Drop Your Tools

photo shows the front of a flat, wooden raft and the rushing water in front of it

We need to cross the river. The river has its dangers, but we can’t stay here. We gather materials and fashion a raft. Perched atop, we paddle it to the other shore, where we have a decision to make.

This raft has served us so well: it helped us get to this side of the river. It is a valuable tool. Should we carry it on our backs, as we continue on land?

Just posing the question should reveal how silly it would be to drag along something we’re done with. No, of course we shouldn’t carry the raft with us.

But as humans we do this sort of thing all the time. We mistake the tool for its meaning, and we cling to what has worked in the past. We can’t drop our tools: they got us here! Where would we be without them? Who would we be without them?

That type of thinking gets people all tangled up. We’re not our choices, and we’re not our tools. (And none of this is for forever!)

In our shop, when we suggest a change of course, it may indicate that a new opportunity has become available, but sometimes it just means that an older strategy is no longer serving us. It has played itself out. And we don’t care what anybody else thinks about our strategies, either, but the meaning of our tools comes not from just having them—but from having used them.

The parable of the raft was one of the Buddha’s teachings. He implored his students to trust their own experiences and use his teachings only as they were helpful. Otherwise, drop them. No dogma, no tool for its own sake.

Trust that the proper strategy and tactics will become clear from the values and principles at the core of this adventure. No strategy, no tactic for its own sake.

Clients, when it’s time to make a change in your portfolios, when we learn something new about the world around us, we will strive to be as transparent as possible. We will share our thinking, how it has changed, and what led us to our conclusion.

When you’d like to talk about this, or anything else, write or call.

What’s a Win?

photo shows a person with a hat and ponytail sitting on a cliff's edge

Maybe you’ve seen this type of picture on social media lately: the family perched on big rocks in the hillside or an orange sunset over the shoulder from the peak of a mountain. Plenty of our friends and relations have been enjoying more of the great outdoors in the past few weeks. Some have even been inspired to hike for the first time!

Those majestic views are such a treat, even experienced vicariously through my screen. But they had me thinking about those hikes and the challenges they pose.

Say you were planning a hike on a new trail. Maybe a two-mile trek would be a reasonable goal: challenging given the terrain, but totally possible. Yeah, it could actually be exciting to push yourself and make that happen! Two miles of work, the corresponding exercise endorphins, and gorgeous views?

That hike would be a win.

So you set off. After feeling the initial burn, you settle into a rhythm and are enjoying yourself. Maybe there’s more to gain here than you expected.

At the end of your planned route, you still feel like you have gas in the tank: on a whim, you travel on for two more miles.

You can’t believe it! This is farther than you’ve ever hiked in your life, more steps than you could ever have imagined! It is totally thrilling.

You check your watch. Time to head back, you suppose, but what a ride! It’s only once you look up that you realize what you’ve done. The gas in the tank was supposed to be for coasting back to comfort and safety.

Your reasonable win has become a burden. Your resources are low; it’s hard to enjoy what you did accomplish because of how little you’re left with now.

Mistakes like these aren’t always deadly or catastrophic—but they can certainly harm your goals and your wellbeing. For investors, the instinct to throw everything in on the way up (and up and up and up!) can mean that much harder of a fall when the reality sets in.

What’s a win? If you set your terms going in, you may be less tempted to risk your goal for some moonshot you didn’t need in the first place.

Clients, remember: we are all about your goals. If you feel them shifting or want to talk, call or email any time.

Small, Boring, and Extraordinary

We talk a lot about plans and planning. Your goals, your situation are at the center of our work. And they have to be: that’s the whole point.

But you didn’t become the best clients in the whole world overnight. It’s been a journey of change for us and for you. So how did we do it? How did we build relationships where we can navigate change, monitor the conditions around us with clear eyes, and adjust when needed?

We didn’t leap off any cliffs together. We didn’t burn it all down. We didn’t do anything drastic. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” the saying goes—and neither is a solid financial life.

We don’t look at a goal—retirement, for example—and expect that one big, amazing deal is going to land a pot of gold in our laps. But we also aren’t going to scratch our heads and wonder how we’re going to magically produce that pot of gold.

Creative Julia Cameron explains, “When we allow ourselves to wallow in the big questions, we fail to find the small answers.” (In fact, her book The Artist’s Way is all about showing up every day, putting in the work.)

Good work often means doing the small, boring bits—over and over. We show up for work. We make sure our savings plan gets executed every payday. We reevaluate our holdings as conditions change. We read, research, and chat.

Clients, our partnership is not a series of grand gestures. But it is a series of respectful connections. As Cameron would put it, it’s about “respect for where we are as well as where we wish to go.”

That is how we grow, together. And we actually think the small, boring moves can build something pretty extraordinary.

Please, write or call when we can be of service.

The Best Way to Get to Know a Recession

photo shows a foggy bend in a road

Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This seems like stretching a point. In my life, I’ve had the good fortune to know many happy families, all quite different. But the quote does capture the uniquely lonely feeling that can come with misery.

The market, we believe, operates in much the same way. Bull markets can cover up a lot of performance differences, and although no two bull markets are quite alike, most investors are generally going to be happy regardless.

But each and every recession hurts in a unique way. We just have to wait.

The market behaved very differently in the tech wreck of 2000–2002 than it did in the Great Recession seven years later. And what we see now is different than either of those!

In a conventional recession, heavily cyclical companies like manufacturers get hammered hard. But cyclical companies generally understand the boom-and-bust cycle and plan for it with their savings.

Consumer goods companies on the other hand might take it for granted that people will keep buying food and clothing and other necessities, so they generally do not keep as much cash on hand. The short, sharp shock we experienced earlier in the year took out a lot of retailers that might have weathered a longer, shallower recession.

