The Number of Stocks Before (n) and After Portfolio Optimization (k): The Heuristic k ≈ sqrt(n)

Manuel Tarrazo


This study focuses on the relationship between the number of securities (n) pre-selected for mean-variance portfolio optimization and the number of optimal securities (k). We propose a heuristic k ≈ square root (n) based on empirical research optimizing different sized (n) portfolios. That is, a sample selection of 20-30 securities should yield a portfolio of about five optimal securities, and an initial sample of 500 securities, should result in an optimal portfolio of about 22. We focus on the tangent portfolio that maximizes the return-to-risk ratio. The heuristic finds its support, rationale, and logic in the numerical properties and statistical nature of the optimization. More specifically, the heuristic seems to originate in the dynamic convergence patterns observable in many statistical processes, especially in standard deviations. It is also supported by available results in the literature. Our “square root” heuristic functions as part of the wider family of approximation around the power law, where some variables (authors, securities, people) receive a disproportionate share of a given collection of items – see, for example, Pareto’s principle, Zipf’s law, Lotka’s law, Price’s square root law, Simon’s law, etc. The heuristic provides assistance not only in anticipating the number of optimal securities chosen by the mean-variance optimizer but also in suggesting selectivity in the effort of pre-selecting securities prior to the optimization and in sharpening portfolio-based approaches to investing in general. In sum, the heuristic k ≈ sqrt(n) seems helpful at all levels of portfolio management.

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Accounting and Finance Research
ISSN 1927-5986 (Print)   ISSN 1927-5994 (Online) Email:

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