decision making

Peak Experience

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You know we are endlessly fascinated by the search for investment bargains, the interplay of human behavior and the markets, and economic cycles. We enjoy talking with you, and collaborating on your plans and planning. But the pinnacle of our work is in a whole different category.

Once, a life-long friend of a close client had not been able to solve the question, “Can I afford to retire?” Mrs. S had raised two children on her own after being widowed at a young age, and was working at a job that had become onerous as she approached retirement age. For two years she had pursued the answer, but could not find it.

She needed to gain the confidence that she could retire. The resources were there, through her lifetime of diligent saving. We were able to explain the meaning of her wealth, how it could help her work toward where she wanted to go, in terms she could understand.

A year and a half after that, she called to ask another question. Would it be possible for her to own a home, or was that a pipe dream? She had spent thirty years in a modest rental duplex. Some time later she began her home search.

These questions, and others like them, are the reason we are in business. Our real work is not about making money. It is about helping clients make decisions that could change their lives.

Mrs. S was never our largest client. She never paid us the highest fees. But the personal satisfaction we felt from our work was vast.

Many will never need that much help. They come to a comfortable understanding of the meaning of their wealth without our context and perspective. We are still very happy to play a role investing their resources, and answering those financial planning questions that do arise.

Clients, if you would like to talk about these things or anything else, 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.

 

The Problem with Goals

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Scott Adams, creator of the wildly successful comic strip Dilbert, is a man of big ideas. Some of them are fantastic, some of them are questionable, a few of them may be literally insane. However, for all his eccentricity it’s hard to argue with results: over the past three decades Adams has managed to parlay his workplace doodles into a multi-million dollar franchise.

Among his many ideas, there’s one in particular that he credits his success to: he doesn’t believe in setting goals for himself. Instead, he believes in building systems to work towards what he wants. The idea is simple. Most peoples’ goals depend on factors outside their direct control, which leads to frustration. By focusing on what you’re doing to manage those goals, though, you can build a system or framework for trying to achieve what you want. This way, you’re only concerned about the things that you control yourself, rather than worrying about goals that are outside your immediate reach.

For example, suppose a freshly minted high school graduate wants to be a doctor. That goal will take an enormous amount of dedication and training, and no amount of passion or talent is going to replace that. At any given moment, they’re an entire decade away from reaching their goal—it will take them five years of school before they even reach a point with any kind of real hands-on training. When faced with such a distant goal it’s easy to despair of ever reaching it. But while they can’t just up and be a doctor, they can always work on their system for trying to become a doctor. By focusing on their immediate day to day studies instead of their long-term goal, every day is a success. They simply use their system.

We think this makes great life advice in general, but it’s particularly important when it comes to investing. Our goal is to grow our portfolio over time, but what the market does day to day is entirely beyond our control: we can’t force our portfolio to go up. What we can always do, though, is work our system. In our case, this means practicing our three core principles: avoid stampedes in the market, look for the biggest bargains we can find, and own the orchard for the fruit crop. We can’t push a button and make your portfolio grow. But we can practice our investing discipline every day, even when the markets don’t cooperate.

New Balance for Your Portfolio

Our recent article about finding your strategy provoked interesting conversations. We quickly saw a new framework for investors to reconcile competing needs and desires. This article puts context around the three central tradeoffs investors face.

Current Income or Long Term Growth?

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Fortunately, there are investments and strategies that offer the opportunity for long term growth while providing current income. Dividend-paying blue chip stocks are the best example. While suitable as part of an appropriate portfolio for many people, growth with income investments do not provide stability of market value, part of the next tradeoff.

Stable Value or Long Term Growth?

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While most people might prefer stability AND growth, it isn’t possible to have all of both. The best we can do is some of each. We ceaselessly seek to inoculate clients against fear of downturns, which are an inherent part of long-term investing. Behavioral Economics suggests that the price of stability is too high And yet most people need some ‘money in the bank’ or stable value holdings. They serve as emergency funds and also build confidence in your investments.

