Flexible Tactics, Timeless Values

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In business, the things that change draw a lot of energy. New technology, new ways of doing things, and new ideas grab our attention. The new offers the promise of competitive advantage.

Less attention goes to the things that never change. The timeless things can compound over long periods. Successful enterprises may need to harness both the new and the timeless. At 228 Main, we need both to serve you well.

For example, Amazon is one of the most dynamic companies in the world. The growth and evolution of the company has been astonishing. Yet founder Jeff Bezos focuses most closely on the things that never change.

According to Bezos, his customers want low prices, vast selection, and fast delivery. They wanted those things twenty years ago, and they will want those same things twenty years from now. When you invest in meeting unchanging needs, the returns may roll in for many years.

Writer and thinker Morgan Housel wrote that every sustainable business relies on one or more timeless features. We believe the key features you would like us to deliver include close human interaction, confidence and trust, and transparency. (Transparency in this context means ‘what you see is what you get.’)

We have previously noted that 21st century communications allow us to be radically transparent and to connect more closely. When we improve our processes for research and trading and portfolio analysis, we generate more time to work with you one on one. Our sense is that all these things together may increase your confidence in us.

Amazon continuously improves methods and tactics to deliver on its timeless strategy. We seek to do the same. Clients, if you would like to offer your perspective (or discuss anything else), please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

Amazon, Leibman Financial Services and LPL Financial are not affiliated.

Backward Measures of Risk

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Our investing experience over the last two years vividly demonstrates the problem with confusing volatility and risk.

After years of relative stability, a certain security plunged by more than 80% in a few months. The standard model of risk would have you believe that the security was relatively safer at the high price level. And the more the price declined, the riskier it became—according to the standard methods.

Value investors seek the bargains. To them, the lower the price, the better the deal. This is exactly the opposite of the standard model of risk.

The rest of the story is that the security turned on a dime at the low point, and rose back to its original level in the following months. At the very point the standard model of risk viewed this investment in the worst light, it was preparing to embark on a rise of more than 400%.

There is a good reason why people (including professionals) confuse volatility with risk. In the short term, volatility IS risk. If you have wealth to pay the bills due within a few days, you cannot afford to have the value bouncing around from day to day. If it goes the wrong direction, you might not have enough money to pay the bills.

Therefore, whether volatility is risk depends on the time horizon. In the short term, volatility is risk. In the long term, perhaps volatility is opportunity, not risk. We work hard to understand your time horizon so we can get this right for you.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this in more detail, or have other things on your agenda, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

What’s Your Story?

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Thinker Morgan Housel wrote recently about the power of narrative in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The essay focused on the narratives that affect the whole economy, the big-picture themes. The future of the country didn’t change much from 2007 to 2009, but employment, wealth, and the markets all got slammed. What caused it? The central narrative, how we understood our economy, changed dramatically from the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust.

Investment manias have a story at their core. They may come true or not, but while the story holds sway, real values are driven by the story. Housel summarized it this way: “this is not a story about something happening; something is happening because there’s a story.”

Stories are how we organize and understand the world and our place in it. “Stories create their own kind of truth,” as Housel wrote. We believe the same idea shapes the lives of individuals just as certainly as it shapes economic and societal trends.

At 228 Main, we have stories. About people who save diligently and achieve financial independence. About folks who invest with increasing confidence and less worry over the years. About investors who learn to live with volatility, and hold on through the downturns. (These are stories, not promises or guarantees—you long-time clients know your own realities.)

I would not be able to work with you as effectively without those stories—and more importantly, the narratives of my own life.

I have a story about a vibrant business in the face of steep personal challenges. I have a story about working to age 92. I have a story about new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

These stories have enabled me to thrive while dealing with major issues, live healthier than I have for decades, communicate more effectively with you than ever before, and make plans for the decades ahead while some of my contemporaries coast toward retirement.

It feels to me as if the stories I have crafted in turn have shaped my life. I am not done creating stories; life goes on and things change. We do not know the future. But if we take control of our stories, we may be able to influence our futures. No guarantees.

