mark leibman

Coal Museum is Powered by What?

© Can Stock Photo / eunika

In the heart of Kentucky coal country is Harlan County. There you will find the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. Thousands of artifacts depict the industry, the people connected with it, and the role coal played through history. Notably, the collection of Loretta Lynn, “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” occupies a floor.

Over 90% of the coal used in the US is for the production of electricity1. The museum had electric bills that were running $2,100 per month, on average2.

In 2017 the museum acted to reduce its cost of electricity by $8,000 to $10,000 per year2. Solar panels went on the roof. The museum will be able to offset its power costs by selling excess electricity back to the local utility.

One might guess that alternative energy sources which compete with coal would not be popular in the very heart of coal country. But compelling economics usually triumph in the end. The museum made a business decision. Investors should pay attention.

The cost of electricity from solar is declining about 10% per year3. We concluded from this trend that the next energy revolution is taking shape. The combination of solar plus batteries may be the dominant source of electricity at some point in the future.

Change produces winners and losers. Our portfolios are already being shaped by the energy revolution. Many more opportunities and threats will become apparent as the future unfolds.

Our sense is that the pace of change is not fully appreciated by consensus wisdom. Some of the losers in the energy revolution may now be overpriced; some of the winners may be bargains. We are studying this situation intensely.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else on your agenda, please email us or call.

1Institute for Energy Research, https://instituteforenergyresearch.org/ Accessed on January 30, 2018.

2Washington Post, “Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Harlan County switches to solar power”. April 6, 2017.

3The Guardian, “Solar panel costs predicted to fall 10% a year”. January 1, 2016.


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.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Average Is Not Good Enough

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There is a split in the investment world. One camp believes people should just buy passive products that seek to mimic the investment universe at low cost. They think it is not possible to gain any advantage by actively managing portfolios. The other camp believes there IS a benefit to actively managing portfolios and choosing particular investments.

You know where we fit: investment research, the selection of securities, and managing portfolios is about all we do—except talk to you. We are in the “active” camp, not the “passive” one. The debate rages on.

One thing is certain. The passive camp enjoys lower expenses, because they ordinarily only do a fraction of the work that we do: we research about individual companies, read annual reports, sell this and buy that to try to gain an advantage.

When you think about it, the whole universe of active investors cannot all deliver above-market returns—with their higher expenses. So the idea is the whole universe of passive investors must therefore do better than the whole universe of active investors, due to lower costs.

Our view is that the average performance of active investors is determined by some investors who are above average and others who are below average. So it is imperative for us to be above average—to be worth more than our freight—to have a sustainable business.

Once upon a time an active manager purchased a bond that had declined after it was issued, for 50 cents on the dollar. It was purchased from another active investor, who took a 50 cent loss. The bond later matured for a dollar, so the bargain-buyer had a 50 cent gain. On average, active investors broke even. But one active manager did better than average, and one did worse than average.

We do a whole lot more than manage investments, of course. Planning to help you work towards your goals, putting market action in context, answering your money questions, coordinating with your legal and tax advisors… these things are also part of our work. But striving to grow your bucket is why we get up in the morning.

Average (ordinary, middling, mediocre, unexceptional) is not good enough. Active investors need to be above the line over the long term. We have no guarantees to offer. But our goal is to be exceptional.

Clients, if you would like to discuss 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. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

All investing, including stocks involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

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.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific situation. Your results will vary. The hypothetical rates of return used do not reflect the deduction of fees and charges inherent to investing.

 

But is it Investable?

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One of our key tasks on your behalf is the search for bargains. Seeking the best bargains is one of our fundamental investment principles.

When we spot an idea, product or trend that is likely to become more prevalent or profitable in the future, we end up trying to figure out whether that knowledge can be effectively put into client portfolios. In other words, is it investable?

To invest is to put money into something in which you have a reasonable expectation of a return. This is different than speculating, which involves a high risk of large losses or large gains. Last and least, there are many ways to simply flush money down the toilet.

