Will There Be A Recession?

There has been a lot of talk recently about a recession, with concerns about slowing economic growth, the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates, an inverted yield curve, a trade war with China, and so on. A recession is two or more quarters of economic contraction, of negative growth of a country’s economy. Several European countries recently reported one quarter of negative growth and may well be on their way towards a recession this quarter. 

So… will there be a recession in the US? Yes, there will. When? I have no idea.

Please excuse my glib answer. I could put a lot of thought and analysis into the question, but statistically, it’s not predictable with accuracy or certainty. Recessions are an inevitable part of the economic cycle, winter to the summer season of expansion. Unfortunately, unlike December 22, the first day of winter, it is not possible to determine when the first day of a recession will occur. Economists only calculate recessions in hindsight and it would be foolish, and likely even detrimental, for investors to try to change their investments based on today’s recession fears. 

While the US Stock Market made new highs in July, August saw a pullback with increasing worries about a recession. A recession would be negative for investors in the short run, but I think it is very important for investors to stay focused on the long run. The temptation is to think that if we could go to cash before a recession that our returns would be better and we’d avoid losses. As appealing and rational as those thoughts may be, the reality is that attempting to time the market is exceedingly difficult. In my experience, investors who try to time the market rarely do better than those who remain invested and they often would have been better off making no changes.  

Thankfully, I don’t think you need a crystal ball to be a successful investor. Let’s keep a healthy perspective on recessions. Here are some thoughts which may help you to stay invested.

1. If you’re a young investor, contributing monthly to your 401(k) or IRA, and have three or four decades before you retire, you should want a recession! That’s the stock market throwing you a fire sale. You get to buy shares when they are down maybe 20% or more! While Dollar Cost Averaging cannot guarantee a profit, I can tell you that the shares of mutual funds which your colleagues bought in 2008 or 2001 have probably been enormously profitable. If you bought an S&P 500 Index fund 10 years ago, you’d be up about 320% today. 

Recessions have occurred every 5-10 years since 1900. If you are investing for many decades, I wouldn’t be worried about what happens in 2019 or 2020. If the market goes down, keep buying shares of a diversified asset allocation and be glad to buy shares with a very low cost basis.  

Do, however, avoid betting heavily on an individual stock. While the overall stock market has recovered very nicely from previous recessions, there can always be individual companies like Lehman Brothers or Enron, which don’t survive. Those companies may be present in an Index Fund, but if your fund owns 500 or 1000 companies, the impact of one company blowing up is often inconsequential.

2. Think in percentages, not dollars, and study stock market history. A 20%+ drop in the market does occur from time to time, maybe even two or more times a decade. Knowing this, you should be prepared for a drop of this magnitude if you’re in an aggressive allocation. But let’s rephrase this in dollar terms: once you have a $500,000 portfolio, could you stomach a drop of $100,000? That sounds a lot worse than a 20% drop! Of course, when the market goes up 20%, like it did from December 2018 to the highs of July, that would also be a $100,000 gain. 

Seeing performance in dollar terms may feel harsher than looking at performance as percentages which fluctuate greatly from year to year. When you have a big account, you are going to see big swings. This can be difficult to get used to and that’s why I want to look at percentages instead.

If you understand that a market cycle includes up and down years, you will understand that a drop is often only temporary until the market rebounds. If you sell when the market is down and go to cash, you are locking in that loss and eliminating the possibility of participating in a future up cycle. While there’s no guarantee this cycle will always occur in the future, it has been the historical pattern, and I think you have to embrace this tenet of investing if you are to be successful over time. 

3. We build highly diversified portfolios and rebalance. If your target allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds (60/40) and the market drops, your weighting to stocks decreases. We will sell some bonds and buy stocks that are down. We have a built-in mechanism to respond to market fluctuations already. Just by maintaining a target allocation and rebalancing, we will be buying stocks when they are on sale and trimming stocks when they have run up. That won’t prevent a loss when the market does drop, but rebalancing can help to potentially smooth returns and maintain your target level of risk for your portfolio.

4. Investors who are getting closer to retirement undoubtedly feel the most pressure about near-term performance. In part, this is due to an oversimplification of the retirement planning process, by using something like the “4% rule”. Then, if your portfolio drops 20% in the year before retirement, it would appear to be devastating. If you were expecting $40,000 a year in income from a $1 million portfolio, a drop to $800,000 would reduce your 4% withdrawal rate to just $32,000 a year. 

That’s why we should be careful about using a “rule of thumb” approach as being the ultimate guide in retirement planning. For someone who is 65 and healthy, we should be planning for a 20-30 year time horizon, not for the next 1-2 years. As retirements become longer, it is a reality that you are going to experience multiple recessions. Looking at a retirement date of 1-3 years away does not mean that you automatically have a short-term investment horizon. We need to think long-term and have a plan that isn’t going to be derailed by performance in the last year or two before retirement. 

5. If you’re retired and taking 4% withdrawals, consider this: The dividends in our US stock market ETFs are around 2% and higher for our foreign ETFs, often in the 3% range. Even with today’s low interest rates, your bonds are overall yielding 2% or more. Regardless of your allocation, you’ve already covered at least half of your annual 4% withdrawals from stock dividends and bond interest. In terms of sales, you might be dipping into principal by only 2% a year or less. If the market is down for a year or two, you’re not going to run out of money. For my clients who are taking distributions, we set dividends and interest to pay out in cash and I generally only have to sell a small number of shares once a year.

