Month: December 2017

Review and Outlook: Perception and Reality

© Can Stock Photo / sborisov

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.

The 61% Syndrome

© Can Stock Photo / phildate

A few weeks ago we studied a report from a large institution. It stated that 61% of baby boomers preferred minimizing taxes to getting higher investment returns1. We wrote about this being a false choice: the rational object is to achieve the highest after-tax returns, thereby incorporating both goals sensibly.

But there is another problem with the 61% syndrome. There is a tendency for 100% of the attention to get focused on the 61%. It seems that the number is eventually forgotten. The formula is simplified to “The top priority of baby boomers is minimizing taxes.”

In other contexts, ugly words are used to describe the process of attributing perceived characteristics of a group to each individual in the group. Stereotyping and bigotry are costly to society to the extent that they hinder any of us from unlocking the highest fraction of our own potential, the secret sauce of American prosperity.

The forgotten 39% of baby boomers is 29 million people2. That is a lot of people to ignore.

We hear again and again that investors repeatedly do the wrong thing. But we don’t care whether most investors behave rationally; we just need you to do so. (In fact, when others behave foolishly that can create opportunities for us.)

It seems sort of insulting to start a relationship by attempting to prove to people that they will do stupid things and are incapable of learning. But when you attribute a perceived characteristic to every member of a group, you fail them in some way.

You may be familiar with Thoreau’s formulation: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer…” Many of you have seen the hand-lettered illuminated version of it hanging on my office wall. We are all about people as individuals, not stereotypes.

(Did you know my girlfriend lettered that saying and gave it to me when we were both seventeen? This has been fundamental for as long as I can remember. Extra credit question: what was the girl’s name?)

My unique story gives me respect for you and your unique story. It is how we aim to avoid the 61% syndrome and its related costs and lost opportunities. Clients, if you have questions about this or any other topic, please email us or call.

12016 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth survey, U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


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.

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.

The Model Prisoner

© Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

Model students do all their homework and get top grades. A role model is someone to look up to. Model prisoners earn time off for good behavior.

Model portfolios are a whole different thing.

Model portfolios are the predominant method of managing wealth these days. There is an understandable reason: they can be profitable for the financial firm. Simple to operate, standardized, easy to talk about–and the pie charts look great on paper.

Out in the real world, models have a glaring flaw. Typically, every client in the model owns the same thing—no differences. But there are valid reasons why people with the same investment objective might have portfolios that vary one from another.

For example, our midwestern clients often want to follow the “Oracle of Omaha.” People everywhere would like to own a piece of the hometown company that does well.

A larger source of variation arises from investment ‘holds.’ Think of shares in a leading, well-run company that was trading at an attractive low price years ago. Once purchased, it may make sense to be a percentage owner for the long haul. But after it goes up in value, it is not the bargain it once was, and new clients find better bargains elsewhere.

Or clients may come to us with long-held stocks purchased at low cost many years before. Income taxes would be a problem if they were all sold at once.

These factors and more create valid, useful variations in client portfolios. When we began to build our systems and processes to tailor portfolios to each client, we quickly realized that model portfolios would only be good for us, not you (our opinion). That isn’t how we conduct business.

At 228 Main our research drives the development of rules-based trading protocols that we can effectively apply across client portfolios. Our systems accommodate the concept of the investment ‘hold,’ and your specific instructions about specific holdings. Our rules-based trading helps us aim for the efficiency of models without the drawback of mass standardization, regardless of your circumstances.

Two things help us immensely. You and we seem to be on the same page with how we think about investing—we are a tight group. And the mutual trust is key: you trust us to make the most of whatever is going on; we trust you to persevere.

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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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