Tactics

IT WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T

the photo shows a wooden desk with a keyboard, notepad, pen, and balled up pieces of paper

We’re contrarians. We are not satisfied with conventional thinking that portfolio management requires plugging in the right numbers and then following the formula.

It’s not that simple—and it can actually lead investors astray.

Here’s the deal. Modern portfolio theory—one version of the conventional wisdom—uses rigorous statistical models that attempt to quantify volatility and risk in their many forms. The idea is that if you can measure and predict volatility then you can construct a portfolio that has only as much volatility as you desire.

We believe there are a lot of problems with this approach. These models all rely on the assumption that the market will continue to behave rationally. So when the market experiences irrational exuberance, statistical models quickly lose their meaning and begin producing nonsense.

For example, one measure of a stock’s volatility is called its “beta.” The more correlated a stock’s movement is to the broader market, the higher the beta. A high beta stock tends to be a big winner or big loser based on what the market is doing, while a low beta stock generally moves less than the market. A stock can even have a negative beta, where it tends to move the opposite way from the rest of the market!

Under normal circumstances, volatile stocks tend to have a high beta. But when a hot stock gets caught up in a speculative bubble, it can take on a life of its own. A stock on a hot streak that goes up even on days when the market is down will show a lower beta than stocks that follow the market but may still be volatile.

In cases like this, investment managers that are chasing “low beta” may end up with some very volatile holdings in a portfolio that claims to prioritize stability and low market correlation. And investors that are looking to avoid the roller coaster of the stock market may find themselves on an even bigger ride without realizing it.

We believe statistical analysis can be useful, but it cannot compete with timeless investment principles. Trying to quantify volatility exposure can lead to ugly surprises when the underlying models break down.

We think there’s another way. Instead of trying to mathematically capture and avoid it, we believe in living with volatility. If you are investing for the long haul and you know where your cash flow is coming from, you do not need to fret about day-to-day price action.

Clients, if you have questions about this or anything else, please give us a 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.

MAPPING THE PAIN

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We talk plenty around here about change, pain, and loss. They are a given in many activities, including owning a business, living, and having a human body.

Navigating pain, however, is easier when we’ve got some perspective about where we are. If we can understand more about the terrain, it’s clearer when we should be concerned versus when we should try to carry on.

Is this pain just “part of it”?

When a toddler is achy and crying during a growth spurt, parents have a chance to reflect that the screaming is just—to an extent—part of it. The kid doesn’t grow without some stretching and aching.

Is it “to-be-expected” pain?

Bending down to lace up new running shoes isn’t too bad. That first mile? Ouch. Some people feel the burn in their muscles and immediately interpret the signal as, “I guess I’m just not a runner.”

This is not a useful interpretation, given that the exercise is new terrain. Take some time to navigate it, and recalibrate: which pain and how much pain is to be expected for a new runner?

Is it acceptable?

This question is a little trickier. Only you know what you can stand or what you can choose to stand. We suspect you can handle quite a lot, but “tolerable” is relative.

Mean-spirited or toxic pain inflicted on our fellow humans? Not acceptable.

A growing pain? The pain of a shock? Maybe we’ve got a chance to understand it better—and respond rather than react.

Clients, we don’t know it all, but we’re happy to provide perspective where we can and try to understand where you are. Call or write.

HOW TO RETIRE: PANDEMIC EDITION

photo shows a small wooden wall clock and a calendar with sticky notes and push pins

What a year! The events of 2020 have reached into every facet of our lives. Many careers have been changed or upended.

People working happily at advanced ages have told us they are leery of workplace exposures, so many are on leave or have retired. Others have been displaced from jobs they would have preferred to keep. And some are helping descendants cope with “distance learning” or a loss of childcare options instead of working at jobs.

One friend retired just before the pandemic, planning an ambitious travel schedule. That isn’t happening. And another, who had planned to retire, now works from home: they figure they might as well keep working, since they cannot travel or engage in activities they had planned for retirement.

No matter what 2020 has thrown at you, the basics of retirement planning have not changed. It is a five-step process. We need to figure out…

  1. how much money it takes to run the life we prefer,
  2. monthly income amounts and timing from Social Security or pensions,
  3. lump sums required for one-time goals or needs, like a bucket list trip or boat,
  4. lump sums available from savings, investments, 401(k) plans, and other wealth, and
  5. the sustainable monthly cash flow that might be withdrawn from net long-term investments, after the lump sums are accounted for (we help people with this step).

There are nuances to each step—options to analyze, lifestyle decision to make. Retirement planning works out best when it is a process over time. We have noticed that people learn more about their objectives and their finances as time goes on, and things change. So your retirement plan adapts and changes over time, too.

If the pandemic has shaken things up for you as it has for others—or if it has just gotten to be that time—call or email us when you are ready to work on your plans and planning. Clients, if changes need to be incorporated in your plans, let’s keep talking.

We’re glad to help.

A COHERENT COMPOSITION

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On my morning walk recently, I captured a sunrise scene. Colorful clouds with interesting texture reflected perfectly in one of the Louisville lakes. I am strictly an amateur, but a good picture jumps in front of me once in a while.

Pondering later what goes into a successful photo, I came up with this list:

  • Choose a pertinent subject.
  • Frame the key elements, focusing on the important stuff.
  • Keep it centered and level.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this same formula is what goes into writing a blog post or telling a story. And it’s what we strive for in our work with you.