I’m not looking forward to a recession or a Bear Market, but I’m not really all that worried either. Knowing that recessions are a natural part of the economic cycle doesn’t make them any less painful, but if you can step back and take a longer-term view, you will be more comfortable with accepting that being an investor requires patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude.  We’ve built our portfolios for all environments, but that doesn’t mean that risk can be avoided or eliminated. Rather, we can choose how much risk we take and to avoid unnecessary risks of being overweight one stock, sector/country funds, or being undiversified. Whether you are a new investor or a retiree, I don’t want you to make knee-jerk reactions because of talk about a future recession. Recession talk may play well on cable news, but it’s not a useful input for long-term investment success. 

When To Get Out Of Equities

Look at each time the S&P 500 Index fell by 8% since 1928, and you will find two very different types of outcomes. 85% of the time, an 8% drop resulted in only a shallow correction, an average of 13%, which the market recovered from, on average, in just 106 days. That’s tolerable.

However, in 15% of the 8% drops, the stock market was headed into a severe Bear Market, suffering an average decline of 43%, which took 1090 days to recover.* That’s three years – from the bottom – just to get back to even. Anyone who invested through the Tech Bubble in 2000-2001 and the Crash of 2008-2009 needs no reminder that Bear markets have always been a part of investing.

Given a choice, wouldn’t you rather be on the sidelines when things are falling apart? Investors of all ages feel this way, but for those who are closer to retirement, we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I can just Dollar Cost Average since I don’t need to touch this money for 30 years”.

Most sources say you cannot time the market. That’s because people usually base their decisions on sentiment and worthless forecasts. We are blind to our own confirmation bias, where we look for opinions that support our prejudices, rather than looking objectively at all evidence.

Without a crystal ball, how can you tell when a small drop is just a brief correction versus the first weeks of a longer Bear Market?

To remove human emotion and look solely at the price movement of the market is the objective of Technical Analysis. Let’s consider a chart of the historical prices of the S&P 500 Index. One of the ways to examine the larger trend of market is through a Moving Average (MA). This is simply a measure of the average price over a number of days, such as 20, 60, 120, or 200 days. A Moving Average with small number of days responds quickly to changes in market prices, whereas a MA based on a large number of days is smoother and slower to react.

When the market is boldly moving up (like in 2017), a chart will have these characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is above the 120-day moving average, and both have an upwards slope, gaining each day.
  • The current price of the market is above the moving averages, pulling the averages higher.

When we are in a prolonged decline (like in 2008), a chart will typically have the reverse characteristics:

  • The 60-day moving average is below the 120-day moving average, and both have a downwards slope, sinking each day.
  • The current price of the market is below the moving averages, pulling the averages lower.

A brief drop, like we experienced in February, is a temporary blip in the market price and has little impact on the longer 60 or 120 day moving averages. Technical Analysis suggests that a Bear Market may be starting when there is a crossover – when the 60-day MA goes from being above the 120-day MA to being below it.

Crossovers are considered a major shift in the direction of the market, and often do not occur for years at a time. Crossovers occurred relatively early in the previous two Bear Markets and if you had used that signal to sell, you would have significantly reduced your losses. The reverse crossover, when the 60-day breaks above the 120-day MA, is considered a Bullish indicator that the downwards trend has broken. That’s the Buy signal to get back into the market.

A few caveats are in order: these signals will not pinpoint the top or bottom of the market. With a 60-day lag, the market could have already have suffered significant losses before we get a “Sell” signal. Similarly, at the bottom, the market could have rebounded by a substantial percentage before we get the “Buy” signal to get back in. In a shorter Bear Market, these indicators might have you get out at a loss and then buy back in at a higher level, adding insult to injury.

Looking at back-tested funds which use this approach, however, they would have had lower losses in the past two Bear Markets. While it’s nice to avoid the losses, what is even more compelling is how well the strategy performs over 10 or more years. After studying this for nearly two years, we are now going to offer this strategy to our clients, calling it the Equity Circuit Breaker.

This does not change what we purchase in our portfolios. Investors will have the choice of adding the Equity Circuit Breaker or not. If you want to participate, we will track these moving averages and when a crossover occurs, we will sell your equity positions and move the proceeds into cash or short-term Treasuries. When the Bullish crossover occurs, we will buy back into your equity funds, returning to your target asset allocation.

The goal is to reduce losses then next time we have a Bear Market. While there is no guarantee this program will work exactly as it has in the past, you might prefer to have a defensive strategy in place versus the alternative of staying invested for the whole ride down and back up.

I am making this optional for two reasons. First, some investors have a long enough time frame to accept market volatility and prefer a simpler approach. Second, taxes. Selling your equity positions in a taxable account could generate capital gains.

But let’s take a closer look at the tax question. Let’s say you have a 50% gain in your equity positions. You started at $200,000 and it has grown to $300,000. If we were to sell those positions and create $100,000 in long-term capital gains, you’d be looking at 15% tax, or $15,000. (Long-Term Capital Gains could be as high as 23.8% for those in the top tax bracket.) That is a substantial amount of tax, but could still be worth it. If we avoid a 20% drop, you would have prevented $60,000 of losses.

Paying some taxes along the way also will increase your cost basis and basically just pre-pay taxes you would otherwise pay later. For example, Investor A buys a fund for $10,000, sells it at $15,000 after year two and generates a $5,000 capital gain. Then she buys back into the fund with the $15,000 and sells it at $18,000 at year five, for a $3,000 gain. Investor B buys a fund for $10,000, holds it for the same five years, and then sells for $18,000. Both investors will pay the same tax on $8,000 in capital gains. Investor A just split that tax into two segments whereas Investor B paid the tax all at the end.

