MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Way to Fix Your Investment Mix

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I need to rebalance my portfolio. Is it best to adjust my investments all at once or a certain amount daily, weekly, or monthly? — Cheryl, Corona, Calif.

A: Rebalancing, which refers to periodically resetting your mix of stocks, bonds, and other assets to your desired levels, is key to successful investing over the long run.

Not only does it force you to lighten up on the parts of your portfolio that have seen the biggest gains recently — and therefore tend to have more risk — it forces you to stay true to your plan (i.e. asset allocation).

But as with most things, there can be too much of a good thing. Most investors should plan to rebalance their portfolios about once a year and, in most cases, no more than twice annually.

Why?

“Rebalancing means you have a transaction, and a transaction inherently involves costs,” says Bob Phillips, a chartered financial analyst and managing principal at Spectrum Management Group in Indianapolis, Ind. If you are rebalancing in a taxable account, there are transaction-related expenses, such as trading commissions or mutual fund loads.

There are also tax-related expenses to account for, which can be a real drag on returns. If you rebalanced daily, weekly or even monthly, says Phillips, “the tax recording would be ungodly and the cost of having your tax return prepared with all those transactions might be more than what you gained from rebalancing.”

In fact, in a study published by the CFA Institute, the researchers found that for most investors the best strategy was to do it all at once, generally once a year and only if your asset allocation is more than 5% out of whack.

“So if your target allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds, you would not rebalance if your stocks grew to 63% of the portfolio and bonds fell to 37%,” says Phillips, noting that the researchers ran thousands of scenarios to come to this conclusion. (In this case, you would only want to rebalance after your equity allocation drifted to more than 65% or less than 55%.)

In the case of a 401(k) plan or other retirement account, you can afford to rebalance more frequently. But even then, it’s best to do so in moderation.

After all, if you were rebalancing daily in a rising market, you’d be constantly selling investments before they’ve had much room to run.

Keep in mind that rebalancing need not require selling your pricier assets.

One way to keep things in balance in your 401(k) without incurring transaction fees and tax headaches is to simply tweak how you invest your new contributions (assuming you are still contributing).

For instance, say you want a 60% stock/40% bond allocation, but by year end you notice that it has drifted to 65% equities. Here, you would leave your already accumulated assets alone. But you would put most of your new 401(k) contributions into bonds until your accumulated balance shifts closer to that desired 60/40 mix.

MONEY mutual funds

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the World’s Biggest Bond Fund

The Vanguard Group headquarters in Malvern, Pennsylvania
Mike Mergen—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Vanguard Group headquarters in Malvern, Pennsylvania

Vanguard Total Bond Market, which is now bigger than Pimco Total Return, is a fine fund. But it doesn't quite cover all the bonds you need.

With a whopping $117 billion in assets, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index is now the biggest bond fund in the world, overtaking the long-reigning champ Pimco Total Return, according to data reported by the Wall Street Journal. If you add in the assets held by Vanguard’s exchange-traded fund version of Total Bond Market, the fund controls about $144 billion.

While big in dollar terms, this portfolio isn’t so large in scope. Here are some things you may not know about bondland’s new 800 lb. gorilla:

Despite its name, Vanguard Total Bond Market doesn’t come close to giving you exposure to the total bond market.
Sure, this fund does give you decent market exposure, but it limits that to the universe of high-quality bonds. This means the fund can own debt issued by the U.S. government, government agencies, and “investment grade” corporations with pristine credit.

Only around one tenth of 1 percent of the fund’s assets are held in high-yielding “junk” bonds issued by companies that are considered less than “investment grade.” In the bond world, higher quality issuers can get away with paying lower yields. This explains why the average yield for this fund is a modest 2%.

This fund doesn’t even give you adequate exposure to high-quality corporate bonds.
While Vanguard Total Bond Market does own high-quality corporate securities, they represent less than one quarter of the fund’s assets. With more than 75% of its assets in Treasuries and U.S. agency-related debt, this is more of a government bond fund than anything else.

