Month: May 2017

The History of the Future

© Can Stock Photo / Tasfoto

One might say that the study of History as a formal endeavor began 2,400 years ago. Herodotus, the so-called Father of History, sought “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time” in his chronicles of the Peloponnesian wars. Herodotus used perspective, context, and narrative to relate the fruits of his inquiries.

These same techniques are the foundation of our work. Facts and data come at us as if from a fire hose, particularly in the digital age. Perspective and context help us determine what is significant and pertinent; narrative is how disparate events and trends and facts can be woven into an understandable story.

The future will be different from the past; the next decade will not be like the last decade. So how does history fit into understanding the future?

First, some processes of change seem to be universal, even though the particulars change. For example, the future may include an energy revolution in which solar technology and battery storage combine to usher in unparalleled access to cheaper energy. But water power and steam power and petroleum are simply earlier examples of energy revolutions which also ushered in unparalleled access to cheaper energy. Same song, new verse.

Second, many times what seems to be entirely novel is truly not. After 9/11 a client told us “never before have we been this fearful and afraid.” The same client, as an elementary teacher, had coached young children how to get under their school desks and cover up to mitigate damage from nuclear war. Remembering the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis helped keep the events of 9/11 in perspective.

Third, human nature persists through every age. History provides a rich tapestry of behavior in action. Thinking about investments, the Tulip Mania in 16th century Holland and the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century provided many clues to the growth mania and technology bubble of the late 1990’s. Those who knew this history, and applied the knowledge properly, had an edge.

My education includes a History degree. When I developed a greater interest in business as an underclassman, I read the Wall Street Journal and the Journal of Commerce every day in the campus library. Not wishing to extend my college years by changing majors, I persisted in the study of History. Now, I would be hard pressed to say which has been more valuable to clients —the reading in the library, or the History degree.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other topic, 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.

Change is the Only Constant

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The ability to adapt to changing conditions is what sets those who thrive apart from those who merely survive.

Our portfolio theory evolves over time as economic and market conditions unfold. The problem with the textbook approach in a changing world is that a textbook, once printed, never changes. Looking at the world as it is and doing our own thinking, we see things in a new way.

We believe that central bank intervention and counterproductive monetary policies have distorted pricing in the bond market and for other income-producing investments. By crushing interest rates and yields to very low levels, the old investment textbook has been made obsolete.

Therefore the classic advice about the proper balance between stocks and bonds brings new and perhaps unrecognized risks, with corresponding pockets of opportunity elsewhere. Yet the classic advice met a need which still exists: how to accommodate varying needs for liquidity and tolerance of volatility.

Our adaptation to this new world is the portfolio structure you see above. Our classic research-driven portfolio methods live in the Long Term Core. We believe our fundamental principles are timeless, and make sense in all conditions.

But people need the use of their money to live their lives and do what they need to do. So a cash layer is needed, tailored to individual circumstances.

The layer between is ballast. This refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast serves two purposes. It dampens volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. Ballast may serve as a source of funds for buying when the market seems to be low.

The client with higher cash needs or who desires lower volatility may use the same long term core as the one who wants maximum potential returns. One may want a ‘cash-ballast-long term core’ allocation of 10%-25%-65% and the next one 4%-0%-96%.

The adaptations we’ve made have generated efficiencies and therefore time—time to work individually with you on your plans and planning, time for more frequent portfolio reviews, time for more intensive research.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this structure might fit your needs, please email us or call 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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

Sell in May and Go Away?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / photocreo

One popular piece of market lore revolves around the idea that virtually all of the stock market’s cumulative gains over large chunks of the past have come between November and May. The other half of the year, from May to November, has produced little in the way of gains, on average. Hence the saying, “sell in May and go away.”

There are three challenges facing anyone who seeks to act on this supposed wisdom. The first one is, any widely expected event gets discounted by the market as it gains currency with the public. If the saying works, it will get overexposed until it stops working.

The second challenge is, the statistics on which the lore rests are averages—they say nothing about what happens in any particular year, much less about what will happen this year.

The third challenge is the most interesting of all. When one examines the results of not selling in May and never going away, one wonders what more could be desired. I (Mark Leibman) was born in May 1956, when the S&P 500 Index stood at 44. As I write this, the index is 54 times higher. This calculation of a 5,300% profit excludes dividends, which would have added considerably. This tells us how not selling in May would have worked over the past nearly sixty years.