Of course, if your accounts are IRAs, we could trade without any tax consequences. If you’d like to add the Equity Circuit Breaker to your Good Life Wealth Management Portfolio, there is no additional cost, just reply to this email. We also offer the option of limiting the Equity Circuit Breaker to your IRAs and not to your taxable accounts. I’ll be talking with clients individually throughout the Spring about the new program.

As of today, we have not had a crossover, so there is not yet a trigger for us to sell. I will be looking at this on a regular basis. Investors should make the decision about participating well in advance of the trigger occurring. Once the losses have already started, it is harder to make a decision. I think the best use of this approach is passive – to consider it carefully in advance, turn it on (or not), and then leave it alone. We will do the work for you.

If today’s market is making you nervous, the Equity Circuit Breaker may help you sleep better at night. You have been telling us “we want to participate in the upside, but want to step aside when things get ugly.” If that’s what you’ve been thinking, feeling, or wishing, we can provide you with a plan that’s based on a disciplined process.

*Market Pulse, Goldman Sachs Asset Management, February 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins of Investing

Successful investing is as much about managing our personal tendencies and behaviors as it is about picking funds. You don’t have to be a financial whiz to be a thriving investor, but you do have to avoid making mistakes. Investing errors do not mark you as a novice or as unintelligent; even professionals can easily fall into these traps. Mistakes are easier to see in hindsight, but in the present moment, the choices we face may not be so obvious.

Here are what I consider to be the Seven Deadly Sins of Investing. I firmly believe that if we can avoid these errors, we will have a much higher chance of success as long-term investors.

1. Not Accepting Losses (Pride)
If you’ve made a losing investment, sell it and move on. Too many investors are unwilling to do this, hoping that if they wait long enough, they will be proven correct or at least get their money back. Unfortunately, this may not occur, and even if it does, there may be an opportunity cost in waiting. With today’s strong markets, you might not have losses, but if you have high-expense funds that are under-performing the market, you should recognize that this too is a mistake and move on.

2. Market Timing (Greed)
Speculating to make as much profit as possible and trying to avoid temporary market drops drives many people to move in and out of the market in a largely futile attempt to improve returns. Neither individual investors nor professionals have demonstrated any success in market timing, although great time and effort are spent in the process. The reality is that market returns are a good return, but when investors say “I want more, I need more”, they are very often rewarded with lower returns rather than higher returns.

3. No Asset Allocation (Lust)
Did you pick the funds for your 401(k) by selecting the options with the best one-year performance? If so, you likely will end up with a poor investment plan, because you are investing based solely on past performance. Don’t fall in love with today’s hot funds, those are the ones that will break your heart at the next downturn, when you discover how much risk they were taking. At any given point in time, one or two categories may dominate returns, fooling investors to think that owning 10 different technology funds makes you diversified. Start with a globally diversified asset allocation and then pick funds that represent each category. Yes, even buy those segments which are out of favor and under-performing today. That’s how you build a better portfolio.

4. Performance Chasing (Envy)
With thousands of mutual funds and ETFs at our disposal, it takes only a few clicks to find a “better performing” fund than the ones currently in your portfolio. There are hundreds of funds which have outperformed their benchmark over the past year. Of course, that number will fall dramatically over time, and typically 80% or more of funds fail to match their benchmark over five or more years. But even still, that means some funds have beaten the index. Unfortunately, there is no predictive power in past returns of actively managed funds, so even those that beat the mark over the last five years are unlikely to continue their streak over the next five years.

Perhaps even more dangerous is when investors “discover” that a sector or country is outperforming. Maybe it’s a technology fund, or Argentina ETF, which has rocketed up in the past six months, and they switch from a diversified fund to a narrow investment. Performance chasing creates a lot of risk which may go unnoticed until it’s too late. We avoid single sector and country funds; almost every argument for these funds is some version of performance chasing.

5. Single Security Risk (Gluttony)
Most of the heart-breaking investing stories I’ve heard from the past 20 years were caused by investors having a large investment in a single company. The 55-year old Nortel employee who had his whole retirement account in his company stock and rode it down from $1 million to $100,000. The Cisco employee who exercised $600,000 in stock options, but kept the shares to try for long-term capital gains; the shares tanked, and he didn’t know he would owe AMT on the original $600,000. The IRS had a lien on his house while he paid them $200,000 over five  years.

Diversification is the only free lunch in investing. The average stock will return about the same as the index by definition, but you take on tremendous risk when you have a concentrated position in one stock. The best choice is to not have too much in any one stock, including that of your employer.

6. Breaking Your Plan (Wrath)
Anger, frustration, and despair were what investors felt in 2008 and 2009, and we will undoubtedly feel the same way when the next bear market occurs. Some investors threw in the towel near the bottom and missed out on much of the rebound. The best way to prevent future frustration is to make sure you have the right asset allocation and understand how your portfolio might perform in up and down years. When you begin with a smart plan and take the time to educate yourself, it is much easier to understand the importance of staying invested rather than allowing emotions to get the best of us.

7. Failing to Monitor (Sloth)
Even for passive investors, you still need to do some work monitoring and managing your portfolio on a regular basis. Rebalancing annually or when funds move a large amount is important to maintain your target risk levels and to create a process to “buy low and sell high”. Additionally, too many investors have stayed with poorly performing active funds and variable annuities they don’t understand, paying high expense ratios, unnecessary 12-b1 fees and sales loads, without having any idea about how they are doing. You only have three or four decades of work and investing, you can’t let 5 or 10 years go by without knowing if your plans are on track. It’s your money, surely you can spend a handful of hours every quarter to analyze your situation and make changes when they are needed.

