Category Archives: Portfolio Management

Foreign markets are soaring

The US markets are reaching new highs daily and many investors are happy with the returns their portfolios have generated.  According to the Wall Street Journal the S&P 500 is up 13.9% year-to-date.

 But some foreign markets are doing even better.

For example, the Hang Seng (Hong Kong) index is up 29.4%.

Chile is up 28%

Brazil up 27.3%

South Korea up 22.1%

Italy up 16.4%

Taiwan up 15.8%

Singapore up 14.7%

As part of our asset allocation strategy we always include a foreign component in our diversified portfolios.  Over long periods of time international diversification has had a positive effect on portfolio performance.  That’s because the US economy is mature.  It’s harder to generate the kind of economic growth that smaller, newer, and less developed economies can generate.

There is, however, a level of risk as well as reward to global diversification.  It’s said that when the US catches a cold, foreign markets get pneumonia.

The U.K. market is up only 5.8% this year, Shanghai +9.1%, Mexico +9.5%, Japan +9.6% and France +10.3%.  It’s difficult for the average investor to do the research to pick and choose their own foreign stocks.  So it’s even more important when investing overseas to use experienced portfolio managers with years of experience and an established track record.

We have done the research and we choose the best mutual funds with experienced managers to give our clients exposure to foreign markets.

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What a Nobel Prize Winner tells us about Investor Behavior

University of Chicago’s  Richard H. Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral finance, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for shedding light on how human weaknesses such as a lack of rationality and self-control can ultimately affect markets.

People who are not financial experts frequently turn to investment advisors to manage their portfolios.     But many smart people use advisors to overcome very common psychological obstacles to financial success.

The 72-year-old “has incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement on Monday.

“By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes,” it said.

Thaler developed the theory of “mental accounting,” explaining how people make financial decisions by creating separate accounts in their minds, focusing on the narrow impact rather than the overall effect.

….

He shed light on how people succumb to short-term temptations, which is why many people fail to plan and save for old age.

 

It does not take a Nobel Prize to understand that people often make decisions based on emotion.  We do it all the time.  We judge people based on first impressions.  We buy things not because we need them but because of how they make us feel.  We go along with the crowd because we seek the approval of the people around us.  When markets rise we persuade ourselves to take risks we should not take.  When markets decline and our investments go down we allow fear to overcome our judgment and we sell out, afraid that we’ll lose all of our money.

Professional investment managers have systems in place that allow them to overcome the emotional barriers to successful investing.  It begins by creating portfolios that are appropriate for their clients.  Then, in times of stress, they use their discipline and stick to their models, often selling what others are buying or buying what others are selling.  This is the secret to the old Wall Street adage that the way to make money is to “buy low and sell high.”  By taking emotion out of investment decisions professional managers take a lot of the risk out of investing.

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Recovery of Emerging Markets

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index, up 28.09%, is the best performing major index year-to-date – better than the DASDAQ, better than the S&P 500, better than the DJIA.  That’s an amazing reversal.

Emerging Markets have lagged the other major indexes over the last decade.

  • 2.21% for 3 years (vs. 9.57% for the S&P 500)
  • 5.56% for 5 years (vs. 14.36% for the S&P 500)
  • 2.76% for 10 years (vs. 7.61% for the S&P 500)

Why do we mention this?  A well diversified portfolio often includes an allocation to Emerging Markets.  Emerging Markets represent the economies of countries that have grown more rapidly than mature economies like the US and Europe.

Countries in the index include Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.  Some of these countries have economic problems but economic growth in countries like India, China, and Mexico are higher than in the U.S.

Between 2003 and 2007 Emerging Markets grew 375% while the S&P 500 only advanced 85%.  As a result of the economic crisis of 2008, Emerging Markets suffered major losses.  It is possible that these economies may now have moved past that economic shock and may be poised to resume the kind of growth that they have exhibited in the past.  Portfolios that include an allocation to Emerging Markets can benefit from this recovery.

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Why market timing does not work

stock-market-timing

 

A paper published by a business professor ten years ago made this point emphatically.

The evidence from 15 international equity markets and over 160,000 daily returns indicates that a few outliers have a massive impact on long term performance. On average across all 15 markets, missing the best 10 days resulted in portfolios 50.8% less valuable than a passive investment; and avoiding the worst 10 days resulted in portfolios 150.4% more valuable than a passive investment. Given that 10 days represent less than 0.1% of the days considered in the average market, the odds against successful market timing are staggering.”

The odds of getting out of the market at just the right time and then getting back in at just the right time are roughly the same as winning the lottery.

This points out the reason why creating a portfolio that will allow you to invest for the long term is essential to creating wealth.  You can achieve a decent return and sleep well at night.  But in order to do this your portfolio has to match your personal risk tolerance (your Risk Number), one that differs with different people.

