long term investing

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 the sustainable monthly cash flow that might be withdrawn from net long-term investments, after the lump sums are accounted for (we help people with this step).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.

No Fair-weather Fans

photo shows a young man with a baseball bat and

With the tenuous return of baseball this year, we’re thinking about what fandom means for the investing world.

One thing that strikes us is the redundancy of a phrase like “long-term investing.” Investing is already aimed at the long haul, right? You’ve heard it from us before: “Own the orchard for the fruit crop.” We have been explicit that our investment strategies are based on long time horizons.

But we dove a little deeper and came out with an even richer appreciation for this approach.

Turns out the most common notion of “investing”—using what we have to generate income or profit—is a fairly modern one. The phrase popped up in the 17th century and gained traction by the 19th, per the Oxford English Dictionary.

But a few hundred years before that? It was more literal. “Investing” was closer to its Latin root vestire: to dress or clothe, often in symbolic garments.

Even today, when the crowds aren’t allowed in their favorite stadiums, the word “investing” still has us imagining a sea of sports fans, adorned in those special garments of their favorite team. A sea of investors.

They dress in their team’s colors, and win or lose, by golly they’ll put them on next weekend too.

They’re fans for the long haul; they’re invested.

Like a fervent fan, the phrase “long-term investing” is cheering pretty loudly for a proposition we’re already on board with. It doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed in our investments, nor does it mean the lineup will never change.

But when we buy in, when we wear the clothes of, this is no fair-weather enterprise; we’re here for the long term. Clients, if you’d like to discuss this or anything else, please write or 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.

Schrödinger’s Market

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Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger once came up with a thought experiment to illustrate a difficult conceptual problem. Suppose you have an opaque box with a cat inside. In the box is a mechanism that is designed to release a poison gas based on the random actions of subatomic particles on a quantum level.

Now according to quantum theory, it is literally impossible to know what these particles will do in advance. You cannot even accurately measure what they are currently doing beyond general probabilities. In fact, until you observe them they act as though they are doing multiple mutually exclusive things—including behaving as though they are two places at once!

Hence Schrödinger’s box. Without observing the contents of the box you have no way of knowing if quantum action triggered the poison or not. Thus, until you open the box and look the cat is simultaneously alive and dead: a surprising conclusion, and a difficult paradox for physicists!

You and I can leave that problem to the scientists, but Schrödinger’s box can be a useful metaphor for other unknowable states. The actions of financial markets are theoretically not as complicated as quantum mechanics. But predicting market action is so far beyond our current mathematical understanding that they might as well be.

Like quantum particles, the value of a market cannot accurately be measured without interacting with it. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty and can sometimes make it feel like multiple conflicting realities are true at once.

Reading the financial press you will often be presented with competing headlines declaring that we are simultaneously in the midst of a great bull market and a terrible bear market.

As with the box, we prefer to leave these paradoxes to people with more time on their hands. Instead of trying to time the market, we believe in sticking to timeless principles like avoiding stampedes and finding bargains in the hopes of finding quality companies. We cannot predict what market prices will do from moment to moment, but we can guess at general probabilities.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Pain and Gain

© Can Stock Photo / Anke

Great thinker Morgan Housel talks about the scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which one man snuffs a match out with his fingers and doesn’t flinch. Another tries it, yells in pain, and asks what the trick is. “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

Housel concludes “accepting a little pain has huge benefits. But it will always be rare, because it hurts.”

The implication for our business with you is clear. Housel concisely states what we’ve been working to convey for years: “The upside when you simply accept and endure the pain from market declines is that future declines don’t hurt as bad. You realize it’s just part of the game.”

That you have learned this lesson, and tend to live by it even when it is uncomfortable is why we say you are the best clients in the world. We feel fortunate, because it is rare. Somehow we found or attracted people with effective investing instincts, or helped to instill those.

The key to making this work in the real world is avoiding the need to sell at bad times. Cash reserves and adequate cash flow are the things that let us live with short term fluctuations with our long term money.

When we are all on the same page, we spend less time worrying about, and explaining, day to day or week to week market action. Almost all financial market commentary may be summarized by saying “it goes up and down.”

