Behavioral Economics and The Price of Stability

Stone wall with gold letters spelling out STABILITYThe first theory of economists was that human beings act rationally. When they realized they needed a new theory, the field of Behavioral Economics was born.

One of the key findings of Behavioral Economics is that the pain of a loss is twice as great as the pleasure of a corresponding gain. Rationally speaking, if you earn $5 it should feel just as satisfying as if you earned $10 and then lost $5 of that—but we still feel the sting of the loss harder, even though the outcome is the same.

If people weigh these two otherwise identical outcomes differently, when it comes time to invest they will wind up paying more for $5 earned in stable investments than they would for $5 earned in volatile investments. There is no shortage of expensive products designed to pander to this tendency by selling the promise of stability at a premium.

The necessary conclusion we see—the one nobody else seems to—is that if the price of stability is too high, the potential rewards for enduring volatility must be larger than they otherwise should be.

These concepts shape our work, our strategies, and our tactics. “The pain of a loss” is determined by one’s mindset, training, and understanding. Many great investors (and many of our clients) feel no pain over short-term losses. Some are even gleeful at the chance to buy securities at bargain prices. One of our roles is to help you develop more productive and effective attitudes about investing, and we believe that by training yourself out of irrational pain over short-term volatility you can perform better in the long run.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific investment advice or recommendations for any individual.

The illustration is hypothetical and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Never Get Scammed Again

Suspicious business deal

We believe that the best way to make money is to earn it by providing a valuable service that people will pay for. Unfortunately, some would rather make money by cheating you out of yours.

We know that if a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but it’s not always so easy. Con artists try to get you to let your guard down by buttering you up. Often, a fraudulent pitch begins with the idea that you would be rich if only you could get in on those special deals that only the rich can normally get into. The con artist offers a way in, and people fall for it because they want it to be true.

Fraudsters also like to provide plausible-sounding explanations for their unrealistic promises. One of the best ways to spot a hole in their story is by looking for things that don’t go together.

A few years ago a client managed to avoid a Missouri cattle-feeding scam by knowing that “guaranteed returns” should not be in the same sentence as “cattle feeding.” The pitch for cattle feeding profits made sense, but they knew the cattle business had no guarantees. In the second biggest scam in history, the Stanford Bank claimed it could pay 8% interest due to low overhead, but another client realized that 8% interest did not belong in a world of 4% rates no matter how low the overhead was.

These schemes have plausible explanations on the surface. But even when the details sound reasonable, looking at the big picture usually reveals the details do not match up with each other. If somebody wants you to invest in a way that does not quite make sense, please call us.

Ever Notice It Goes “Day-Night, Day-Night, Day-Night”?

Sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico

A long time ago, a toddler posed me the above question. Surprised, I said “What?” and she replied, “The world!” The innocent quest of a three-year-old to observe and understand the world as it is contains a vital lesson for investors. The corresponding question for investors, one that deals with the most basic aspect of the economic and business world and the investment markets, is “Ever notice that it goes up-down, up-down, up-down?”

Cycles and volatility are every bit as central to the investing world as night and day are to the physical world. When the sun sets, we know better than to panic about whether it will ever rise again. When the markets turn downwards it is equally fruitless to worry that they are going to stay down forever.

It is important to have the wisdom to recognize that markets don’t go up forever, either. Investors are lured into bubbles by the notion that the good times are here to stay. How many people did you hear saying “You can’t lose money in real estate” in 2007, or “You can’t lose money in tech stocks” in 2000? They might as well have been saying that the sun will never set.

We know that the market goes up-down, up-down, up-down. While markets may not be as reliable as the sun, we believe that over the long run we can see more “up” than “down.” Part of this is knowing enough to avoid stampedes when everyone else is convinced that a market can only go up-up-up or down-down-down.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Everything You Need to Know About the Federal Reserve “Conspiracy”

Federal Reserve - stock photo

We hear a lot about the Federal Reserve. It’s a poorly understood entity that seems to be in the news an awful lot for something most of the public knows so little about.