This is why MONEY has recommended supplementing this fund (which is in our MONEY 50 list of recommended mutual and exchange-traded funds) with a corporate-centric portfolio, such as iShares iBoxx Investment Grade Corporate ETF (which is also in the MONEY 50).

This fund gives you extremely little foreign exposure.
Technically, Vanguard Total Bond Market does own a tiny amount of international debt. But the biggest weighting is to Canada, which makes up less than 1.7% of the fund. In fact, bonds based in the U.K, Germany, Mexico, and France each make up less than 1% of the fund’s total assets.

To really gain foreign exposure, you will have to further supplement this fund with an international fixed income fund, such as Vanguard Total International Bond Index fund, which is also in the MONEY 50.

Unlike the past champ, Pimco Total Return, this fund runs on autopilot.
As its name would indicate, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index is an index fund. This means that instead of being controlled by a star manager who picks and chooses which bonds to buy and sell, this fixed-income portfolio passively tracks a fixed-income market benchmark. In this case, that’s the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Float-Adjusted Index.

Vanguard Total Bond became the biggest bond fund sort of by default.
While Total Bond has been consistently gaining investors in recent years, it didn’t win the crown so much as Pimco Total Return lost it. At its peak, Pimco Total Return wasn’t just the biggest bond fund, it was the largest mutual fund in the world. Yet after approaching nearly $300 billion, Pimco Total Return lost more than half its assets as investors fled amid infighting at Pimco which eventually led to the departure of famed fixed income manager Bill Gross. Today, Pimco Total Return is down to around $117 billion.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Are Robo-Advisers Worth It?

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I downloaded the app from Personal Capital to get a better look at my finances. Is it worth the money to use their advisory service? I had a free discussion with one of their advisers and liked what they had to say, but I have a complex portfolio inherited from my parents. — Dan in Gillette, Wyo.

A: Over the last several years a new breed of technology-based financial advisory services — sometimes referred to as robo-advisers — have come on the scene in an attempt to serve investors who otherwise wouldn’t seek or couldn’t afford professional advice. Many investors don’t meet the minimum required by traditional advisers, while others are, understandably, reluctant to pay the typical 1% management fee for hands-on financial advice.

Enter the likes of Personal Capital, Wealthfront, Betterment and other services that help investors allocate, invest, monitor and rebalance their assets.

Personal Capital offers a free app that aggregates financial information on a single dashboard, and in turn uses that information to call on clients who may benefit from their advisory service, which melds technology with traditional human advice; clients and advisers communicate via phone, text, instant message and Skype.

Here’s the catch: At 0.89% for the first $1 million, the fee for Personal Capital is nearly as high as what you’d pay for a traditional advisory relationship.

“Is it worth it? We think there are several other options available that may be a better fit,” says Mel Lindauer, co-author of “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing” (Wiley) and a founder of the Bogleheads Forum, which focuses on low-cost, do-it-yourself investing à la Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle.

If you’re primarily interested in help with asset allocation, he says, there are more affordable services worth checking out. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, for example, charges 0.3% for its service. On a $1 million portfolio, that’s the difference between $8,900 a year and $3,000 a year, says Lindauer. An even cheaper option yet: target date funds, which peg their portfolios to investors’ retirement date.

Of course, asset allocation is only one piece of the financial puzzle. A good adviser can help you with everything from budgeting and taxes to estate planning.

Personal Capital advisors do work with clients on broader issues, but if your situation is truly complex, you may be better served sitting down with a traditional fee-only adviser.

MONEY stocks

WATCH: What’s the Point of Investing?

In this installment of Tips from the Pros, financial advisers explain why you need to invest at all.

MONEY Planning

When Conventional Wisdom About Retirement is Good Enough

Retirement investing isn't an exact a science. Rather than worrying whether the rules need to be tweaked, just start saving.

What keeps you up at night?

As a money manager, I recently polled my clients on several questions, and that was one of them. Replies ranged from “my bladder” to worries about the Federal Reserve printing too much money.

The most common answer, though, was fear of outliving one’s savings.

For decades, people have confronted the issue of how much they need to retire. Today the topic hits with special force. People are living longer, and the financial crisis of 2007-2009 set millions of people back twenty squares on the economic game board of life.

