Tactics

Parts of the Picture

photo shows small white and orange dog running through grass

There’s plenty about 2020 that is disorienting. Some parts of the picture seem to be going okay: spending is on the rise again, and some industries are seeing fresh growth and new opportunities this year.

Other indicators are worrying. Retail bankruptcies are piling up, and many small businesses are just hanging on.

What’s the deal? It’s head-spinning to hold all the pieces together… but they are all part of one economic picture, right?

We recently heard an analogy from Josh Brown of Ritholtz Wealth Management. Brown told Planet Money to picture a person walking a dog, “walking upright at a moderate pace, nothing terribly exciting.”

And then there’s the dog. He says, “Then let your eyes pan down a little bit. Look at the dog. … It’s chasing birds. It’s digging up clumps of mud. It’s running at trees. It’s peeing all over the place.”

The picture feels split, but Brown explains that the dog is the stock market; the person is the economy. They are parts of the same picture. The dog can be bouncing all over, but it doesn’t mean the person is too.

The market is reflecting the twists and turns, the frenzy of opportunities and announcements and shifts in focus. The economy as a whole, however, is on a promising course. While the country has not weathered this specific set of challenges before, it has come through others. Times like these bring pain and innovation.

The economic picture is a complex one, but it doesn’t have to be totally overwhelming. The savings and cash we need, long-term goals, and a little planning: that’s how we stay the course. The dog can bark all it wants.

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


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.

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE

photo shows gold key in a lock hole

The secrets to success aren’t locked in the past, but they also aren’t waiting to be revealed in some crystal ball. History and context have plenty to teach us, and we ought to prepare as best we can for the future.

But success depends on our ability to move among the past, present, and future. That’s the key.

Imagine if we relied solely on the past. Human tendency leads us to believe current trends will continue. We are masters at spotting patterns and weaving details into coherent tapestries. (Those are the moves that kept us alive when our main job was to avoid predators and find sustenance.)

Today our brains try to do the same thing—to a fault, sometimes. Economic information surrounds us, and we want to find the story in it quickly. The brain wants to spot the pattern and react. When we learn that a company is finding some early success, for example, we want to conclude, “It’s a rocket ship, look at it go!”

Understanding the current trajectory is important, but the patterns of history are especially useful. Every age has fallen prey to some sort of mania. Tulips in 16th century Holland? Tech stocks in the 1990s? Not such different moments. There’s an edge in both knowing the history and being able to apply its lessons.

But what if that’s all we have, the wisdom of history? Well, we miss the big turning points, those moments of departure. We have to understand why and when a change might occur. The future will not be like the past: a proactive approach may keep us ahead of the pack.

In business, even when our past methods and processes have served you and us well, the world keeps spinning: we can expect change, which means we’d do well to keep an eye on potential opportunities, bargains, and possibilities.

My education includes a degree in history. When I was in college and developed a growing interest in business, I spent time on my own in the campus library with The Wall Street Journal and The Journal of Commerce. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s tough to say which has been more valuable to clients—the history studies or the business reading.

How we got here and where we’re going are two different conversations. So the secrets to success are neither here nor there—literally. They’re in the wisdom in between, and we have to keep perspective.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other topic, please email us or call.

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

photo shows two hands holding a roadmap

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

A sunset over a body of water

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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.