How about you? What’s your story? Are there aspects of your narrative that we could help you with? Clients, please email us or call if you would like a longer discussion.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Pioneer Mortality and The Osborne 1

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In April 1981, Adam Oborne debuted the very first portable computer. His company was the fastest growing in Silicon Valley. You can see how popular the idea of portable computing got by visiting any coffee shop any day of the week. Laptops, tablets and smart phones are all descendants of the Osborne 1.

Yet Osborne Computer declared bankruptcy thirty months later, and disappeared completely by 1986. This is fairly common in the history of commerce, the story of the pioneer that did not survive.

Portable computing as a concept was separate and distinct from its first manifestation, the Osborne 1 computer. This is a key to understanding subsequent manias based on pioneering technologies or concepts.

We humans are a creative, inventive species. There always seems to be an exciting concept or something new that will really change things. Steamships, railroads, petroleum, airplanes, automobiles, telephones, radio, television, cell phones…something new is always on the horizon. These things have created new ways of doing things and reshaped our lives and society.

But with each of these revolutionary ideas, there was a difference between the successful path of the idea, and what happened to the first manifestations or demonstrations of that idea.

The Osborne 1 computer was a twenty-four pound beast with no battery, a three inch screen, and now-laughable technical specifications. The concept of portable computing was worthwhile, revolutionary, and eventually changed the way we live and work. But the first manifestation did not even turn out to be sustainable or successful.

Just as the key uses of the internet took time to emerge and evolve, the most important uses of any new idea probably do not exist yet. In the internet boom of the late 1990’s and early 2000, some investors made the mistake of confusing the powerful concept with its initial manifestations. It did not end well for them.

There are powerful ideas circulating today based on revolutionary concepts. They may eventually reshape our lives, institutions, and society. When you come across one of these intriguing situations, please remember the lesson of the Osborne 1. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else in more detail, please email us or call.


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

 

The Coming Boom?

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We wrote more than a year ago about the steady if slow growth of the economy. Just as a slow-burning fire might last longer than a raging conflagration, we expected that the economic expansion would persist longer than some commentators believed.

Another way to say it is, a bust is less likely without a boom first. The excesses that build in boom times usually contribute to the bust that follows.

For the first time in a decade, conditions may be ripe for a boom. The improvement in small business sentiment and increased money flowing into the equity markets had us on the lookout for signs of a boom. Then the tax law passed.

The tax law has pro-cyclical features that may strongly encourage economic growth now, but plants the seeds for a later slowdown. There may be political aspects that contribute to this syndrome, too.

Businesses investing in long-lived capital investments will be able to deduct the full cost up front, instead of taking smaller depreciation deductions over many years. This increases the financial attractiveness of projects; capital spending is likely to rise. A dramatically lower tax rate on corporate income, combined with a feature to bring overseas money back to the US, are further inducements for more business activity.

For two administrations in a row, the signature achievement of each has been done on a partisan, party line vote. When the minority party becomes the majority party, that achievement gets attacked and the unwinding begins. We’ve seen it with the Affordable Care Act; some Democrats are pledging to undo the tax law as soon as they are able.

So the favorable treatment of capital spending begins to phase out in a few years, and corporations may ‘get while the getting is good’ before the law gets weakened or unwound. These conditions might begin to affect things precisely when excesses from the boom have created more potential for a slowdown.

Boom, then bust. We know how this works. Clients, we will continue to monitor all of this, and work to take advantage of our thinking. No guarantees.

If you would like to discuss any of this in more detail, or have something else on your agenda, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax advice. We suggest that you discuss your specific tax issues with a qualified tax advisor.

 

Review and Outlook: Perception and Reality

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The gap between perception and reality is a key concept for us, as contrarian investors.

Year-end is a logical time to stand back and assess the year just ending, our current situation, and prospects for the next year. Many others ably describe the facts and statistics and the major themes. We will look at a pair of critically important things that may have fallen into the gap.

We believe the president has a flawed understanding of global trade. He recently spoke again of disastrous trade deals, massive profits to other nations, and millions of American jobs lost. The reality is, trade lets us get more for everything we produce, and pay less for everything we consume. It enriches America and the world.