Now, there’s much debate about whether traditional retirement planning advice needs to be tweaked.

The traditional advice on income, for instance, is that people in retirement need about 60% to 70% of their old annual income to keep roughly the same standard of living. Remember, when you retire, your taxes may be lower, your children may be grown, your commuting and clothing expenses may shrink, and you may move out of a big house into a smaller house or apartment.

If savings and investments were your sole source of income, you would need – again, by conventional wisdom – about 25 times that sum in hand when you start your retirement. That is based on the traditional assumption that you can safely withdraw 4% of your initial nest egg each year and still have it last at least 30 years, regardless of market conditions.

That means if you earned $100,000 a year at the peak of your career, you would need about $65,000 a year in retirement, and 25 times that amount is $1,625,000.

Of course, inflation may increase your costs as years pass. If inflation runs at a 3% clip, a loaf of bread that costs $2.50 today will cost $4.50 in 2034. At 5% inflation, the same loaf would cost you $6.62.

You can offset some of the effects of inflation by your savings and investments, post-retirement. My father retired at 77 but invested in the stock market, logging prices and trends on charts he kept by hand. When he died at 98, his net worth had increased 75% from the day he retired.

Social Security can help, too. Despite doomsayers’ screeds, I believe the Social Security system will be around in 30 years. But benefits may be a little less generous than they are today.

These days, I see a lot of articles by financial planners questioning the guideline that it’s prudent to withdraw 4% a year.

I’ve seen planners argue for anything from a 2.8% withdrawal rate to a 5% one.

Those arguing for a smaller withdrawal rate — which implies the need for a bigger nest egg — say it’s hard to earn 4% a year after taxes without wading into risky investments. Savings accounts are paying a paltry 1% to 2%, and that’s before taxes.

But I think that’s a short-term view. Savings rates probably won’t stay as paltry as they are – just as inflation didn’t stay sky-high, as it was in the early 1980s.

For the long run, I think the 4% rule provides a decent, if crude, approximation.

Let’s be realistic here. Accumulating a pre-retirement hoard of 25 times the expected annual need is an ambitious target to start with.

But it’s something to strive for.

MONEY Portfolios

For $50 You Can Push For More Female CEOs — But Is It a Good Investment?

Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo.

Two new products let you invest in companies led by female executives. Whether this is a good idea depends on what you hope to achieve.

On Thursday, Barclays is launching a new index and exchange-traded note (WIL) that lets retail investors buy shares — at $50 a pop — of a basket of large U.S. companies led by women, including PepsiCoPEPSICO INC. PEP -0.07% , IBMINTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -0.38% , and XeroxXEROX CORP. XRX 0.78% . This should be exciting news for anyone disappointed by the lack of women in top corporate roles.

After all, female CEOs still make up less than 5% of Fortune 500 chiefs and less than 17% of board members — despite earning 44% of master’s degrees in business and management.

The new ETN is not the only tool of its kind: This past June, former Bank of America executive Sallie Krawcheck opened an index fund tracking global companies with female leadership — and online brokerage Motif Investing currently offers a custom portfolio of shares in women-led companies.

The big question is whether this type of socially-conscious investing is valuable — either to investors or to the goal of increasing female corporate leadership. Is it wise to let your conscience dictate how you manage your savings? And assuming you care about gender representation in the corporate world, is there any evidence that these investments will actually lead to more diversity?

Here’s what experts and research suggest:

Getting better-than-average returns shouldn’t be your motivation. Beyond the promise of effecting social change, the Barclays and Pax indexes are marketed with the suggestion that woman-led companies tend to do better than peers. It’s true that some evidence shows businesses can benefit from female leadership, with correlations between more women in top positions and higher returns on equity, lower volatility, and market-beating returns.

But correlation isn’t causation, and other research suggests that when businesses appoint female leadership, it may be a sign that crisis is brewing — the so-called “glass cliff.” Yet another study finds that limiting your investments to socially-responsible companies comes with costs.