For example, without debating the merits, medical and other uses of marijuana seem increasingly likely to proliferate. But we believe the political risks inherent in federal government policy are so high that it is speculating at best—not investing.

When we look at specific marijuana securities, most of the buzz is about penny stocks. These, in turn, look to us to be more in the “down the toilet” category than either an investment or a speculation. So we have concluded that the proliferation of marijuana is not investable.

Another facet of investability has to do with price. A trend that everyone seems to be talking about is likely already reflected in the price of investments, leaving little room for gains. “What everyone knows usually isn’t worth knowing,” as the saying goes.

By 1999, everyone knew the internet was going to change how we live and work. The internet did indeed transform life in many ways. But related investments were trading at extremely high valuations, resulting in losses to investors in subsequent years.

We are selective—one might say picky—about the things in which we choose to invest. Our standard of investability is high. We sometimes talk to people who are enthusiastic about an idea that sounds exciting, but is not investable. No matter how good an idea is, if we cannot get it into your portfolio on an efficient basis, it is not investable.

Clients, for examples of things we believe are investable, look at your statements (or positions in LPL AccountView). If you wish to discuss 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

All investing, including stocks involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Prepare for a Changing Market

© Can Stock Photo / kerdkanno

When we began in business twenty-one years ago, we recommended a wide variety of investment products. Over time, our efforts have increasingly focused on platforms in which our investment philosophy and research may be more effectively employed. Most of our time and energy now goes into the investment advisory services we offer through LPL Financial.

Clients, many of you have assets outside of LPL Financial. We believe it is time to re-examine these arrangements and determine whether they are still appropriate. We might have recommended strategies in the past that may not be the best ones for the future.

• A generous bull market over the past decade meant that other arrangements generally remained beneficial to you, in our opinion.
• But market conditions are likely to become more hectic, sooner or later.
• We have greater flexibility to seek bargains, avoid stampedes, and pick our spots when assets are in the LPL Financial platform, instead of another institution.

The better off you are, the better off we are likely to be—this has been a guiding principle at 228 Main. Our motivation is to be in the best position to keep your portfolio responsive to changing conditions.

If we may possibly improve your situation by taking a more active role in managing your assets, we welcome those duties. If you decide that outside investment accounts remain your best option, we’ll still be happy to work with you on that basis.

We would like to talk, having no pre-conceived notion about what is best for your specific situation. 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful. All investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Why Not Both?

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We keep reading a curious idea promoted by some in the financial industry. It goes like this: “Managing investor behavior is the key task for advisors, not managing investments.”

That framework assumes there is a choice between one or the other. There are two flaws in the assumption. It does not have to be an either-or deal. And some fraction of people don’t require babysitters for their natural investment behavior, which is effective.

We believe in BOTH of these roles. It may be true that raw human nature is generally counterproductive to sound investing. (Behavioral economists tend to think so.) Our theory and experience says that the attitudes and behavior of individuals can be deliberately shaped to their benefit—and ours.

What may apply as a general principle to all people does not necessarily apply to you as an individual. You have free will. And we believe people can learn.

So we spend a great deal of time and effort talking to you, and communicating about the mindsets and strategies and tactics we believe are effective. But that is only part of the job.

Legendary investor Charlie Munger said, “We wouldn’t be so rich if other people weren’t wrong so often.” By avoiding stampedes in the market, we may sidestep a poor situation that others are getting into. And by seeking the best bargains, we are looking for holdings that others may be wrong about.

In other words, two of our fundamental principles about investment management are founded in a belief that investment selection matters because people are often wrong. We see investor behavior as a creator of opportunities for our clients—not a problem to be managed. Clients, we keep saying you are special: this is why. We believe your investment behavior is exemplary.

Knowing what you own and why you own it, operating in accordance with sound principles and strategy, makes it easier to behave effectively. These things reinforce each other.