Successful investing is not complicated, but it can be difficult to have the patience with how boring it can be most of the time and how unpredictable it can be other times. Establish a diversified asset allocation that will help you achieve your long-term goals, then invest in low-cost, tax-efficient vehicles with a good track record. Focus on what you can control: your allocation, costs, and diversification, and don’t worry about the short-term movements of the market.

We all face the temptation of these seven investing sins. Maybe the greatest attribute for an investor is faith. Do what is right, do what is smart, but then to let go of the worry about what will happen today or tomorrow. Market returns will be whatever the market returns. We have no control over the market, but we can focus on our own saving (frugality), patience, and positive thoughts. In the end, the true measure of wealth is more about our faith and gratitude than it is about the dollars and cents.

Are You Making These 6 Market Timing Mistakes?

Market timing means moving in and out of the market or between assets based on a prediction of what the market will do. Given the extreme difficulty of predicting the future, market timing is frowned upon by most academics. Many studies have shown that the majority of investors who time the market under-perform those who stay invested.

Even though many people know intellectually that market timing is detrimental, it is actually pretty difficult to stay invested and not be influenced by market timing. Even for those who say they don’t time the market, there are a number of ways that investors inadvertently fall into this trap.

1. Being in Cash. “We are going to sit on X% in cash and wait for a buying opportunity.” Seems prudent, right? Except that investors who have been holding out for a 10% or 20% crash for two, three, four years or more have missed out on a huge move up in the market. Yes, there are rational reasons to say that the market is expensive today, but those who have been sitting in cash have definitely under-performed. Will they eventually be proved right? The market certainly has cycles of growth and contraction. This is normal and healthy. So, yes, there will be another bear market. The problem is that trying to predict when this will occur usually makes returns worse rather than better.

2. Greed and Fear. The human inclination is to want to invest when the market has done well and to sell when the market is in the doldrums. I remember investors who insisted in going to cash in November 2008 and March 2009, right at the bottom. In 1999, people were borrowing money to put into tech funds, which had given them returns of 30%, 50%, even 100% in a year. Our natural reaction is to buy high and sell low, the opposite of what we should be doing. It’s only in hindsight that we recognize these trades as mistakes.

3. Performance Chasing. Investors like to switch from Fund A to Fund B when Fund A does better. Who wouldn’t want to be in the better fund? This is why people give up on index funds. Index funds often only beat half of their peers in any given year, so it’s super easy to find a fund that is doing better. However, when we go to a five-year horizon, index funds are winning 80-90% of the time. That’s why switching to a fund with a better recent track record is often a mistake. (And then watch the fund you just sold soar…)

4. Sector and Country funds. Investors want to buy a sector or country fund when it is a standout. This is market timing! You are buying what is hot (expensive) rather than buying what is on sale. I have yet to have any client ever come to me and say “sector X is doing terrible, should we buy?”. Instead, some will ask me about biotech, or India, or some other high flyer. I remember when the ING Russia fund had the best 10-year track record of all mutual funds. If you bought it then, I think you would have regretted it immensely in the following years! When people buy sector or country funds, the decision is almost always a market timing error of extrapolating recent performance into the future, instead of recognizing that today’s leaders become tomorrow’s laggards.

5. Factor Investing. If you haven’t heard of Factor Funds, you will soon! Quantitative analysts look for a set of criteria which they can feed into a computer and it picks the best performing stocks. How do they come up with a winning formula? By back-testing strategies using historical stock prices. This sounds very scientific, and I admit that it looks promising, but there are still some market timing landmines for investors, including:

  • Historical anomalies. It’s possible that a strategy that worked great over the past 10 years might be a dud over the next 10. It is unknown which factors will perform best going forward and it seems naive to assume that the future will be the same as the past.
  • Choosing which factor. Low Volatility? Value? Momentum? Quality? Those all sound like good things. There are now so many flavors of factors, you have to have an opinion on the market in order to pick which factor will outperform. And that’s right back to market timing: investing based on your prediction of what the market will do. This isn’t Lake Woebegone, where all the factors are above average. Some factors are bound to do poorly for longer than you are likely to be willing to hold them.
  • Investor switching. In most single years, a factor does not have very exciting performance. I predict that many investors are going to buy a factor fund, and then switch when they see another factor outperform for a year or two. If you’re really going to buy into the factor philosophy, you need to buy and hold for many, many years. Even in back tests, there are quite a few years of under-performance. It was only over long time periods that factors were able to deliver improved returns.

6. Product development. Asset managers are paid on the assets they manage. It’s a business. They will always be coming out with a new, better product to attract new investors. You are being marketed to every day by companies who want your investment dollar. Many new funds will not survive the test of time and will disappear into financial history. Their poor track records will be erased from Morningstar, which is why we have “survivorship bias”, the fact that we only see the track records of the funds that survive. Please use caution when investing in a new fund. Is this new fund vital to your success as an investor or just a marketing ploy for a company to capitalize on the most recent fad?

At Good Life Wealth Management, we are fans of the tried and true and skeptical when it comes to the “new and improved”. We aim to avoid market timing errors by remaining invested and not trying to predict the future path of the market. We avoid emotional investing decisions, performance chasing, and sector/country funds. For the time being, we are watching factor funds with curiosity but a wait and see attitude.