We are in a long-term Bull Market, but Bear Markets follow Bulls as night follows day, and some day the Bear will return.  That’s when having a properly diversified, risk-tolerant portfolio pays off.  Big time.

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Once you sell out, when do you get back in?

I recently heard about a 62-year-old who was scared out of the market following the dot.com crash in 2000.  For the last 17 years his money has been in cash and CDs, earning a fraction of one percent.  Now, with the market reaching record highs, he wants to know if this is the right time to get back in.  Should he invest now or is it too late?

Here is what one advisor told him:

My first piece of advice to you is to fundamentally think about investing differently. Right now, it appears to me that you think of investing in terms of what you experience over a short period of time, say a few years. But investing is not about what returns we can generate in one, three, or even 10 years. It’s about what results we generate over 20+ years. What happens to your money within that 20-year period is sometimes exalting and sometimes downright scary. But frankly, that’s what investing is.

Real investing is about the long term, anything else is speculating.   If we constantly try to buy when the market is going up and going to cash when it goes down we playing a loser’s game.  It’s the classic mistake that people make.  It’s the reason that the average investor in a mutual fund does not get the same return as the fund does.   It leads to buying high and selling low.  No one can time the market consistently.  The only way to win is to stay the course.

But staying the course is psychologically difficult.  Emotions take over when we see our investments decline in value.  To avoid having our emotions control our actions we need a well-thought-out plan.   Knowing from the start that we can’t predict the short-term future, we need to know how much risk we are willing to take and stick to it.  Amateur investors generally lack the tools to do this properly.  This is where the real value is in working with a professional investment manager.

The most successful investors, in my view, are the ones who determine to establish a long-term plan and stick to it, through good times and bad. That means enduring down cycles like the dot com bust and the 2008 financial crisis, where you can sometimes see your portfolio decline.  But, it also means being invested during the recoveries, which have occurred in every instance! It means participating in the over 250%+ gains the S&P 500 has experience since the end of the financial crisis in March 2009.  

The answer to the question raised by the person who has been in cash since 2000 is to meet with a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA).  This is a fiduciary who is obligated to will evaluate his situation, his needs, his goals and his risk tolerance.  And RIA is someone who can prepare a financial plan that the client can agree to; one that he can follow into retirement and beyond.  By taking this step the investor will remove his emotions, fears and gut instincts from interfering with his financial future.

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How to lose $150 million

Boris Becker

We have written a lot about planning and investing.  But there’s nothing quite as instructive as learning from mistakes.  Learning from others’ mistakes is less painful than making our own mistakes.

This sets up an example of financial mistakes I learned about recently.

Sometimes the most surreal things happen. For example, anyone who remembers the 1980s’ tennis prodigy Boris Becker may be shocked to learn that last month, in a London courtroom, Becker was declared bankrupt.

After winning Wimbledon and countless other tournaments, Becker’s personal fortune was estimated to have reached $150 million. So how could this have happened? How could he have gone from $150 million to zero, and what can we learn from it?

Sports figures often find that they have developed “posses,” hangers-on who encourage extravagant lifestyles.  Fame and fortune at an early age lead to a number of personal mistakes.  These are often combined with poor investment decisions.  In the case of Becker they include things like Nigerian oil companies, and “… a sports website, an organic food business, and more notably, a planned 19-story high-rise in Dubai called the Boris Becker Business Tower, whose backers went bust in 2011.”

This is a special problem for people who become wealthy in sports and entertainment.  Too often they turn their financial lives over to agents who get them involved in complicated schemes that go sour.

The key to gaining wealth and – most especially – for keeping it is: keep it simple.  During 30 plus years of investing the biggest mistakes I have seen made is people getting involved in complex deals, partnerships, and relationships that they don’t really understand.

We provide education for our clients on investment strategy and develop portfolios that allow people to keep what they have earned.  Don’t be like Boris Becker.

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Aunt Jennie’s Talents

Image result for image of older woman giving money

The Parable of the Talents is known to everyone who ever attended Sunday school.  A man prepares for a long journey by entrusting three servants with heavy bags of silver (talents) while he is gone.  In those days coins were weighed and a “talent” was about 75 pounds.  He gave 10 talents to one, five to the second and one talent to the third.  The first two servants invested the silver.  The third, being fearful. dug a hole and hid the money for safekeeping.  When the man returned, the first two gave the man twice what had been entrusted to them.  But the third just gave the man his money back.  For this poor stewardship the third servant was cast out.

I was reminded of this story when a lady came to us after receiving an inheritance from her Aunt Jennie.  After being grateful for her good fortune she wondered what to do.  Banks today are paying a pittance on deposits, so putting it in the bank was not all that much different from digging a hole to hide the money from thieves.  She wanted to be a good steward of her inheritance.