Our purpose in writing is to help you avoid being tricked by the “Sell in May” idea into a short-sighted investment decision. There are always reasons to worry about the future, developments which alarm people, and fear mongers peddling pessimism for profit. Against the dynamism and ingenuity inherent in human endeavors, these fears and worries have yet to produce a permanent downturn in the economy or the market.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly. Unmanaged index returns do not reflect fees, expenses, or sales charges. Index performance is not indicative of the performance of any investment. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Can Happiness Buy Money?

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A very long time ago, I attended a convention and heard something worthwhile. In those days, a convention was mostly a rah-rah meeting to crank up insurance salespeople to get out there and sell more. Some of the content was not that great, as you might imagine.

But at this particular meeting, the featured speaker posed a pair of questions that resonated very deeply. Whether the incident changed my life or not would be hard to say. I may have been born this way.

The speaker started off by saying he wanted to ask two questions. “The first one, raise your hand to say yes—do you do more business and make more money when you are happy, as opposed to upset or mad?” Of course, everyone in the crowd raised a hand. Obviously, people dependent on making calls and taking the initiative would be more active when not upset—with an impact on their income.

The second question contained the hook. The speaker said, “No need to raise your hand on this question. Just think about it. Since we have all agreed that we do more business and make more money when we are happy, WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THAT?”

Friends, I cannot tell you where the meeting was, what year it occurred, or anything else about the agenda. But the notion that each of us is in charge of our own happiness is burned indelibly in my brain.

Life is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, of course. Some people are not happy, and none of us is in position to judge anyone else. Each of us has challenges. The pessimists among us are the ones doing the disaster planning, and pulling us back when our thinking goes too high up into the clouds.

We’ve written before about investing with the confidence that things work out even when they look bad. And it is easy to believe that our current challenges are the biggest yet, although history suggests otherwise. Perhaps happiness is a productive state.

We cannot prove that happiness brings money. But I will continue to act as if that is the case, since life is better when I do. Clients, you will each have to make up your own mind, but I will do my best to improve your happiness and your wealth—no guarantees on either. Please write or call with questions.


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

Miracle in a Coffee Cup

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Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, ranking only behind water and tea. Whether or not you are a coffee drinker, the story of coffee contains a great lesson. Why business works—let’s take a look.

According to Gallup, 64% of U.S. adults drink coffee, an average of 2.7 cups per day. This is a popular drink.

Coffee is grown in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. Top producing countries include Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Coffee is also important to the economies of Uganda, Guatemala, Costa Rica and other places. Virtually none is grown in the continental United States.

Americans drink a lot of coffee, but none grows here. Farmers in other lands grow the beans, and we wake up and smell the coffee. How does this work?

Of all the people and enterprises involved, not one is a charity. The farmers, truck drivers, buyers, exporters, processors, millers, roasters, grinders, coffee companies, grocers, waiters and baristas—they all have the same reason for being involved. Every single one makes a living by providing a good or a service for which other people voluntarily pay.

Think about it: a product that starts its journey on one of three other continents is a popular beverage here in America. Why? Because there is money to be made in providing goods and services that others need or want.

Another part of the story of coffee is about change and transformation over time, to meet the desires of the marketplace. Fifty years ago, for most Americans, coffee meant Maxwell House or Folgers, brewed at home in a percolator. Today coffee might mean a trip to the popular chains or local independents, cafés, fast food places, or truck stops—to enjoy fresh-ground or gourmet or organic and a wide variety of other types of coffee.

Why did these sweeping changes in the coffee market occur? Clients, you know how this works: there was a buck to be made in bringing us what we want.

Decades ago, one coffee advertisement had a jingle that went “the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” Seems to us that what is in the cup is actually capitalism at work.

Clients, please call or email us if you would like to discuss this concept, or any other idea of interest.


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 AMZN Power of Long Time Horizons

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Jeffrey Bezos founded the online retailer Amazon. He built it into one of the most revolutionary and valuable businesses on the planet. We are not here to discuss Amazon as an investment, but there is a key lesson for our clients in his explanation of this success:

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you are competing with a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you are now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.”

The investment parallel is clear: just by lengthening the time horizon, you can live with the short term volatility that is inherent in the pursuit of long term investment results.

Those with a short time horizon—an insistence that market values be stable day to day or month to month—can generally expect meager returns. Stable values and liquidity both cost a premium, and if you want both you’re not left with much room for returns.