How then do we choose investments and their weight in our asset allocation? Our tactical models are based on the valuation of each category. This is by its nature contrarian – when large cap becomes expensive, it becomes smaller in our portfolios. When small cap becomes cheap, its weighting is increased. We don’t predict whether those categories will go up or down in the near future, but only tilt towards the areas of better relative value. This is based on reversion to the mean and the unwavering belief that diversification remains our best defense.

If you’d like to talk about your portfolio, I’d welcome the chance to sit down and share our approach and philosophy. What keeps us from the Siren song of market timing is our belief in a disciplined and patient investment strategy.

Stop Trying to Pick the Best Fund

So much attention is paid to picking “the right fund” or “the best fund” by investors, but in my experience, this question has little bearing on whether or not an investor is successful in achieving their goals. In fact, I don’t even think fund selection is in the top 5 factors for financial success. There are so many more important things to consider first!

1) How much you save. If you contribute $500 a month to your company 401(k) and your colleague contributes $1,000 a month, I would bet that they will have twice as much money as you after 10 years, regardless of your fund selection process. Hot funds turn cold, so most investors just average out over time. Figuring out how to save and invest more each month will get you to the goal line faster than spending your hours trying to find a better fund.

2) Sticking with the plan. Your behavior can have a greater impact than your fund selection. Many investors sold in 2009, incurring heavy losses and then missing out on the rebound in the second half of the year. Trying to time the market is so difficult that investors are better served by staying the course rather than trying to get in and out of the market.

I know that people think they are being rational about their investments, but what usually happens is that we form an opinion emotionally and then find evidence which corroborates our point of view. This is called confirmation bias. Better to remain humble and recognize that we don’t have the ability to determine what the future holds. Buy and Hold works, but only when we don’t screw it up!

3) Starting with an Asset Allocation. People may spend a vast amount of time picking a US large cap fund, but then miss out on the benefits of diversification. Other categories may outperform US large cap stocks. I recently opened an account for a new client, whose previous advisor had him invested in 180 positions – all of which were US large cap and investment grade bonds. No small cap, no international equities, no emerging markets, no floating rate bonds, no municipal bonds, etc.

The most important determinant of your portfolio return is the overall asset allocation, not which fund you chose! Our process begins with you, your goals, timeline, and risk tolerance to first determine a financial plan, including an appropriate asset allocation. The asset allocation is really the portfolio and then the last step is to just plug in funds to each category. Funds in each category perform similarly. If it’s a horrible year, like 2008, in US large cap, that fact is more significant than which large cap fund you chose.

A famous, and controversial, 1995 Study found that 95% of the variability of returns between pension funds was explained by their asset allocation.

4) Not chasing performance. The problem with trying to pick the best fund is that you are always looking through today’s rearview mirror. There will always be one fund that has the best 5, 10, or 15 year returns. There are always funds which are doing better than your fund this year. But if you buy that new fund, you may quickly become disappointed when the subsequent returns fail to match its “perfect” track record.

So then you switch to another new fund. And like a financial Don Juan, the performance chaser is quick to fall in love, but just as quick to move on, creating a tragic, endless cycle of hope and failure. If you are investing for the next 30 years, changing funds 30 times does not improve your chances of success! By the way, if you exclude sector funds, single country funds, and other niche categories from your portfolio, you will be well on your way to avoiding this pitfall.

5) Setting Goals. If you have a goal or large project at work, you probably create a plan which breaks that goals down into a series of smaller steps and objectives. Unfortunately, very few people apply the same kind of discipline, planning, and deliberate process to their finances as they do to their career and other goals. When you begin with the goal in mind, your next steps – how much to save, how to invest, what to do – become clear.

Bonus, 6) Doing what works. Why reinvent the wheel or take on unnecessary risk? We know that 80% or more of actively managed funds lag their benchmarks over five years and longer. With 4 to 1 odds against you choosing a fund that outperforms, why take that risk at all? Even if you get it right once, do you realize how small the possibility is that your choice will outperform for another five years? Better to stick with Index Funds and ETFs. Besides the better chance of performing well, you will also start with very low expenses and excellent tax efficiency. When you use Index funds, it frees up your mind, time, and energy to focus instead on numbers 1-5.

Choose your funds carefully and deliberately because you should plan to live with those funds for many, many years. There are genuinely good reasons for changing investments sometimes and we won’t hesitate to make those trades when necessary. But on the whole, investors trade way too much for their own good. The grass is not always greener in another fund!

Forget 2017, Think Longer

A few weeks ago, I brought my car to the dealership for some routine maintenance and they gave me a brand new 2017 model as a loaner for the day. As part of the car’s “infotainment system”, you could enter stock tickers and get price quotes right there on the screen of the car.

Aside from the obvious danger of distracted driving, does the outcome of my retirement plan actually hinge on having this information available 24-7? Will I be wealthier if make trades from my phone while stuck in rush-hour traffic?

Unfortunately, increasing our access to information does not guarantee we can use that information profitably. In fact, I believe that the more we focus on short-term issues, the more we endanger the long-term outcomes. Be careful of missing the forest for the trees.

The field of behavioral finance has identified many seemingly innate, but irrational, behaviors which can be hazardous to our wealth. The more information we have, the more frequently we are compelled to “do something” in terms of our investment allocation. Unfortunately, the more investors trade, the worse they do, on average, because of these behavioral tendencies.

