Philosophy

Amazing But True

© Can Stock Photo / kryzhov

The twin pillars of American prosperity have been relative freedom for each person to make the most of what they have to work with, and a generally competitive marketplace for goods and services. Count us among the fans. But this essay is about one of the worst features of modern American capitalism.

Some of the world’s largest corporations often receive incentives from governments at various levels to encourage them to bring their businesses. These incentives are paid by tax dollars from the rest of us that are not fortunate enough to receive them.

Local governments are currently engaged in a bidding war to lure a headquarters of a major retail giant. Newark, New Jersey has supposedly offered $7 billion and other locales are also bidding billions.1

It is not hard to imagine that Newark contains storekeepers and shop owners who compete with the company Newark is trying to woo. These people and other citizens ultimately are the ones who pony up the money to subsidize this powerful competitor. Other enterprises are taxed by the government so one enterprise can obtain huge favors from that government.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees us equal treatment under the law by state and local governments. We believe it isn’t happening in this case.

Local governments struggle to find money to pay teachers adequately, keep roads and bridges in good repair, and provide amenities like parks and transportation systems. It isn’t as if money grows on trees.

The justification made by economic development bureaucrats is that the incentives paid to large companies will be repaid with jobs and economic growth. But that conveniently ignores the underlying fundamental fact. Every facility of every type needed by every for-profit enterprise will get built somewhere, whether there are incentives or not.

Imagine if the U.S. government or court system adopted the protections of equal treatment under the law to this economic arena. Local governments could still compete for new facilities. But they could do so on the basis on the quality of the schools and workforce and infrastructure and public amenities.

The equal treatment approach to economic development could strengthen and build our communities as leaders seek to make the most attractive locale with the best-educated workforce. Contrast that with the current mess: taxes on the little guy are given to the large and powerful, at the expense of public necessities and amenities.

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

1Bloomberg, Christie Backs Newark’s Amazon Bid With $7 Billion in Tax Breaks. October 16, 2017.


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 opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

 

The 5 W’s of Carl Braun

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Legendary investor Charlie Munger once spoke of a great business builder, Carl Braun, and the story of the five W’s. His company was a specialized engineering firm. His rule for all communication became known as the five W’s.

You had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why.

We write about a great many topics. It makes sense to get back to the basics from time to time.

Who: We manage wealth to try to help people live the lives they desire. To do that, we have to understand your life and your objectives. We do arithmetic, we research things that need to be learned, we think about alternatives. Most importantly, we consult with you—we talk.

What: We listen to you about the things on which you are the expert. We explain clearly and simply the things that need explaining. Together we figure out if we might be of service to you. (Our investment approach is not for everyone. Determining suitability in advance is better for you and for us.)

Where: The center of our business universe is at 228 Main Street in beautiful downtown Louisville, Nebraska. The phones and the internet go everywhere, of course, and work can be done from many places.

When: Nearly every business day until I am 92.

Why: The little answer is that we get paid to manage wealth. (The talk and the arithmetic and all the rest is just to get to the place where we might manage wealth, no separate charge.) The big answer is that this work is an obsession of mine.

The five W’s are a useful framework, but there is one more feature that is different than most of our colleagues. We believe the best way to grow our business is to grow your buckets—not look for new buckets. This has worked well for a long time. We do not plan to change.

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

What’s Your Story?

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Thinker Morgan Housel wrote recently about the power of narrative in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The essay focused on the narratives that affect the whole economy, the big-picture themes. The future of the country didn’t change much from 2007 to 2009, but employment, wealth, and the markets all got slammed. What caused it? The central narrative, how we understood our economy, changed dramatically from the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust.

Investment manias have a story at their core. They may come true or not, but while the story holds sway, real values are driven by the story. Housel summarized it this way: “this is not a story about something happening; something is happening because there’s a story.”

Stories are how we organize and understand the world and our place in it. “Stories create their own kind of truth,” as Housel wrote. We believe the same idea shapes the lives of individuals just as certainly as it shapes economic and societal trends.

At 228 Main, we have stories. About people who save diligently and achieve financial independence. About folks who invest with increasing confidence and less worry over the years. About investors who learn to live with volatility, and hold on through the downturns. (These are stories, not promises or guarantees—you long-time clients know your own realities.)

I would not be able to work with you as effectively without those stories—and more importantly, the narratives of my own life.

I have a story about a vibrant business in the face of steep personal challenges. I have a story about working to age 92. I have a story about new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

These stories have enabled me to thrive while dealing with major issues, live healthier than I have for decades, communicate more effectively with you than ever before, and make plans for the decades ahead while some of my contemporaries coast toward retirement.

It feels to me as if the stories I have crafted in turn have shaped my life. I am not done creating stories; life goes on and things change. We do not know the future. But if we take control of our stories, we may be able to influence our futures. No guarantees.

How about you? What’s your story? Are there aspects of your narrative that we could help you with? Clients, please email us or call if you would like a longer discussion.


