Month: July 2019

The Anti-Buffett

© Can Stock Photo / Leaf

We had back-to-back conversations recently with clients who are big fans of Warren Buffett. Oddly, they seem to dislike the application of his principles to their portfolios. It is a good illustration of why Buffett’s success has endured, in our opinion. His ideas are easy to understand, hard to do.

Consider these quotations, investor first, then Buffett in bold.

“This stock has done nothing but go down since I bought it. I want to sell.”
I love it when stocks I like go down, then I can buy more at a better price.

“That company is in the news all the time with problems. I don’t think we should buy it.”
The troubles everyone knows about are already in the stock price.

“Everyone I know is afraid of this market, so I’m thinking of getting out.”
Be greedy when others are fearful.

“This stock is doing great, it’s gone up a lot since we bought it.”
Watch the company, not the stock.

These conversations are noteworthy because they are rare. The tagline on our digital archives, ‘for the best clients in the whole world,’ reflects our high esteem for you.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and 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.

Letters to Our Children #1: About Money

© Can Stock Photo / photography33

This is the first in our series, Letters to Our Children. It is intended to be a guide to money and financial planning. Those things happen in the context of life, so we need to begin with a broader focus.

Money is really handy. Those who have it tend to live longer, happier lives. They are able to do things that those without money cannot. In a variety of ways, money can be traded for time, which is what life is made of.

Just as a vehicle may be used to get back and forth to work, or as a getaway car by criminals, money can also be used poorly. We believe money should be invested wisely and spent well.

One of your most important forms of wealth is not usually thought of as wealth. Your human capital is your ability and willingness to employ marketable skills for customers or for an employer. Human capital translates into earning power – for example, physicians earn more than fry cooks. A portion of what goes into human capital is free: your attitudes and habits.

Human capital only has value when somebody pays you to put it to work. It is helpful to keep in mind that all worthwhile enterprises are in the helping profession. The grocer helps people feed their families. The car dealer helps people get where they need to go. The surest path to more income and wealth is to do a superior job of helping more people. The best career insurance is to help your employer help more people.

For now, we’ll leave it like this: money is useful, and it is helpful to understand how to make the stuff. Coming editions will focus on using it, protecting it, and managing it to meet your goals and objectives.

Clients, if you would like to recommend specific topics we might cover, or visit about anything else, please email us or call.

Letters to Our Children

© Can Stock Photo / lisafx

I find myself in new territory, a father to motherless children. (Thank goodness they are all self-reliant adults!) If there is to be any more imparting of wisdom or knowledge to the next generation, it is all on me.

It makes sense to me to write a series of letters to my children, each one outlining the fundamentals of a different aspect of personal finance, money, investing, and life. After decades of working with these things, I need to edit what I know into workable, usable information.

Would you help me focus on the right stuff? You’ll get to read these letters here, at 228Main.com, since the advice I would give to my children is the same as what I would say to you or your children.

• If you are a parent, what do you wish your children knew about money and life? What is the single most important advice you would offer?
• If you are somewhere between twenty and forty, what is your biggest money issue? What do you wish you knew more about?

Email us or call with your ideas and suggestions for topics, or ideas about the scope of these letters. (Or, to talk about anything else, of course.) Thank you all, again.

Sign of the Times: Century Bonds

© Can Stock Photo / webking

A curious example of messed-up interest rate markets has emerged recently. Certain countries and companies have successfully issued bonds at fixed rates of interest for ultra-long terms. Fifty or one hundred years is a long time.

To put these in perspective, it might be helpful to go back to the 1950’s. The largest insurance company in the world, Prudential, invested in a bond issued by General Motors. It was $100 million dollars in a century bond – maturing one hundred years after issue – for 4% interest. A couple of lessons about risk might be learned from this story.

Interest rate risk is a thing that affects bonds. When rates rise, the value of existing bonds declines. What is a 4% bond worth in a 15% world? By the early 1980’s, with seventy years remaining on this GM bond, the answer would have been less than 30 cents on the dollar.

