How Betterment Manages Risks in Your Portfolio

Betterment’s tools can keep you on track with the best chance of reaching your goals.

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Investing always involves some level of risk. But you should always have control over how much risk you take on.

When your goals are decades away, it's easier to invest in riskier assets. The closer you get to reaching your goals, the more you may want to play it safe.

Betterment’s tools can help manage risk and keep you on track toward your goals.

In this guide, we’ll:

  • Explain how Betterment provides allocation advice
  • Talk about determining your personal risk level
  • Walk through some of Betterment’s automated tools that help you manage risk
  • Take a look at low-risk portfolios

The key to managing your risk: asset allocation

Risk is inherent to investing, and to some degree risk is good. High risk, high reward, right? What’s important is how you manage your risk. You want your investments to grow as the market fluctuates. One major way investors manage risk is through diversification.

You’ve likely heard the old cliche, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This is the same reasoning investors use. We diversify our investments, putting our eggs in various baskets, so to speak. This way if one investment fails, we don’t lose everything.

But how do you choose which baskets to put your eggs in? And how many eggs do you put in those baskets?

Investors have a name for this process: asset allocation.

Asset allocation involves splitting up your investment dollars across several types of financial assets (like stocks and bonds). Together these investments form your portfolio.

A good portfolio will have your investment dollars in the right baskets: protecting you from extreme loss when the markets perform poorly, yet leaving you open to windfalls when the market does well.

If that sounds complicated, there’s good news: Betterment will automatically recommend how to allocate your investments based on your individual goals.

How Betterment provides allocation advice

At Betterment, our recommendations start with your financial goals. Each of your financial goals—whether it’s a vacation or retirement—gets its own allocation of stocks and bonds.

Next we look at your investment horizon, a fancy term for “when you need the money and how you’ll withdraw it.” It’s like a timeline. How long will you invest for? Will you take it out all at once, or a little bit at a time?

For a down payment goal, you might withdraw the entire investment after 10 years once you’ve hit your savings mark. But when you retire, you’ll probably withdraw from your retirement account gradually over the course of years.

What if you don’t have a defined goal?

If you’re investing without a timeline or target amount, we’ll use your age to set your investment horizon with a default target date of your 65th birthday. We’ll assume you’ll withdraw from it like a retirement account, but maintain a slightly riskier portfolio even when you hit the target date, since you haven’t decided when you'll liquidate those investments.

But you’re not a “default” person. So why would you want a default investment plan?

That’s why you should have a goal. When we know your goal and time horizon, we can determine the best risk level by assessing possible outcomes across a range of bad to average markets. Our projection model includes many possible futures, weighted by how likely we believe each to be.

By some standards, we err on the side of caution with a fairly conservative allocation model. Our mission is to help you get to your goal through steady saving and appropriate allocation, rather than taking on unnecessary risk.

How much risk should you take on?

Your investment horizon is one of the most important factors in determining your risk level. The more time you have to reach your investing goals, the more risk you can afford to safely take. So generally speaking, the closer you are to reaching your goal, the less risk your portfolio should be exposed to.

This is why we use the Betterment auto-adjust—a glide path (aka formula) used for asset allocation that becomes more conservative as your target date approaches. We adjust the recommended allocation and portfolio weights of the glide path based on your specific goal and time horizon.

Want to take a more aggressive approach? More conservative? That’s totally ok. You’re in control. You always have the final say on your allocation, and we can show you the likely outcomes.

Our quantitative approach helps us establish a set of recommended risk ranges based on your goals. If you choose to deviate from our risk guidance, we’ll provide you with feedback on the potential implications.

Take more risk than we recommend, and we’ll tell you we believe your approach is “too aggressive” given your goal and time horizon. Even if you care about the downsides less than the average outcome, we’ll still caution you against taking on more risk, because it can be very difficult to recover from losses in a portfolio flagged as “too aggressive.”

On the other hand, if you choose a lower risk level than our “conservative” band, we'll label your choice “very conservative.” A downside to taking a lower risk level is you may need to save more. You should choose a level of risk that’s aligned with your ability to stay the course.

An allocation is only optimal if you’re able to commit to it in both good markets and bad ones. To ensure you’re comfortable with the short-term risk in your portfolio, we present both extremely good and extremely poor return scenarios for your selection over a one-year period.

How Betterment automatically optimizes your risk

An advantage of investing with Betterment is that our technology works behind the scenes to automatically manage your risk in a variety of ways, including auto-adjusted allocation and rebalancing.

Auto-adjusted allocation

For most goals, the ideal allocation will change as you near your goal. We use automation to make those adjustments as efficient and tax-friendly as possible.

