market volatility

Minesweeper, Free Cell and the Nature of Life

© Can Stock Photo / paulgrecaud

I recently upgraded my primary computer, a Microsoft Surface tablet. After using only a touchpad and touch screen for a few years, I decided to try using a mouse again. One quick way to acclimate is by playing games in my downtime.

The solitaire card game FreeCell has a fundamental difference from the puzzle game Minesweeper. Any game of FreeCell may be won, with enough thought or trial and error. You may go back to it as many times as you want to solve it. It is possible to win every game, sooner or later.

Minesweeper, on the other hand, forces you to make decisions from a position of uncertainty. You can know many things about the terrain, but not everything. You can learn more by leveraging what you know. But in the final analysis, you must act even though you cannot know everything you want to know. Sometimes you set off a mine, and that game is lost.

If investing were like FreeCell, all we would have to do is study and think enough, and every holding would be a winner. But investing is like Minesweeper—we cannot know everything we would prefer to know, and sometimes things blow up.

Some approaches to investing try to make it look like FreeCell: charts and graphs and computer models, all very scientific. But you know and we know it is like Minesweeper, prone to periodic blowups. There is no point in trying to disguise the nature of the game. The markets go up and down. Some years are down years. Volatility is an inherent part of long-term investing.

In other words, investing is a lot like life itself. We do the best we can with what we have, and deal with the surprises as they come up.

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. 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.

Buy Low, Sell High

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If you watch a lot of sports journalism, sooner or later you will see someone deliver some variation on this nugget of wisdom: “If we want to win, we just have to score more points than the other team.”

In investing terms, the equivalent is “If we want to make money, we just have to buy low and sell high.” This is just math: if you sell something at a higher price than what you paid for it, you make a profit.

The “sell high” part is usually easy for most people to grasp. Sometimes someone in a hot rally may get wrapped up in watching their gains go up and up and forget to cash out before things inevitably come crashing back down. But generally taking profits is fun and comes naturally to people.

It is the “buy low” part of the equation that people tend to struggle with more. Something in the news for being popular and making money is probably not trading at a low price. Buying low often means a metaphorical dumpster dive to find the unwanted dregs of the market. It is often not pleasant or easy to put your money in something that has a reputation as an unattractive investment. But if you want to buy low, that is where you frequently need to go.

The upshot is that this makes it a lot easier to get excited about a down market. It feels good to participate in a rising market, but it can be difficult to find spots to buy in when markets are up. For a value investor, market selloffs may lead to buying opportunities.

Clients, many of you already know what we are talking about. We are in business with you for a reason—we think you are the best clients in the world. We know it is not always easy to make disciplined investing decisions. But we think you have what it takes.

If you have questions about this or any other topic, please call or email us.


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.

The Rip Van Winkle Effect

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Rip Van Winkle is a character in a Washington Irving short story written nearly two centuries ago. You might know the story: Rip sleeps for twenty years up in the mountains, eventually returning home to find that much had changed.

One of the most dynamic companies in the world emerged on the scene a little over twenty years ago. An investor who purchased it on its first day of trading would have made several hundred times his original investment, had they held all the way through.

In spite of the incredible long-term result, it would have been very difficult to achieve even if one had bought in early. If you carefully looked every day to see how it was doing, as of November 12th this is what you would have experienced:

• On 1,346 of the days of ownership, the value would have been less than 50% of its previous peak. This is nearly one day in four, out of the 5,410 trading days in question1.
• On 494 of the days, the value would have been down 80% from the prior peak.
• The worst drop from a prior peak would have been 94%.

It isn’t always easy to hold an investment that has declined in value. We strive to own bargains, even when they become better bargains. (Once upon a time, a client asked me “What kind of moron would watch a stock go down from $11 to $7, dropping day after day, and do nothing?” Of course, I am that kind of moron.)

We have noticed that a certain few of our clients use the Rip Van Winkle effect, to their benefit. In the example above, they would have accepted in advance they would be under water at times, and just held for the long term. They enjoy the long-term result, without the day to day anguish of fluctuating values—they did not need to look every day.

