Philosophy

Progress Beyond Our Dreams

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In the spring of 1902, Brooklyn printers by the name of Sackett & Wilhelms had a problem. It is doubtful whether anyone realized the vast ramifications the solution would bring.

When the humidity changed, the printers found that the paper expanded and contracted, causing their four color printing process to come out misaligned. Wasted days, wasted paper–it was a pretty big problem. Fortunately, a young engineer at the Buffalo Forge had an idea.

The engineer drew plans for a device to control the humidity of the print shop, and the crew from Buffalo Forge installed it. It was the first of its kind. By the end of the summer, the device had been a success.

It took four years for someone else to come up with the name “air conditioning.” Systems spread to other commercial enterprises, and eventually to other businesses, homes, and even to automobiles. As we approach the summer months here in the 21st century, it is hard to imagine life without air conditioning!

The engineer, who was just a year out of college when he drew the plans, later founded and ran his own company. You might have heard of Willis Carrier’s air conditioning company.

Every day, somewhere people are working on solutions to problems the cost us money, time, health, or some other resource. Others are working on things that may improve our lives, or entertain us, or provide some other advantage. Our everyday lives contain scores of things that did not even exist twenty or forty years ago.

For most of history, this is not how things worked. Life was nasty, brutish, and short. Generations came and went, but little changed. Then modernity unleashed human creativity and potential like never before.

This may be the key factor behind the seemingly perpetual upward tendency of the equity markets, all the way back to their origins.

We have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: stock markets are volatile. They go up and down. There are no guarantees. But they may represent a way to invest in human potential. Clients, please call or write if you would like to talk about this.


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 History of the Future

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One might say that the study of History as a formal endeavor began 2,400 years ago. Herodotus, the so-called Father of History, sought “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time” in his chronicles of the Peloponnesian wars. Herodotus used perspective, context, and narrative to relate the fruits of his inquiries.

These same techniques are the foundation of our work. Facts and data come at us as if from a fire hose, particularly in the digital age. Perspective and context help us determine what is significant and pertinent; narrative is how disparate events and trends and facts can be woven into an understandable story.

The future will be different from the past; the next decade will not be like the last decade. So how does history fit into understanding the future?

First, some processes of change seem to be universal, even though the particulars change. For example, the future may include an energy revolution in which solar technology and battery storage combine to usher in unparalleled access to cheaper energy. But water power and steam power and petroleum are simply earlier examples of energy revolutions which also ushered in unparalleled access to cheaper energy. Same song, new verse.

Second, many times what seems to be entirely novel is truly not. After 9/11 a client told us “never before have we been this fearful and afraid.” The same client, as an elementary teacher, had coached young children how to get under their school desks and cover up to mitigate damage from nuclear war. Remembering the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis helped keep the events of 9/11 in perspective.

Third, human nature persists through every age. History provides a rich tapestry of behavior in action. Thinking about investments, the Tulip Mania in 16th century Holland and the South Sea Bubble in the 18th century provided many clues to the growth mania and technology bubble of the late 1990’s. Those who knew this history, and applied the knowledge properly, had an edge.

My education includes a History degree. When I developed a greater interest in business as an underclassman, I read the Wall Street Journal and the Journal of Commerce every day in the campus library. Not wishing to extend my college years by changing majors, I persisted in the study of History. Now, I would be hard pressed to say which has been more valuable to clients —the reading in the library, or the History degree.

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

Can Happiness Buy Money?

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A very long time ago, I attended a convention and heard something worthwhile. In those days, a convention was mostly a rah-rah meeting to crank up insurance salespeople to get out there and sell more. Some of the content was not that great, as you might imagine.

But at this particular meeting, the featured speaker posed a pair of questions that resonated very deeply. Whether the incident changed my life or not would be hard to say. I may have been born this way.

The speaker started off by saying he wanted to ask two questions. “The first one, raise your hand to say yes—do you do more business and make more money when you are happy, as opposed to upset or mad?” Of course, everyone in the crowd raised a hand. Obviously, people dependent on making calls and taking the initiative would be more active when not upset—with an impact on their income.

