financial advice

Letters to Our Children #2: The Journey

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This project is rewarding, from our perspective. We are crowd-sourcing the topics for these letters to our children about money and life. Your response has been terrific.

A wise person among you suggested ‘enjoy the journey’ is key. It makes sense to talk about this early in our series, since it has everything to do with how we go about life. The implication is that the journey, not the destination, is the important part.

When you think about it, arrival at a destination (or achievement of a goal) is a temporary thing. Once the goal or destination is reached, you’re there. Then what? A new goal, a new destination. We spend far more of our days on the way than in actually arriving.

In financial terms, the satisfaction of saving something every payday is a way to enjoy the journey. The destination, perhaps a pot of wealth big enough to retire on, is a long way off during the early and middle phases of your career. It is hard to focus on a destination that may be decades away. It’s much easier to get in the habit of enjoying small steps along the way – the journey.

Recently, in the security screening line at the airport, a fellow traveler in an adjacent line loudly inquired why the conveyer belt on the baggage scanner up ahead was stopped. The identification checker replied they did not know. “Well, don’t you think you better go find out?” Of course, the belt frequently stops when additional scrutiny of an item is needed.

The traveler immediately in front of me got to the identification checker, who asked “How are you today?” The fellow quietly replied, “Terrific. I’m grateful I’m not THAT guy,” nodding toward the foot-tapping, sighing, unhappy person. All within earshot were smiling; the dyspeptic was unconscious of his role in the conversation.

This vignette is a case study in literally enjoying the journey—or not. It’s about making the most of where you are, what you are doing, who you are with.

Our focus in this series will be more on the process, the getting there, the journey, not checklists of goals one ‘should’ accomplish. We believe this is the happier path.

If you have questions about this or anything else, or more topic suggestions for this series, please email us or call.

Letters to Our Children #1: About Money

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This is the first in our series, Letters to Our Children. It is intended to be a guide to money and financial planning. Those things happen in the context of life, so we need to begin with a broader focus.

Money is really handy. Those who have it tend to live longer, happier lives. They are able to do things that those without money cannot. In a variety of ways, money can be traded for time, which is what life is made of.

Just as a vehicle may be used to get back and forth to work, or as a getaway car by criminals, money can also be used poorly. We believe money should be invested wisely and spent well.

One of your most important forms of wealth is not usually thought of as wealth. Your human capital is your ability and willingness to employ marketable skills for customers or for an employer. Human capital translates into earning power – for example, physicians earn more than fry cooks. A portion of what goes into human capital is free: your attitudes and habits.

Human capital only has value when somebody pays you to put it to work. It is helpful to keep in mind that all worthwhile enterprises are in the helping profession. The grocer helps people feed their families. The car dealer helps people get where they need to go. The surest path to more income and wealth is to do a superior job of helping more people. The best career insurance is to help your employer help more people.

For now, we’ll leave it like this: money is useful, and it is helpful to understand how to make the stuff. Coming editions will focus on using it, protecting it, and managing it to meet your goals and objectives.

Clients, if you would like to recommend specific topics we might cover, or visit about anything else, please email us or call.

Letters to Our Children

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I find myself in new territory, a father to motherless children. (Thank goodness they are all self-reliant adults!) If there is to be any more imparting of wisdom or knowledge to the next generation, it is all on me.

It makes sense to me to write a series of letters to my children, each one outlining the fundamentals of a different aspect of personal finance, money, investing, and life. After decades of working with these things, I need to edit what I know into workable, usable information.

Would you help me focus on the right stuff? You’ll get to read these letters here, at 228Main.com, since the advice I would give to my children is the same as what I would say to you or your children.

• If you are a parent, what do you wish your children knew about money and life? What is the single most important advice you would offer?
• If you are somewhere between twenty and forty, what is your biggest money issue? What do you wish you knew more about?

Email us or call with your ideas and suggestions for topics, or ideas about the scope of these letters. (Or, to talk about anything else, of course.) Thank you all, again.

Professionalism? Or Pandering?

