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In an investing world that celebrates outsized returns, it’s easy to feel bad about a portfolio that is humbly doing exactly what it’s supposed to in producing modest but reliable returns.

A reader was in that position recently after reading an article that suggested she was making a rate of return in her portfolio that corresponded with a conservative investing profile. “Am I really conservative?” she wondered. “Should I be aiming higher?” It’s easy to imagine that the answer is yes when you see read about hot stocks, sectors and markets that have produced returns well into double digits.

This person didn’t say much about her personal investing profile, so it’s impossible to say whether she is a conservative investor or not. But we can consult investment return projections produced for financial planners to see how her portfolio stacks up.

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These projections are non-biased numbers compiled from projections by economists, actuaries and other professionals for use by planners in figuring out if clients will meet their future financial goals. They say that a conservative portfolio of 5-per-cent cash, 70-per-cent bonds and 25-per-cent stocks can over the long term be expected to make 3.2 per cent after estimated fees of 1.25 per cent.

A balanced portfolio of 5-per-cent cash, 45-per-cent bonds and 50-per-cent stocks is projected to earn 3.9 per cent over the long term after fees, while an aggressive portfolio of 5-per-cent cash, 20-per-cent bonds and 75-per-cent stocks is forecast to make 4.7 per cent on an average annual basis.

In the context of these projections, the reader asking about her 4-per-cent returns can stop worrying. She’s marginally exceeding the returns of the balanced portfolio on an after-fee basis and is well ahead of the conservative portfolio.

Should she aim higher? The question she really needs to ask is whether taking on the higher risk level of the aggressive portfolio set out for planners is worth just 0.7 per cent more in returns per year.

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