Taken together, the pros and cons of conscience-based investing seem generally to cancel each other out. “Our research shows socially responsible investments do no better or worse than the broader stock market,” says Morningstar fund analyst Robert Goldsborough. “Over time the ups and downs tend to even out.”

As always, fees should be a consideration. Even if the underlying companies in a fund are good investments, high fees can eat away at your returns. Krawcheck’s Pax Ellevate Global Women’s fund charges 0.99% — far more than the 0.30% fee for the Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VTWSX). Investing only in U.S. companies, the new Barclays ETN is cheaper, with 0.45% in expenses, though the comparable Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) charges only 0.05% — a difference that can add up over time:

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If supporting women is very important to you, you might consider investing in a broad, cheap index and using the money you saved on fees to invest directly in the best female-led companies — or you could simply donate to a non-profit supporting women’s causes.

If you still love this idea, that’s okay — just limit your exposure. There is an argument that supporting female leadership through investments could be more powerful than making a donation to a non-profit. The hope is that if enough investor cash flows to businesses led by women, “companies will take notice” and make more efforts to advance women in top positions, says Sue Meirs, Barclays COO for Equity and Funds Structured Markets Sales in the Americas. If investing in one of these indexes feels like the best way to support top-down gender diversity — and worth the cost — you could do worse than these industry-diversified offerings. “Investing as a social statement can be a fine thing,” says financial planner Sheryl Garrett, “though you don’t want to put all of your money toward a token investment.” Garrett suggests limiting your exposure to 10% of your overall portfolio.

MONEY Portfolios

The One Thing You Have to Know to Invest on Your Own

You don't need pricey money managers to help you buy low and sell high.

With the 4th of July on the way, the editors here at Money.com asked me to think about what it takes to become an independent investor.

I’ll take “independent” to mean something that most people with a 401(k) or an individual retirement account can realistically do. I’m not talking about sitting at your desk all day trading your own portfolio of stocks. In fact, the way I think about independence, you’ll want to automate about 99% of the investment decisions in your portfolio — specifically, which individual stocks and bonds to hold. The independence that matters has nothing to do with security selection. It’s about cutting out costly middlemen, from advisers who help you select investments, to the managers who pick the securities inside the mutual funds you may hold.

The rewards to doing this are significant. A high-cost mutual fund may shave 1% or more off of your investments each year, which can easily add up to six figures in fees and foregone gains over a lifetime as an investor. Eliminating layers of management also means you are less exposed to the quirky risks someone else might take with your money.

You don’t need a lot of time or expertise to pick these middleman-free investments. You can build a portfolio that holds a diversified slice of stocks and bonds with just three index mutual funds, portfolios that mimic the composition of the overall market at very low cost. If stocks rise 8% in a year, you’ll earn 8% or very close to it. You very likely have index options in your 401(k) plan—if not, say something to your HR manager!—and index funds are easy to buy in an IRA.

Below is what that portfolio might look like. You can adjust the split depending on you appetite for risk, but the one below is a good starting point for many long-term investors saving for retirement. (The less you can stand to lose, the more you’d add to the bond fund.)

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In contrast to typical funds, this portfolio will cost you less than 0.1% of assets per year, and will get with three easy decisions exposure to literally thousands of stocks. You can choose index funds from our Money 50 list of recommended funds.

It’s easy to say that anyone can do this, of course. But I think a lot of people lean on investment middlemen because they aren’t sure they know enough about investing to do it themselves, and even if they want to learn, they aren’t sure which knowledge really matters. There’s so much you could dive into: stock sectors, “P/E” ratios, the January effect, EPS growth, upside earnings surprises, etc., and etc.

So here’s the one thing I think you have to understand to be a competent, on-you-own investor: Where the return on your investments really comes from. And the answer is that, for stocks, it comes from two sources. You own businesses, and you are taking a risk to do so.

Beginners are often introduced to the market with the old saying, “buy low and sell high.” This isn’t wrong (doing it the other way sure won’t feel good), but it’s not at all helpful. It makes investing sound a like a game of wits against other investors — first you figure out when a stock is too low, and then sell it when somebody else is willing to buy it for more than its worth. That’s hard, and you have to learn a lot about companies, accounting and human psychology to even attempt it. The whole edifice of the middleman money management business is built on the fact that most people believe they can’t do this themselves, or don’t want to.

