Month: February 2016

Times Have Never Been So Tough!

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Jetrel

As humans, we’re generally self-centered by nature. We sometimes have an exaggerated sense of our own importance.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with this. We happen to think that enlightened self-interest, with the understanding that the best way to make ourselves better off is through mutually beneficial cooperation, is an excellent principle to live our lives by. But sometimes it pays to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Our experience of the present century is one of turmoil. We’ve seen terrorist attacks of unprecedented scale, the biggest recession in a century, extremist political movements everywhere from the third world to the first world, terrifying epidemics, wars, natural disasters—the list goes on and on. In our egotism, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we must be living through the greatest crisis in human history.

In fact, we’re so stuck in the here and now of our lives that we’re willing to ignore evidence from our own lived experience—many of us have actually lived through just as many troubles before! The recessions of the 70s saw higher unemployment, lower growth, and vastly more inflation all while the Cold War raged on in the background. We know the 2008 crash was painful, but compared to lines at the gas station and 20% inflation things don’t seem so bad.

And yet, those of us who came of age during those troubled times still have nothing to complain about. Think of how our grumbling about gas prices must have sounded to the generation before us! They lived through the Depression and the rise of fascism, bled on the beaches of Normandy and watched the Iron Curtain descend. They saw a hundred thousand souls go up in nuclear fire and millions more die in the concentration camps.

Those that came before them had it no easier, either. The fact that the Great War’s casualties took place on the battlefield rather than in bombing campaigns and death camps would have been little solace to towns that lost an entire generation of young men, butchered by unprecedented machines of war and chemical weapons so terrible that not even the Nazis would stoop to using them.

Going back further there’s an almost infinite number of crises in human history we can look back to. Everyone thinks they’ve got troubles, and by and large they’re right. But as preoccupied as we are with our own troubles, we should strive to keep them in perspective. As it turns out, we have a once-in-a-generation crisis about once a generation. As a civilization we’ve gone through a lot of generations and a lot of crises and still kept going.

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

Bulls and Bears, Fantasy and Reality

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / labamba

Some stock market lore is older than memory. The term “bull market” for periods of rising prices and “bear market” for falling prices may date to the inception of the London Stock Exchange, at the turn of the 17th century.

We’ve written often about the inherent volatility of the market and its cycles. Analysts at Ned Davis Research count more than thirty bull markets and thirty bear markets since 1900. The customary definition includes a minimum move of 20% up or down (for bull or bear markets, respectively.)

It is nice to think about selling out at bull market peaks and buying back in at bear market bottoms—enjoying the gains and avoiding the losses. But successful market timing is probably not possible, for many reasons:

1. The market fluctuates almost every day. Declines of 3-5-7% over three to seven weeks are commonplace, three times a year on average. Like 10% corrections, they cannot be reliably predicted, nor profitably traded.

2. By the time a bear market is confirmed by a 20% drop, most of the damage has probably happened already. It makes no sense to sell out at a low point.

3. The weight of the evidence says that people are generally most pessimistic at low points, when major gains are ahead—and most optimistic at high points, when major declines are in store. Thus most efforts to time the market reduce overall returns.

Although the idea of market timing is pretty much a fantasy, there remains a wonderful approach that has worked very well for a very long time. It can be illuminated with a simple question and answer:

Q. Remember that time the market tumbled and never recovered?
   A. Neither do I.

Shares of common stock are ownership interests in publicly traded companies—a piece of the action, so to speak. US companies operate in an economy with a remarkable record of growth over the decades.


Looking at the chart, it is kind of hard to see the wars, recessions, assassinations, bear markets and upheavals that we’ve been through. The lesson of history is that we endure.

We have no guarantees that the growth of the American economy continues, or what the future holds for any investment. Bull markets and bear markets will come and go, the economy will contract and expand, and winter will inevitably give way to spring. All of these things are beyond our control.