There are a thousand things we could talk about or think about, but you and I work on your highest priorities—the most pertinent subjects. Our goal is to frame them so you can make effective decisions. By keeping it level, we can use a balanced approach.

Clients, if you would like to work on your story, email us or call.

STOCK SPLITS AND SWEETS

photo shows a variety of individually-wrapped taffy pieces

Arithmetic is important in our line of work, but its lessons can be found all over.

My older brother gave me one such lesson when I was very young. There was a particular joy in convincing any of my siblings to share candy or treats with me. One day, my brother offered to split a piece of taffy.

“Mark,” he said, “how would you like a fourth of this piece?”

“Yes!” I said.

“If you think that sounds good, what about a tenth of this piece?”

I didn’t know much then, but ten was definitely bigger than four, so this development was promising. I nodded.

“Great! But how about a twentieth of it?”

I could barely contain my excitement. What a deal!

By the end of this process, we settled on a figure. My brother tore me off the tiniest corner of the taffy, and I learned a valuable lesson about math.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we thought of this story again with this news of some major companies executing stock splits.

A stock split is what it sounds like: a company increases the number of shares issued to holders by splitting each existing share into some fraction. Apple recently split four-for-one; Tesla just split five-for-one. (Unlike the taffy lesson, they don’t keep the other pieces! Shareholders went from owning one share to owning four or five, respectively.)

Why split stocks? In years gone by, the idea was that soaring prices made some companies out of reach for smaller investors. A stock split on an expensive company made a single share more affordable, and in theory more investors could get a piece of the action.

Today, many trading platforms allow investors to purchase “fractional shares,” which are also just what they sound like: even if you can’t afford a whole piece, plenty of platforms will still sell you a corner of it.

So why a stock split? Even if it’s not doing much to make the company more accessible to more investors, the move still communicates that idea. It’s a strong marketing campaign for valuable companies.

What does it mean for us? Not much. Remember, we want a piece of the action: any way you slice it, the ingredients and quality of the piece haven’t changed.

A stock split changes the mechanics of how the company is traded. It does not change the mechanics of the company—its outlook, its output, its fundamentals.

Math will always be important in our work, but in this case, we’re not going to let the numbers complicate the situation. Whether we’re splitting the taffy in two pieces or twenty, we know what we’re getting.

Clients, if you want to talk about this or anything else, please write or call.


Stock investing includes risks, including fluctuating prices and loss of principal.

SURVIVING OR THRIVING?

We were running a bit ragged there for a few years. You’ve heard parts of the story before, but when my late wife’s health meant more travel and new challenges, I had to try something different. What had worked before was no longer sufficient.

Once we caught our breath, we found exciting advantages in those new things we tried. We feared digital communication might seem a poor replacement for in-person connections, but they were never in competition. We improved the speed and clarity of our thoughts as they traveled to you, and then our personal conversations became that much deeper. The various channels of communication made wonderful complements for each other.

We might not have made that discovery—or made it in such record time—if not for terrible adversity. The universe gave us a shove, and we tried to ride the momentum forward.

We survived and, as it turns out, thrived.

In a recent company communication, LPL’s Angela Xavier shared that what makes “thrivalists” (we love LPL’s term!) different from the rest.

“We all know that with crisis comes opportunity,” she said, “and those that are going to thrive will definitely take advantage of those opportunities.”

Xavier mentions a few key moves that help thrivalists: practicing flexibility, reimagining the work, and embracing the new things you have access to. Each new environment brings new challenges and new paths.

Become a thrivalist in whatever way makes sense to you. We’ve described it in the past as discovering you’re actually “in the right place at the right time” or with the old chestnut “necessity is the mother of invention.”

And when you struggle? Xavier encourages us to “steal with pride”: what are your mentors, neighbors, and friends doing? How might you adapt, not just to survive—but to thrive?

Clients, we’re excited to help you with any of your plans and planning. Call or write when you’re ready.

COMPLETELY UNFINISHED

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Maybe the idea of “the finish line” is overrated. You know about my long-time goal of working until I’m age 92, so this sentiment shouldn’t be a shocker.

But we’re thinking about other ways this idea applies. A lot of investment wisdom suggests finding strategies that work with your current life stage. What milestones are coming up? What are you working toward right now? What can you prepare for? Even in this approach, though, life shouldn’t be treated like a checklist.

It’s definitely a journey—and you can’t plan for all the stops along the way. Our approach has to reflect that reality.

Psychologist Carol Dweck studies motivation and mindset. Her take? If things feel fixed or set in stone, look out: that attitude may be a signal that you’ve shut down in the face of change.

We’re not saying that flip-flopping or changing for its own sake is the way to be, but we can’t grow unless we’re willing to change.

“Opening yourself up to growth makes you more yourself, not less,” Dweck explains in her book Mindset. Dweck encourages us to continue to “learn and help learn,” and that’s an idea we can get behind.

You can be a whole person every day you live, but that doesn’t mean your living is ever finished. That’s how we feel about our work, too: a strong financial advisor isn’t a teacher or guide necessarily. An advisor can be a partner on that path. We can map an approach that is complete, robust, and comprehensive—but you better believe that the plan should be able to grow right along with you.

Clients, write or call when you’d like to talk about this, or anything else.