Category Archives: risk management

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.

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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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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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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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What does “diversification” mean?

 

Diversification is key - Wealth Foundations

To many retail investors “diversification” means owning a collection of stocks, bonds, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  But that’s really not what diversification is all about.

What’s the big deal about diversification anyhow?

Diversification means that you are spreading the risk of loss by putting your investment assets in several different categories of investments.  Examples include stocks, bonds, money market instruments, commodities, and real estate.  Within each of these categories you can slice even finer.  For example, stocks can be classified as large cap (big companies), mid cap (medium sized companies), small cap (smaller companies), domestic (U.S. companies), and foreign (non-U.S. companies).

And within each of these categories you can look for industry diversification.  Many people lost their savings in 2000 when the “Tech Bubble” burst because they owned too many technology-oriented stocks.  Others lost big when the real estate market crashed in late 2007 because they focused too much of their portfolio in bank stocks.

The idea behind owning a variety of asset classes is that different asset classes will go in different directions independent of each other.  Theoretically, if one goes down, another may go up or hold it’s value.  There is a term for this: “correlation.”  Investment assets that have a high correlation tend to move in the same direction, those with a low correlation do not.  These assumptions do not always hold true, but they are true often enough that proper diversification is a valuable tool to control risk.

Many investors believe that if they own a number of different mutual funds they are diversified.  They are, of course, more diversified than someone who owns only a single stock.  But many funds own the same stocks.  We have to look within the fund, to the things they own, and their investment styles, to find out if your funds are merely duplicates of each other or if you are properly diversified.

You need to look at a “portfolio x-ray” which will show you how much overlap there is between two or more mutual funds.

Only by looking at your portfolio with this view of diversification can you determine if you are diversified or if you have accidentally concentrated your portfolio without realizing it.

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Piracy risk

Image Credits: nautilusint.org

Most of us are aware of the risks we take every day, but we ran across an interesting article recently that involved a risk we had not considered: being captured by pirates.

Believe it or not, in certain parts of the world, it’s happening.

Impoverished areas dotting the coasts of Nigeria, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been virtual breeding grounds for partially-organized collections of criminals seeking to steal, hijack, kidnap and murder their way to fortune.

We have seen news reports of pirates attacking oil tankers and holding them for ransom.  The peak of this occurred in 2011.  Since then, shippers have improved security, hired armed escorts and received military assistance.

 This modern era of the 21st century pirate is being successfully stunted, yet maritime kidnappings for ransom are on the rise. Although the number of pirate attacks is decreasing throughout the world, the number of kidnappings taking place during those attacks is increasing. Internationally, pirates kidnapped 62 persons in 2016, all of whom were or are still being held for ransom.

Pirates realized that it’s easier to capture people and spirit them away that to deal with ships that can’t be hidden.  People are smaller and pound-for-pound a great deal more valuable.  So we now have a new growth industry: Kidnap and Ransom (K&R) Insurance. If you are planning to travel to the pirate infested waters of Southeast Asia or off the coast of Africa you may want to check out the rates for K&R insurance.  For a premium you’ll get unlimited funding for a crisis response team whose sole mission is to get you safely home.

If you plan to take your yacht through the South China Sea or the Malaccan Straights this is something you may want to consider.

Meanwhile, in this part of the world, we’ll keep an eye on the risks with which we are more familiar: market fluctuations, tax changes, interest rate increases, economic trends and even those things we can’t foresee known as Black Swans.   Stay safe.

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Is the Trump Rally Real?

Our favorite financial economist, Brian Wesbury, has some hopeful thoughts about the market following the election.

Since the presidential election, the S&P 500 is up 8.4%, the Russell 2000, a small cap stock index, is up almost 20% and the Dow is closing in on 20,000. Financial stocks have surged.

This “Trump Rally,” just like the entire 2009-2016 bull market – which pushed up stocks more than 200% – has its detractors. We heard it over and over in the past eight years, and now we are hearing it again – “the market has moved too far, too fast.”

Wesbury thinks that there’s a real reason for the market’s rise.  “Hope and faith” has nothing to do with it.  His model indicated that the market was undervalued before the election, and he has attributed that to government policies.

We believe the reason it was undervalued was because government policy was constantly making it more difficult for free markets to operate. Higher taxes, higher spending and more regulation increase the risks to future growth. It’s why we have had a Plow Horse economy. At the least, these policies are now stopped, at best, they will be reversed.

He expects that a Trump administration will be much more market friendly.  At the current rate, perhaps he will soon begin talking about a “Race Horse” economy.

Of course, like any prediction about the future, events can get in the way.  That’s why we are always cautious and focused on protecting our client’s investment assets while participating in the market’s advance within the constraints of prudence, knowing that our vision of the future is never guaranteed.

In the meantime, we are enjoying the ride and are getting ready for a very Merry Christmas.

New Years Resolutions for 2017

As another year winds to a close, we wanted to present you with some New Years resolutions designed to improve your financial health in the coming year.

  • Update your estate plan. Has there been a change in your family over the last year?  A marriage, a new baby, a death in the family?  If so, you need to update your estate plan, your insurance policies and your beneficiary designations.
  • Update your internet passwords. Are you using the internet to pay bills, shop, or access your investment accounts?  You will want to update your passwords and make them harder to guess.
  • Review your investments. Have you reviewed your portfolio recently?  Is it still aligned with your needs and goals?  If not, make some changes.
  • Get a personal “Risk Number.” Do you know how much risk you can take?  Most people don’t really know.  Resolve to get your personal “Risk Number“this year.  If you don’t know yours, click here to figure it out.
  • Get your portfolio’s “Risk Number.” Do you know how risky your investments are?  Most people don’t know how much risk they are taking.  Get your portfolio’s “Risk Number” and compare it to yours.  If it’s not the same, you need to consult your financial advisor.
  • Update your financial plan. If you don’t know where you’re going you probably won’t get there.  What’s your financial plan?  If you answered: “I don’t have one” resolve to get one this year.
  • Set your financial goals. Do you know how much you need to save to retire?  Here are some guidelines:

A 30-year-old can open a retirement account and make regular monthly contributions.  By investing properly and aiming for a modest 6% per year rate of return:

  • Saving just $200/month, by age 67 his account will have grown to nearly $350,000.
  • By saving $500 per month the account will be worth over $850,000.
  • Saving $1,000 per month will make our 30-year-old a millionaire by age 59.

 

If you have problems with any of these resolutions, you should definitely consider working with a financial advisor; someone who will be like a health coach for your personal finances.  Resolve to find one this year.

Think of the Advisor as your Sherpa, as it were, whose job it is to guide you amid the extreme altitudes and treacherous passes in investing’s hazardous terrain. That is to say, an Advisor is not someone you hire to beat the market for you, but rather someone who can help you achieve your personal financial objectives as “a facilitator, mentor, and market strategist” for those who, on their own, struggle to achieve their goals.

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