The second question contained the hook. The speaker said, “No need to raise your hand on this question. Just think about it. Since we have all agreed that we do more business and make more money when we are happy, WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THAT?”

Friends, I cannot tell you where the meeting was, what year it occurred, or anything else about the agenda. But the notion that each of us is in charge of our own happiness is burned indelibly in my brain.

Life is not all puppy dogs and rainbows, of course. Some people are not happy, and none of us is in position to judge anyone else. Each of us has challenges. The pessimists among us are the ones doing the disaster planning, and pulling us back when our thinking goes too high up into the clouds.

We’ve written before about investing with the confidence that things work out even when they look bad. And it is easy to believe that our current challenges are the biggest yet, although history suggests otherwise. Perhaps happiness is a productive state.

We cannot prove that happiness brings money. But I will continue to act as if that is the case, since life is better when I do. Clients, you will each have to make up your own mind, but I will do my best to improve your happiness and your wealth—no guarantees on either. Please write or call with questions.


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

Miracle in a Coffee Cup

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Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, ranking only behind water and tea. Whether or not you are a coffee drinker, the story of coffee contains a great lesson. Why business works—let’s take a look.

According to Gallup, 64% of U.S. adults drink coffee, an average of 2.7 cups per day. This is a popular drink.

Coffee is grown in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. Top producing countries include Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Coffee is also important to the economies of Uganda, Guatemala, Costa Rica and other places. Virtually none is grown in the continental United States.

Americans drink a lot of coffee, but none grows here. Farmers in other lands grow the beans, and we wake up and smell the coffee. How does this work?

Of all the people and enterprises involved, not one is a charity. The farmers, truck drivers, buyers, exporters, processors, millers, roasters, grinders, coffee companies, grocers, waiters and baristas—they all have the same reason for being involved. Every single one makes a living by providing a good or a service for which other people voluntarily pay.

Think about it: a product that starts its journey on one of three other continents is a popular beverage here in America. Why? Because there is money to be made in providing goods and services that others need or want.

Another part of the story of coffee is about change and transformation over time, to meet the desires of the marketplace. Fifty years ago, for most Americans, coffee meant Maxwell House or Folgers, brewed at home in a percolator. Today coffee might mean a trip to the popular chains or local independents, cafés, fast food places, or truck stops—to enjoy fresh-ground or gourmet or organic and a wide variety of other types of coffee.

Why did these sweeping changes in the coffee market occur? Clients, you know how this works: there was a buck to be made in bringing us what we want.

Decades ago, one coffee advertisement had a jingle that went “the best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.” Seems to us that what is in the cup is actually capitalism at work.

Clients, please call or email us if you would like to discuss this concept, or any other idea of interest.


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

Regulation and Structure: Changes Ahead?

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The investment world is changing rapidly in the face of evolving regulation and market forces. This article describes how coming changes may affect us—and you.

Clients know we have been affiliated with LPL Financial (LPL) for a very long time, since 1994, in fact. The relationship actually has two parts. LPL is both a registered investment advisor with the Securities and Exchange Commission and a broker/dealer regulated by FINRA.

As an Investment Advisor Representative of LPL’s SEC-registered investment advisor, I offer investment advisory accounts under LPL’s auspices and rules. These arrangements are fee-based, and hold me to a fiduciary standard where your interests must come first. As a registered representative of LPL, I offer securities on a brokerage basis. This is more of a sales-type situation, where my legal obligation is to present recommendations that are ‘suitable’ when made.

In practice, we have always strived to put your interests first, to focus on improving your financial situation, no matter the legal form of our relationship. This has worked well as a business strategy. It frees us from worrying about our needs or goals, since the better off you are, the better off we figure we will be. But the world is changing.

We see two main impacts of evolving regulation.