Here are four behavioral patterns which can become a problem for all investors:

1) Overconfidence
The more information we have, the more strongly we believe that we can predict the outcome. Closely related is confirmation bias, which is where we place more weight on information which supports our existing point of view, and tend to ignore evidence which is contrary.

2) Disposition Effect
Many investors are willing to sell their winning trades but are very reluctant to sell their losing positions. “The loss isn’t real until you sell – it has to come back eventually!” What we should do is to ignore what we paid for a position and look objectively at how we expect it to perform going forward. If there are better opportunities elsewhere, we should not hold on to losers.

3) Home Bias
Investors prefer to invest in domestic companies, when left to their own devices. They miss the benefits of investing globally. See How a Benchmark Can Reduce Home Bias.

4) Naive Diversification
If a 401(k) plan offers five choices, many investors will simply put 20% into each of the five funds, regardless of category or their own risk tolerance. I’ve also seen portfolios that have multiple holdings in the same category, most often US Large Cap. When the market drops, having seven large cap funds will not offer any more defense than having one fund.

I mention these behavioral faults because you are inevitably going to see many articles over the next two weeks predicting what is likely to occur in the year ahead. Reading these is a waste of your time. The reality is that no one has a crystal ball and can predict the future.

Forecasters’ abilities to predict the stock market has been so poor and inconsistent, that if you actually look at a large number of past predictions, you will immediately recognize that their investment value is non-existent. There is often a great deal of group think and a Bullish bias from firms who get paid to manage investments. Others seem to be permanently Bearish, but still get press coverage in spite of being wrong for years at a time.

The good news is that you don’t have to know what 2017 has in store to accomplish your long-term goals. We need to think bigger than just one year at a time, so here’s a reminder of what we do:

  • Create a financial plan to lay out the steps to achieve your long-term goals.
  • Invest in a disciplined, diversified asset allocation based on your needs, risk tolerance, and risk capacity.
  • Pay attention to risks, taxes, and our returns.
  • Monitor, adjust, and rebalance to stay on course.

The more we allow short-term noise to dictate our long-term investment strategy, the greater risk we are to our own success. If your car offers stock quotes, may I suggest you instead set it to weather or sports? Your portfolio will thank you for it.

Five Things To Do When The Market Is Down

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When the market is down, it hurts to look at your portfolio and see your account values dropping. And when we experience pain, we feel the need to do something. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction to sell everything almost always ends up being the wrong move, a fact which although obvious in hindsight, is nevertheless a very tempting idea when we feel panicked.

Even when we know that market cycles are an inevitable part of being a long-term investor, it is still frustrating to just sit there and not do anything when we have a drop. What should you do when the market is down? Most of the time, the best answer is to do nothing. However, if you are looking for ways to capitalize on the current downturn, here are five things you can do today.

1) Put cash to work. The market is on sale, so if you have cash on the sidelines, I wouldn’t hesitate to make some purchases. Stick with high quality, low-cost ETFs or mutual funds, and avoid taking a flyer on individual stocks. If you’ve been waiting to fund your IRA contributions for 2015 or 2016, do it now. Continue to dollar cost average in your 401k or other automatic investment account.

2) If you are fully invested, rebalance now; sell some of your fixed income and use the proceeds to buy more stocks to get back to your target asset allocation. Of course, most investors who do it themselves don’t have a target allocation, which is their first mistake. If you don’t have a pre-determined asset allocation, now is a good time to diversify.

3) Harvest losses. In your taxable account, look for positions with losses and exchange those for a different ETF in the same category. For example, if you have a loss on a small cap mutual fund, you could sell it to harvest the loss, and immediately replace it with a different small cap ETF or fund.

By doing an immediate swap, you maintain your overall allocation and remain invested for any subsequent rally. The loss you generate can be used to offset any capital gains distributions that may occur later in the year. If the realized losses exceed your gains for the year, you can apply $3,000 of the losses against ordinary income, and the remaining unused losses will carry forward to future years indefinitely. My favorite thing about harvesting losses: being able to use long-term losses (taxed at 15%) to offset short-term gains (taxed as ordinary income, which could be as high as 43.4%).

4) Trade your under-performing, high expense mutual funds for a low cost ETF. This is a great time to clean up your portfolio. I often see individual investors who have 8, 10, or more different mutual funds, but when we look at them, they’re all US large cap funds. That’s not diversification, that’s being a fund collector! While you are getting rid of the dogs in your portfolio, make sure you are going into a truly diversified, global allocation.

5) Roth Conversion. If positions in your IRA are down significantly, and you plan to hold on to them, consider converting those assets to a Roth IRA. That means paying tax on the conversion amount today, but once in the Roth, all future growth and distributions will be tax-free. For example, if you had $10,000 invested in a stock, and it has dropped to $6,000, you could convert the IRA position to a Roth, pay taxes on the $6,000, and then it will be in a tax-free account.

Before making a Roth Conversion, talk with your financial planner and CPA to make sure you understand all the tax ramifications that will apply to your individual situation. I am not necessarily recommending everyone do a Roth Conversion, but if you want to do one, the best time is when the market is down.

What many investors say to me is that they don’t want to do anything right now, because if they hold on, those positions might come back. If they don’t sell, the loss isn’t real. This is a cognitive trap, called “loss aversion”. Investors are much more willing to sell stocks that have a gain than stocks that are at a loss. And unfortunately, this mindset can prevent investors from efficiently managing their assets.