We work diligently to understand what we should own, and why. Sometimes we change our opinion and sell at a loss. But often the Rip Van Winkle effect would help us. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please call.

Notes & References

1. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, S&P Dow Jones Indices. Retrieved November 12th, 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.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The Three Investment Strategies

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Great thinker Morgan Housel recently wrote that there are only three legal investment strategies.

1. Be smarter than others.
2. Be luckier than others.
3. Be more patient than others.

Does one of these jump out at you as being a lot more accessible than the others?

Luck falls where it may. We do not control the luck we have. Smarts? We do what we can to improve our odds. Reading, studying, analyzing, thinking…we do our best to understand what we can. But there will probably always be somebody smarter, somewhere.

The edge that anyone may choose is patience. We talk endlessly about the long view, about waiting out the downturns, about hanging in there when times seem rough. Anyone may choose patience, but it is not always easy!

After decades, we have yet to see a fool-proof indicator that will tell you which way the market is going to go in the short run. Nor have we seen evidence that any person can reliably predict the direction of the market. But we do know a couple key things:

• In the past, the broad market has tended to go up about three years out of four, and down about one year out of four.1
• Over extended periods, these ups and downs have potential gains for those who are patient.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns, of course, so it takes some courage to exercise patience. We appreciate that in you.

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

Notes & References

1. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, S&P Dow Jones Indices. Retrieved November 26th, 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.

Why Not Just Pull Back?

© Can Stock Photo / bthompson2001

The market has been rough lately! Seems like account values are shrinking month by month. In times like these, clients sometimes ask why we don’t just pull back when the market starts going down. It is a fair question.
We are thinking about a number of things in formulating investment strategy and tactics:

1. The average decline in the course of a calendar year in the major market averages is about 13%1. Basically, the market is always going down—and up.

2. A wag once noted that the market has predicted nine of the last five recessions. In other words, it may decline 10 or 20% without signifying anything about the health of the economy.

3. The times when it seems to make the most sense to sell out often turn out to be good times to be invested.

In short, the ups and downs are part of investing. We each face a choice between stability of values, and long term investment returns. There is no way to get both of these things on all of our money, although we may have some of each.

It is important to know where our money will come from, the funds we need in our pocket. For investors, it is also important to know our long-term portfolios will go up and down.

We mentioned above that the average stock market decline in the course of a year is 13%1. Let’s be clear about what that means: a $13,000 drop on a $100,000 portfolio; $65,000 on half a million; $130,000 on $1 million.

Here’s some solace: by the time you notice we’ve been skewered, we are closer to recovery than when the decline began. One year out of four, on average, the market (measured by the S&P 500) declines. Think about it—three years out of four, on average, it has gone up.

We don’t pull back because we do not want to miss the rebound. Our experience has been that we can live with the ups and downs. It isn’t always easy, but our experience has been that it works out over time.

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

Notes and References

1. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, S&P Dow Jones Indices. Retrieved November 5th, 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 investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

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.

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.

Every Share Sold is Bought

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We talk a lot about cycles, but there’s one truth to them that we could come right out and say more often: there are no ups without downs, no downs without ups. Night and day. Yin and yang. Buy and sell.

People sometimes lose sight of this reality, especially when talking about the waves of selling that engulf the markets from time to time, cratering prices. They might say, “Long term investing is all well and good, until the financial crisis comes and wipes out half your account—that happened to me.”

In the last crisis (2007–2009), the markets recovered and went on to post gains for many years. When I inquire whether their accounts have bounced back since then, some reply, “Of course not! Everybody had to sell out to save what was left!”

Life is too short for most arguments, isn’t it? We move on to other topics. But the fact remains: even on the worst days in the depths of the crisis, when the market was suffering large percentage losses, we believe every share sold was also bought. There are two sides to every transaction, a buyer and a seller. Not everybody “had” to sell out.

In the fall before the market bottom in March 2009, noted investor Warren Buffett wrote in The New York Times that the economy was likely to be larger—and company profits higher—ten and twenty years in the future.1 Therefore, he was buying.