Stable Income or Stable Value?

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This may be the most under-utilized concept in the financial world. Investments that provide reliable recurring income fluctuate in value. And investments that deliver stable value do not provide reliable recurring income. Those now planning to retire have seen a vivid example in their lifetimes. Bank deposit interest rates have ranged from more than 1% per month at times to less than 1% per year at other times. In other words, the value was stable but the income was not.

The key concept here is that people living on their capital do not spend statement value to buy groceries or pay the electric bill. Portfolio income is the key to the monthly budget. Therefore, reliability of income could be more vital than stability of value.

Putting it All Together

We can do a better job of managing our goals when we understand that reliable income and long term growth provide opportunities that stable value holdings do not. Think about these ways to build a portfolio that you can live with:

  • Set aside an emergency fund so you are prepared for the unexpected.
  • Know where your income is coming from for the months and years ahead.
  • Plan for rising cost of living with a certain amount of growth potential.

These are major issues, requiring some thought and discussion. We are available; write or call to set an appointment when we can discuss 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal. The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

When the Money Runs Out

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / stokkete

Our advice generally has an upbeat slant to it, to the point that we occasionally get accused of being optimists. We believe our confidence in the future is soundly justified. We know, however, that not every situation is likely to have a happy ending. It takes money to do the things we want and need to do. Sometimes we simply don’t have enough of it.

This is the reason we are in business: to help clients make the most of their money. But there are limits to what prudent financial planning can accomplish. We think that our advice has value, but it isn’t magic. Our best efforts don’t always produce the resources we expected for major lifestyle needs. Other times, unexpected expenses such as legal or medical bills threaten our hard-earned wealth.

What to Do When Crisis Strikes

When faced with a financial crisis, the simplest step is cutting outlays. Even if you don’t have much in the way of luxuries to give up, you may find that some of the “necessary” expenses you took for granted can be reduced or eliminated. Maybe you are paying for an extra car you don’t really need, or more insurance coverage than makes sense, or a storage unit you could do without. We assume our bills are fixed, but on examination some of them may be reduced or eliminated.

Sometimes, though, your bills may be more than you can handle just by rearranging your budget, and that’s when the choices get really tough. At this point, your job is to sit down and figure out what the least bad option is.

Financial Strategies When Funds are Short

You can try to preserve your assets for as long as you can, investing conservatively and staying in stable assets to try to maintain balances. But simply seeking to maintain your value is not good enough if your assets are chipped away by your expenses. This route increases the likelihood that you will eventually run out of money. This strategy may only provide a nice, predictable trajectory until you hit zero.

Alternately, if you know you’re likely to hit zero eventually but you have a long-term investment strategy and don’t need the funds in the near future, you might take the opposite approach and invest more aggressively, pursuing growth to try to keep ahead of your expenses. Obviously, the risks are considerable; bear in mind that you should always keep a certain amount of funds to cover expenses in savings or conservative, liquid investments. There is a chance that you will lose your principal—but if you know that you are likely to run out of money in the end anyhow, the risk of running out slightly faster may be an acceptable trade-off for a chance to make it last longer.

Stay Realistic

In a situation like this, there is no right answer for everyone. The right answer for you is the one that you’re most comfortable with. It is important to remain realistic about your options, though. If you know that you need to draw $10,000 a year to live on for 20+ years of retirement, and your retirement portfolio is only $75,000, plugging your ears and insisting that everything will be sunshine and rainbows is probably only going to hurt you. Be wary of people peddling quick and easy cures for such financial woes–even if they are not outright frauds, odds are they do not have your best interests in mind.

If you feel you may be facing any tough financial decisions in your life, please call or email us to see if we can help you in your planning and thinking.


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

Poking Holes: Find Your Strategy

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“It’s easy to poke holes in every single investment philosophy or strategy. The trick is to find the one with flaws that you’re comfortable with.” –Ben Carlson, Ritholz Wealth Management

This concise statement makes it clear: every investor faces tradeoffs.