This gives us time to hunt for bargains, think about trends on the horizon, and work on your plans and planning. All of these are more worthwhile uses of our time than attempting to explain why the market went up or down yesterday, or predict what it might do tomorrow.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Dealing with Financial Emergencies, Three Things

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The dramatic and unexpected events of 2020 have tested our adaptability and resourcefulness like no other. There are patterns in those who are navigating these times successfully.

1. Realize there are usually lessons in history to guide us; maintain perspective.
2. Avoid hasty decisions that could have negative long term consequences.
3. Look for the opportunity in the challenge, not vice versa.

By taking time to think about the context, understand our own situation, and get accurate information about whatever the new reality is, we usually can make better decisions.

In personal finance, tapping high interest credit cards to maintain spending in the face of income reductions may be necessary for some items. But any outlays that can be avoided, or are discretionary, should be deferred, not financed. The average credit card interest rate remains in double-digit territory, a huge drain.

In your investments, long term holdings should not be disrupted by short term considerations. When the situation changes in ways that everyone knows, the new circumstances are likely to be priced into the market already. So there may not be an edge in taking action. If you do not need the funds in hand for pressing purposes, you might leave them be.

The stress of the situation may be alleviated by working on things within your control. Practicing healthier habits with regard to exercise, nutrition, sleep, and alcohol can also reduce stress, while giving you a sense of conrol.

Finally, contact with other people is a necessity for social beings such as humans. It may be especially useful as you talk things out or need someone to bounce ideas off of. We would be happy to visit with you by phone or email, Zoom video or in person – about whatever is on your mind. Email us or call.

Can You See the Forest?

© Can Stock Photo / Elnur

The old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” refers to the difficulty we humans have in maintaining perspective, of keeping the larger context in mind. Our current challenges bring us reminders of this.

Recently we were discussing the prospects for investing in a food processing company. Market disruptions have knocked the cost of $1 of annual earning power down to $10 – an earnings yield of 10%. (Another way to say it: a price-earnings ratio of 10.) If one can purchase durable earning power in an enduring industry at valuations like that, the holding might be owned a very long time.

(No guarantees – there are a lot of assumptions in that last paragraph.)

A colleague asked us whether we were concerned about the impact of processing plant shutdowns. After agreeing that any shutdowns would likely be limited to a matter of weeks, this seemed to be one of those problems of perspective.

For none of the past few decades have the plants been shut down for a virus. Apart from the next few weeks, it seems unlikely that virus-related shutdowns will be much of a factor in the decades ahead.

The forest is that we humans will still need to eat in the future, and there is probably money to be made by meeting that need. The trees are the virus and the shutdowns and the disruptions. One of our key roles is working to see the big picture and striving to act accordingly. We need to be able to see the forest in spite of the trees.

Interestingly, the challenge of maintaining perspective may play a role in creating bargains. Investors who get too wrapped up in transitory effects may push prices to levels that don’t reflect the long term value. When current conditions fade, as they will, that value may become apparent. Again, no guarantees.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this 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 High Tech Rear View Mirror

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Once upon a time, we wrote that pretending present and future risk can best be measured by past volatility is akin to driving down the highway with eyes firmly planted on the rear view mirror. (Our theory is the future will not be like the past, so the windshield is a better thing on which to focus.)

The current market upset is the first one featuring the latest generation of so-called risk analytics. These high tech tools generate risk numbers for individual investments as well as entire portfolios. They are entirely based on past volatility. Incorporating frequent updates to the database of past price behavior and enabling near-instantaneous assessments expressed as an index number (say, 1 to 100), they seem quite scientific and highly analytical.

But all of this precision is predicated on the idea that past volatility is a measure of present and future investment risk. So in the latest version, it is like driving down the highway with eyes firmly fixed on an array of rear view mirrors, wide-angle and telephoto and high-definition.

The interesting thing is, when the inevitable downturn occurs, the ‘volatility equals risk’ crowd is quick to point out that their statistical methods are designed to predict what will happen, with a 95% probability. So if you run into a wall while focused on the rear view mirror, there was nothing wrong with the analytics – you just landed in the 5%.

