asset allocation

Would You Take Every Drug on the Shelf?

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We have written quite a bit about the conventional investing wisdom recently. This essay puts the focus on what we do here at 228 Main.

One of our principles is to find the best bargains. We cannot be sure where they are, but we will still try to find them. We look for seemingly healthy investments at historically low-seeming valuations.

We recognize this means buying investments which are unpopular. This is fine with us. In fact, we rely on it. One of our core principles is to avoid stampedes. The more of something everyone else is buying, the more expensive it is going to get.

A natural consequence of our approach is that our portfolio construction may not be as diversified as conventional wisdom dictates. But we are not interested in trying to own everything. We want to own the bargains.

We may not always be able to pick them. We may miss out on some high flyers because we thought they were too expensive to buy. Sometimes a “bargain” turns out not to be one. Generally, though, we believe that our odds are better if we at least try to find the bargains.

An alternative to our way is like going to a doctor who prescribes every drug he can think of in case one of them works. “Chances are some of them will make things better and some of them will make things worse, but in theory one of them should cure you.” Wouldn’t you run out the door?

There are many unknowns in both medicine and investing. A doctor may have to try several courses of treatment before finding one that works. Similarly, we frequently implement several promising tactics at the same time. Some don’t work out and need to be replaced.

We think it is reckless, however, to simply give up trying to find successful investments in favor of simply grabbing a little bit of everything. Yet that seems to be a popular, if lazy, strategy with some investment professionals.

Clients, please call or email us if you want to discuss how our investment ideas apply to your situation.


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.

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.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Short Cuts

© Can Stock Photo / BackyardProduct

When I was a child, a friend and I were off on some adventure or other. We arrived back at his home quite a bit later than expected. His mother was waiting, and demanded an explanation. My friend’s answer was Marx Brothers-quality dialogue: “We took a short-cut!”

His mother seemed to think that a short cut ought to reduce travel time, not increase it.

Some financial professionals and investment advisors take a very similar short cut. They adopt the view that it is either not possible to do better than the market averages, or not worth the effort of trying.

The reasons sound plausible, but may not stand up under examination. Human nature often encourages counterproductive behavior. We believe untrained human nature is a poor guide to investing; training and education may improve investor behavior, which may improve investment results. But the short-cutters seem to pander to human nature in its untrained state.

Active investment managers typically underperform the market averages, and this is often cited as evidence “it is too hard to beat the market.” What many fail to see is that active managers have human beings as customers, so may include popular investments and avoid out-of-favor sectors in order to draw more funds to manage. These tactics, of course, may be detrimental to actual investment results.

So that human nature thing enters into that argument, as well.

Life is straightforward for the short-cutters. They typically avoid the hard work of researching specific investment opportunities; they spend no time reading SEC filings, press releases, and conference call transcripts. They have no reason to try to understand the role of emotion driving money into different market sectors.

Hey, it is a free country and we are glad it is. Each person is entitled to his or her own opinion; investors are free to use or ignore any advice or advisors.

The short-cutters have become very popular. At the same time, with your help, our business has continued to grow and prosper. We do not mind the existence of short-cutters; they may actually reduce the competition for favorable opportunities. But we do want you to understand what we are talking about, and why.

If you have questions or comments on how this may apply to your situation, please write 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.

If You Always Do What Everybody Else Does…

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Our clients know we are not like most other financial advisors. We used to be content to let people discover the differences at their own pace, if ever. But changes in the world have made clarity about the distinction a crucial matter—vital for us, vital for you.

The financial industry is responding to regulatory and competitive pressures by adopting standardized approaches for all investors. This ‘safe’ approach based on conventional thinking supposedly reduces risk of fines or litigation.

Consequently, many advisors spend no time reading SEC filings or analyzing financial statements or managing portfolios of stocks and bonds. Instead, they try to find people to stuff into one of three or five pie charts filled with packaged products.

There are more than 300 million people in the country. We do not believe you all fit into one of these pie charts.

Our principles-based approach is based on building custom portfolios for each client. We are contrarian—we do NOT want to do what everybody else does, and get what everybody else gets. We hope this is why you continue to do business with us.

With different methods, we get different outcomes. Client results generally do not match “benchmark” returns such as the S&P 500 Index, or what the pie chart would have gotten you. Sometimes we do better, sometimes we do worse, and over the long term we hope to come out ahead. No guarantees, of course.