Current Income or Long Term Growth? Some strategies focus on growth in capital over time, others focus on current cash flow. Many investors need some of each. A pure growth portfolio probably won’t pay your bills, and a pure income portfolio may not have the growth to stay ahead of inflation.

Stability of market value or long term growth? This is where we live! We have written about the high price of stability. And we have constantly communicated in every way we know how about the link between long term returns and short term volatility. Everybody we know would prefer having both stable values day to day and wonderful long term returns.

You cannot have all of both—the best we can do is some of each. But it helps to resolve this tradeoff if you make sure your income and emergency funds are sufficient for your needs. If you own the orchard for the fruit crop, you don’t need to care what the neighbor would pay you for the orchard today.

Reliability of Income or Stability of market value? This dilemma is not even recognized by most people, and rarely discussed by investment professionals in our experience. Nevertheless it is a vital point. At one extreme, the kinds of investments that assure stable values have delivered wildly varying income over the years. In the early 1980s one could gain interest of 1% a month on money in the bank. More recently, it has been difficult to get 1% per year. So the person that retired on bank deposit interest of 12% saw a lot of volatility—and deterioration—in their income over time. Meanwhile, anything you can own that produces reliable income over extended periods will definitely fluctuate in market value, sometimes sharply.

Putting it all together: As you can see, every investment strategy has flaws. The trick, as Carlson says, is to find the one with flaws that you’re comfortable with. So we need to understand what is required in the way of stability, current income, reliability of income over time, and long term growth. We can build a portfolio that strives to balance those attributes with tradeoffs that are both acceptable and likely to be successful.

Please call if we may be of service in this regard, or to update our understanding of 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. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Feelings, Numbers, and Big Decisions

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Yakobchuk

Life comes with many questions, infinite in variety. Should I buy a different home, live somewhere else, go back to school, retire in the sun, spend time differently, have more children, get a dog, buy a second home, invest in solar panels, change careers, take Social Security now?

Feelings are vital to making good decisions about your life and plans. So are numbers. But using one in place of the other may lead to terrible outcomes.

“Know yourself.” Some wise person advised this back in the dawn of history, and it is the foundation of great decision-making. What do you want? Where are you going? Where do you want to wake up every day? What are you trying to accomplish in life?

Notice that numbers do not really enter into these things: this is the next step, when we do all the arithmetic there is to do. If we quantify everything that can be put into numbers, we will have a much easier time in actually making choices and decisions.

For example, one might have feelings about whether to start Social Security earlier or later. You may believe that if you claim benefits at the earliest age, you will be better off because you will ultimately collect a greater number of monthly payments. On the other hand, you may think that if you defer until later, you will be better off because each payment will be higher. These are feelings.

But when we do the arithmetic, we might discover that there is a break-even point out there that applies to you at a certain age. If you live longer, the numbers say deferring benefits is a better option. If you pass away sooner, you would have come out best by taking benefits early. Figuring out which option works best at what age is arithmetic.

Here’s an interesting thing about this decision: nobody knows the date that is going on their death certificate, so numbers cannot PROVE which choice is better. We won’t know until we find out. But obviously, numbers do help us better understand the meaning and consequences of our feelings.
We figure out what we want with our feelings. We learn everything we can learn from the numbers. We use both to arrive at a thoughtful, knowledgeable decision.

When people make decisions without any numbers or with nothing but numbers, sometimes it does not work out. “We deserve a large new home, so we are buying one,” or “Our taxes would be lower if we moved to another state in retirement, so we are moving.” Sure, you bet—but in each case, do the numbers work with all of your other goals and priorities and feelings?

We do our best to understand your feelings, your goals, your objectives, what you are trying to do in life. And we add all the pertinent numbers, in terms you can work with, so that you can make good decisions. Feelings and numbers: both are vital. Call or email us if we can help you sort things out.


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