Call us what you want, but a system designed to ferret out risk that fails exactly when you do need it to work may not be all that useful. (An elevator that does not crash to the basement 95% of the time would not be useful, either, in our opinion.)

We will continue to work with our understanding that volatility is a feature of long term investments. It necessitates a long time horizon, so the effect of temporary declines may be mitigated by time. Short term money needs to be kept out of long term investments. And we will keep our eyes focused on the future, not the past.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

The Joy of Ownership

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The old fashioned equity culture is about owning shares in companies believed to be durable, and holding them through the ups and downs. Often, these might include the familiar names you see on the products in your cupboard or medicine cabinet, or around your home or office.

An ownership share in a blue chip company may fluctuate in value, but a share is a share. The long term growth in the American economy has generally been reflected in its companies. Of course, there are no guarantees about what the future may hold.

More than a decade ago, in the financial crisis that began in 2008, we noticed something different about people who knew the companies they owned. Compared to those who owned investment products consisting of scores or hundreds of holdings, owners seemed to understand that they held shares of ownership in actual businesses. While the value of the shares might fluctuate, a hundred shares generally remains a hundred shares.

If you have this understanding, it may help you maintain a long term perspective, and hold on through the temporary price declines associated with recessions or market corrections. People with indirect holdings by way of products managed by people far away may not feel the same connection to their investments.

We are not suggesting that one strategy is more profitable than the other, only that greater clarity about one’s holdings may be helpful.

It makes sense to use the right tool for the job. There are some investment exposures which are best obtained by something other than direct share ownership. But all things being equal, we prefer to have shares in actual companies, not investment products made out of many underlying holdings.

Clients, if you would like to talk about the joy of ownership or anything else, please email us or call.

Liquid Assets

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One of the keys to successfully weathering the downturns in the market, large and small, is having sufficient cash to do what you need to do in your real life. That helps avoid selling long term investments at bad times.

A few weeks back we went through investment advisory accounts to check cash balances for ongoing monthly distributions and make sure we had cash positions to last several months. And in our reviews with you, we inquire about upcoming cash needs.

As our lives unfold, our situations may change. For example, we talked with a pair of young adults a few weeks back, a brother and sister, who each are completing advanced degrees. In infancy, they received a gift of shares of stock from their great-grandfather, an old friend of mine.

Their holdings grew over the years. Each one called to talk about the strategy for paying off student loan balances later this year with the value of the accounts. When it became evident that the holding period was down to months, we advised the sale of sufficient stock to clear their balances, at once. Money that you plan on spending in the short term should not be invested for the long term.

The moral of the story is to communicate with us about exceptional cash needs that develop. If together we manage your liquidity to avoid untimely sales of long term investments, you and we will both be better off.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email or call.

Making Money the Old-Fashioned Way

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Years ago, the Wall Street firm of E.F. Hutton advertised “We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” This tag line evoked a world of indepth research into securities and markets, and investment analysis by experienced professionals.

E.F. Hutton disappeared into a series of mergers, and making money the old-fashioned way is increasingly scarce. One popular theory now is that security selection does not matter, only the allocation of money across the different sectors of the market.

Combined with the idea that past patterns of volatility and past returns by sector should dictate what one should own for the future, many modern ‘investment advisors’ pay no attention to individual company stocks or bonds.

It seems to us that owning stock in a failing chain of department stores is a lot different than owning the world’s largest online retailer. A few automakers survived, hundreds did not. Buying a corporate bond for 50 cents on the dollar is a totally different proposition than selling it for 50 cents on the dollar. Owning some of everything is different than being selective.

Our experience says security selection DOES matter.

One of our strategies is to try to find ownership in great companies at decent prices, to buy and hold. Looking for cyclical companies at low points in the cycle is another strategy. And simply seeking bargains anywhere in the investment universe is a third.

This is not easy. Conditions are always uncertain. There are no guarantees. It takes a lot of effort and energy. There is no assurance that the old-fashioned way will make money, as E.F. Hutton claimed.

But we are trying.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or 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.