mark leibman

We Eat Our Own Cooking

© Can Stock Photo / lisafx

Last week I was describing an investment opportunity, or ‘table-pounding bargain’ as I prefer to think of it, to a client. The client was not exactly skeptical, but she had a question. “Do you own it?”

This is a brilliant question. ‘Skin in the game’ is an extremely vital indicator. When someone is personally invested in an idea or concept, they are more likely to be focused on the potential for success or possibility of failure. Alleged leaders who do not share in the consequences of their actions are notoriously inept. (Congress and health care, for example?)

Modern philosopher Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan) takes it a step further and talks about soul in the game. Perhaps my level of compulsion, commitment to work to age 92, and obsession with your outcomes is evidence of ‘soul in the game.’ I’m not sure how I could possibly be more involved with my work.

Do I own it? Lady, I am loaded down with the stuff. I cannot in good conscience inflict the kinds of concentrations on you that I am willing to face. After all, few of you want to work to age 92 as I do, and between you and me, I am in the best position to knowingly run larger risks. So the most volatile accounts in the shop, upside and downside, are my own.

Let me clarify: we offer no guarantees. The fact that I own the ideas we talk about does NOT provide any tangible value to you. When your account grows, our revenues rise—it is win-win—and that provides an economic incentive to act in good faith. But whether or not I own something is no guarantee of anything.

My purpose in writing this is simply to say we may be right or wrong on any recommendation—but we are always sincere. I want you to know, that idea I’m talking most about, YES I own it!


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

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

There is no assurance that the techniques and strategies discussed are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes.

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.

Bargain Hiding in Plain Sight

© Can Stock Photo / mrivserg

Imagine a product that has these uses1:
• Vital part of every home and building.
• Goes into every vehicle; hybrids and electrics use up to four times more.2
• Needed for manufacture, installation and use of solar panels and wind turbines.
• Key requirement in making batteries.

One might imagine that demand for this product will rise in coming years, as technology changes our power grid and transportation, and the world continues to modernize.

Now consider the supply side. It takes billions of dollars and four years or more to create a new production facility. The industry that produces it went through a depression as prices for the product got cut in half from 2011 to 20163. Revenues disappeared, losses mounted, spending got slashed. New projects were cancelled.

Rising demand, constricted supply: we know how this works. Prices will rise, revenues and earnings for producers will go up, stock prices may follow. No guarantees, of course, and the timing is always uncertain.

The product is COPPER. There is no replacement for it. The question we face as investors is, can we get involved on a favorable basis?

We know companies that produce a lot of copper, along with other resources. Their stocks are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The valuation on their shares seems compelling. A dollar of profit in one trades for a third less than that of the average stock; the other one carries a two-thirds discount. One is trading at one-third of its all-time peak a few years back, the other is discounted even more.

Both stocks have been about twice as volatile as the average stock. (This is measured by a statistic called ‘beta.’) We don’t care. Downside volatility is wonderful if you are trying to buy bargains. But owners should be prepared for the roller-coaster.

Clients, we are telling you this story for a reason. When you hear that ‘the market is too high’ or things are at some unsustainable peak, remember that at 228 Main, we are pounding the table and jumping up and down about the bargains we are finding. If you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call.

1The World Copper Factbook 2014, International Copper Study Group

2The Electric Vehicle Market and Copper Demand, International Copper Alliance

3Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.

What We Learned at the Big Conference

© Can Stock Photo / appalachianviews

I have gone to many conferences over a long period of time. Each has provided some perspective, insight or connection that proved to be quite valuable. Our quest to improve your financial position, being a human endeavor, is always susceptible to improvement. The conferences serve to expose us to ideas, concepts and tools that can help.

LPL Financial’s Focus17 event was perhaps the most consequential ever. The social media and blog presence we started at http://www.228Main.com two years ago has a far greater reach than we realized. We have relationships with top executives at LPL Financial and senior management that we did not know we had. This is turning out to be vitally important to you and to us.

Regulation creates change, and encourages standardization. You know we are contrarian; we dislike conventional wisdom, so we aren’t big on doing what everyone else is doing. As the company sorts out how to get to the future, our voice is in the conversation. Our proposals, the ones that will let us keep serving you as we have been, are being reviewed at the highest levels. If we didn’t have the new media presence, we would still be trying to let the brass know who we are and what we want.

