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Applications to project portfolios and other "non-financial" assets

4 May, 2015 - 12:25

Some experts apply MPT to portfolios of projects and other assets besides financial instruments 1, 2. When MPT is applied outside of traditional financial portfolios, some differences between the different types of portfolios must be considered.

  1. The assets in financial portfolios are, for practical purposes, continuously divisible while portfolios of projects are "lumpy". For example, while we can compute that the optimal portfolio position for 3 stocks is, say, 44%, 35%, 21%, the optimal position for a project portfolio may not allow us to simply change the amount spent on a project. Projects might be all or nothing or, at least, have logical units that cannot be separated. A portfolio optimization method would have to take the discrete nature of projects into account.
  2. The assets of financial portfolios are liquid; they can be assessed or re-assessed at any point in time. But opportunities for launching new projects may be limited and may occur in limited windows of time. Projects that have already been initiated cannot be abandoned without the loss of the sunk costs (i.e., there is little or no recovery/salvage value of a half-complete project).

Neither of these necessarily eliminate the possibility of using MPT and such portfolios. They simply indicate the need to run the optimization with an additional set of mathematically-expressed constraints that would not normally apply to financial portfolios.

Furthermore, some of the simplest elements of Modern Portfolio Theory are applicable to virtually any kind of portfolio. The concept of capturing the risk tolerance of an investor by documenting how much risk is acceptable for a given return may be applied to a variety of decision analysis problems. MPT uses historical variance as a measure of risk, but portfolios of assets like major projects don't have a well-defined "historical variance". In this case, the MPT investment boundary can be expressed in more general terms like "chance of an ROI less than cost of capital" or "chance of losing more than half of the investment". When risk is put in terms of uncertainty about forecasts and possible losses then the concept is transferable to various types of investment 3.