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.

Review and Outlook: Perception and Reality

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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.

Eternal Truths and Changing Times

© Can Stock Photo / devon

228 Main Street, the real-world inspiration for 228Main.com, sits in the middle of beautiful downtown Louisville, Nebraska. The village was platted out just after the Civil War; some descendants of its founders are reading these words.

The building, a typical commercial Victorian structure of the kind that dots small town Main Streets through much of the country, was built at the end of the 19th century. It housed The Louisville Courier newspaper and print shop. More than a century later, it is the center of the business universe for our 21st century digital communications, descended one might say from those earlier forms of media.

When The Louisville Courier began publishing, there was no traffic on the roads to neighboring towns during much of the winter and spring. Horses and wagons could not navigate the muddy roads, especially along the Platte River bottom. The newspaper could only serve the village, and little else.

228Main.com was similarly conceived as a way to communicate with a small community: you who are our friends or clients or both. We provide answers to the questions you ask us, tell the stories that we used to tell only one or two people at a time, and a lot more. 228Main.com is a way to keep our community informed, people who share an understanding about life and investing that we believe is special.

Unlike The Louisville Courier, 228Main is not limited geographically. Since it began in 2015, 26,000 views of its pages came from the United States, and another 3,000 from all over the world—103 other countries. We really do not have time to concern ourselves with anyone but you; the interest of others is perhaps a sign that our work is on the right track.

We recite this history to illustrate that some things are fundamental and unchanging—principles, values, community, human nature. But methods and tactics and the routines of daily life and other things evolve and change. Our object is two-fold: to understand and apply the universal truths, and also keep abreast of the changing times. This seems to be working for you and for us.

Clients, two way communication is vital to get you to your goals. If you would like to discuss any pertinent topic, or update us on your life and objectives, please call us or email.


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.

It’s Open Season!

© Can Stock Photo / kingjon

In recent years we have learned a lot more than we ever wanted to about two things. Potentially catastrophic health situations taught us a lesson about insurance and benefits and health care providers. We aren’t the experts—we are not telling you what to do—but we do know a thing or two.

Medicare recipients face the same basic choice that many working age people have confronted. Do you accept some limitations on the doctors and facilities and treatments you might use in return for lower costs or other minor advantages? Or do you go with more expensive arrangements that give you greater choice?

Like many important decisions, this highly personal decision would be a lot easier if we had a crystal ball. If you are healthy and stay healthy, the less expensive plan saves money. But if you want or need specialized care from premier providers, the more expensive option may be more likely to cover superior choices.

(We aren’t kidding about not being experts. Consult advocacy groups or online resources or professionals in the field. This is general information only.)

A long time ago, I was confronted with the option of joining an HMO plan, back when they were first invented. At first blush, the possibility of ever being powerless to switch to the doctors and facilities I believed would save my life was intolerable. We have always paid more to have more flexibility. This is a personal preference.

Lots of times, the centers of excellence—premier health care institutions—are simply not covered by Medicare Advantage plans or HMO’s. (Know your own plan; this essay does not replace information you need about your situation!) Care at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, etc. is not inexpensive.

The only point we want to make is that Medicare Open Enrollment Season, when you might switch from HMO-type Medicare Advantage Plans to Traditional Medicare, runs through December 7th. If you switch in this period, you may purchase supplemental or MediGap coverage with no questions about pre-existing conditions, regardless of health.

The moral of the story is, if your health has changed for the worse and you want more choice of medical providers, NOW is the time to dig in and figure it out. Open season comes but once a year on Medicare. You might start at www.medicare.gov to begin your education.

Clients, we usually end our stories with a request to call or email us if you want to talk more. In this case, please do not! We just told you all we know. (If you are in an employer plan, not yet on Medicare, you may face a similar situation. Talk to your HR department or benefits people.)


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

About Those Good Old Days

© Can Stock Photo / Chuckee

A client recently expressed a desire to return to the good old days, when we didn’t have all this turmoil and trouble. Wouldn’t we all like that?

But we human beings have some quirks. One of them is the universal sense that, back in the misty past, things were normal, or stable. This idea may not stand up to scrutiny.

If we confine our study just to the economy and markets, the history we’ve lived through has this to say:

1. In the early 1970’s, a mania centering on big blue chip stocks hit the market. It was thought that you could just buy them at any price, and own them forever while they went up and up—“one decision stocks” they were called. Prices ballooned to extremely high levels. The major stock market averages peaked, then sold off more than 50%1.

2. The 1970’s also saw a pair of Arab oil embargoes that resulted in spiking gasoline prices, shortages, gas stations out of gas, and rationing. Over the course of the decade, inflation rose, eventually going over 10%. Unemployment went over 10% in the mid-decade recession2.

3. The early 1980’s began with back-to-back recessions, 15% mortgage interest rates, and inflation at unprecedented levels. The unemployment rate went over 10% again. Long term bonds declined in price as interest rates rose. A mania in oil stocks that began in the 70’s ended badly early in the decade3. The biggest one-day plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average ever—22% in a single day—happened in 19871.