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Two popular trends in the investment business may be affecting the financial health of clients. In my opinion the use of “risk tolerance assessment” tools, combined with the trend toward model portfolios, may be good for advisors and bad for the customer.

Many advisors use risk tolerance assessments. The issue is that when markets are lovely and rising, these tests have the potential to show that risk tolerance is high based on the client’s response. When markets are ugly and falling, they have the potential to show risk tolerance is low based on the client’s response. These tests measure changing conditions, not some fixed internal thermostat.

The potential for mischief comes into play when the results are tied to model portfolios. A lower risk tolerance potentially gets you a portfolio with less chance for long term growth, lower exposure to fluctuating but rewarding markets, and more supposedly stable investments with smaller potential returns. So the market goes down, risk tolerance goes down, and people may sell out at low points.

Conversely, when markets go up, risk tolerance goes up, and people may buy in at high points.

The old rule is ‘buy low, sell high.’ It is my opinion that the supposedly scientific approach of risk tolerance assessment tied to model portfolios encourages people to do exactly the opposite.

It appears to be objective, almost scientific. The pie charts are impressive. But the process panders to the worst elements of untrained human nature—and actual investment outcomes may show it.

It is as if the cardiologist, upon learning that a patient dislikes sweating, prescribes sitting on the couch instead of exercise. Or if a pediatrician first assesses a child’s tolerance for icky-tasting medicine, then tailors his prescription accordingly.

We believe that people can handle the truth. Our experience says people can learn to understand and live with volatility on some fraction of their wealth in order to strive for long term returns.

So the first step in our process is to determine if a prospective client can be an effective investor. It doesn’t matter to us whether they were born with great instincts or are trainable—we provide support and education through all kinds of markets. It takes a lot of effort, but we do it because of the results it may provide.

If you need a refresher on the ‘buy low, sell high’ thing or would like to discuss how this affects your plans and planning, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

There is no assurance that the techniques and strategies discussed are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes. The purchase of certain securities may be required to effect some of the strategies. Investing involves risks including possible loss of principal.

Outcomes May Vary

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After the recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis, we had some time to converse with clients about how well things had worked out in the end. Memories of the turmoil had faded and account values began to make new highs.

The less-financially-involved spouse in a client couple interrupted this discussion to say, “I just have one question. A lot of our friends lost half their money in the stock market, a couple of them even had to go back to work after being retired. Aren’t we in the stock market, too? How come we came out OK and they did not?”

You probably know the answer to her question. Most of the unfortunates who lost half their money turned a temporary downturn into a permanent capital loss by selling out at low levels.

Please notice how we characterized the panic. The failure of big institutions, waves of mortgage defaults, unprecedented action by Congress and the Federal Reserve, massive dollar losses in the markets, and economic turmoil with high unemployment and massive uncertainty are all wrapped up in the phrase “temporary downturn.” But that is not what the unfortunates perceived. It isn’t truly how it felt in real time to nearly all of us who held on, either. We all experienced concern or fear or anxiety.

So we all faced the same circumstances, a series of major economic and financial events that were beyond our control. The thing that mattered, however, was the one thing in our control: our reaction to these events. From the perspective of the long view, by putting these events in the context of history and properly judging them over the decades of a lifetime… we see that ‘temporary downturn,’ not a panic that compelled us to ruin our financial position.

Most of our clients lived through episodes of 10% unemployment before, 16% mortgage interest rates, no gasoline at the gas stations, and inflation devaluing our money at double digit rates every year. This is not to mention wars, assassinations, school children coached for nuclear disaster, and recession after recession. All of these difficulties proved to be transitory, producing only temporary downturns.

Long term investment success does not require perpetual optimism or rose-colored glasses. It does take, however, either a sense of confidence that we will handle whatever challenges may come our way—or a resolution to maintain our investment strategies anyway. We covered the End of the World Portfolio in a prior essay and reached the same conclusion.

From a tactical standpoint, we do need to know where our income will come from, and have the stores of cash we need for short term goals. Our comments above pertain to long-term or permanent capital. It makes sense to consider reducing volatility at market high points if that better suits your needs, and we’ll be talking about that when the markets recover.


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 the loss of principal.