She wanted to honor Aunt Jennie by taking care of her money wisely and not squander it.  Aunt Jennie worked hard for her company, spent a lifetime being frugal and made wise investments.  My future client knew her own limitations. She was not an experienced investor.  She had to decide if she wanted to spend her time learning investing from the ground up.  With all the information out there, which expert or school of thought do you listen to?  Did she want to spend her time reading fine print, studying balance sheets or did she want to continue doing those things she enjoyed by finding an experienced professional she could trust to shepherd the money for her.

She chose us because of our caring professionalism.  We listened carefully to her objectives.  We explained the risks and rewards involved in the investing process.  We explained our investment process with the key focus on risk control and wide diversification.  We believe in wise investing, steady growth, and the assurance that your money will keep working for you. With over 30 years’ experience we have weathered all kinds of markets successfully.  Our knowledge and experience allows our clients to focus on those things they enjoy.  They know that their investments will be there for as long as they need them and beyond to help their children and grandchildren.

Aunt Jennie’s talents have grown and our client is happy.  Aunt Jennie would be proud.

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Are you taking more risk than you should?

 

We often take risks without knowing it.  There are some risks that are well known; things like texting while driving or not fastening your seat belt.  But there are other risks that are less well publicized and that can hurt you.

As financial professionals we often meet people who are not aware of the financial risks they are taking.  While there are countless books written about investing, most people don’t bother studying the subject.  As a result, they get their information from articles in the press, advertising, or chatting with their friends.

Many people have told us they are “conservative” investors and then show us investments that have sky-high risks.  This is because investment risks are either hiding in the fine print or not provided at all.  No one tells you how much risk you are taking when you buy a stock, even of a major company like General Electric.  GE is a huge, diversified global company, yet lost 90% of its value between 2000 and 2009.  Norfolk Southern is another popular stock in this area.  Do you know its “risk number?”   You may be surprised.

We have analytical tools that can accurately quantify your risk tolerance and give you your personal “Risk Number.”  We can then measure the risk you are taking with your investments.  They should be similar.  If not, you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised if the investment you thought was “safe” loses its value because you took too much risk.

We have no objection to daredevils who know the risk they are taking by jumping over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.  But we would caution the weekend cyclist not to try the same thing.  Contact us to find your personal “Risk Number” and then determine how much risk there is in your portfolio.

 

 

 

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The most common investment mistake made by financial advisors

Bill Miller beat the S&P 500 index 15 years in a row as portfolio manager of Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust (1991-2005), a record for diversified mutual fund managers.  He was interviewed by WealthManagement.com about active vs. passive management.

We have written a number of articles about the mistakes individual investors make.  But what about mistakes that financial advisors make?  We are, after all, fallible and make errors of judgment.  And like all mortals we cannot predict the future.

Here’s Bill Miller’s assessment about traps that financial advisors fall into:

One problem is how they deal with risk. There is a lot more action on perceived risks, exposing clients to risks they aren’t aware of. For example, since the financial crisis people have overweighted bonds and underweighted stocks. People react to market prices rather than understanding that’s a bad thing to do.

Most importantly, most advisors are too short-term oriented, because their clients are too short-term oriented. There’s a focus on market timing, and all of that is mostly useless. The equity market is all about time, not timing. It’s about staying at the table.

Think of the equity market like a casino, except you own it: You’re the house. You get an 8-9 percent annual return. Casinos operate on a lower margin than that and make money. Bad periods are to be expected. If anything, that’s when you want more tables.

We agree.  That’s one of the reasons we are choosy about the clients we accept. One of the foremost regrets we have is taking on clients who hired us for the wrong reasons.  One substantial client came to us as the tech market was heating up in the late 1990s.  He asked us to create a portfolio of tech stocks so that he could participate in the growth of that sector.  We accepted that challenge, but it was a mistake.  When the tech bubble burst and his portfolio went down and we lost a client.  But it taught us a valuable lesson: say no to clients who focus strictly on short-term portfolio performance.  Our role is to invest our clients’ serious money for long term goals.

Like Bill Miller, we want to have the odds on our side.  We want to be the “house,” not the gambler.  The first rule of making money is not to lose it.  The second rule is to always observe the first rule.

To determine client and portfolio risk we use sophisticated analytical programs for insight into prospective clients actual risk tolerance.  That allows us to match our portfolios to a client’s individual risk tolerance.  In times of market exuberance we remind our clients that trees don’t grow to the sky.  And in times of market declines we encourage our clients to stay the course, knowing that time in the market is more important than timing the market.

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The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

Reader Mailbag: Dividend Investing vs Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

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