Our communication strategy is to be radically transparent. We share our fundamental beliefs, our strategies, our methods and our views. So when we introduce ourselves to a policy-maker and say “this is what we are about,” the policy-maker says “Oh, I know, I read your blog. What do we need to do?”

Clients, understand, we put this all in place for you, not them. If there were three of me, none of us would have time for ego-stroking with big shots. But the fact is, these good people are going to help us shape the future in a way that might work out for everyone.

The highlight of the program was Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist of the Life Is Good Company. (You may have seen their T-shirts or coffee cups.) You have to know, the message that ‘life isn’t easy, life isn’t perfect, but life is good” certainly rang my bell. The idea that optimism is a tree trunk from which authenticity and empathy and humor and generosity etc. can branch is very powerful. Bert learned that ‘life is good’ resonated most deeply with people who had big challenges, not those who had easy lives.

I’ll summarize the rest by saying LPL Financial has a great culture carried by incredibly talented people. The firm is paying attention and taking care of business. You and we could not ask for more. Please call or email us with questions or to have a longer conversation.


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

Did Your Bucket Grow? The Measurement that Counts

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We have an issue with investment theories that look great on paper but may not help people build wealth. The vagaries of human nature mean that investments which are appealing and popular and those which make money tend to be two different things.

In our opinion, Modern Portfolio Theory or MPT is in the category of ‘looks great on paper.’ MPT attempts to mitigate risk by diversifying a portfolio across different asset classes with different risk profiles. But it can not predict the future–this risk analysis is based on historical performance trends. Backwards looking, it tends to work until it doesn’t. It does, however, generate nice pie charts and beautiful rationalizations.

The apparent precision of MPT, based on measuring things that have little bearing or relevance to long term investors, may be a key factor in its appeal. We concluded that a lot of effort goes into measuring things that can be measured, whether or not the exercise is useful.

Recently we measured something in your accounts. We think it is telling evidence of our work together, your effective investing behavior and our research and portfolio management.

You can see in LPL AccountView or in reports we can run for you where your account balance stands relative to your cumulative net investment over time. In other words, your deposits and withdrawals since the beginning add and subtract to determine your net investment. By looking at your balance, we can tell the cumulative net gain or loss you have made over the years.

Many advisors could tell you the expected standard deviation of your portfolio, or the proportions of each asset class you should own, down to the hundredths of one percent, based on past performance. Some offer reports that compare monthly, quarterly, and annual account performance against a series of benchmarks.

If we had to guess we would say our simple measurement is the one you care about—did your bucket grow? And by how much? Clients, if you would like to tell us differently, or have a longer discussion on this or any other topic, 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.

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.

Security Selection Doesn’t Matter—or Does It?

© Can Stock Photo / alexh

One of the staples of conventional investing wisdom is asset allocation—the choosing of broad market sectors, determines investment outcomes. Supposedly, the selection of individual securities within each sector barely matters.

We will explain where the flaw is after a little history. The theory dates back to 1986 when the Financial Analysts Journal published a paper, ‘Determinants of Portfolio Performance.’ The authors concluded that asset allocation explained 93.6% of the variation in portfolio quarterly returns.

Since then, others have concluded that as much as 100% of returns are explained by asset allocation, that security selection doesn’t matter at all.

This version of reality is convenient for some financial planners, who are thereby relieved of the work of actually researching securities and managing portfolios based on that research. If it doesn’t matter what you own, only the category, you simply need to choose your pie chart of sectors and buy stuff to fill it up!

Here is the flaw: all securities are owned all the time, by someone. If you look at the aggregate of all investors (or many investors), security selection appears not to matter. But the individual does not own all securities – and the specific selection of what he or she does own has a huge impact on outcomes.

Investor A buys a security for $100, sells it later for $25 to Investor B. Investor B holds it while it recovers to $100. One has a 75% loss, the other a 300% gain. Security selection matters. In the aggregate, the security started at $100 and ended at $100. But that leaves out the loss for one and the gain for another.

One of Warren Buffett’s earliest investors put $15,000 in, back in the 1950s. Today his name is on the home of the symphony orchestra in Omaha, a beautiful performing arts facility he donated to the community. Security selection matters.