1. The investment advisory side of the business will become increasingly important, since the fiduciary relationship is more in keeping with the spirit of the regulations.

2. The brokerage side of the business will have fewer choices and more restrictions as investment firms seek to limit the conflicts of interest that come with wide variation in compensation and fees on brokerage products.

As we think about how to best serve your interests and meet your needs, we have reached some tentative conclusions:

A. The increasing emphasis on fiduciary investment advisory accounts fits well with the trends that make sense for us and for you. Our research and portfolio management processes are more effective and more efficient than ever before, and we continue to hone our processes.

B. In order to preserve the ability to continue to offer our traditional research-intensive, contrarian, value-oriented philosophy, we may have to form our own registered investment advisor. We would only take this step if our methods and philosophies become difficult to implement under LPL’s rules.

C. If we do form our own registered investment advisor, we would probably operate as ‘hybrid’ advisors using LPL Financial on the brokerage side, and to hold client assets, provide accounting and statements as they do now on the advisory side. Your assets would not be going anywhere different. The change would be minimal.

The irony is that if we were doing what everybody else is doing, life would be simple and we would not have to think about changing our structure to maintain our practices. In our opinion, we are different—and YOU are different. Generally, you and we are less sensitive to volatility, more focused on the long term, and more confident that things work out over time.

In a sense, the regulations codify conventional wisdom with which we disagree. The short version of this essay: we will do what we need to do to continue to bring you our philosophy and strategies and methods. Clients, if you have any questions or comments about this or any other issue, please email us or call.


Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Case Study: The Life of Mr. S, and Working to 92

© Can Stock Photo / Leaf

Long ago, I met a man in his late forties. He had just resigned one position and accepted another. Needing a place for a 401(k) rollover, he agreed to do business with me. Our methods and access to investments were quite limited then (I was still in my twenties!), but I did the best I could.

Through the years his life evolved and changed; like all of us, he had his share of joy and pain. His wife began to suffer a chronic illness. His industry consolidated which caused some moves from town to town. But his children all ended up in successful marriages and careers, and grandchildren came. I advised him on wealth management throughout, helping him manage challenges from family health expenses and other things.

At sixty-six he retired, fearing he had not saved enough. The size of the fruit crop he needed each year seemed too large for the orchard he had grown, so to speak. We devised a plan that gave him a chance for things to work, although without any guarantees.

Of course, through these years, our knowledge and experience and confidence and capabilities flourished. We grew together.

Mr. S is pushing eighty-one years old now; poor Mrs. S had her disease go from chronic to acute and she succumbed a short while back. Mr. S stays busy helping with grandchildren and keeping up his home.

His retirement finances have worked out well, although this is not evidence of anything to anyone else. Good fortune played a role, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and all that. But I still want to tell you what happened so far.

Over fifteen years, Mr. S has withdrawn more than he retired with—and he also still has a current account balance that is larger than when he started. He tells us it is like the endless coffee refills they have at the café.

I call Mr. S when I need a pick-me-up; his gratitude is boundless. This, friends, is why I want to work to age 92.

That gives us a little more than thirty years to help many more of you get to eighty with more confidence than you ever thought possible. If you are fifty or older now, we will do our best between now and then to earn your gratitude when you turn age eighty. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email or call 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.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

Our Success Will Never Hurt You

© Can Stock Photo / Cebas

I never aimed to build an empire, or hire an army of people to run it. From a very young age in business, all I wanted to do was find a group of clients who, if we took care of them, would take care of us. Little did I know how gratifying this outcome would be, or how close our relationships would become!

But nothing succeeds like success. It turns out many of you believe we are good at what we do: understanding your life and goals, framing issues so you can make good decisions, and managing your money effectively in a way that coordinates with your life.

Our communications are simple, accessible to almost anyone who can read. Our stories and essays and parables get shared to friends of our friends, and their friends. You recommend our services when you believe it would be a favor to someone close to you. So growth is inevitably happening, even though we devote all of our thoughts and efforts to growing your buckets and communicating with you—not looking for more buckets.