The thing we do control is our behavior. If we avoid the madness of crowds, the compulsion to sell at bad times or buy at peaks, we might see that patience wins. It helps to have some money in the bank, and to focus on portfolio income rather than statement values. If you live on your portfolio or hope to, it is the income that pays the bills, not the statement value. If you would like to see how this perspective can work for you, please call or email us.

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.


Don’t Let Your Anchor Drown You

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / dubassy

When the market has been volatile and seems to be trending lower and account values are shrinking, we frequently look back to the high point, and shiver at the loss since that time. Some clients have told us what their accounts were once worth, and what they are worth now, in order to get across how the losses are affecting them. It is not good fun for anyone. Behavioral economists refer to the first number in those comparisons as the “anchor.”

Since the beginning of 1950, using the historical records of the S&P 500 Stock Index as a proxy for the broad stock market, there have been 16,630 trading days. On just 1,175 of those days was the market trading at a new high—about one day out of 14. On the other 15,455 days, one could have bemoaned the “loss” from the prior peak. In other words, 93% of the time, one could say money had been lost.

But in this same period, the S&P rose from 16 to 1,880! Does it really make sense to say we were losing money 93% of the time, when we ended up with 117 times what we started with? We think the final destination is far more important than the ride we took to get there.

Of course, this time feels different. Mainly because it is here, right now, in our faces. And for some fraction of that 93% of the time, the change from the prior peak was just a little bit. So we went back and figured out what part of the time the market was down more than 10% from its prior peak—in ‘correction’ territory, as the gurus would say.

Surprisingly, the market was in correction territory, down more than 10%, on 6,372 days—right at 38% of the time or about three days out of every eight.1 A lot of misery was endured (or ignored) on the way to that 117-fold gain.

So thinking about the broad market, the S&P 500 Index, it might not be appropriate to anchor to the 16 point reading back in 1950. That was a long time ago, after all. 1960, at 55 points, might also be too far back. The right anchor, depending on your age and length of investment experience, might be the 80 points in 1970, or the 120 point level reached in 1980, 350 points in 1990, or the 1,400 point level from the year 2000. The anchor that could drown you is that last high point—2,130 points in May of 2015.

In Outcomes May Vary we wrote about the consequences of selling out at low points. Usually, those who do so are anchored to the last peak, focusing on paper losses. That is why we are encouraging thoughtfulness is choosing anchors. Write or call if you would like to discuss your situation.

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.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a capitalization weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure performance of the broad domestic economy through changes in the aggregate market value of 500 stocks representing all major industries.


Play the audio version of this post below:

This text is available at

The Next Recession is Coming, pt 2

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / albund

Regular readers will recognize this headline. The next recession is always coming. Human nature being what it is, the economy will always have cycles just as the world will always have seasons. We humans are great at this: taking a good thing too far. The excesses that build up in good times lead to imbalances that get corrected by economic downturns.

Because investment trends are based loosely on what is going on in the real economy, it makes sense to think about where we might be in the economic cycle. So from time to time we report to you the state of the economy as we see it, with an eye on that next recession. Hat tip to LPL Research, people who do a lot of work on topics we need to know about.

In his latest report, LPL’s chief economist John Canally looked at the current fears in the marketplace and compared them to the groundhog. Many people pay attention to the groundhog, but he actually isn’t worth a darn at weather forecasting. Likewise with the drop in the price of oil, the rise of the dollar, some shrinkage in one sector of the economy—people are paying attention, but these things are not good at forecasting recessions.

Canally also compares the current situation to the 2007 economic and market peak and how things look for consumers. The savings rate is more than double, the mortgage rate is better by a third, household debt is a lower percentage of income and falling, and gasoline prices are….well, you know. Bottom line, we’re in pretty good shape.

