Keep Home Bias Out

A hand holding a phone looking at stocks

*Articles and content provided by SigFig Wealth Management, LLC.1 

In sports, supporting the home team can be a rewarding experience that brings together fans from all walks of life.

In investing, a similar sentiment often manifests in portfolios in what is known as home bias: the tendency to favor domestic equities over international equities.

A recent analysis by SigFig found that the median investor has 61% of their portfolio in domestic equities, and just 6.6% in international equities. (The rest is other asset classes, including fixed income, cash and cash equivalents, REITs, etc.) Yet, U.S. stocks represent just over 35% of the global equity market — which means that international publicly-traded companies represent two-thirds of the world economy, at least as far as market capitalization is concerned.

One of the main factors behind home bias is a preference for investing in what you know, and avoiding what you don’t. “There is a mindset of buying stocks you are familiar with,” says Sheryl Garrett, a financial planner and founder of the Garrett Planning Network. “Well, that’s really hard to do when you’re thinking of investing internationally. We might be familiar with Swiss chocolates, European vacations or German cars, but we don’t know much about companies in even developed countries, and particularly in underdeveloped countries.”

Ironically, while ignoring international exposure might make an investor feel safer, its effect on a portfolio’s volatility is quite the opposite. Because international markets don’t necessarily move in the same direction as the U.S. market, adding international exposure to one’s portfolio would lower its riskiness, not increase it.

Affluent investors have less home bias

Not everyone is equally averse to international stocks. In SigFig’s data analysis, portfolio size was a key differentiator in how much exposure to international markets investors have.

Simply put, the larger a portfolio, the larger its international exposure. While the median international equity share of portfolios between $20,000 and $100,000 was 6.4%, that of portfolios between $100,000 and $400,000 was 8.4%. Portfolios of $20,000 or less had just 0.5% in international equity.

blue and red bar graph showing that affluent investors have less home bias.

So do Millennials and Gen X-ers

Whether it’s growing up in the age of the Internet, entering the workforce when collaborating with global teams is par for the course, or they simply have more tolerance for risk (or what is perceived as risky, anyway), investors who are 20 to 39 years old have significantly more international exposure than investors who are 60 and older: 12.2% vs 8.1% of portfolio, respectively.

Another possible reason is that older investors are simply less familiar with international equities, says Stella Huh, a data scientist at SigFig. “They were born in and lived in a time when the United States dominated the world economy.”

Keep your eyes on the long-term prize

Taking a disciplined approach is hard, especially when you compare how the US stock markets have performed in recent years to those overseas. The S&P 500 gained 11.39% and 29.60% in 2014 and 2013, respectively (not including dividends), while in the same years, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index was down -2.2% and -2.6%.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns with international investing: political uncertainties, accounting irregularities, corruption, and conflict. That’s normal. However, Garrett argues, countries behave much like companies: one country that used to be an emerging economy is now developed, and now others are coming along. “There are always going to be bad parts of the world that will be challenging, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore them,” she says.

So how much of a portfolio should be in international investments? Depending on an individual’s age, net worth, risk tolerance and other circumstances, SigFig’s Head of Research and Wealth Management Aaron Gubin recommends that investors hold at least 50% of their equity positions in international investments. “The markets are making a judgment call where to put their money,” he says. “And global markets are saying, 60% to 65% of our money should be in the rest of the world.”

1Investment products and services are offered independently through SigFig Wealth Management, LLC, an SEC registered investment advisor. Investment accounts are custodied at brokerages that are members of FINRA/SIPC. SigFig and Cambridge Savings Bank are not affiliated. Products and services made available through SigFig are not insured by the FDIC or any other agency of the United States and are not deposits or obligations of nor guaranteed or insured by any bank or bank affiliate. These products are subject to investment risk, including the possible loss of the principal amount invested.

SigFig Wealth Management, LLC investment recommendations rely on historical data. Historical performance is not a guarantee of future returns. 

SigFig Wealth Management, LLC is an SEC registered investment advisor. © 2017 SigFig Wealth Management. All Rights Reserved.