Month: June 2018

Modern Rationality and Ancient Wisdom

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The modern age is largely a product of the Scientific Revolution. Scholars date the beginning of that period to the 1543 publication of the Copernicus treatise, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry changed our view of the world. It seemed that all the secrets of the universe could be unlocked by the scientific method. The idea of reason or rationality arose from this: an objective reality may be discovered by observation, experimentation, and logical thought.

It is comforting to think that everything can be figured out—and probably wrong.

Modern philosopher Nassim Taleb has argued that the role of randomness in our world is underappreciated. There is much that cannot be known until we find out: whether a company will struggle or thrive, whether a market will advance or decline, which bird of two sitting on a branch will be the first to take flight.

Before rationality, going back to ancient Greece, there was wisdom—expressed in the word sophrosyne. This ideal of character included traits such as moderation, prudence, and self-control. Think of it as wisdom.

It strikes us that wisdom helps investors fill in the gaps where rationality fails us. The idea of diversification is a way to deal with uncertainty: if we could rationally determine which holding was going to go up the most, who would need to diversify? And self-control plays a role in our methods. “Avoiding stampedes” takes quite a bit of it, for example.

We are big fans of quantifying the things we can quantify. Doing the math is a large part of our work. Reason—rationality—is key. But it also makes sense to exercise moderation and prudence when facing uncertainty—which is nearly always.

Modern rationality and ancient wisdom are a powerful combination. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else on your agenda, please email us or call.


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.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Our Exorbitant Privilege

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Financial firm founder Barry Ritholz says that the vast majority of people in the investment business spend most of their time chasing new business. Finding clients or trades consumes most days and a lot of nights—it is their main job.

Dialing the phone, putting on seminars, networking, joining boards, sending spam email…there are a lot of ways to meet people.

That Ritholz Wealth Management needs to do none of these things is what he calls “our exorbitant privilege.” We feel the same way.

My vision when I was forty was to find and retain a circle of clients who, if I took care of them, would take care of me. I did NOT want to wake up at sixty, needing to run up and down the highways to find a deal to pay my bills. The vision became reality.

You know our business objective is to strive to grow your buckets, and have them serve you as you need. The interesting paradox is that we have grown since we stopped looking for new business.

We frequently mention how important you are to the process. You saved the money to begin with, you share our philosophy of investing, you do the right thing even when it is difficult to do so. Clients may not be retaining nearly as much money if they routinely sold out in panic or insisted on buying into fads.

Now we have a better way to express our appreciation for you. It is our exorbitant privilege to serve you as we do.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or 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 investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Steering the Herd

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One of our core investment principles is to “avoid the stampede.” If you read this site regularly you have heard us say this over and over again, but we think it bears repeating.

As part of our work we talk to many product representatives who want a slice of our business. There are countless product providers out there competing for our attention, and your money. There are limited amounts of both to go around, so inevitably most of the wholesalers that talk to us are going to be disappointed. However, we still like talking to them as they do us a vital service: they tell us which way the stampede is going.

We are contrarians by nature. When we hear someone tell us that a lot of people are buying something, our instinct is not to line up alongside them. When a lot of people tell us that a lot of people are buying the same thing—our instinct is to run far, far away.

Lately, what we are hearing from the product wholesalers is that everyone is piling into exotic alternative investments. Everyone is looking for exciting new products that are not correlated to stock market returns, and boy, are the product providers ever ready to sell it to them.

We live in uncertain times, and it is understandable to be spooked at some of the troubling headlines we see. We understand the desire to seek safety. But, we believe that safety is not to be found from following the herd. Omaha is famous for its stockyards and slaughterhouses; we know that when the cattle are all getting steered together, it rarely ends well for the cattle.

We know there are always uncertainties with the economy and the markets. But the sales pitches we hear for everything non-correlated to stocks makes us feel a lot more secure in our traditional equity investment philosophy. There may come a time when the herd starts stampeding back towards equities and it will be time for us to look elsewhere. For now, though, our equity focus puts us in lonely company when it comes to wholesalers—and that is just how we like it.

If you want to talk about any market trends or sales pitches you may have noticed, please feel free to 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.

