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.

The AMZN Power of Long Time Horizons

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Jeffrey Bezos founded the online retailer Amazon. He built it into one of the most revolutionary and valuable businesses on the planet. We are not here to discuss Amazon as an investment, but there is a key lesson for our clients in his explanation of this success:

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you are competing with a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you are now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.”

The investment parallel is clear: just by lengthening the time horizon, you can live with the short term volatility that is inherent in the pursuit of long term investment results.

Those with a short time horizon—an insistence that market values be stable day to day or month to month—can generally expect meager returns. Stable values and liquidity both cost a premium, and if you want both you’re not left with much room for returns.

The ‘time horizons’ framework has interesting theoretical corollaries. It seems to us that investor time horizons, and tolerance for volatility, are smaller now than ever before. (This is an opinion based on anecdotal observation, not a fact.) But if this is the case, the competition for long term results is lighter than before.

Another aspect is that if the demand for stability is high, then the price of stability may be high—and the rewards for enduring volatility may also prove to be high since fewer are willing to do it. Again, this is based on our opinion, no guarantees!

By the same logic, we generally believe that investing in far-sighted companies rather than short-sighted companies makes sense. This is not to say that we are interested in pursuing every visionary out there—we know from experience that it is entirely possible to pay too much for a vision of the future, even if it does come to pass. But we are interested in long term results and prefer to invest in companies that share our time horizon.

Clients, we are grateful for you. As a group, you tend to understand living with volatility, and staying focused on the long term. We believe this has been good for you—and for us. Call or email if you would like to discuss your situation in more detail.


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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The Tactical Bubble

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 Our long-time friends know that avoiding stampedes is one of our fundamental principles. We human beings know how to take things too far, history suggests. So we are always on the lookout for trends that may have become too popular.

A year or two ago, in the investment product market, “unconstrained bond managers” were all the rage. With interest rates near all-time low points and risk high, these magicians would own only the smart parts of the somewhat risky bond market. It turns out that all the money that poured into this idea would not fit into just the smart stuff.

We see a new trend today. Solicitations and information about investment concepts and products comes at us all day long, every day. Organizations would like us to send your money to them; human nature being what it is, they usually emphasize popular ideas, or ones that sound great. One term dominates these pitches nowadays.

You know we are contrarian—if everyone else likes something, we believe that alone is a reason to be cautious.

The trendy term is “tactical.” One of the dictionary definitions is “adroit in planning or maneuvering to accomplish a purpose.”

It is out of fashion to simply acknowledge (as we do) that the markets are volatile and fluctuate, an inherent feature that long term investors must face. The popular delusion is to pretend that a “tactical” manager can own stocks while they go up, then sell out to avoid the damage from the inevitable downturn.

It is a great story. Unfortunately, as a wise person noted a very long time ago, “They do not ring a bell at the top.” Is a 1% decline the first step of a 20% bear market? Or is it just the typical volatility that jerks the market around every week or month? No one ever knows.

The risk is that a small decline shakes the tactical investor out of the market, right before it turns around and makes new highs.

We have no issue in being ‘adroit in maneuvering.’ We think our work over the past couple of years shows that we are, hopefully, more adroit than ever. But it stretches credulity to believe that vast amounts of money can all be adroit at the same time.

Investors who have been fooled into believing that volatility can be sharply reduced or eliminated with no adverse effects on performance are likely to be disappointed. We are studying the potential impact if and when the “tactical” fad unwinds. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other matter, please email us or call.


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.

Tactical allocation may involve more frequent buying and selling of assets and will tend to generate higher transaction cost. Investors should consider the tax consequences of moving positions more frequently.

Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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: Home Sweet Home

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Quite a few clients are reaching the twentieth anniversary of starting in business with us. So the sixty year olds then are eighty now. A lot can happen in those twenty years!

Mr. and Mrs. Q retired successfully a few years into our relationship, a major transition that ended up well. Then they surprised themselves and me when they decided to build a home in a suburban community and leave their city home of more than forty years.

After thoughtfully considering what they wanted, the Q’s built a beautiful new home and never looked back. It was a great move for them.

A dozen years later, the home may not make the most sense for them. Senior living apartments with some services and meals may be a better option in the near future.

In every transition, we look at four kinds of numbers: lump sums coming in, lump sums going out, recurring monthly income, recurring monthly outgo. And we do the arithmetic to sort out how much invested capital will be available after the transition. Then we can figure out the size of ‘the fruit crop from the orchard.’ (By which we mean the cash flow from invested capital, of course.)

We have gone through this process three times for Mr. and Mrs. Q. First they needed to determine if they could afford to retire. Later, the home-building idea had to be framed up so they could make a good decision. Now, we are working on the next move.

One of the interesting parts of our work is that we never make decisions for you. Usually, the key part of a major decision is feelings, not arithmetic. We strongly believe in doing all the arithmetic that can be done. But no computer can decide where you want to wake up every day, or if you sense that maintaining a home has become too great of an effort.

Just as we never forget whose money it is, we never forget whose life it is, either. We will never kid anybody about the arithmetic, nor kid ourselves by thinking we can make better life decisions than you.

Clients, if you face a transition and want to begin framing up a better understanding of it, please email or call us.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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

A Drop or a Loss?

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Recently a client informed us that another person told her that her primary investment account may be invested too aggressively. We asked what the basis was for that conclusion. The explanation: “If the market corrects, I would lose money.”

Anyone who has followed us for any length of time could probably spot the two questionable ideas contained in those eight words. It is worth discussing, because, in our opinion, getting these ideas right may help our clients build wealth more effectively.

1. There is no “if” about the next market correction, it should be when the market corrects. Why act as if we could avoid corrections when we know they will happen and they cannot be reliably predicted nor traded?

2. Is a drop in the market a loss?

We have many long term clients who have lived through dozens of 3-5-7% drops, a fair number of 10-20% declines known as ‘corrections,’ and three or four bear markets with drops of more than 20% in the major market averages. Yet they are sitting on cumulative gains—account balances in excess of the net amount they invested. One might reasonably ask, “what losses?”

The key to our plan, of course, is remaining on course even in difficult conditions, which we know will happen from time to time. We described our efforts to build a client group with this characteristic in our article Niche Market of the Mind.

It is worth mentioning that much of the conventional wisdom about investing assumes that, indeed, a drop in the market is a loss. Furthermore, since many people behave ineffectively when it comes to investing, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everybody behaves ineffectively—doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, again and again—as if it is inevitable for everyone.

It is almost as if statistics about the average weight and exercise habits of Americans are taken as proof that no group of relatively fit people show up at the gym at 6 AM to work out.

We are grateful to be working with you, a group of clients who are disciplined and fit when it comes to effective wealth-building behavior. If you have questions about this or any other topic, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.