Consultants advise us to ‘segment’ our client group into A, B, and C clients. This is typically based on economics: big accounts are A, little accounts are C. The advice is to get rid of C clients, move B clients to a junior partner, and concentrate on A clients. Of course, being contrarian, this conventional wisdom has never made sense to us. It never seemed right. More than one of you came to us after getting demoted in this way by some hotshot.

For a long time we’ve been able to say, all of our clients are first class. Increasing efficiencies and improvements to our systems and processes and delegation of administrative duties helped us keep this true.

Between the wide reach of new media and unsolicited referrals, one thing—my time—will come into play as a limiting factor. But we have a thoughtful plan, and I think you will like it.

All the way back to the 1970’s, when you went to Kentucky Fried Chicken, Col. Sanders was not back in the kitchen at the fryer. His recipe was there, his methods were there, his image was there. But associates were doing the work. If our growth continues, as seems likely, new clients—not you—will get the Col. Sanders version.

You folks with whom I have a personal relationship, who value our work and depend on it, you will always have access to me to help with your plans and planning. This is why we say our success will never hurt you. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email or call 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.

Culture vs. Strategy

© Can Stock Photo / Cebas

Long ago, we conceived the notion that a well-grounded enterprise had values as the foundation. Principles arise from values, strategy builds on principles, and tactics align with strategy. So ultimately, everything you do every day has your values at the bottom of it.

Our initial thought was to get a nice graphic of this structure so we could explain it to clients more clearly. But the only way to truly convey values is to live them, day by day and year by year, and let others draw their own conclusions. So we dropped the idea of talking about them.

We were reminded of the structure recently, when an airline made a public relations disaster by dragging a bloodied customer off an overbooked plane. The next morning, the value of the airline dropped by more than half a billion dollars in the stock market. In the aftermath Tom Peters, the dean of business gurus, attributed the problem to the CEO for having a defective culture.

This prompted us to look up ‘organizational culture,’ a concept developed by MIT professor Edgar Schein in the 1980’s. His academic work parallels our old notion about values, with some differences in terminology.

Schein is credited with a business classic: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So when we think about the airline, we know the strategy is to increase the ‘load factor’ or utilization rate because fuller planes make more profit. But that strategy is not grounded on any deeper value than short-term profit.

The airline we prefer to fly on is known for trying to get their customers where they are going in the most pleasant and efficient manner possible. That is their culture. The staff smiles a lot, and deals honestly and tactfully when any issue arises. Paradoxically, it is the only major airline operating in the US today that has never booked a quarterly loss.

The difference between the two airlines perhaps illustrates that culture eats strategy for breakfast. This is a useful lesson for us in selecting companies in which to invest, and for you, in choosing where to do business for any product or service. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other topic, please email or call us.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The State of Our Union

© Can Stock Photo / Niyazz

Our union? Yes, you and we are partners in a unique enterprise. As a client, you share our confidence about the long term. Many of you are willing to live with volatility in the short term to get where you want to go. And many of you don’t join stampedes or sell out in panic. This investment behavior puts you in a select group. It is a vital ingredient in the beginning of your success—and ours.

The 21st anniversary of the decision to embark on our ultimate business venture is a natural time to take stock. Where are we now? Where are we going? We’ll assess this in terms of our three key activities.

Communications.

We love to talk—you know this. About two years ago, we began to figure out how to talk to all of you, every day if you would like. The new media has two aspects. Real time commentary and news shows up in the social media venues like Facebook and Twitter. A permanent library of all of our philosophy and strategies and methods can be found 24/7 at 228Main.com.

Paradoxically, the success of our new media has given us more time to talk one on one, by telephone or email or in person. So now we spend more time doing what we love, connecting with you directly. We expect to continue to build both our archives and our skill at real time interaction.

Investment Research.

To a surprising extent, our research capabilities are tied to new media activity. We interact with great minds in economics and market strategy, trading ideas and insights and finding topics we wish to investigate more deeply.