But if a long term bond is held to maturity and pays the principle back as promised, the potential market value loss from higher interest rates is avoided, right? Sure. But that is not what happened.

The second lesson about risk came into play in 2009, when General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Creditors received less than 20 cents on the dollar in the liquidation of GM. So this supposed century-long investment came to a bad end, more than forty years early. When you lend money to somebody that turns out to be a deadbeat, you learn about credit risk.

These lessons of history are pertinent now, as Austria joins Italy and Mexico as issuers of century bonds. The most recent Austrian issue yields just 1.2%. Do you wonder how this could possibly work out?

We have characterized the movement into fixed income securities in recent years as a stampede before. Irrational pricing and large volumes of issuance are the hallmarks of a stampede, in our view. This is our opinion – it may be wrong. We have no guarantees.

As we watch the current revival of century bonds unfold, we’ll be thinking about the history of these instruments, and scratching our heads. 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.

 

What Are You Looking At?

© Can Stock Photo / sanayamirza

In planning, we take a look at the world in which we operate. Our plans need to be grounded in reality to have a chance to work out. If I plan to learn to fly by flapping my arms vigorously, the laws of biology and physics are going to have an impact.

When we look at the world, two kinds of things are especially pertinent. Challenges are the obstacles to our success. The stuff in between the challenges are possibilities. The Wright brothers evidently spent no time trying the arm-flapping thing, or fussing about the challenges of physics and biology. Eventually, one of their possibilities was converted into the accomplishment of flight.

The way some people talk about challenges, fighting them or overcoming them seems to be a key element of success. In that line of thinking, challenges occupy a central role.

I have been in a situation where the challenges seemed impossible. In fact, many have failed to overcome the same kind of challenges. Reflecting later on this chapter in life, a surprising realization emerged.

Under the pressures of the situation, I had no time to think about anything but the possibilities. After the initial planning, the challenges turned out to be totally irrelevant.

The realization: when you focus on your possibilities, your challenges disappear.

Thus the question in the title. What are you looking at? Your focus, your perception, these things change the world.

We’ll be thinking about this more. There are applications to other parts of our work for you. In the meantime, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

The Joy of Being Cheaply Amused

© Can Stock Photo / outsiderzone

Once upon a time, we went out on a Friday night – to the dollar theater. This was a discount affair, where good movies – not prime, first-run movies – could be seen on the big screen, for a dollar.

In the ticket line, we happened upon friends and clients, recently retired. They told us it was a regular part of their entertainment. They also hiked the trails at the state park, played cards with friends, read books from the library, and liked to watch the sun set over the river.

He said, “One of the things we had to learn early in my teaching career was the joy of being cheaply amused. We were not making much money, and did not really have a choice.” Even in retirement, on a good pension and with plenty of resources, those habits stuck.

That phrase struck a chord with me. I had long noticed that those who feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses, or whose happiness seemed to depend on shopping or acquiring things, were difficult clients to work with. Those traits are connected to a general desire to always want more.

In contrast, the joy of being cheaply amused seems to correlate with simpler lifestyles, longer-term orientation, and a greater sense of contentment.

This has a huge impact on lifestyles in retirement. The conundrum is, those who are cheaply amused tend to be the ones who can afford the bucket list trip to Europe or Alaskan cruise, to be generous in helping children and grandchildren, who have money for really significant activities.

In other words, some of the most successful retirees we know have grown into being able to spend well. Not having a lot of money starting out in life is good discipline for being thoughtful about spending later on.

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

Make the Most of It

© Can Stock Photo / AntonioGuillem

All seven billion of us have the same job. Whether we are among the poorest or wealthiest, sickest or healthiest, a single task unites us: wake up every day and make the most of it.

Taking that one step farther, we each can increase our ability to do things, to be better, to be stronger. Beginning each day a little better, a little stronger than the day before, that helps us make the most of it.

