Month: March 2019

Directing Positive Change

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We humans are not perfect, have you noticed? Many of us have aspects we would like to improve in order to make life better.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear illustrates three layers of behavior change. We may seek to change an outcome, or the process to get that outcome, or our identity. Let me explain.

The outcome is the obvious thing, what we want to end up with. I’m reminded of comedian Steve Martin’s advice on how to become a millionaire. “First, get a million dollars.” Lose weight, get a degree, or get in shape are other examples of outcomes.

The process or systems you use to get to a desired outcome are a better focus for our efforts to change. If your goal is financial independence, you might begin contributing to a retirement plan, start a Roth IRA, begin a monthly automatic deposit to a savings account, find ways to earn more money, or monitor your expenses more carefully.

It seems like a process orientation – how we get to our desired outcomes – is a better place to focus than on the outcomes. But there may be a more powerful layer to effect change.

A recent news story indicated that a large fraction of pre-retirees believe they will struggle financially in retirement. If part of one’s identity is they will end up broke, it may be difficult to make process improvements stick. “What’s the use, if I am going to end up broke anyway?”

If identity becomes “I am a person who will always be able to get along financially,” then doing the things that are necessary to make that true become easier, if not automatic. But can our identities be changed?

James Clear says that what we do affects what we believe about ourselves, our identity, just as our identity affects what we do. So taking those steps to improve our processes, combined with a thoughtful approach to what we want to become, may actually shape our identity over time.

Consider the difference between “I’m trying to quit smoking” and “I don’t smoke anymore.” The first version is from a person who still identifies as a smoker. The second version is from someone who believes that smoking is now a part of their past, not their present identity. You know which one is a more effective way to look at it.

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.

To Everything There is a Season

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After a long and snowy winter, spring has finally arrived in Nebraska, and it is wasting no time. The weather may be nicer, but the sudden thaw and ensuing floods have turned much of our state into a disaster zone.

While tragic, this was a long time coming. Most folks saw how much snow had accumulated through March and knew that it would be trouble when the weather warmed up. We all know how the cycle of the seasons work, and it should be no surprise that winter is followed by spring.

The markets, like the seasons, are cyclical. After a certain point, a bull market turns into a bear market, and vice versa. Summer turns into winter; winter turns into spring. But investor behavior can sometimes overlook this important fact.

Imagine if someone looked around at how cold and snowy it was at the beginning of the month and said “There’s even more snow than there was last month! At this rate there will be two feet of snow on the ground by May!” Obviously, they would sound quite foolish.

But is this really any different than investors who, late in a market rally, say “The market is higher than ever! At this rate it will be even higher in a few months!”

We know how market cycles work. Like the weather, we are not able to predict exactly when the turning point will come. But we know that it will happen eventually, and as contrarians the stronger the trend is the harder we expect the turning point will be.

Sometimes we temporarily look foolish—a bubble may persist for years after we expect it to burst. The fellow predicting snow in May probably would have felt vindicated by how much snow got dumped on us the first half of March, after all. We would rather miss out in the short term than miss a key turn in the markets altogether, though.

To everything there is a season: a time to buy, a time to sell. Clients, if you want to talk about the markets (or the weather), 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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

All That And More!

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The narrow part of our duties here at 228 Main is striving to grow your buckets. (By this we mean trying to help you build your financial wealth.) But a much broader range of topics comes into play.

The next layer out from investment research and portfolio management, equally important, is effective investing behavior. Some of you seem to have been born with great instincts; others have proved to be trainable. We invest energy and time into describing what effective investing requires, as accurately as we are able, to help you be sure we are all on the same page.

Then there is the matter of how to connect your money to your life. What do you need in terms of portfolio cash flow or withdrawals to meet your goals in the real world? Which forms of investing for retirement are likely to get you to your goals? How much of an emergency fund is optimal for you? We work with you on nearly any money question.

If you take a step back from that, you find a whole philosophy of money and life. We attempt to provide perspectives on things that will help you and us find confidence, comfort and happiness with the choices we make. Achievement, reaching goals, spending wisely (as vital as investing well), perspective on events of the day, economic history, biographies of giants who have come before us… all find their way into our communications.

We get paid for managing wealth. All this other stuff is intended to help you have the resources you need to live as you would like to live. (We have longed believed that the better off you are, the better off we are likely to be.) Whatever counsel you need from us is free; anyone may read our essays, watch the videos, and follow us in social media.

Speaking of that, if you have reason to wish others could see our perspective on money and investing and life, you may point them to our digital communications. Better yet, we will add anyone you want to the list for our weekly short email—friends, children, whomever. Of course, we are too busy trying to grow your buckets to bother them, so being on the email list is a low-risk proposition. Just let us know.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Icky-Tasting Medicine

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If you believe that living with ups and downs is an integral feature of long term investing, some aspects of customary investment practices seem rather curious.

The idea that volatility is risk is the root of the trouble, in our view. We believe volatility is simply the normal ups and downs, not a good measure of risk. A widely followed concept, Modern Portfolio Theory or MPT, adopts the approach that volatility is literally, mathematically, risk.

This approach attempts to work out “risk tolerance,” by which they mean willingness to endure volatility. If one is averse to volatility, then portfolios are designed with volatility reduction in mind.

