(CC image by Hubble ESA on Flickr)

 

Think back to your most successful trades – the ones that made you jump out of your chair and run around the room, high-five your friend, enjoy a celebratory drink, or all of the above.  As traders, we all want more of this kind of trade.  In these moments, we feel like masters of the investment universe!

It takes lots of dedication and practice to achieve mastery, but it is not difficult to get started on the path towards success.  One of the critical first steps is defining what your investment universe will be.  After all, we can’t master something unless we first know what it is we want to master!

I call this mapping your investment universe.  It’s the process of deciding which markets you will follow and analyze, along with making a list of the securities you will trade.

 

Every Winning Plan Includes a Map of the Universe

In my earliest foundational post, I introduced a framework for building wealth entitled “The Five Components of Successful Investing”.

The five components are the blue boxes in this flowchart, taken from that post (with the blue circle added to mark today’s focus):

activemgtplan-univ

While the Universe of Securities box sits to the right of the other blue boxes, because it doesn’t need to be updated as often as the other components of successful investing, all the others depend on it.  We can’t make forecasts unless we have first chosen what types of investments (e.g. stocks, commodities, bonds) we want to forecast!  Also, most of us will use technical analysis of chart patterns to inform our trading decisions, which first requires us to select which charts we want to look at.

So, what should your investment universe be?  The answer is: it depends!  It depends on what YOU like to learn about, follow, and trade.  Some traders prefer to follow one industry, such as tech stocks or retailers, and get to know it in great depth.  These type of traders might define their universe as all the stocks in that sector, including small-cap stocks that they feel comfortable trading given their specialized knowledge.  Their universe might also include options or warrants on these stocks, depending on risk tolerance and other factors.

My approach to trading and investing is more broad than this.  It can be best categorized as “macro investing”.  Macro investing is all about trading a wide variety of assets and investment vehicles with the goal of capitalizing on large-scale trends and cycles.  I might buy a small-cap security if I think there is an opportunity there which aligns with a larger trend, but generally I am trading larger ETFs (exchange-traded funds) that hold a basket of securities in any given area.

I believe that macro investing is the optimal approach for most investors.  Here is why:

  • If your universe includes ALL the major asset classes, you’ll be able to take advantage of the best opportunities to bet alongside or against every area when it is becoming underpriced or overpriced, respectively.
  • Having a larger universe requires you to stay current on all the important trends, which makes you a better-informed trader.
  • Using ETFs as your primary investment vehicle, as opposed to individual stocks, provides better diversification within an asset class.

The exception to this would be if you have the time and desire to do lots of research on individual stocks, above and beyond the larger market trends.  In that case, you’d want to select stocks yourself for better returns and lower risk.  The vast majority of traders simply don’t have the kind of time needed in order to select stocks across many different sectors.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll explain how I map out my universe of securities.  This will serve as an example that you can adapt for your own situation.

 

Select Asset Classes

As I mentioned above, I try to include all categories of tradable assets in my investment universe.

First, I group them into major asset classes:

  • Currencies;
  • Precious Metals;
  • Commodities;
  • Bonds;
  • Equities (Stocks); and
  • Pure Derivatives.

Next, I further define “subclasses” within many of the asset classes.  For example, beneath Equities (Stocks) I have the ten market sectors (e.g. energy, utilities, financial services) along with mining stocks.  Beneath Commodities, I have: Soft Commodities, Base Metals, Oil, and Natural Gas.

Now that I’ve defined the scope of my universe, I can choose which securities I’ll trade.

 

Select Securities

To keep it simple, I choose only one preferred investment vehicle within each subclass.  Typically, this will be an ETF that tracks all major components of that subclass.  In some cases, there will be multiple “go-to” choices, as in the Currency Derivatives category where we can use UUP to trade the U.S. dollar, FXE to trade the euro, or FXY to trade the Japanese yen.

My list changes periodically as funds change and new choices become available.  Here is the list as of today:

asset-classes-w-tickers

My investment universe

These are the criteria I use to form the list, in order from highest to lowest priority:

  • Coverage (i.e. low tracking error);
  • High trading volume (i.e. low bid/ask spreads);
  • Low expense ratio;
  • Availability of options;
  • Trading volume in options.

I recommend you use some combination of the above criteria to form your own list, since your priorities might differ from mine.  For example, if you are a very frequent trader of options, the amount of trading volume in options could be your top priority.  In that event, you’d want to entirely remove the ETFs that don’t have high trading volume in options (e.g. DBA, DBB).

 

Follow Your Map, Unless You Are Absolutely Sure Where You’re Going!

Over 75% of my trading activity is in the ticker symbols found in my list.  I only deviate from the list when at least one of the following conditions hold:

  • I am trying to get more exposure outside the United States markets (e.g. I’m bearish on the dollar or U.S. markets have become overbought).  In this case, I’ll choose a fund with more foreign-listed stocks (like RWX instead of VNQ).  I keep a list of favorites.
  • Or, I’m trading a niche that is only a small piece of a subclass.  For instance, while uranium stocks are part of the energy sector they trade quite differently from the rest of the sector, which is dominated by oil and gas companies.
  • Or, I’ve thoroughly researched a company and am confident enough in my view of that firm that I’m willing to take on company-specific risk by trading it.

In the past, when I’ve strayed from my list by trading in different securities without one of these valid reasons, my results have been mediocre to poor.

I learned this lesson in the FactorShares 2x Gold Bull S&P 500 Bear ETF (FSG), an ETF that, mercifully, no longer exists.  From mid-2011 to mid-2012, this fund extracted over $9k from my account before the pain stopped.  I’d been buying it on the thesis that the ratio of the S&P 500 to gold would decrease.  As we see below ….

fsg_2011

… it was a faceplant.  Ouch.  But although the ratio rose instead of falling as I’d expected, I suffered a bigger loss than necessary.  FSG wasn’t in my universe of securities, and I didn’t trade it for any of the three reasons listed above.  I used it because it looked on the surface like it tracked the ratio I wanted to trade.  I’d have been better off creating a synthetic long-short position with GLD and SPY instead of using this ill-contrived fund.

What I discovered later was that FSG was managed terribly.  Factor Capital Management, the managing owner of FSG and 4 similar ETFs, shut down its operations in 2013 and liquidated its funds, but not before:

  • Charging excess expenses above its stated 0.75% fee (already too high) which weren’t clearly disclosed in the fund’s prospectus;
  • Failing to provide required tax forms to investors before March 15 as required by law (I had to amend my taxes in 2012 because of them – what a pain!);
  • Failing to adequately promote its funds, which kept volume low and hurt the fund’s liquidity.

I shared this example because I don’t want to see you fall into the same trap.  Stick to your list of preferred funds only, and don’t deviate unless one of the three conditions in my list is true.

Macro investing can seem like too much to handle.  It can look like the universe is far too vast to navigate.  But make a map, stick to it, and you won’t get lost!  You’ll be ready to pounce on opportunities anywhere they appear, and you’ll be on the path towards mastering your investment universe.