I won’t pretend to know or prescribe what you should eat or drink, how you should live, whether to exercise, or give you health tips. My professional expertise is devoted strictly to striving to grow your buckets, for use in your real life.

When you entrust me to help you with your wealth, I owe you the effort to make the most of it. Wouldn’t it be better for you if my brain was a little bigger? After all, thinking is how I do my job. The Harvard Health Blog recently cited studies that show exercise boosts the size of parts of the brain involved in memory and learning.

So exercise may be helping me make the most of it, in ways that help you, too.
This is a win-win choice: I have other, selfish reasons for exercise that have nothing to do with you. But if Harvard is correct, you get an advisor with a bigger brain out of the deal.

This essay began with a focus on the day to day, making the most of it. Oddly, my longest-range goal brings me to the same choice about exercise. It will help me serve you until I am 92 years old.

This congruence between my fondest ambitions and my daily life is good for you, too. Win-win.

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

Time and Space, Compressed

© Can Stock Photo / khunaspix

In his memoirs, Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant wrote about the first time he rode on a train. (When Grant was a young man, trains were a new technology.) Traveling overland at the unprecedented speed of 15 miles an hour, it seemed to him that time and space had been compressed.

In our age, one might have consecutive meals on opposite coasts. A journey that first took months, then weeks, then days, takes hours in the jet age.

Time is compressed in other ways, here in the 21st century.

• New forms of media let us interact at the speed of light with dozens or thousands of people, for less than the price of a stamp.

• Email and other forms of digital messaging allow communication between people who are never available at the same time. This represents quite a productivity boost over the days of telephone tag.

• Research begins with fingertips on keyboards, virtually everywhere, instead of with trips to the library.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. We had to effectively integrate these technologies into our business with you, and use them to maximum effect over the past few years.

21st century technologies have helped our old-fashioned conversations begin with more common ground, then go deeper into the topics in which you are interested. It seems to me we are closer now than ever before. This makes sense, if we are communicating more than we used to.

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

Too Close to the Sun

© Can Stock Photo / Paha_L

In Greek mythology, Daedalus constructs wings of feathers and wax so he and his son Icarus may escape from the island of Crete. Although warned against flying too close to the sun, Icarus becomes giddy with the sensation of flight. His wings melt when he gets too close to the sun, and he crashes into the sea and drowns.

This tale of hubris is perhaps mimicked in our time by central bankers around the world. Central banks including our Federal Reserve Bank are charged with conducting monetary policy to achieve stability of prices and favorable economic results. The stresses of the last global recession induced some of these authorities to adopt unprecedented policies.

Among these ideas, the most unusual might be negative interest rates. If we think of the rate of interest as a price – the price of money – then the concept of negative rates seems insane. If bananas had negative prices, producers would have to pay you to take them.

There are practical problems, too, for savers and investors. Imagine having $100,000 in the bank today. After a year of -1% interest, you would have, say, $99,000. “Money in the bank” would no longer be like money in the bank.

Why would central bankers consider such a policy? Like Icarus with his wings, they seem intoxicated by their apparent power to manipulate the economy. Negative interest rates would be a strong incentive to reduce savings and increase spending. This could theoretically boost the economy.

The unintended consequences of their actions could create real problems. Average folks trying to save for the future were severely disadvantaged by the zero interest policy of the last decade. Negative rates would make that even worse.
The Federal Reserve has not yet gone below zero. But a research paper published by a Fed official earlier this year concluded that “negative interest rates might be a useful tool…”1

Clients, our concern over this trend in Fed thinking bolsters our conviction about the investments we hold that would potentially benefit from the unintended consequences. No guarantees: we wish central bankers would simply avoid flying too close to the sun, so to speak.

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

Notes & References

1. “How Much Could Negative Rates Have Helped the Recovery?”, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2019/february/how-much-could-negative-rates-have-helped-recovery/. Accessed June 25th, 2019.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

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.