The ‘time horizons’ framework has interesting theoretical corollaries. It seems to us that investor time horizons, and tolerance for volatility, are smaller now than ever before. (This is an opinion based on anecdotal observation, not a fact.) But if this is the case, the competition for long term results is lighter than before.

Another aspect is that if the demand for stability is high, then the price of stability may be high—and the rewards for enduring volatility may also prove to be high since fewer are willing to do it. Again, this is based on our opinion, no guarantees!

By the same logic, we generally believe that investing in far-sighted companies rather than short-sighted companies makes sense. This is not to say that we are interested in pursuing every visionary out there—we know from experience that it is entirely possible to pay too much for a vision of the future, even if it does come to pass. But we are interested in long term results and prefer to invest in companies that share our time horizon.

Clients, we are grateful for you. As a group, you tend to understand living with volatility, and staying focused on the long term. We believe this has been good for you—and for us. Call or email 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The Tactical Bubble

© Can Stock Photo / fullempty

Our long-time friends know that avoiding stampedes is one of our fundamental principles. We human beings know how to take things too far, history suggests. So we are always on the lookout for trends that may have become too popular.

A year or two ago, in the investment product market, “unconstrained bond managers” were all the rage. With interest rates near all-time low points and risk high, these magicians would own only the smart parts of the somewhat risky bond market. It turns out that all the money that poured into this idea would not fit into just the smart stuff.

We see a new trend today. Solicitations and information about investment concepts and products comes at us all day long, every day. Organizations would like us to send your money to them; human nature being what it is, they usually emphasize popular ideas, or ones that sound great. One term dominates these pitches nowadays.

You know we are contrarian—if everyone else likes something, we believe that alone is a reason to be cautious.

The trendy term is “tactical.” One of the dictionary definitions is “adroit in planning or maneuvering to accomplish a purpose.”

It is out of fashion to simply acknowledge (as we do) that the markets are volatile and fluctuate, an inherent feature that long term investors must face. The popular delusion is to pretend that a “tactical” manager can own stocks while they go up, then sell out to avoid the damage from the inevitable downturn.

It is a great story. Unfortunately, as a wise person noted a very long time ago, “They do not ring a bell at the top.” Is a 1% decline the first step of a 20% bear market? Or is it just the typical volatility that jerks the market around every week or month? No one ever knows.

The risk is that a small decline shakes the tactical investor out of the market, right before it turns around and makes new highs.

We have no issue in being ‘adroit in maneuvering.’ We think our work over the past couple of years shows that we are, hopefully, more adroit than ever. But it stretches credulity to believe that vast amounts of money can all be adroit at the same time.

Investors who have been fooled into believing that volatility can be sharply reduced or eliminated with no adverse effects on performance are likely to be disappointed. We are studying the potential impact if and when the “tactical” fad unwinds. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other matter, please email us or call.


Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

Tactical allocation may involve more frequent buying and selling of assets and will tend to generate higher transaction cost. Investors should consider the tax consequences of moving positions more frequently.

Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.

Regulation and Structure: Changes Ahead?

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The investment world is changing rapidly in the face of evolving regulation and market forces. This article describes how coming changes may affect us—and you.

Clients know we have been affiliated with LPL Financial (LPL) for a very long time, since 1994, in fact. The relationship actually has two parts. LPL is both a registered investment advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission and a broker/dealer regulated by FINRA.

As an Investment Advisor Representative of LPL’s SEC-registered investment advisor, I offer investment advisory accounts under LPL’s auspices and rules. These arrangements are fee-based, and hold me to a fiduciary standard where your interests must come first. As a registered representative of LPL, I offer securities on a brokerage basis. This is more of a sales-type situation, where my legal obligation is to present recommendations that are ‘suitable’ when made.

In practice, we have always strived to put your interests first, to focus on improving your financial situation, no matter the legal form of our relationship. This has worked well as a business strategy. It frees us from worrying about our needs or goals, since the better off you are, the better off we figure we will be. But the world is changing.

We see two main impacts of evolving regulation.

1. The investment advisory side of the business will become increasingly important, since the fiduciary relationship is more in keeping with the spirit of the regulations.

2. The brokerage side of the business will have fewer choices and more restrictions as investment firms seek to limit the conflicts of interest that come with wide variation in compensation and fees on brokerage products.