Gradually And Then Suddenly

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In the novel The Sun Also Rises, author Ernest Hemingway gives us an insight into an interesting mechanism. One character asks another how his bankruptcy happened. The reply? “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

It seems to us that many things in the economy and markets happen the same two ways. Prices rise slowly at first, then gain momentum. Or a market stalls and declines slowly for a time, then falls swiftly. Or business activity, at the bottom of a recession, begins to tick higher, almost imperceptibly, until it takes off.

And in our own affairs, we see the same situation. We talked recently with a client in her middle 70’s, who noted she now had higher income than at any point in her working years. Compounding builds wealth only gradually for a long time, then (it seems) suddenly.

(People who are liquidating investment balances with overly large withdrawals see the same thing, in reverse. Balances decline gradually, then suddenly.)

An important part of our work is helping people visualize those inflection points for trends that are nearly imperceptible at first. When we first begin to save a small amount each payday, it is hard to see the fortune that might emerge over time. And when markets seem to be just slogging through the mud month after month, positive changes are tough to imagine. Our role is to help people see how this works.

The same mechanism applies to our work in researching investments. For example, there are sectors that have done well in recent years, with abundant liquidity in a period with easy monetary policy. But we have seen this movie before: liquidity dries up gradually, then suddenly. This specific issue is on our radar.

The challenge is that investment prices and economic indicators have a lot of volatility in the normal course of events, most of it meaningless. Most years, the major stock market indices rise about half of all days and fall about half of all days. Not everything is a trend happening gradually at first, then suddenly. Some of it is just noise. We work hard to sort it out.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or 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.

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.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Animal Spirits

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More than eighty years ago, economist and thinker John Maynard Keynes wrote that “most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive…can only be taken as the result of animal spirits—a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction…”1

The term animal spirits dates back to the Middle Ages as a way to refer to the vagaries of human activity. Keynes used it to describe concepts such as consumer confidence and the willingness of businesses to invest capital.

In recessions, animal spirits are subdued; during economic expansions, they are said to be stirring. The idea of animal spirits helps explain the booms and busts of the markets and economy.

As contrarians, we seek to discern when the dominant trend has gone too far, either from excess optimism or an overabundance of pessimism. A simpler way to say this is that we seek to avoid stampedes. We believe these things run in cycles.

More recently, we found another use for the concept of animal spirits. History suggests that rising tariffs and trade barriers around the world are a detriment to economic growth and prosperity. These kinds of trade troubles could emerge from the current discourse among nations. And there are differences of opinion on the economic impact here in the U.S.

Some analysts have calculated that the actual amount of goods and services directly affected by proposed trade actions is some very tiny percentage of the overall economy. Their conclusion is that the potential for economic mischief from trade issues is small.

At the same time, business leaders are becoming concerned about the possibility of reduced export sales and lower incomes and sales in the U.S. due to these same trade issues2. These concerns could dampen the animal spirits. Facility expansions, hiring, orders for inventory or raw material…all these things could be affected.

If business activity declines, jobs and personal incomes will not be far behind. The economic impact would be negative. You see, the effect on animal spirits, a second-order effect of trade disputes, could have a much larger impact than the direct effects.

We do not change our principles or strategies based on headlines of the day. Of course, we are always looking for ways to improve our tactics. If you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Notes and references:
1John Maynard Keynes. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936.
2Business Roundtable, CEO Economic Outlook Survey Q2 2018. https://www.businessroundtable.org/resources/ceo-survey/2018-Q2


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

The Antiques Roadshow

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Everyone knows what junk is: discarded items of little use or value. Yet from time to time some fabulous treasure gets pulled from a trash bin or purchased at a second-hand store for a few bucks. We see these items on the long running television series, the Antiques Roadshow.

This reminds us of our work with a different kind of junk. The polite euphemism for bonds issued by relatively weak companies is ‘high yield.’ Just between us, let’s call them by a more accurate term: junk bonds. From time to time, at rare intervals over the past seventeen years, we have found something we believed to be investable hiding in the junk pile.

A perfect storm may be brewing in the junk bond world. Federal Reserve Bank statistics indicate that the size of the junk bond market has doubled in the past decade, to nearly $2 trillion outstanding. Adding in another category, junk-rated floating rate bonds, puts another $1 trillion on the pile.

1. When financial conditions tighten and corporate results weaken (as they will sooner or later), higher quality bonds may also be marked down to the junk category.