Manage behavior, or manage investments? It isn’t either-or—we need to pay attention to both. Clients, if you would like to discuss this at greater length, 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.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

YOU Haven’t Missed Out

© Can Stock Photo / rustyphil

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted “one of the biggest surprises of the US stock market’s relentless rally…how many individual investors have run away from it.” This is from the January 4, 2018 article “Individual Investors Sit it Out.”

The article cites industry sources about where people have been putting their money the last several years. While nearly $1 trillion got pulled out of investment products that target US stocks since 2012, almost the same amount has gone into bond investment products.

Clients, would you trade your results over the past three or five or seven years for bonds with low potential interest and growth?

Our fundamental rules have guided us. Avoid stampedes—and the stampede into the supposed safety of bonds may be one of the biggest in history. Seek the best bargains—interest rates near the lowest levels in four decades1 hardly seemed like a bargain to us.

A strong contrarian streak encourages us to think about doing the opposite of what everybody else seems to be doing. We’ve been buying stocks when others were selling.

We’re focused now on getting the next big thing right. If we seek to avoid stampedes, we need to be careful if the stampede joins us. What we now own may become too popular and get over-priced. A 30% or 40% gain from current levels might put us in risky territory.

By continuously seeking better bargains in other sectors and trimming back holdings that are no longer cheap, we seek to reduce the potential for loss. No guarantees, of course: the next poor year is out there somewhere.

On investment advisory accounts managed through LPL Financial, our revenues are a function of your account value. When you capture an opportunity or avoid a loss, we are better off. This focuses our attention wonderfully.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this applies to your circumstances, please email us or call.

1Interest rate data from Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FEDFUNDS (as of January 2018.)


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.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

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.

Who’s the Expert?

© Can Stock Photo / imtmphoto

We listen to you about the things you know best, we talk to you about the things we know best.

You are the expert on certain topics. What are your thoughts and feelings about retirement? Where do you want to live? What is your philosophy about a legacy to future generations? We respect your expertise about your personal goals and objectives.

Our business proposition is that we are the experts on certain topics. Of course, there are many experts on every topic. But what may set us apart is this: we won’t pander to your thoughts and feelings when we know better. Penny marijuana stocks? The latest technology hype? That hot concept that everybody is talking about? If we believe it won’t be good for you, we aren’t participating.

It would be easy to go with the flow, to deliver whatever anyone might desire. But one of our fundamental rules is ‘avoid stampedes.’ As contrarians, we believe the crowd is sometimes very wrong. When an investment idea is at the peak of popularity, it may be overpriced and due for a fall.

Our attitude about this may cost us in the short run. When we refuse a transaction, it sometimes upsets people. But if it turns out that we helped someone avoid a potential loss, they may connect the dots and reward us with a higher opinion about our intentions and integrity.

We aren’t this way because we are saintly. It is simply a more effective way to live. When we put you in charge of certain things, we do not have to worry about them.

For example, somebody recently asked us about our goals for the year—how much new business, how many new clients, and so forth. We think you are in charge of where you do business, not us. We learned a long time ago that the best way to grow our business is to grow your buckets. That is our goal, and it has nothing to do with chasing strangers around.

This helps us focus on getting better, on being more deserving of your trust. It frees us of wasting time on things we cannot control. We have more time to communicate with you about the things on which you are the expert—your goals and aspirations.

When we communicate freely back and forth about our different areas of expertise, good things may happen. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else in more detail, 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.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Flexible Tactics, Timeless Values

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In business, the things that change draw a lot of energy. New technology, new ways of doing things, and new ideas grab our attention. The new offers the promise of competitive advantage.

Less attention goes to the things that never change. The timeless things can compound over long periods. Successful enterprises may need to harness both the new and the timeless. At 228 Main, we need both to serve you well.