But to be a buy-and-hold index investor, you can throw out “buy low/sell high” and the game-playing thinking that tends to go with it. This isn’t about finding a greater fool to buy your stock further down the road. Owning stocks gives you a claim on the earnings of companies. As an owner, you make money over time either because you are being paid a dividend out of profits, or because profits are being reinvested in the business to make it more valuable. Index funds give you a share in the future profits of the America’s, or the world’s, public companies. It’s almost as simple as that. Almost.

The other, crucial part of the equation is that the earnings of companies are uncertain and so are the cash flows shareholders will get. Stock investors get no promises that a company will ever earn enough to produce a dividend. Investors typically bake that risk into the market price of stocks, so that they can hope to be compensated with a higher return than they’d get on bonds. Historically, stocks have earned about 4.5 percentage points per year above bonds. Stock investors have on average been paid for risk — but that doesn’t mean you’ll always get paid for risk. Case in point: The nearly 50% loss investors took on blue chip stocks in the wake of the financial crisis.

If you get that, you have the baseline knowledge you need to build a diversified portfolio and stick with it. The potential for loss is built into stock investing and you only make money if you are willing to live that. The rest is (usually expensive) fiddling around the edges.

MONEY Ask the Expert

What’s the Right Way to Expand My Portfolio In My 20s?

A financial pro gives a young investor some advice on the smartest ways to gain exposure to the market.

Q: I am in my early 20s and am looking to expand my investment portfolio. I currently have a small 401(k) and an S&P 500 index fund. Should I keep building up my index fund or start diversifying into something with a higher return potential? — Caroline, California

A: Participating in a 401(k) and investing in an S&P 500 index fund are a good start in your early 20s, notes Jim Ludwick, president of MainStreet Financial Planning.

Index funds — which simply buy and hold all the stocks in a market index such as the S&P 500 — aren’t as flashy as actively managed portfolios, where stock pickers can choose only those shares that they think are promising. However, index funds are a simple and inexpensive way to gain exposure to the market.

And there are years, depending on the market, where they can produce some sizeable gains. For instance, in 2013, the Vanguard 500 index fund, which tracks the S&P 500 index, returned more than 32%. That’s around three times the long-term average annual gain for stocks.

However, index funds are only as diverse as the market they track. So a good way to expand at this point would be to invest in other index funds that go beyond the S&P 500 index of U.S. blue chip stocks. An index fund that tracks the Russell 2000 index, for example, would give you exposure to shares of faster-growing small U.S. companies which your existing portfolio lacks.

You can add a Russell 2000 index fund to your mix to complement the S&P 500 fund, which gives you exposure just to large domestic companies.

Or for simplicity, you could trade in your S&P 500 fund for a so-called total market index fund, which in a single portfolio gives exposure to both large and small U.S. firms. “Expanding into a whole market index,” Ludwick notes, “is a very effective way to do it.”

Ludwick further highlighted the importance of investing in overseas markets for those seeking to expand and diversify. He noted that the Vanguard FTSE All-World ex.-U.S. ETF (ticker: VEU), which tracks stock markets outside the U.S., would be a good, low-cost complement to your U.S. holdings.

When investing in index funds, it’s important to comparison shop among vendors — Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, iShares, SPDR all offer index products — for fees. Keep in mind that the expenses you pay are deducted from the market returns the fund generates, so the less a fund charges in fees, the more of its returns you get to keep.

Beyond index funds, you could branch out into actively managed portfolios. Studies have shown that over the long run, the majority of actively managed funds trail the basic indexes. Ludwick says active management is effective only in niche markets. That’s where the “insight really pays off,” he says.

However, as with all funds, the lower you can keep the fees, the better off you’re likely to be in the long run.

MONEY retirement income

To Invest for Retirement Safely, Know When to Get Out of Stocks

201209_GAM_BERNSTEIN
Joe Pugliese Bill Bernstein

Investment adviser William Bernstein says there's no point in taking unnecessary risks. When you near retirement, shift your portfolio to safe assets.