Did you know the bond market provides a recession forecast that has worked very well since 1950? The bond market speaks through the yield curve, a simple measure of whether shorter term rates are higher or lower than longer term rates. When short term interest rates get above long term rates, there has always been trouble ahead. LPL’s Anthony Valeri just released a study concluding that the yield curve is not indicating recession.

We’ve never had a recession in recent history that was marked by strong jobs growth. And here we are, with a record 64 straight months of jobs growth. Nor has a drop (or a crash) in the price of oil ever precipitated a recession. The oil price drop is a mixed bag: the energy industry has been hit hard with job losses and reduced corporate earnings. But the losses to energy are gains to the rest of us.

So yes, the next recession IS coming. We just do not think it will arrive soon. Our plodding plow-horse recovery continues, no boom—but no bust either.

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.

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.

Volatility Versus Risk

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / webking

In the investment world, we often speak of the riskiness of an investment in terms of volatility: if an asset’s price changes rapidly and unpredictably, it tends to be spoken of as risky, and if the price tends to stay the same, it is usually regarded as “safe.”

In the short term, this is reasonable. If you have $100 today and you know that you will need $100 a week from today, the only sensible move is to put your money someplace where you know its value won’t change. Investing it in a volatile market means you might make a few extra percent your original money, at the unaffordable risk of coming up short when you actually need your money.

When we start to look at investing for the long term, though, we can start to see the difference between volatility and risk. Suppose you take your money and bury it in a hole in the ground for 30 years: this is about the least volatile “investment” you can possibly make. You can reasonably expect that the value of your buried money will stay nearly constant. Yet, because of the existence of inflation, it is almost a certainty that your money will lose a lot of purchasing power over the course of 30 years. Essentially you have a 100% chance of losing value over the long haul despite having virtually no day to day volatility.

On the other hand, if you took your money and invested it for 30 years, you can afford a lot of up and down movement during those 30 years—as long as the final value is higher than what you started with. If your investment has a daily gain 51% of the time and a corresponding daily loss 49% of the time, you can be fairly confident in your eventual profit—even though you’re watching the value go down several thousand times over the course of those three decades.

None of us know the future: there is no such thing as a guaranteed investment, and every investment incurs some form of risk. But it’s important to understand the difference between an asset’s volatility and its risk. For long-term investors, looking past day to day volatility can help you find bargains that are not as risky as you might think.

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 the loss of principal.

Organize Your Money: The Easy Way or the Hard Way

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / webking

Anyone with a passing interest in personal finance has read about the need to know where your money goes every month—to run your finances in accordance with a household budget. If you google “household budget” you will find millions of links. It turns out there is actually an easier way.

A typical budget would include line items for home expenses including utilities, telephone, insurance, property taxes, rent or mortgage payment; auto including payment, repairs, insurance, gasoline; personal items including health care, clothing, gifts, personal care, etc.; and so forth.

It takes a fair amount of time to determine what amounts should be budgeted in each category, and then to track your spending by category each month. Time is what life is made of—we should be careful how we spend it. Especially when there is an easier way. So simple, it fits in three words:

Pay. Yourself. First.

If you always save 10% of everything you ever make for the long haul, you probably will be able to retire at a decent age. PAY YOURSELF FIRST by electing that kind of percentage into employer retirement plan or other long-term investments.

If you put something into savings every payday, you’ll never get caught short by a broken appliance or unexpected home or auto repair. PAY YOURSELF FIRST by putting 5% of income into shorter-term savings. When your savings balance equals many months of income, you can transfer funds to long-term investments.

Depending on your circumstances, you may need to pay yourself more to reach your goals. But the 10% and 5% are a good place to start.

So with the ‘pay yourself first’ method, how much should you spend on everything else, all those other categories of things we need or want? Very simple: whatever is left over after you pay yourself first. Think twice about buying a money pit of any kind—it will imperil your goals. Spend as little as you need to on things that decline in value, like vehicles. And be careful about things that come with monthly bills, like pet horses or satellite TV. Housing and vehicles consume major fractions of our incomes, so make thoughtful decisions in those areas.