For example, Amazon is one of the most dynamic companies in the world. The growth and evolution of the company has been astonishing. Yet founder Jeff Bezos focuses most closely on the things that never change.

According to Bezos, his customers want low prices, vast selection, and fast delivery. They wanted those things twenty years ago, and they will want those same things twenty years from now. When you invest in meeting unchanging needs, the returns may roll in for many years.

Writer and thinker Morgan Housel wrote that every sustainable business relies on one or more timeless features. We believe the key features you would like us to deliver include close human interaction, confidence and trust, and transparency. (Transparency in this context means ‘what you see is what you get.’)

We have previously noted that 21st century communications allow us to be radically transparent and to connect more closely. When we improve our processes for research and trading and portfolio analysis, we generate more time to work with you one on one. Our sense is that all these things together may increase your confidence in us.

Amazon continuously improves methods and tactics to deliver on its timeless strategy. We seek to do the same. Clients, if you would like to offer your perspective (or discuss 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Amazon, Leibman Financial Services and LPL Financial are not affiliated.

Backward Measures of Risk

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Our investing experience over the last two years vividly demonstrates the problem with confusing volatility and risk.

After years of relative stability, a certain security plunged by more than 80% in a few months. The standard model of risk would have you believe that the security was relatively safer at the high price level. And the more the price declined, the riskier it became—according to the standard methods.

Value investors seek the bargains. To them, the lower the price, the better the deal. This is exactly the opposite of the standard model of risk.

The rest of the story is that the security turned on a dime at the low point, and rose back to its original level in the following months. At the very point the standard model of risk viewed this investment in the worst light, it was preparing to embark on a rise of more than 400%.

There is a good reason why people (including professionals) confuse volatility with risk. In the short term, volatility IS risk. If you have wealth to pay the bills due within a few days, you cannot afford to have the value bouncing around from day to day. If it goes the wrong direction, you might not have enough money to pay the bills.

Therefore, whether volatility is risk depends on the time horizon. In the short term, volatility is risk. In the long term, perhaps volatility is opportunity, not risk. We work hard to understand your time horizon so we can get this right for you.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this in more detail, or have other things on your agenda, 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time.

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

What’s Your Story?

© gajdamak / www.canstockphoto.com

Thinker Morgan Housel wrote recently about the power of narrative in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The essay focused on the narratives that affect the whole economy, the big-picture themes. The future of the country didn’t change much from 2007 to 2009, but employment, wealth, and the markets all got slammed. What caused it? The central narrative, how we understood our economy, changed dramatically from the peak of the boom to the bottom of the bust.

Investment manias have a story at their core. They may come true or not, but while the story holds sway, real values are driven by the story. Housel summarized it this way: “this is not a story about something happening; something is happening because there’s a story.”

Stories are how we organize and understand the world and our place in it. “Stories create their own kind of truth,” as Housel wrote. We believe the same idea shapes the lives of individuals just as certainly as it shapes economic and societal trends.

At 228 Main, we have stories. About people who save diligently and achieve financial independence. About folks who invest with increasing confidence and less worry over the years. About investors who learn to live with volatility, and hold on through the downturns. (These are stories, not promises or guarantees—you long-time clients know your own realities.)

I would not be able to work with you as effectively without those stories—and more importantly, the narratives of my own life.

I have a story about a vibrant business in the face of steep personal challenges. I have a story about working to age 92. I have a story about new ways of doing business in the 21st century.

These stories have enabled me to thrive while dealing with major issues, live healthier than I have for decades, communicate more effectively with you than ever before, and make plans for the decades ahead while some of my contemporaries coast toward retirement.

It feels to me as if the stories I have crafted in turn have shaped my life. I am not done creating stories; life goes on and things change. We do not know the future. But if we take control of our stories, we may be able to influence our futures. No guarantees.

How about you? What’s your story? Are there aspects of your narrative that we could help you with? Clients, please email us or call if you would like a longer discussion.


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.