Hopefully, now, you will realize that there are ways to help your portfolio when the market is down, through putting cash to work, rebalancing, harvesting losses for tax purposes, upgrading your funds to low-cost ETFs, or doing a Roth Conversion. Remember that market volatility creates opportunities. It may be painful to see losses today, but experiencing the ups and downs of the market cycle is an inevitable part of being a long-term investor.

The Investor and Market Fluctuations

The Intelligent Investor

In 1934, Benjamin Graham first published his treatise “The Intelligent Investor”. Graham is considered by many to be the father of Value Investing and was a teacher of Warren Buffett. He wrote about the difference between investing and speculating, and devoted a whole chapter to “The Investor and Market Fluctuations.” I can do no better than to share this excerpt and to note that his advice is as true today as it was 80 years ago.

“The most realistic distinction between the investor and the speculator is found in their attitude toward stock-market movements. The speculator’s primary interest lies in anticipating and profiting from market fluctuations. The investor’s primary interest lies in acquiring and holding suitable securities at suitable prices. Market movements are important to him in a practical sense, because they alternately create low price levels at which he would be wise to buy and high prices at which he certainly should refrain from buying and probably would be wise to sell.

It is far from certain that the typical investor should regularly hold off buying until low market levels appear, because this may involve a long wait, very likely the loss of income, and the possible missing of investment opportunities. On the whole it may be better for the investor to do his stock buying whenever he has money to put in stocks…

Aside from forecasting the movements of the general market, much effort and ability are directed on Wall Street toward selecting stocks or industrial groups that in matter of price will “do better” than the rest over a fairly short period in the future. Logical as this endeavor may seem, we do not believe it is suited to the needs or temperament of the true investor… As in all other activities that emphasize price movements first and underlying values second, the work of many intelligent minds constantly engaged in this field tends to be self-neutralizing and self-defeating over the years.

The investor with a portfolio of sound stocks should expect their prices to fluctuate and should neither be concerned by sizable declines nor become excited by sizable advances.”*

As much as markets have changed over the past century, what has not changed is human nature. That’s why Graham’s advice to never sell a stock just because it has gone down remains so relevant today. Be an investor and not a speculator; don’t think that you can predict what stock prices are going to do next. If you’re in it for the long-term, use market volatility as an opportunity to put money to work.

*The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham, `Revised Edition, 2006, pp. 205-206.

The Psychology of Volatility

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We’ve had a rough start to 2016, with stocks dropping across the board. Today, we are within a couple of percentage points of retesting the lows of last August. You can’t pick up a newspaper or tune into a business show on TV without being bombarded with the “reasons” why the market is down.

The key to success for investors, I would argue, is not in understanding the economy, interest rates, or corporate earnings. Rather, it is knowing what to do in volatile times.

There are two types of losses: a temporary drop and a permanent loss. Enron was a permanent loss. Single securities (stocks or bonds) can go to zero, and this does happen from time to time, especially in high risk situations. However, if you are investing in a diversified fund, such as the Russell 1000 Index ETF, the impact of a single stock going bankrupt is very, very small.

Volatility is the reality that security prices do not move up in a straight line, but fluctuate up and down over the short to medium term. The challenge is that it is difficult for our brain to distinguish between a temporary drop (market volatility) and a permanent loss.

The anxiety from a loss can cause not just emotional stress, but actually trigger a physical response in our body chemistry. The evolutionary response to danger is to flee, which for investors, means the strong urge to get out of the market, protect our capital, and stop the pain we are experiencing.

Unfortunately, selling during a period of market volatility has the tragic consequence of turning a temporary drop into a permanent loss. Most investors under perform the overall market precisely because they sell during times of stress. It is essential to recognize that market volatility is just a temporary drop for a long-term investor and be willing to stay the course during these periods.

Here’s how we can use this behavioral understanding to our benefit:

1) Many investors would say that the past 15 years have been horrible in the stock market. The reality is not so bad; if you had invested in the S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY), you would have had a 4.97% annualized return over this period. That equates to a 107% total return, a little more than a double. That’s better than most would assume, because the agony of the losses we’ve experienced is much more intense and memorable than the gains we have actually received. This phenomenon is called loss aversion.

2) If we reframe market volatility as “opportunity” rather than “danger”, then we can profit by being willing to buy when the market is down. People love buying their holiday presents when stores have a 20% sale, but when the market drops 20%, no one wants to invest. If you view a drop as a great chance to buy stocks on sale, then you will realize that the past 15 years have given investors incredible opportunities to profit. And while we shouldn’t try to time the market, we can dollar cost average by making regular contributions to our accounts to take advantage of volatility.

3) We have each client complete a risk tolerance questionnaire before investing. Our goal is to choose an asset allocation which we can stick with, through the inevitable ups and downs that will follow. It’s easy to be aggressive when the market is moving up, but it’s better to invest with an understanding of how you will feel when the market does have a correction.

4) Many investors will create a long-term investment strategy and then proceed to evaluate their portfolio performance on a very frequent basis, such as monthly, daily, or even hourly. The more often you look at your portfolio, the more often you will be tempted by the thought of “Don’t just sit there, do something!” This is where we have to recognize that the emotional, physical urge to react is at odds with the rational process of sticking to a plan. If you want to act in a long-term manner, you cannot think in terms of short-term results. For many of us, it is better to look at your accounts less often, rather than more often.

No matter what you’re feeling about the current market volatility, remember that I am just a phone call away and happy to listen to your concerns, talk strategy, and share the opportunities available in today’s market.