We offer no guarantees about the outcome of our work. But we believe the selection of individual securities is the biggest factor in those outcomes. If you would like to discuss this topic or anything else at greater length, 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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

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

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

Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown

© Can Stock Photo / tashka

Pop quiz: if Joe Smith from Detroit works for General Motors, who is at the top of his chain of command? His boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, in other words? (I pick GM as a random example, but this exercise is true of any publicly traded company.)

If you own any shares of General Motors, the answer is you, personally. Makes you feel pretty important, right?

Of course, there are some caveats. General Motors has over 1 billion shares of stock floating around, and this is not an unusually large amount for an exchange-listed company. If you only own, for example, 1 share of GM stock you have less than a one-billionth part of the collective ownership authority over the company. Still, as a stockholder you are entitled to a have a proportionate voice in how the company is run, however small that voice may be. It is a powerful idea, and this idea of shared ownership is a cornerstone of our modern economy and way of life.

The most visible parts of your rights and responsibilities as a shareholder are, inevitably, the proxy voting materials that you may periodically receive as a stock owner. Your shares entitle you to vote on the company’s board of directors, as well as other significant decisions that the company may make from time to time.

For smaller investors such as you or I, shareholder materials can sometimes be more of a nuisance than anything else. Even if we got together with all of our clients and voted together as a bloc, we still would not command enough shares to influence a shareholder vote much. Moreover, we would generally want to stick with the default recommendation of the company management. If we disagreed with the job management was doing, we would not want to invest in the company in the first place! There are sharks out there in the investment world that look to gobble up companies and take over their management, but in here we are all pretty small fish—we just look for successful companies that we can swim along with. Most of the time, we are content to leave shareholder decisions up to the big fish.

That said, it does happen occasionally that a vote or shareholder election comes up that may have some effect on you personally. We keep an eye on what shareholder materials get sent out so that we can get in touch if something comes up that you ought to act on.

The bottom line is that the privileges of stock ownership can wind up translating into a lot of mail, and it can be difficult to sort through it all sometimes. Clients, if you receive any shareholder communications that you do not understand, please do not hesitate to pick up the phone or email us for help making sense of it.


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The Rear View Mirror and the Windshield

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Nobody we know would drive down the highway with eyes glued firmly to the rear-view mirror. The mirror tells us only where we’ve been. The windshield, on the other hand, gives us information about the road ahead.

Yet an investment method popular with many financial representatives and firms relies on a combination of rear view imagery and elaborate statistical calculations. Years of data about the behavior of different investment sectors is fed into a computer program, which spits out the optimal proportions for ownership of every sector. It is said to deliver hopes of the best returns for a given level of volatility.

We see three flaws with this method, called Modern Portfolio Theory or MPT.

The future will not be like the past. MPT is really just high definition, computer-assisted hindsight. It tells you what would have worked up to now, by looking only into the rear-view mirror. Many financial crises provoke a lot of disappointment in people with MPT portfolios.

Our behavior changes with our experiences, thereby changing the future. It was thought going into the 2007-2009 financial crisis that mortgages were safe investments because people always paid them first, even if they couldn’t pay other bills. In reality, auto loans outperformed while mortgages went unpaid. Consequently, the next crisis may well feature large losses in auto loans as too much capital has poured into this ‘safer’ category. MPT cannot see these kinds of dynamics.

People attribute more certainty to MPT computer output because it calculates portfolio holdings and potential variation in account value out to two decimal places. They forget that these are estimates. Adding detail to what is basically a guess does not make it more accurate.

Clients, you have heard us talk about our three principles over and over again. They help us assess the economic and investment landscape. They give us a way to think about how the future might unfold. Although we have no guarantees to offer, or even assurances that our methods are better, at least we are trying to look out the windshield—instead of focusing on the rear-view mirror!

We would rather figure out how to live with volatility and aim for higher returns instead of pretend that focusing on the rear-view mirror will save us grief in the future. If you would like to discuss your situation in more detail, please email us or call the shop.


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.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

Two Robbers Lurk in the Shortcut

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The investment methodology promoted by most financial professionals has a costly shortcut at its core. A mathematical trick is used in place of common sense, one that simply equates volatility with risk.

The shortcut enables people to pretend that statistical models can predict the future risk in any portfolio. The model always works perfectly, until it doesn’t. Three Nobel Prize-winners using these kinds of models blew up a hedge fund with billions of dollars in 1998. The failure of Long Term Capital Management caused an international crisis.