Deposits, withdrawals, and dividends can help us guide your portfolio toward the target allocation, without having to sell any assets. If we do need to sell any of your investments, our tax-smart technology minimizes the potential tax impact. First we look for shares that have losses. These can offset other taxes. Then we sell shares with the smallest embedded gains (and smallest potential taxes).

Betterment’s auto-adjusted allocation not only saves you time, but it also gives you a smooth, tax-efficient path from higher risk to lower risk.


Over time, individual assets in a diversified portfolio move up and down in value, drifting away from the target weights that help achieve proper diversification. The difference between your target allocation and the actual weights in your current ETF portfolio is called portfolio drift. We define portfolio drift as the total absolute deviation of each super asset class from its target, divided by two. These super asset classes are US Bonds, International Bonds, Emerging Markets Bonds, US Stocks, International Stocks, and Emerging Markets Stocks.

A high drift may expose you to more (or less) risk than you intended when you set the target allocation. Betterment automatically monitors your account for rebalancing opportunities to reduce drift, although rebalancing will likely not occur at a lower account balance. There are several different methods depending on the circumstances:

  • Cash flow rebalancing generally occurs when cash flows going into or out of the portfolio are already happening. We use inflows (like deposits and dividend reinvestments) to buy asset classes that are under-weight. This reduces the need to sell, which in turn reduces capital gains taxes. And we use outflows (like withdrawals) by seeking to first sell asset classes that are overweight.
  • Sell/buy rebalancing reshuffles assets that are already in the portfolio. When cash flows can’t keep your ETF portfolio’s drift within 3% percentage points (or 5% percentage points for portfolios that contain mutual funds), we try to sell just enough of overweight super asset classes to buy into underweight super asset classes and reduce the drift to zero. These super asset classes are US Bonds, International Bonds, Emerging Markets Bonds, US Stocks, International Stocks, and Emerging Markets Stocks. A couple exceptions exist, and those are when we attempt to avoid realizing short term capital gains within taxable accounts or wash sales.
  • Allocation change rebalancing occurs when you change your target allocation. This sells securities and could possibly realize capital gains, but we still utilize our tax minimization algorithm to help reduce the tax impact. We’ll let you know the potential tax impact before you confirm your allocation change. Once you confirm it, we’ll rebalance to your new target with minimized drift.
If you are an Advised client, rebalancing in your account may function differently depending on the portfolio type your Advisor has selected for you. We recommend reaching out to your Advisor for further details.

How Betterment reduces risk in portfolios

Investments like short-term US treasuries can help reduce risk in portfolios. At a certain point, however, including assets such as these in a portfolio no longer improves returns for the amount of risk taken. For Betterment, this point is our 60% stock portfolio. Portfolios with a stock allocation of 60% or more don’t incorporate these exposures.

We include our U.S. Ultra-Short Income ETF and our U.S. Short-Term Treasury Bond ETF in the portfolio at stock allocations below 60% for both the IRA and taxable versions of the Betterment Core portfolio strategy.

If your portfolio includes no stocks (meaning you allocated 100% bonds), we can take the hint. You likely don’t want to worry about market volatility. So in that case, we recommend that you invest everything in these ETFs.

At 100% bonds and 0% stocks, a Betterment Core portfolio consists of 60% U.S. short-term treasury bonds, 20% U.S. short-term high quality bonds, and 20% inflation protected bonds. Increase the stock allocation in your portfolio, and we’ll decrease the allocation to these exposures. Reach the 60% stock allocation threshold, and we’ll remove these funds from the recommended portfolio. At that allocation, they decrease expected returns given the desired risk of the overall portfolio.

Short-term U.S. treasuries generally have lower volatility (any price swings are quite mild) and smaller drawdowns (shorter, less significant periods of loss). The same can be said for short-term high quality bonds, but they are slightly more volatile.

It’s also worth noting that these asset classes don’t always go down at exactly the same time. By combining these asset classes, we’re able to produce a portfolio with a higher potential yield while maintaining relatively lower volatility.

As with other assets, the returns for assets such as high quality bonds include both the possibility of price returns and income yield. Generally, price returns are expected to be minimal, with the primary form of returns coming from the income yield.

The yields you receive from the ETFs in Betterment’s 100% bond portfolio are the actual yields of the underlying assets after fees. Since we’re investing directly in funds that are paying prevailing market rates, you can feel confident that the yield you receive is fair and in line with prevailing rates.

Work toward your financial goals without risking it all

Choosing an investment portfolio is a personal decision, but it doesn’t have to be a difficult one. At Betterment, our goal is to help you feel confident that you’re always taking an appropriate amount of risk. We’ll help you select a portfolio with the risk level that’s right for you, and you can rest assured that our automated services are built to manage it efficiently.

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