We have a firm understanding of what the Federal Reserve does, and we know that it is just a human institution like any other, subject to the same virtues and flaws as the rest of us. There is a vocal minority however that is concerned with the idea of a vast and powerful conspiracy with the Federal Reserve at its helm. They fear that a small handful of unelected people control everything at the expense of our legitimate elective government and will ultimately be our ruination.

There is a glaring problem with this theory: the hundred years since the Federal Reserve was founded has seen more progress in our country, in our living standards, and in goods and services that make our lives better than was done in the thousand (or two thousand, or ten thousand) years before.

In other words, if a handful of people really are controlling everything, they’ve apparently been doing a wonderful job for us so far.

What To Hold For Your End Of The World Portfolio

Man worried about 2012 doomsday prophecy - Stock photoOur entire investment philosophy is underwritten by a simple fundamental belief: tomorrow will be better than today. We can’t know that this will be true of every single tomorrow, but we’re pretty sure of what the long term trend will be.

Though they say that “past performance does not guarantee future results”, human civilization has a track record thousands of years long of managing to always do bigger and better things. We expect that things will continue to get bigger and better as time goes on. Without this belief the idea of investing in the future is meaningless.

We know that there are troubles in the world, as the news frequently reminds us. Clients sometimes come to us fearing that the latest bad news signals imminent total catastrophe. This isn’t anything new–people have been predicting the end of civilization for the entire span of human history. Yet somehow we’ve always gone on to bigger and better things all the same.

If such things ever do come to pass, it isn’t going to matter what investments you own. Your meanest neighbor will be trying to steal your canned goods. So the ideal portfolio for the end of the world is the one that will serve you best in the event that the end of the world fails to show up on schedule—again.

Is the Market Too High? A Principled View

We follow three guiding principles in our work. Avoid stampedes in the markets, find what we believe to be the biggest bargains, and seek to “own the orchard for the fruit crop.” (The orchard analogy for income-producing securities is apt, since neither crops nor dividends are guaranteed.) In this letter, we will explore how these principles apply to one question that seems to be quite common these days. The question is whether the stock market is simply “too high,” based on the move up from the panic lows of 2009.

Our first principle, avoid stampedes in the markets, is based on our understanding that the stampede is usually going the wrong way. There was a stampede into tech stocks in 1999, which ended badly. There was a stampede into real estate in the early 2000’s, which ended badly. There was a stampede into commodities after that, which ended badly. In short, major peaks are usually accompanied by a stampede of money that drives prices to extremes. Our observation is that there has been no stampede into stocks yet, no overwhelming volume of money driving prices to ridiculous levels.

Our second principle, seek the best bargains, lets us sort “the market” into its pieces. The three major asset classes are stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives. Cash and its alternatives currently earn zero-point-nothing interest rates; bonds are barely better. Diving one level deeper into stocks, we find that some sectors and industries are expensive and others appear to be bargains. For example, natural resources in most forms have seen falling prices for several years. Oil is about one-third of the 2008 price; copper is near a decade-low; the price of iron ore has been falling for four years. So stocks in the largest global natural resource companies are as low as one-third or one-fourth of the peak prices of a few years ago.

As a counterbalance to natural resource companies, we have found potential bargains among companies that benefit from low energy and resource prices: selected automakers and suppliers, airlines, trucking companies, and manufacturers. While “the market” may or may not be too high, these companies certainly do not appear to be too high.

Our third principle is to seek to own the orchard for the fruit crop. Portfolio income is an important component of total returns, and those among us who rely on our portfolios to buy groceries surely understand the importance of cash income. As noted above, interest rates remain very close to zero—we do not believe that bonds or cash alternatives are a good way to generate income these days. But we are currently enjoying generous dividends from many companies in the bargain sectors, including the oil and natural resource companies. Other holdings purchased in past years continue to pay regular dividends, from pipelines to telecom to auto stocks.

Summing up, this study of our principles leads us to say “the market” is not too high, particularly the sectors we currently own. No guarantees, of course, and past performance is no guarantee of future returns.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Investing in real estate involves special risks such as potential illiquidity and may not be suitable for all investors.

The fast price swings in commodities will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.

Precious metal investing involves greater fluctuation and potential for losses.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Because of its narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.