Warren Buffett wrote a wonderful analysis of this issue in his 2014 letter to shareholders. He explained that stock prices will always be more volatile than cash holdings in the short term. But he believes that fixed-dollar investments are far riskier than widely diversified stock portfolios over the long term.

One of the robbers that lurks in the shortcut is inflation. A dollar today will only buy 98 cents worth of goods next year, and 96 cents the year after that. Buffett wrote in 2014 that the dollar had lost 87% of its purchasing power over the previous 50 years. So over the long haul, the stable fixed investment becomes quite risky in terms of the potential to melt your wealth away.

While the high risk in currency-denominated investments did its damage, the same 50 year period saw the S&P 500 advance by 11,196%. Another of the robbers lurking in the shortcut is missed opportunity for long term gains.

Fortunately, you can spot the shortcut fairly easily. Every one of the following situations involves costly confusion about volatility and risk:

1. When every market sector supposedly needs to be owned for proper diversification. Our view: Some sectors are overpriced and should not be owned—tech stocks in 2000, real estate in 2007, commodities in 2011, and so forth.

2. When the presence of declining elements in a portfolio is held as proof of proper investment process—the idea that some things always zig when others zag, and keep the whole bucket more stable. Our view: When a crisis hits, many things decline across the board.

3. When a short-term decline is spoken of as ‘a loss.’ Our view: This is a costly misperception, born of a short-sighted approach.

4. When the future returns of a portfolio are described as a range that will be accurate 95% of the time—this is a hallmark of the statistical model. Our view: The model knows the past. The future will be different than the past. The wheels will come off the model when these differences emerge.

No one knows what the future holds. Our approach is to avoid stampedes, seek the best bargains, and strive to own the orchard for the fruit crop. These principles help us pick our spots, so to speak, rather than think we need to own a little bit of everything no matter what. The principles are no guarantee against loss.

The key advantage in our method, we believe, is avoiding the robbers who lurk in the shortcut. No systematic wealth melting from unneeded stagnant fixed investments, no missed opportunities for long term gains. We have no guarantees that our approach will be superior.

Clients, you know that one thing is required of you in order to have a chance to be successful with our methods. The understanding that volatility is NOT risk is key. Please call us or email if you would like to discuss this at greater length.


The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is a capitalization weighted index of 500 stocks designed to measure performance of the broad domestic economy through changes in the aggregate market value of 500 stocks representing all major industries.

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 indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

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.

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.

Fishing Lures Are Made to Catch Fishermen

© Can Stock Photo / zorandim

Archeologists say the oldest known fishhooks date back 23,000 years. They have no idea when one person first sold another one a fishing lure. But ever since then, it has been a truth that fishing lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish. A useful corollary is lurking just beneath the surface.

Recently the Wall Street Journal wrote about a narrow investment sector that was getting flooded with money by investors starved for yield. ‘Direct lending’ allows investors to take on the role of lending money to middle-size companies. The article made the point that the flood of money had reduced yields as well as the safety of the loans—perhaps investors should look elsewhere.

As if on cue, we immediately received an email about a direct lending strategy ‘formerly available only to institutional investors.’ It is said to be an innovative way to generate current income.

After years of near-zero interest rates and lingering fears about the stock market, who isn’t looking for an innovative way to generate income—particularly with a strategy formerly available only to institutions?

Clearly, investment products are designed to catch investors, not investment returns.

Behavioral economists have amply demonstrated how prone we humans are to make irrational decisions—to do the wrong thing at the wrong time. The bane of investing is the tendency to buy in euphoria near the peak and sell in panic near the low. The crowd seems to miss on the timing, time after time.

You know our principles include the idea of avoiding stampedes. We know that going against the crowd can be rewarding—our approach is contrarian. When something we are doing becomes popular, we need to think about doing something different. And if everybody else is buying some sector or product, we are likely to be suspicious of it.

Market history is full of products that attracted lots and lots of money, but little in the way of returns. It is much like sporting goods stores full of lures that catch fishermen, not fish. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other pertinent topic, 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.

Structured products typically have two components; a note and a derivative and a fixed maturity. They are complicated investments intended for a “buy and hold” strategy and offer protection from downside risk in exchange for forgoing some upside potential to achieve that protection. Principal protection may vary from partial to 100 percent.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.