The one-to-one communications with you also contain a research element. We gain perspective on global markets by talking to executives who have traveled the world on business. We have a better understanding of specific industries and companies because we talk to people who are in those businesses. Every one of you is a consumer, and we talk to you about companies and products you deal with every day.

Our conventional sources have never been better, either. LPL Financial continues to build out our back office research staff by adding and developing talent. Bottom line: we are connected to ever-richer sources of ideas and trends as well as the specific data we need to do our work.

Portfolio Management.

Over the past eighteen months we have worked on improving our capability to act more quickly on fleeting opportunities. You saw the results. Our portfolio review process is more robust than it ever has been.

We also have tweaked our strategy. Now, client portfolios see more activity but in smaller pieces. Instead of looking for opportunities where we can invest 5% of a portfolio balance, we will take action if 1 or 2 or 3% position sizes are appropriate. With more holdings comes greater diversification. Theoretically, this may give us a smoother ride to our goals.

The markets are like a thousand piece mosaic whose tiles are constantly changing. So we cannot tell you what changes are coming in the future—only that we will always be trying to figure out how to grow your buckets more effectively.

So the state of our union is grand. We have focused on our systems and processes so we can take care of business no matter what happens in our lives or the economy and markets. We offer no guarantees about the future, except for our intent to get better as we go along. Thank you all for your part in our unique partnership. Clients, if you’d like to talk at greater length about these things or anything else, please email 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.

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.

Alternative Facts, Alternative Investments

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Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hay made in the press about “alternative facts.” The term is a sarcastic euphemism; when something is labeled an alternative fact, the clear implication is that it is not a fact at all.

There is a certain class of investments which are collectively called “alternative investments.” This term is unrelated to the term “alternative fact”, but the similarities are undeniable.

Traditional investments are based on the notion of putting your money to work in order to generate more money. When you invest in a company’s stock, you are buying a piece of a going concern that generates revenue. When you invest in bonds, you are buying a debt obligation that bears interest. Even if you are just holding cash reserves, when you leave your cash with a bank, they are paying you interest to hold onto your money. In today’s interest rate environment you are probably earning close to nothing, but at least in theory there is some return on cash.

This is not to say that traditional investments are not without risks. You are not guaranteed to break even, let alone make money—companies may go broke, leaving stocks and bonds at a fraction of their former value. But you still have the hope that your money can grow into more money over time.

“Alternative investments” is a very large category which encompasses a wide range of assets. The only common element is that they do not fall into traditional investment categories such as stocks and bonds, and in many cases, arguably do not qualify as investments in the traditional sense at all.

Commodities are one form of alternative investment. These are gold, silver, oil, corn, and so on—actual, physical products, not the companies that produce them. If you buy a bar of gold, all you will ever have is a bar of gold. It will never turn into two bars of gold. If you are lucky, maybe you can sell it to someone for more than you paid for it. But that is speculation, not investment.

Derivatives contracts are another type of alternative investment. A derivative’s value is based on (“derived from”) the value of another asset, such as a stock or commodity. When you buy options to purchase a company’s stock, you are making a bet that the company will be successful, just like owning stock. However, stock options tend to have a very short time horizon. You are speculating on short term price fluctuations, not really investing in a company’s long term growth.

Undoubtedly some people make good money speculating on alternative investments. As a result, some portfolio managers believe in buying small slices of alternative investments for everyone in case they happen to outperform traditional investments. Our response: nuts! We want to build an orchard big enough to live off the fruit crop. We have no interest in owning a smaller orchard and trying to make up the difference buying and selling fruit with other fruit speculators.

Clients, if you want to talk about your portfolio, please call or email. But if someone is trying to sell you “alternative investments”, you should perhaps treat them with the same skepticism you’d give to someone pitching “alternative facts.”


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

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and involve special risks such as leveraging the investment, potential adverse market forces, regulatory changes and potentially illiquidity. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

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 fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.