Unfortunately, volatility reduction may result in performance reduction. But investments which do not fluctuate are not truly investments. Your bank account does not fluctuate, but it is not an investment.

We think beginning the conversation with an attempt to tease out willingness to endure volatility is a lot like a doctor working with a child to determine tolerance for icky-tasting medicine before making a prescription.

Our strategy is to impart what we believe about investing. We work with people to understand what part of their wealth might be invested for the long term, and whether they are comfortable with ups and downs on that fraction of it.

This necessarily involves learning about near and intermediate cash needs and income requirements, as well as talking about what it takes to live with the ups and downs. We invest a lot of time and energy into providing context and perspective so people might be better able to invest effectively. This process begins at the very beginning of our discussions with potential clients.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


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

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

Sacrifice or Joy?

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The ability to delay gratification is supposed by some to be the key to reaching our goals. And it seems to make sense.

If one can spend less and save more day by day, greater wealth results over time. Skipping dessert and taking the stairs instead of the elevator over the weeks and months may improve our health over the years and decades.

This framework casts our future welfare as something that contends with current enjoyment of life. “Sacrifice today for a brighter tomorrow,” and all that. It takes willpower to struggle against today’s desires for distant benefits, somewhere down the road.

We believe there is a more productive way to think about this.

The key is to find the immediate gratification hiding inside deferred gratification. If you are broke but begin saving a little bit of money every payday in a systematic way, you have the immediate gratification of changing your trajectory, of moving in the right direction.

Imagine the gratification of getting your act together in the way that most needs it. You have known it needs attention, and its neglect nags at you. Embarking on a plan gives you the immediate gratification of taking action to improve your life.

In short, you can struggle and sacrifice today for benefits in the misty future, or reframe it so that reaching for your goals brings you immediate joy. It’s a matter of the narrative you choose to tell yourself, the framing in your mind.

Clients, if you would like to talk about your goals or anything else, please email us or call.

The Trouble with Zig and Zag Theory

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The idea behind massive diversification, owing a bit of everything, is that some things zig when others zag, keeping the whole bucket steadier. Great theory.

The problem is that things do not zig and zag ALL the time. When the big downturn comes, they all go down together. Oh, some things do not go down – but those things also tend to never go up, either.

The mathematical basis for massive diversification is Modern Portfolio Theory. It depends on different types of assets behaving more or less independently of one another – zigging and zagging. The lack of correlation is what drives the hypothetical usefulness of the theory.

In the big downturns, however, the correlations may converge. In plain language, in times of market stress, even independent investments may act as though they are related. The theory may not work due to systematic risks.

This is a real problem, because it is a theory that sometimes has the potential to drive investors to diversify into sectors and asset classes which may hold unknown risks, in the interest of avoiding market volatility.

This only makes sense if one defines volatility as risk, something to always be minimized and avoided. We think it makes more sense to understand volatility as an integral and necessary part of long term investing, a feature to be tolerated (or embraced) as the price of pursuing market returns over the long haul.

Investing in fluctuating markets with confidence requires us to know where our needed cash will come from – only long term money should be invested for the long term.

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.

Goldilocks the Burglar

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The story of Goldilocks might be a lesson in moderation, but it’s also a story of breaking and entering.

We prefer to find more reasonable and socially acceptable ways to get our needs met. We talk a lot about helping clients put words to their dreams, but dreams need not be lofty. Here are a few guidelines that have proven helpful.

“The right amount is best.” In her book Lagom, writer Niki Brantmark describes this Swedish principle of the same name. Not enough is not enough. Too much of a good thing can be a good thing, but often is not. The right amount is best.

Social comparison, or “keeping up with the Joneses” can corrode happiness or financial health, if we aren’t conscious of our emotions and purposeful about our responses and reactions. It helps to focus on our own needs, rather than what others have. (I’ve met the Jones, and they don’t care what you have anyway.)

When working on goals, it sometimes helps to define three outcomes: minimum acceptable levels, reasonable targets that feel within reach, and ‘stretch’ goals that require creative thinking and approaches to get to. This may help you be more aware of options and possibilities.

Clients, if you would like to talk about your goals 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.

 

Up And Down Really Means Up And Down

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As long term investors we talk a lot about the need to weather short-term volatility in pursuit of long-term results. Our notion is that volatility is not risk, but an inherent feature of investing.

As years go by, many think of the market as having good years and bad years. This is based on the outcome for calendar years. The astonishing thing is how much movement there is during the course of the typical year.

“At least one year in four, roughly, the market declines.” We’ve said that about a billion times, to reiterate that our accounts are likely to also have good years and bad years, if one judges on annual returns. The object is to make a decent return over the whole course of the economic cycle, year by year and decade by decade.

But in those other three years out of four, the market also experiences declines during the course of the year. In an average year you may see a decline of 10 to 15% at some point during the year.

Our object is to leave long term money to work through the ups and downs, without selling out at a bad time. Three things help us do that:

1. A sense that everything will work out eventually, a mindset of optimism.

2. Awareness that downturns tend to be temporary, ultimately yielding to long term growth in the economy.

3. Knowing where our needed cash will come from, based on a sound cash flow plan.

Bottom line, even years that end up well can give us a rough ride. Knowing this can make it easier to deal with.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.