As long as you simply pay yourself first, you can get to where you want to go. Or you can do it the hard way: download one of those comprehensive budgets and get to work.

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 the loss of principal.

Persistence Pays in Many Ways

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / shariffc

We have noticed something so prevalent it borders on being a universal truth. In so many of life’s endeavors, persistence is the difference between success and failure.

Tenure in a career builds experience and skills and value to employers…and earning power. Building a reputation in business takes years but can pay off for decades. A friend tells us, a college degree tells potential employers one thing: a willingness to stick with something for at least four years. In a world where instant gratification is so dominant, persistence—or grit—is an asset.

Persistence usually implies effort, willpower, or self-control. But there are ways you can be financially persistent without much thought or effort.

A saver who commits to put $100 monthly into an investment or savings account will run into reasons why it would be OK to skip a month, perhaps intending to make it up later. Maybe they feel it’s not a good time to invest, the refrigerator will need replacing, or an auto repair popped up. So the commitment turns into 12 decisions each year, 120 decisions per decade, 480 decisions over a working career.

By simply setting up an automatic deposit from one’s checking account, one decision is made and it lasts for all time. It is much easier to get one decision right instead of twelve or hundreds.

Many people have 401(k)s, IRAs, or other voluntary retirement plans available to them. Here, too, inertia can help you build wealth. You sign up, and so many dollars go into the plan every payday without any sweat or effort on your part. Sometimes people nearing retirement find out they are in pretty good shape because a young person long ago put wealth-building on auto-pilot.

When you combine these automatic, systematic ways to invest with the power of compounding wealth, amazing things can happen. Call or write if you would like to discuss your situation in more detail.

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 the loss of principal.

Outcomes May Vary

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / bedo

After the recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis, we had some time to converse with clients about how well things had worked out in the end. Memories of the turmoil had faded and account values began to make new highs.

The less-financially-involved spouse in a client couple interrupted this discussion to say, “I just have one question. A lot of our friends lost half their money in the stock market, a couple of them even had to go back to work after being retired. Aren’t we in the stock market, too? How come we came out OK and they did not?”

You probably know the answer to the question. Most of the unfortunates who lost half their money turned a temporary downturn into a permanent capital loss by selling out at low levels.

Please notice how we characterized the panic. The failure of big institutions, waves of mortgage defaults, unprecedented action by Congress and the Federal Reserve, massive dollar losses in the markets, and economic turmoil with high unemployment and massive uncertainty are all wrapped up in the phrase “temporary downturn.” But that is not what the unfortunates perceived. It isn’t truly how it felt in real time to nearly all of us who held on, either. We all experienced concern or fear or anxiety.

So we all faced the same circumstances, a series of major economic and financial events that were beyond our control. The thing that mattered, however, was the one thing in our control: our reaction to these events. From the perspective of the long view, by putting these events in the context of history and properly judging them over the decades of a lifetime… we see that ‘temporary downturn,’ not a panic that compelled us to ruin our financial position.

Most of our clients lived through episodes of 10% unemployment before, 16% mortgage interest rates, no gasoline at the gas stations, and inflation devaluing our money at double digit rates every year. This is not to mention wars, assassinations, school children coached for nuclear disaster, and recession after recession. All of these difficulties proved to be transitory, producing only temporary downturns.

Long term investment success does not require perpetual optimism or rose-colored glasses. It does take, however, either a sense of confidence that we will handle whatever challenges may come our way—or a resolution to maintain our investment strategies anyway. We covered the End of the World Portfolio in a prior essay and reached the same conclusion.

From a tactical standpoint, we do need to know where our income will come from, and have the stores of cash we need for short term goals. Our comments above pertain to long-term or permanent capital. It makes sense to consider reducing volatility at market high points if that better suits your needs, and we’ll be talking about that when the markets recover.

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 the loss of principal.