As we think about how to best serve your interests and meet your needs, we have reached some tentative conclusions:

A. The increasing emphasis on fiduciary investment advisory accounts fits well with the trends that make sense for us and for you. Our research and portfolio management processes are more effective and more efficient than ever before, and we continue to hone our processes.

B. In order to preserve the ability to continue to offer our traditional research-intensive, contrarian, value-oriented philosophy, we may have to form our own registered investment advisor. We would only take this step if our methods and philosophies become difficult to implement under LPL’s rules.

C. If we do form our own registered investment advisor, we would probably operate as ‘hybrid’ advisors using LPL Financial on the brokerage side, and to hold client assets, provide accounting and statements as they do now on the advisory side. Your assets would not be going anywhere different. The change would be minimal.

The irony is that if we were doing what everybody else is doing, life would be simple and we would not have to think about changing our structure to maintain our practices. In our opinion, we are different—and YOU are different. Generally, you and we are less sensitive to volatility, more focused on the long term, and more confident that things work out over time.

In a sense, the regulations codify conventional wisdom with which we disagree. The short version of this essay: we will do what we need to do to continue to bring you our philosophy and strategies and methods. Clients, if you have any questions or comments about this or any other issue, please email us or call.


Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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 possible loss of principal.

Case Study: Home Sweet Home

© Can Stock Photo / irina88w

Quite a few clients are reaching the twentieth anniversary of starting in business with us. So the sixty year olds then are eighty now. A lot can happen in those twenty years!

Mr. and Mrs. Q retired successfully a few years into our relationship, a major transition that ended up well. Then they surprised themselves and me when they decided to build a home in a suburban community and leave their city home of more than forty years.

After thoughtfully considering what they wanted, the Q’s built a beautiful new home and never looked back. It was a great move for them.

A dozen years later, the home may not make the most sense for them. Senior living apartments with some services and meals may be a better option in the near future.

In every transition, we look at four kinds of numbers: lump sums coming in, lump sums going out, recurring monthly income, recurring monthly outgo. And we do the arithmetic to sort out how much invested capital will be available after the transition. Then we can figure out the size of ‘the fruit crop from the orchard.’ (By which we mean the cash flow from invested capital, of course.)

We have gone through this process three times for Mr. and Mrs. Q. First they needed to determine if they could afford to retire. Later, the home-building idea had to be framed up so they could make a good decision. Now, we are working on the next move.

One of the interesting parts of our work is that we never make decisions for you. Usually, the key part of a major decision is feelings, not arithmetic. We strongly believe in doing all the arithmetic that can be done. But no computer can decide where you want to wake up every day, or if you sense that maintaining a home has become too great of an effort.

Just as we never forget whose money it is, we never forget whose life it is, either. We will never kid anybody about the arithmetic, nor kid ourselves by thinking we can make better life decisions than you.

Clients, if you face a transition and want to begin framing up a better understanding of it, please email or call us.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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

A Drop or a Loss?

© Can Stock Photo / jamdesign

Recently a client informed us that another person told her that her primary investment account may be invested too aggressively. We asked what the basis was for that conclusion. The explanation: “If the market corrects, I would lose money.”

Anyone who has followed us for any length of time could probably spot the two questionable ideas contained in those eight words. It is worth discussing, because, in our opinion, getting these ideas right may help our clients build wealth more effectively.

1. There is no “if” about the next market correction, it should be when the market corrects. Why act as if we could avoid corrections when we know they will happen and they cannot be reliably predicted nor traded?

2. Is a drop in the market a loss?

We have many long term clients who have lived through dozens of 3-5-7% drops, a fair number of 10-20% declines known as ‘corrections,’ and three or four bear markets with drops of more than 20% in the major market averages. Yet they are sitting on cumulative gains—account balances in excess of the net amount they invested. One might reasonably ask, “what losses?”

The key to our plan, of course, is remaining on course even in difficult conditions, which we know will happen from time to time. We described our efforts to build a client group with this characteristic in our article Niche Market of the Mind.

It is worth mentioning that much of the conventional wisdom about investing assumes that, indeed, a drop in the market is a loss. Furthermore, since many people behave ineffectively when it comes to investing, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everybody behaves ineffectively—doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, again and again—as if it is inevitable for everyone.

It is almost as if statistics about the average weight and exercise habits of Americans are taken as proof that no group of relatively fit people show up at the gym at 6 AM to work out.

We are grateful to be working with you, a group of clients who are disciplined and fit when it comes to effective wealth-building behavior. If you have questions about this or any other topic, 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.