Homebuilders are normally one of the biggest casualties in a recession, but they are doing booming business now. So are the companies that make the materials they work with. Many big tech stocks, normally volatile and erratic performers, have been scorching the markets.

This is a stark contrast to the 2007 recession, when the housing market cratered and took out a lot of homebuilders, or the 2000 recession, when growth tech stocks got demolished.

In all likelihood, those previous recessions helped set the stage for these sectors’ current outperformance. Going into this downturn “everyone knew” that homebuilders were going to get wrecked because it happened last time.

Perhaps in five or 10 years there will be big opportunities for investing in restaurants or cruise lines as the next recession prompts investors to flee the businesses that got hit hardest in this one. No guarantees.

Every downturn is different, and we have no way of knowing what the future will hold. All we can do is stick to our principles: avoid the stampede and seek out bargains. Sectors that get trashed in one recession may be found in the bargain bin before a different recession. This is why we study and keep our eyes open.

Clients, if you have any questions, please call or email us.


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

If These Walls Could Talk (About Retirement)

photo shows four small model houses in the grass in decreasing size left to right

It’s generally a good thing when more cash is coming in than going out.

When our planned retirement income is greater than our expenses, we have the basis for a solvent retirement. The equation could be stated pretty simply: income > expenses.

The bigger part of our work and time and energy is devoted to striving to build your capital. More capital means more cash flow from your capital. We’re trying to get you access to the income you’ll need and want.

But lifestyle decisions may have a bigger impact on our finances, by way of expenses—that other side of our equation.

I recently decided to buy a different home, selling one I had originally purchased for a life chapter now ended. There is no sacrifice involved: the new place thrills me, although it is less than half the size of the old one. It actually feels like an upgrade to my quality of life.

The new place also features less than half the utilities, taxes, maintenance, insurance, and other expenses. Those add up to more than $1,000 in savings per month for me.

When downsizing helps you wipe out mortgage debt, that might improve your annual cash flow by thousands of dollars.

The effect of this lifestyle change on my retirement picture is amazing. Projected Social Security benefits cover a larger fraction of the budget. So a reduction in my need for income produces a much larger reduction in the capital I need to retire comfortably.

Reducing expenses means our money goes farther. Perhaps it means we can retire at a younger age or live with greater flexibility.

Clients, I still intend to work to age 92. And I’m looking forward to a new chapter where my living arrangements make more sense to me.

We are happy to talk with you about your retirement plans and planning, whenever you are ready. Email us or call.

Parts of the Picture

photo shows small white and orange dog running through grass

There’s plenty about 2020 that is disorienting. Some parts of the picture seem to be going okay: spending is on the rise again, and some industries are seeing fresh growth and new opportunities this year.

Other indicators are worrying. Retail bankruptcies are piling up, and many small businesses are just hanging on.

What’s the deal? It’s head-spinning to hold all the pieces together… but they are all part of one economic picture, right?

We recently heard an analogy from Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management. Brown told Planet Money to picture a person walking a dog, “walking upright at a moderate pace, nothing terribly exciting.”

And then there’s the dog. He says, “Then let your eyes pan down a little bit. Look at the dog. … It’s chasing birds. It’s digging up clumps of mud. It’s running at trees. It’s peeing all over the place.”

The picture feels split, but Brown explains that the dog is the stock market; the person is the economy. They are parts of the same picture. The dog can be bouncing all over, but it doesn’t mean the person is too.

The market is reflecting the twists and turns, the frenzy of opportunities and announcements and shifts in focus. The economy as a whole, however, is on a promising course. While the country has not weathered this specific set of challenges before, it has come through others. Times like these bring pain and innovation.

The economic picture is a complex one, but it doesn’t have to be totally overwhelming. The savings and cash we need, long-term goals, and a little planning: that’s how we stay the course. The dog can bark all it wants.

Clients, when you want to talk about this or anything else, write or call.


The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE

photo shows gold key in a lock hole

The secrets to success aren’t locked in the past, but they also aren’t waiting to be revealed in some crystal ball. History and context have plenty to teach us, and we ought to prepare as best we can for the future.

But success depends on our ability to move among the past, present, and future. That’s the key.

Imagine if we relied solely on the past. Human tendency leads us to believe current trends will continue. We are masters at spotting patterns and weaving details into coherent tapestries. (Those are the moves that kept us alive when our main job was to avoid predators and find sustenance.)

Today our brains try to do the same thing—to a fault, sometimes. Economic information surrounds us, and we want to find the story in it quickly. The brain wants to spot the pattern and react. When we learn that a company is finding some early success, for example, we want to conclude, “It’s a rocket ship, look at it go!”

Understanding the current trajectory is important, but the patterns of history are especially useful. Every age has fallen prey to some sort of mania. Tulips in 16th century Holland? Tech stocks in the 1990s? Not such different moments. There’s an edge in both knowing the history and being able to apply its lessons.

But what if that’s all we have, the wisdom of history? Well, we miss the big turning points, those moments of departure. We have to understand why and when a change might occur. The future will not be like the past: a proactive approach may keep us ahead of the pack.

In business, even when our past methods and processes have served you and us well, the world keeps spinning: we can expect change, which means we’d do well to keep an eye on potential opportunities, bargains, and possibilities.

My education includes a degree in history. When I was in college and developed a growing interest in business, I spent time on my own in the campus library with The Wall Street Journal and The Journal of Commerce. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s tough to say which has been more valuable to clients—the history studies or the business reading.

How we got here and where we’re going are two different conversations. So the secrets to success are neither here nor there—literally. They’re in the wisdom in between, and we have to keep perspective.

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