A former neurologist turned investment adviser turned writer, William Bernstein has won respect for his ability to distill complex topics into accessible ideas. After launching a journal at his website, EfficientFrontier.com, he began writing numerous books, including “The Four Pillars of Investing” and “If You Can: How Millennials Can Get Rich Slowly.” (“If You Can,” normally $0.99 on Kindle, is free to MONEY.com readers on June 16.) His latest, “Rational Expectations: Asset Allocation for Investing Adults,” is written for advanced investors. But Bernstein, who manages money from his office in Portland, Oregon, is happy to break down the basics.

Q. Retirement investors have traditionally aimed to build the biggest nest egg possible by age 65. You recommend a different approach: figuring out how much you’ll need to spend in retirement, then choosing investments that will deliver that income. Why is this strategy a better one than the famous rule of withdrawing 4% of your portfolio?

There’s really nothing wrong with the 4% rule. But given the lower expected portfolio returns ahead, starting out with a 3.5% withdrawal, or even 3.0%, might be more appropriate.

It also makes a big difference whether you start out withdrawing 4% of your nest egg and increasing that amount by inflation annually, or withdrawing 4% of whatever you’ve got in your portfolio each year. The 4%-of-current-portfolio-value strategy may mean lower income in some years. But it is a lot safer than automatically increasing the initial withdrawal amount with inflation.

I also think that it makes sense to divide your portfolio into two separate buckets. The first one should be designed to safely meet your living expenses, above and beyond your Social Security and pension checks. In the second portfolio you can take investing risk in stocks. This approach is certainly a more psychologically sound way of doing things. Investing is first and foremost a game of psychology and discipline. If you lose that game, you’re toast.

Q. What are the best investments for a safe portfolio?

There are two ways to do it: a TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) bond ladder or by buying an inflation-adjusted immediate annuity. Neither is perfect. You might outlive your TIPS ladder, and/or your insurer could go bankrupt. But they are among the most reliable sources of income right now.

One other income source to consider: Social Security. Unless both you and your spouse have a low life expectancy, the best version of an inflation-adjusted annuity out there is bought by spending down your nest egg before age 70 so you can defer Social Security until then. That way, you, or your spouse, will receive the maximum benefit.

Q. Fixed-income returns are hard to live on these days.

Yes, the yields on both TIPS and annuities are low. The good news is that those yields are the result of central bank policy, and that policy has caused the value of a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds to grow larger than it would have in a normal economic cycle—so you have more money to buy those annuities and TIPS. That said, there’s nothing wrong with delaying those purchases for now and sticking with short-term bonds or intermediate bonds.

Q. How much do people need to save to ensure success?

Your target should be to save 25 years of residual living expenses, which is the amount that isn’t covered by Social Security and a pension, if you get one. Say you need $70,000 to live on, and your Social Security and pension amount to $30,000. You’ll have to come up with $40,000 to pay your remaining expenses. To produce that income, you’ll need a safe portfolio of $1 million, assuming a 4% withdrawal rate.

Q. Given today’s high market valuations, should older investors move money out of stocks now for safety? How about Millennial or Gen X investors?

Younger investors should hold the largest stock allocations, since they have time to recover from market downturns—and a bear market would give them the opportunity to buy at bargain prices. Millennials should try to save 15% of their income, as I recommend in my book, “If You Can.”

But if you’re in or near retirement, it all depends on how close you are to having the right-sized safe portfolio and how much stock you hold. If you don’t have enough in safe assets, then your stock allocation should be well below 50% of your portfolio. If you have more than that in stocks, bad market returns at the start of your retirement, combined with withdrawals, could wipe you out within a decade. If you have enough saved in safe assets, then everything else can be invested in stocks.

If you’re somewhere in between, it’s tricky. You need to make the transition between the aggressive portfolio of your early years and the conservative portfolio of your later years, when stocks are potentially toxic. You should start lightening up on stocks and building up your safe assets five to 10 years before retirement. And if you haven’t saved enough, think about working another couple of years—if you can.