4. The 1990’s began with the cleanup from the savings and loan crisis. The Federal deposit guarantee fund had gone broke, along with thousands of financial institutions. The value of housing, which began to fall nationwide in the late 1980’s, didn’t recover until 19924. The bond market suffered its first annual loss in seventy years in 1994.

5. Clients, most of you remember the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, the attacks on 9/11, and the so-called Great Recession of 2008-2009. You already know the fine points; it was not good fun for investors.

6. The current decade, free of recessions so far, has had a lot of ups and downs. The downgrading of US Treasury debt and the recurring Greek financial crisis were two of the main events. The zero-interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve distorted prices in some sectors of the investment markets, some observers believe.

The resilience of the equity markets over these many decades is astonishing to us. We had all these challenges and issues, and somehow the country came out on the other side, every time. We suspect this general trend will continue. The problems of today will give way to solutions– and new problems–tomorrow. That seems to be how it works.

In the meantime, financial strategies that have worked through the decades may be the best way to approach the future. There will be winners and losers in every change and challenge. We may not be able to get back to those mythical good old days, but we can make the most of what we have to work with.

Clients, if you wish to discuss this, or your situation, please email or call.

1S&P Dow Jones Indices, https://us.spindices.com/indices/equity/dow-jones-industrial-average

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Unemployment and Inflation

3Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Oil Prices

4Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Housing Prices


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.

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.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.

Invest Wisely, Spend Well

© Can Stock Photo / bpm82

A client came in, hat in hand, apologizing profusely for requesting the withdrawal of a few thousand dollars. He seemed sure the request would upset me.

I’m opposed to clients giving their hard-earned money away to scammers or nephews buying bars, so I inquired as to the use of the funds. It turns out that his home needed a modification to accommodate his wife’s changing health.

Of course, I told him that I would be upset if he didn’t use his wealth to make the home improvement. Relieved, he told me that his previous advisor would get agitated about any withdrawals from his investment accounts. It sounded as if that advisor forgot whose money it was.

We devote most of our time and attention and thoughts and words to our version of investing wisely. But what is it all for? There is no reason to be the richest person in the cemetery.

A more balanced view is captured in the short phrase, ‘invest wisely, spend well.’ We aren’t suggesting that you chop down the orchard to sell it as firewood. But it is OK to use the fruit crop to make life better for you and people you care about.

The same lesson was driven home by other friends. In their 70’s, this couple took their extended family on a vacation to a fabulous destination. In the telling, she raved about how great it was while he silently shook his head. I asked him if he had a different opinion. He said they should have started those trips twenty years before.

Many of us need to be diligent about saving and cautious about spending in our working years. Building toward financial independence in the face of everyday expenses can be a struggle. If we do it right, the struggle fades away as the years go by. At a certain point, we may need to warm up more to the idea of spending well.

Clients, we are always thinking about your long term financial position. Your situation seven or fourteen years from now matters—we plan on being here, and we plan on you being here too. But the idea isn’t to pile up the most money you can—it is to strive to have the resources to do what you want and need to do.

Invest wisely. Spend well. If you would like to discuss how this applies to you, 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.

A Share of What?

© Can Stock Photo / tvirbickis

Some people invest in common stock without even knowing what the company does. To them, a stock is price on a screen that can be bought and sold minute by minute—day-trading, they call it. Those people study price charts, not financial statements.

At the other end of the spectrum, investor Warren Buffett understands that a share of stock is a piece of a business—a share in an enterprise. He once said it would not bother him if they closed the stock market for ten years: he is happy to own percentages of businesses.

We suspect that many of you have an understanding that is somewhere in between these two views. We would like to offer you a little more perspective on what ownership is, and what it means.

Recently, in analyzing a company many of you own, we broke it down to what $1 invested represents. We’ll call it Company X, the leader in its industry, a blue chip company.

$1 invested today, whether you just bought in or paid half that amount some years ago, represents a certain amount of revenues—sales of goods by the company. It also represents a share of income and dividends (cash paid to shareholders).

Each dollar of ownership value in Company X represents 32 cents worth of revenues this year. After expenses, the company’s net income for the year will be between seven and eight cents per dollar of today’s stock value. If the Board of Directors continues to approve quarterly dividends at the recent rate, each dollar of stock value will get close to 3 cents in cash dividends.

For long term owners, this year’s results are of interest but the outlook for the future has a large impact on how the stock price will change. For this reason, we seek to understand the relative value today, but also the potential for the company to reap its share of future growth in the American or global economy—to increase its revenues, income, and dividends.

This work is totally captivating, if you are us. Clients, many of you have told us this is why you hire us—your interests lie elsewhere. They say it takes all kinds to make a world; we’re glad to know your kind. If you’d like to talk about this or anything else, 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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.