We aren’t here to argue politics. But we are here to understand economics and markets as best we can, for your benefit and ours. The markets may be underestimating the potential for damage to the economy, corporate profits, employment, and stock prices if the president’s rhetoric ever translates into actual policy.

The second concern is about Congress, and a problem to which both parties have contributed (in my opinion.) The American system of governance historically produced major legislation through a bipartisan process. The Civil Rights Act, Social Security, Medicare, and the Tax Reform Act of 1986 were all products of give and take between members of both parties. All of these endured.

Without debating the merits of either, the Affordable Care Act and the recent tax legislation are the products of a partisan process. Both featured closed-door negotiations by small groups, deal-making that benefitted narrow groups to win votes, and straight party-line votes that produced less-than-perfect outcomes.

The ACA has been under attack since it was passed, and is now being unraveled by the opposition. The same thing could happen in the years ahead to the tax legislation. Uncertainty about tax policy may create problems for companies and the economy.

The short version of all this is that we are optimistic—as always. But our eyes are wide open. We will continue to diversify into sectors that may be less affected (or unaffected) by these issues. This is consistent with our core principles of seeking the best bargains and avoiding stampedes.

Clients, if you would like to discuss these issues further, or have anything else on your agenda, please write or call. In the meantime, we are enjoying the results of 2017 and hopeful about what will happen in 2018.


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

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

Mind Games

© Can Stock Photo / JohanSwanepoel

What do you think when you hear the phrase ‘mind games?’

It has a negative connotation, doesn’t it? One person is trying to gain an advantage over another through the use of nonproductive emotions or attitudes. But that only applies to the two player version.

There is a solitaire version of the mind game that may be exactly the opposite of the two-player game. The Solitaire Mind Game can be a positive way to shape your attitude. A recent example illuminates this.

Most of us have had the experience of a stressful day of travel. You know my schedule includes a couple travel days a month, sometimes more. But my stressful travel days are pretty much over.

I simply decided to have relaxing days of travel instead of stressful travel days. My life has been better since. Same mode of travel to the same destinations, but now relaxing instead of stressful.

I know how to find good food and beverages, and the quietest, most comfortable places to work when traveling. Getting to them usually provides some exercise, which would otherwise be lacking on those days. This blog is being written partly in a nice café that serves Scooter’s coffee and happens to be in an airport, partly on a plane where they serve just about anything one might choose to drink.

Sometimes I need a few hours of quiet time to do some strategic planning. Or figure out new ways to make things better for you. The enforced solitude of travel is a good thing, because it gives me time to ponder things that take time to ponder.

And it isn’t all work-related! Life in the 21st century has some features that contribute to relaxing days of travel. I have eighty-seven good books and my complete music library with me, on a device no bigger than a spiral notebook. Those electrons are pretty easy to lug through the airport.

After a relaxing day of travel, I am ready to meet people I enjoy or run errands that need to be run. This is so much better than enduring stressful travel days! And I owe it all to the solitaire version of Mind Games.

Clients, please call or email to find out why I am grateful for flight delays, or to learn why you might be grateful for market volatility, or to talk about anything else on your agenda.


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

Put it in Writing

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Life in the 21st century is producing some unanticipated, but welcome, byproducts.

In prior centuries, when a person wanted to clarify exactly what another person was saying, he or she might have said “Put it in writing.” Here in the 21st century, digital media enables everyone to put everything in writing—if they choose to. We so choose.

At 228 Main, we realized a long time ago that if we had one story, we could use our time more effectively. We began to focus on people who could best work with our philosophy and methods. When we all start on the same page, we can spend more time understanding the nuances of each person’s situation.

With one story, we can talk to all of you at once. If things are happening quickly, this focus gives us an advantage over talking to people one at a time. Our messages go out at the speed of light to your screens and phones, to be read or viewed at your leisure.

Putting things in writing has another effect. Author Morgan Housel wrote about turning gut feelings into useful ideas. “Writing crystallizes ideas in ways thinking on its own will never accomplish.” Writing is a way to think on paper, in a form that lasts.

We believe thinking is a critical element in collaborating with you on your plans and planning. It also helps us run our business. If writing improves our thinking, it is good for you and for us.

