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Managing Risk Through Diversification: Notes on Timberlands

August 14, 2018

Diversification is a risk reduction strategy illustrated in the idiom “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This implies we risk everything by relying on one asset, firm, idea or approach. However, in practice, anyone seeking to “outperform” the market needs to concentrate their investments in some way that yields sufficient excess gains to account for the costs and effort required to generate those gains.

Warren Buffett often compares his approach of large bets on businesses he understands with investing in a portfolio. He notes how Berkshire Hathaway created most of their money from a small group of excellent businesses. When speaking to students, Buffett talks about the benefits of his “20-slot rule.” With this rule, he could:

“Improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches — representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime…under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”

In practice, we as individuals “punch slots” and concentrate our efforts through investing in our careers and skills, securing promotions and bonuses, building up our businesses and allocating excess funds to pay down debt or grow long-term positions in low cost, heavily diversified index funds. However, asset managers – and all of us – can have a different context when diversifying our investment portfolios under management.

Diversification Mistakes and Recommended Strategies

Three mistakes and misunderstandings we observe in efforts to diversify investment portfolios that may or may not hold timberland include:

Overdiversification. Effort spent increasing a position from 1.0% to 1.5% of a portfolio could be better spent sleeping, reading or cleaning gutters. Most portfolio diversification can be obtained by including just a few assets in a portfolio. Progressively adding one more asset has a diminishing effect on risk. In my book, Forest Finance Simplified, and in our workshops, we talk to the marginal benefits and risk management implications (up and down) of diversification. For a stock portfolio, for example, most diversification is captured with 8 to 10 stocks. And for timberland portfolios, most diversification occurs with 3 or 4 tracts that meet a specific set of criteria related, primarily, to their location relative to each other.

Obfuscation. Complicated portfolios lack clarity, transparency and, often, effective controls. If the investment strategy of the portfolio is hard to explain or understand, then it will also be hard to manage and implement. In forestry, for example, many investors or asset managers address this by employing simple strategies that focus on a specific geography or species or age class. In turn, these focused strategies concentrate effort and mitigate risk.

Overhead. Fees matter. Index fund pioneer and Vanguard founder, John Bogle, said, “You get what you don’t pay for.” His message: minimize fees. Building teams of active managers adds overhead while reducing the potential impact, positive or negative, of any specific strategy.

This guest post is courtesy of Brooks Mendell, Ph.D., President and CEO at Forisk Consulting, a Georgia-based firm that specializes in forest-industry, timber-REIT, bioenergy, and timber-market research. For more information, visit

About the Author
Dr. Brooks Mendell is President and CEO at Forisk, where he leads the firm’s research program. Founded by Dr. Mendell in 2004, Forisk publishes the Forisk Research Quarterly, which provides market analysis, operations research and timber forecasts to senior management and investors in North America’s forest products industry and timberland investing sectors. Dr. Mendell is an internationally recognized business advisor, researcher, and speaker in the fields of forest business, timberland investing, wood bioenergy and business communications. He has broad domestic and international experience supporting small businesses, Fortune 500 corporations and public organizations. His industry experience includes roles in harvest operations, wood procurement, management consulting, and academia. A Fulbright Scholar, his forestry-related books include “Loving Trees is Not Enough,” “Forest Finance Simplified,” and “Aunt Fanny Learns Forestry: Managing Timberland as an Investment." Dr. Mendell earned BS and MS degrees at M.I.T., an MBA at the University of California at Berkeley, and a PhD in Forest Finance at UGA.