2. The capacity of dealers and other market makers to deal with waves of selling has been dramatically reduced by financial regulations1. Large banks were once players, but trading for their own accounts has been curtailed. Formerly, they stepped in at market extremes to support prices. In the next crunch, they are not likely to be there.

3. We believe some fraction of junk may be held by people who may not realize they own it—hidden in other financial products sold to investors.

4. We have characterized the movement into the apparent safety of bonds over the past decade as a stampede, based on the size of cash flows and the ridiculously low interest rates. (That’s just our opinion.) If that money stampedes out…prices may plunge to lower levels.

Clients, we strive to deal with reality as we see it. The next downturn in the economy is out there somewhere. Our holdings will continue to fluctuate in value, and we will have a down year at some point. But we are excited about the opportunities that may arise in the years ahead.

Junk bonds may not be appropriate investments for all clients. If you would like to talk about this or have something else on your agenda, please email us or call.

Notes and References

1Regulatory Changes Impacting High Yield Liquidity, Pensions & Investments. http://www.pionline.com/article/20151228/PRINT/151229939/regulatory-changes-impacting-high-yield-liquidity. Accessed June 11, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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.

Floating rate bank loans are loans issues by below investment grade companies for short term funding purposes with higher yield than short term debt and involve risk.

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.

Don’t Be a Pigeon

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We recently were approached by a supposed investment firm. A quick review of its website raised many questions.

It seems obvious to us that the whole outfit might be a scam. But we have studied the economy and markets for a lifetime. So we thought it might be useful to lay out for you the main clues that set us off.

The most notable thing is the use of jargon that sounds authoritative but is incomprehensible. We mean this kind of nonsense: “We create global allocation by opportunistically investing worldwide as an important element in the diversification of our portfolio.” “Generate and protect investor wealth through the long term differentiated returns offered by our unique investment management strategies.” Yeah, right.

The second clue is the lack of disclosures relating to FINRA or the SEC, the primary U.S. regulators of investment providers. These folks are neither registered to sell securities nor as investment advisors.

The third clue is the promise of high returns, which evidently are guaranteed. 12-20% annual returns sound pretty good, right? And different investment return options, guaranteed in writing? Be still, my beating heart!

The fourth clue is the promise that investments are liquid at all times.

We promise volatility, and make no guarantees. This is because we know that stability and investment returns are mutually exclusive—you must choose. Anything that is truly guaranteed carries a remarkably low yield, in our opinion. And anything that purports to offer the opportunity for high returns cannot be guaranteed.

The interesting thing is, that web site and those promises are up there for a reason—they work. People desire stability and high returns, and the knowledge they can get all their money back at any time.

Clients, if you ever have questions about something that seems too good to be true, PLEASE email us or call. You worked too hard for the money to let a scammer get it.


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

Little Is Big

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We were working recently with a client whose spouse passed away last year. Major life changes usually require a series of conversations to get everything settled and all the adjustments made.

This conversation showed us that “little is big.” The household cash flow was just a bit shy of covering the bills. Savings on hand were slowly being eaten up, month by month. If you have been in this position, you know it feels bad. It affects your attitude in a negative way.

A simple adjustment, slightly increasing the monthly withdrawal from invested balances, fixes it so there will be a little money left over every month instead of a constant shortage. The amount isn’t material to the sustainability of her finances. It was little, but changed everything. Little is big.

The same notion applies to other things in other ways, including investment analysis. Imagine the dynamics of an industry whose business is steadily shrinking by 1% per year, compared to one that is growing by that much. The shrinking industry would tend to have too much supply, poor margins, and dispirited employees. A slight difference—a little growth instead of a little shrinkage, would change everything. Little is big.

It matters in retirement planning, too. We did some arithmetic for a client age 40 with a $180,000 retirement account balance and $9,000 per year in deposits. A 1% difference in annual returns, the difference between 7% and 8%, makes a $400,000 difference in the amount accumulated at age 65. Little is big. (This is arithmetic, not a projection nor a prediction. No guarantees.)

This raises a question: if every little thing is potentially big, how do you keep track of it all?

For us, the answer is to keep the big idea in mind, and try to make sure everything we do advances the big idea. Our big idea is to grow your bucket, and strive to make it serve you as you need. Paying attention to the little things working to advance the big idea, that we can do.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or 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.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific situation. Your results will vary. The hypothetical rates of return used do not reflect the deduction of fees and charges inherent to investing.