Because we seek the best clients in the world, we have adopted radical transparency—clarity—as a core philosophy. We do ‘put it in writing:’ our philosophy, strategy, methods, tactics, everything, including our fees.

Having the same story for everyone lets us be more effective in communicating the story. The practice of writing helps us clarify our thoughts and feelings into solid ideas and plans. And you can more easily get a handle on what we are about.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other topic in more detail, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Our Book Report: “The Big Short”

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Back in the Mesozoic Era when we attended elementary school, it was common practice to assign book reports as homework. On the appointed day, students were called to the front of the class to read their report aloud.

This may surprise you, but fourth graders often seized on one small part of the book, a particular event or character. The rest of the story, perhaps even the central theme, might be neglected. We are trying to tell you that this book report is fourth-grade style.

The Michael Lewis epic about the last financial crisis illuminates how nearly the entire financial world can get it wrong, while a tiny group of free thinkers or eclectic contrarians digs into the facts and gets it right. The people who figure the deal out in real time usually get castigated and abused—and rich.

The contrarians are usually as noisy as they can be. But they might as well be speaking Etruscan to the coffee klatch at B’s Diner in beautiful downtown Louisville. It is as if nobody can understand them.

The moral of the story is that being part of a broad consensus may provide a sense of security. We humans are social creatures, and we crave acceptance and a certain level of conformity to group norms. But the crowd might be terribly wrong, to its eventual detriment.

Meredith Whitney, a previously obscure analyst, was the voice in the wilderness on the sub-prime rot in the financial system in 2008. She had been trained by Steve Eisman. These two had a history of looking at reality, and finding the gap between it and the prevailing perception.

Clients, you already know these people are heroes to us. They were selling when the stampede was buying. They did their own thinking. The consensus meant nothing to them. These are the things to which we aspire.

Of course, the renegades turned out to be correct, the conventional wisdom was actually ‘wisdumb,’ and a few people did well while many suffered losses. Again. “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis is a wonderful telling of this tale.

We have written enough already about our differences with the current consensus views. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else on your agenda, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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

Any named entity, Leibman Financial Services, Inc. and LPL Financial are not affiliated.

The Monster Under the Bed

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When we were small, some of us had older brothers who tried to convince us there was a monster under the bed. You may be surprised to know there is a corollary in the world of investing.

The monster promoted by some is generally called “the arithmetic of losses.” The arithmetic of losses is a simple mathematical observation that from a given number, if you take a certain percentage decrease, and then an equal percentage increase, you wind up lower than you started–even though your increase and decrease were proportionately the same. For example, if you start with $100, and lose 20%, you are at $80. If you gain 20% of $80, you’re still only back to $96. But we are here to tell you, there is no monster under the bed.

Consider that when a major stock market index declines by 50%, it then does need a 100% gain to get back to even. This is just arithmetic. But consider: whenever a stock market index is at an all time high, that is conclusive proof that the “arithmetic of losses” is a bunch of baloney.

Each all-time high means that the index has successfully come back 100% from every 50% loss, 50% for every 33% loss, 25% for every 20% loss… and MORE. Every time, every loss thus far. The long-term history of major United States stock market averages speaks for itself, and incorporates all the losses and all the gains.

Some fearmongers say investors cannot live with the ups and downs that are a necessary and integral part of long term investing. Clients, you know we work hard to ascertain whether you could be suited to our philosophy.

Part of that philosophy is that temporary declines, no matter how sharp, are not losses unless you sell out. It is not always easy, but it has worked out. No guarantees about the future, of course.

If you can be turned into a chicken, then some operator who claims to ‘control risk’ or promises short-term stability AND long-term returns may get your money. Please keep in mind that every chicken, sooner or later, gets eaten.

The fearmongers are right about one thing: markets go up and down. You and we know this. We work hard to manage the money you need without having to sell out at a bad time. This is one of the keys to being able to get through the downturns.

Clients, we are striving to find bargains, avoid stampedes, and own the orchard for the fruit crop. These principles will not prevent volatility. But there is no monster under the bed. Email us or call if you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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