heavy in consumer staples and energy, but severely underweight in the technology sector. If your portfolio mimics the FTSE 100, you have over 8% of your funds invested in a single energy company (Royal Dutch Shell), but you completely lack exposure to companies such as Google, Apple or Amazon, for instance. These are at least as important to the global economy, and to the British economy too.

How Much Is Enough?

According to a recent report by Vanguard, which refers to the latest available (31/12/2014) IMF statistics, British investors hold 26.3% of their equity investments in domestic stocks – on average. In line with the home bias theory, this is much higher than the UK’s share on global market cap (7.2%) or GDP (4% nominal / 2.5% by PPP).

Does this mean you should only have 7% or 4% of your portfolio in British equities? Of course not. After all, if you live in the UK and your general interests, liabilities and future expenditures are in this country, there is nothing wrong with British assets representing a significant portion of your investments. The exact optimum weight of foreign equities is subject to personal circumstances, such as your income, other assets and liabilities. For instance, the property you own represents substantial exposure to the future well-being of the British economy, justifying a higher share of foreign equities.

Does Brexit Change Anything?

The Brexit uncertainty does not enter the equation, unless you personally have a strong opinion regarding the future development and want to gamble on that. If you don’t, remember that in line with the Efficient Market Theory, the stock prices (and the pound’s exchange rate) are already reflecting the market’s consensus and thereby all the currently available information.

In the long run and under the “hard Brexit” scenario, looser economic ties with Europe might result in a decrease in correlation between the UK and EU in terms of economic and stock market performance, increasing the diversification potential of European equities. However, this effect will most likely be marginal, if any.

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