Data from Morningstar, as of 12/31/2015

Behavioral Tricks to Improve Your Finances

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I was saddened to hear of Yogi Berra’s passing last week. One of the great quotes attributed to him is “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” I’ve always thought this quote applied well to personal finance, where the academic expected behavior could differ significantly from the choices people make in real life.

The fact is that we all use our feelings, intuition, and past experience to make our decisions as much, or more, than we rely on logic, research, or an open-minded examination of evidence and data. Many academics take the view that any behavioral deviation from the theoretically optimal decision will lead to poor outcomes. And while that is definitely the case in many situations, my observation as a practitioner is that even the most successful individuals are not immune from this “irrational” behavior.

My point is that when theory and practice do deviate, there can still be good outcomes, in fact, sometimes even improved outcomes. Here are six ways you can use behavioral concepts to improve your financial situation. In theory, these won’t help. In practice, they will.

  1. The 15-year mortgage. In theory, you can make more in stocks than the interest cost of a mortgage, so you should get an interest-only loan and never pay it off. Home values generally appreciate over the long-term, and there is no additional benefit to having equity in your home. Although this is theoretically correct, I suggest that home buyers get a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year or interest only note. The reason that the 15-year mortgage benefits buyers is that it will force you to buy a lower priced home to be able to afford the higher monthly payment. If you start your house hunt with a 15-year mortgage in mind, it might mean looking for a $300,000 home instead of a $350,000 home. The lower cost home will have lower property taxes, insurance, utilities, and other costs. More of your monthly payment will go towards principal with the shorter loan, so you will build equity faster, which is very valuable if you should need to move after five or ten years. Having a higher monthly mortgage payment will also force you to save more. By that I mean that if you had a payment that was $500 less, you probably would not save an additional $500 a month; you’d probably save only a small part of this, maybe $100 or $200 a month, and increase your spending by $300 or $400.
  2. Set up your 401(k) contributions as a percentage. People are shockingly lazy with their 401(k) accounts. Many never change funds, and even more never change their contribution level. If you set up a $100 contribution per pay period, chances are good that five years later you are still contributing $100. If, on the other hand, you established a 10% contribution, your dollars contributed would have increased with your raises, promotions, and bonuses. If you can, increase your percentage contribution every year until you make the maximum allowable contribution, $18,000 for 2015.
  3. Make it automatic. We are creatures of habit and momentum and will seldom change established our course. If you give someone $100,000 to invest, they will agonize over the fund choices and try to time their purchases. If the market goes down, they’ll bail out and blame the fund or the manager or something else. It’s better to set your investing on auto-pilot, invest every month into your 401(k), IRA, 529 college savings plan, or other investment vehicle. And then do what is natural for most of us: nothing. Keep investing when the market goes down. Stick with a basic, diversified allocation. That’s why people who have a created a $100,000 account by investing $1000 a month are more likely to stay on course than the investor who puts in a lump sum. Already have your investing on cruise control? Take the next step and make your rebalancing automatic, too!
  4. Pay cash for cars. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with financing or leasing cars. However, if you get in the habit of paying cash for cars it will change your behavior for the better. It is incredibly painful to write a $35,000 check for a vehicle. If you pay cash for cars, it will force you to keep your current car for longer while you save for the next one. It will make you consider a used car or a lower cost vehicle. And it will be a strong incentive to keep your next vehicle for a very long time. Cars are often our second largest expense after housing. Most cars lose 50% of their value in five years, so would you prefer to lose half of $75,000 or half of $30,000? People don’t think this way when all they know is their monthly payment. When you pay cash for a car, you start to think like an owner and not a renter.
  5. Do less research. One of the mental biases facing investors is overconfidence; the more research we do, the more we believe we can predict the outcome of our investing choices. This can lead to people being overweight in their company stock, getting in and out of the market, or making large sector bets. These choices often lead to increased risk taking and quite often to long-term under performance. We’re also likely to suffer from “confirmation bias”, where we cherry pick the data or articles which corroborate our existing point of view and ignore any contradictory evidence. Overconfidence and confirmation bias don’t just affect individual investors, they are significant challenges for professional fund managers. Since the majority of professional managers cannot beat the index, I don’t hold much optimism that an individual can do better. So, cancel your subscription to the Wall Street Journal, turn off CNBC, and buy an index fund.
  6. Use “mental accounting” to your advantage. Money is fungible, meaning $1 is $1 regardless of where it is located. However, people like to divide their money into buckets for retirement, saving, spending, emergency funds, college, vacation, or whatever. In theory, this is meaningless, you’d be equally well off with just one account invested appropriately for your risk tolerance. Even though Academics would like to banish mental accounting, people are enamored with their buckets. While you should look at all your holdings as being slices of one pie, you can use mental accounting to your advantage. You are less likely to touch money when it is in a dedicated account. For example, if you put money in a savings account for emergencies, you may later be tempted to spend that money on a vacation or other splurge. If you instead put that money into a Roth IRA, you’d be much less likely to touch it. But if you did have an emergency, you could access the principal from your Roth, tax-free. The other benefit of buckets is that it may force you to do more saving when you have specific dollar goals for retirement, college, or other purposes. Then if you need to plan for a vacation, you know you will have to do additional saving and cannot touch the buckets allocated for other goals.

Use behavior to your advantage by making sure your choices are helping you get closer to achieving your goals. Investing can be simple; it’s people who choose to make it complicated. Stick to the basics and stay focused on saving and diversification. I’m not sure we can ever completely remove behavioral biases from our decision making process, but the more we are aware of those biases, the easier it is to step back and recognize what exactly is driving our choices.