MONEY Portfolios

Bozo-Proof Your Portfolio

140603_INV_Bozo_1
courtesy of Everett Collection He's sure the market is heading higher.

In theory, the rational thing to do would be to just hold on to your stocks as they climb higher. But occasional rebalancing can protect you when the markets go bonkers.

You’ve probably heard these two very respectable pieces of investment advice before, and probably from the same experts:

1. Stick with index funds. Most stock fund managers don’t beat the market, especially after fees. So save the money and trouble and buy a cheap fund that passively tracks the S&P 500 or some other broad index.

2. Rebalance regularly. When the stock market goes up sharply, your stock portfolio will grow in value. That means you’ll end up having more than your intended allocation in equities. The reverse is true if stocks drop sharply. Getting back to your target resets your risk and, as a bonus, means you automatically buy stocks when they get cheap and sell when they get expensive.

What if I told you that believing in both indexing and rebalancing is logically flawed? That’s right: They are incompatible ideas.

The case for indexing is built in part on an idea called the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which says that markets are extremely good at processing information and insights and then turning them into stocks prices. Maybe you think a stock is a great buy at today’s price, but there’s someone on the other side of the trade who has lots of good information who thinks its time to sell. With a world full of smart, informed investors facing off in the market, it’s unlikely that you’ll consistently be able to be on the right side of the trade.

And if you believe that about individual stocks, the same would seem to be true for markets as a whole. If stocks are rising, you are in effect second-guessing the market when you sell to rebalance.

Don’t just take my word for it. Nobel-prize winning economists Bill Sharpe says so. And Jack Bogle, the founder of index-fund pioneer Vanguard, usually prefers staying the course. And contrary to the idea that rebalancing is inherently conservative, rebalancing involves plowing money into assets that are falling. That’s great if the asset later bounces back. But it doesn’t have to. (In the admittedly unrealistic situation where a stock drops straight down, the perverse result is that you’d rebalance until you went broke.)

I find these arguments against rebalancing pretty convincing, and that’s why I don’t do it often. (Money’s Penelope Wang has an excellent take on all this here.)

But recently even Bogle has sounded flexible about the idea of stepping away from a hot market. One reason you might want to rebalance at least sometimes is that we don’t really have an Efficient Market. We have an Efficient Market With Bozos.

The market isn’t totally unpredictable, in other words. Some kinds of stocks, like cheap value stocks, seem to do better over long periods. High market prices as measured by gauges like the average price-earnings ratio do seem to predict low returns ahead. Low prices predict high returns. There are all kinds of possible reasons for these effects, but investment writer and adviser Bill Bernstein in a recent ETF.com interview attributes them to “bozos” in the market.

…dumb money piles into [the market], and that produces the inevitable popping of the bubble, and people say: “This is risky!” And they sell out, just at the wrong time.

Now, in practice, I’m uncomfortable (as I’m sure Bernstein is) with ever writing off the market as dumb — doing so basically requires believing that everyone is stupid except oneself. You can make that argument at almost any time, depending on your level of self-esteem.

The reason the Efficient Market With Bozos theory is helpful isn’t only about the other investors. It’s about you—and me. We all have a bozo inside us.

A rebalancing rule, even when observed only sporadically, can protect you from getting swept up in market enthusiasm. When stocks are booming and you’re feeling optimistic—or left out of the party because you weren’t more aggressive—rebalancing pulls you in the other direction. Even if you don’t actually do it, the thought that maybe you should rebalance and sell may be a brake on the urge to buy.

This may be more important to do when markets are rising. Although this may be bozo-ishly inconsistent and unempirical, I suspect that for most people rebalancing in serious bear markets is both too difficult and, in some cases, too dangerous. As 2008 showed, when markets are dropping hard, other risks—like the possibility that you’ll lose your job—may be rising. And while the math might say that buying stocks when they are cheap will boost your returns, in falling markets you may also be at risk of tapping out your portfolio if you stay too aggressive.

In other words, it’s better to defend yourself against the bozos out there than it is to try to take advantage of them.

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