Our portfolios also experience volatility. We all understand that this is an integral part of long term investing. We do not sell out just because the price goes down. Warren Buffett loves to buy when the price of a good opportunity declines, and so do we.

Since each client has a custom portfolio, there is a range of returns even among clients with similar objectives. We are constantly improving our portfolio process hoping that all clients receive as much benefit as possible from the opportunities we identify. But with our approach to portfolio-building, there are still nearly infinite variations in holdings. Money comes in at different times, and client preferences are taken into account when investing. Naturally outcomes differ one from the next.

Bottom line: if you want the benchmark return, or to end up with what everybody else gets, or to avoid volatility, you should find an advisor to slot you into a pie chart. Don’t worry, it is easy to find one—they are all over the place.


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.

The Benefit of Being Picky

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Farina5000

Suppose you had the opportunity to attend a fancy catered gala. When you get to the dessert table, a dizzying array of delicious looking pies are spread out for you to sample, too many to choose from. Not knowing which ones might be the best, a fellow next to you tells you he’s going to sample a little bit of everything and offers to help load up your plate the same way.

If you happen to be deathly allergic to peanuts, you would ask your helpful friend to skip the peanut butter pie and just get you some of the rest.
“Nonsense,” he tells you. “You never know, the peanut butter pie might be the best of the lot.”

“But if I eat it I’ll go into shock and might die. I can’t even let it touch the rest of the dessert on my plate.”

“You don’t know the future. Just because you’ve had an allergic reaction before doesn’t mean that you’ll have one now,” he says, handing you a plate with a slice of peanut butter pie smack in the middle. Instead of getting to enjoy your dessert you’re left unhappily trying to pick around the edges of the uncontaminated slices of pie.

This situation sounds absurd, and it is. And yet it resembles a commonplace practice within the investment industry. There is a portfolio strategy known as asset allocation that says that since we can’t know for sure which assets are going to go up or down, investors should aim to own a slice of everything. Because different asset classes move in response to different economic pressures, when one goes down it will hopefully be balanced out by a different asset going up. The goal is to try to reduce volatility through diversification.

However, just like our unhappy party-goer in the example above, there are probably some slices you don’t want any of—period. Tech stocks during the dot-com bubble in 2000 and mortgage based securities during the real estate bubble of 2007 were two slices of the investment universe that were very dangerous to your financial health.

Proponents of asset allocation dismiss this notion as market timing, saying that you can’t predict when the bubble will burst and that you miss out on potential gains by staying out of the bubble. But if we’re allergic to the pie, we don’t care how delicious the pie might be—we don’t want a slice.

Our approach may or may not be the right one. Nevertheless, we believe that being picky about the slices we take may bring us better results than blindly grabbing a bit of everything. If you want to talk about how this may apply to your portfolio, 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. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

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. Asset allocation does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

The Philosophy Lurking in Your Portfolio

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Paul_Cowan

Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose from the far-reaching transformations Western society underwent in the late 19th century. This gave way to the skepticism of the late 20th century which led to the movement we call Post-Modernism.

This sets the stage for our discussion of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), and our response to it.

If you have ever seen the customary asset allocation pie chart or heard talk of getting exposure to all the major ‘asset classes’ then you have been exposed to MPT. It presumes that historical data about the behavior of all the various kinds of investments enables computers to calculate the best mix of holdings to get the returns we desire with the lowest level of risk. One investment zigs when another one zags, leaving the total portfolio steadier than it otherwise would be.

Great theory. Here are the problems that arise in practice:

1. At times of greatest stress in the markets, when you most need MPT to work, the historical correlations go away and the most overpriced assets get slammed regardless of what the computer thought.
2. Common sense and fundamental investment analysis often reveal that one slice of the asset pie is likely to leave a very bitter taste. Large growth stocks in 2000, real estate in 2007, commodities in 2011…everybody knows now that the best allocation to these overpriced bubbles was ZERO.
3. Although the discipline of MPT reduces the damage from counterproductive crowd behavior, it neither eliminates the damage nor allows one to profit from the madness of crowds.

Our investment management approach, forged in the skepticism born of deep knowledge of MPT, is based on three fundamental principles. We believe these principles are timeless, suitable for any market. We have written about them before, we will write about them again, and we have talked incessantly about them for twenty years. For now let us simply note that, as a reaction to Modern Portfolio Theory, they might collectively best be known as “Postmodern Portfolio Theory.”


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.