We felt the same way.

But it may feel as if everybody is selling. In the crisis, one of you told us it was no longer possible to talk about the economy or markets at coffee in the mornings, because every single person there called you a fool for staying in or told you all your money would be lost. Another said the same thing about the Friday night dinner crowd—you felt lonely. But you persisted.

It is popular lore among financial advisors to presume that people are really not capable of investing effectively, pointing to behavioral economic studies. You know we have worked hard to find you, the exceptions: people who either have the native good sense to invest effectively or who can learn how to do it.

We believe that every share sold is also bought. We have a choice, which side of those transactions to be on. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Notes and References

1. Warren Buffett “Buy American,” The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/17/opinion/17buffett.html. Accessed: September 24, 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 investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

 

World’s Biggest Roller Coaster?

© Can Stock Photo / winnieapple

The biggest roller coaster in the world is Kingda Ka, at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. Sometimes investing provides a similar experience.

We have written before about the lovely decade of the 1990s, when the major stock market averages more than tripled. When you get up close and really look at what happened, however, it looks a whole lot different. We examined the data for the S&P 500 Stock Index.

During that decade, there were 1,171 trading days when the S&P went down. The total points “lost” on those days adds up to 5,228. Put that in perspective: the decade started at just 353 points! The down days “lost” more than fourteen times the beginning value1.

Who would knowingly stick around if, on the first day of the decade, we knew that 5,228 points would be “lost” on the down days?

There is a reason we put the word “lost” in quotation marks. It might be more appropriate to speak of temporary declines rather than losses. We say this, because of what happened on the other 1,356 trading days in the decade.

On those up days, the market went up a total of 6,344 points—or more than 17 times the beginning value1. If we knew only that piece of the future at the outset, money might have flooded in.

The bottom line is, here is how we got a triple in the market: it went up 17 times its original value, and down 14 times its original value, in totally unpredictable bits and pieces of rallies and corrections. Patient people prospered.

It is hard to argue with a triple. That is a fine result. This is why we talk incessantly about the long term, long time horizons, keeping the faith, following fundamental principles, and not panicking at low points.

During the decade, how many times did 10% corrections have to be endured? 20% bear markets? Were there any 30% or 40% losses? WHO CARES? It didn’t matter to long term investors.

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

Notes & References

1Standard & Poor’s 500 index, S&P Dow Jones Indices: https://us.spindices.com/indices/equity/sp-500. Accessed October 3rd, 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 indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted.

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

 

Is a Drop a Loss?

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We humans use stories about events great and small to help understand the world. One of the common stories about the stock market contributes to a great misunderstanding, however.

A market decline from some higher point in the past is often spoken of as a loss. Yet whenever the market is trading at an all-time high, every past downturn has been fully recovered. One might ask where the loss actually is.

To illustrate, the decade of the 1990’s was a good one for the broad stock market, as measured by the S&P 500 Stock Index. It more than tripled, rising from 353 points to 1,469. Yet of the 2,527 trading days of the decade, 1,171 saw a decline—a drop—in the market index.1

Those down days represent a cumulative 729% in “losses.”1

In a decade when the market tripled, how does it make sense to speak of losses during the interim? Particularly losses equal to many times the beginning level?

The market is volatile. Values fluctuate. It goes up and down. But if you have long term goals, it might pay to focus on long term results, not temporary downturns. If you invest next week’s grocery money in the stock market, then yes, a temporary downturn will result in a loss when you sell out in order to buy food. Otherwise, we would say a drop is not a loss.

Note: one should never invest next week’s grocery money in the stock market.

Our business is striving for long term results for people who share our time horizon and philosophy of investing. We talk about it every way we know how, in many venues, to reinforce effective investing attitudes and to forewarn those who lack them.

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

1Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, S&P Dow Jones Indices. Retrieved September 18th, 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 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.

 

It Works Until It Doesn’t

© Can Stock Photo / joebelanger

Money poured into tech stocks in the late 1990s. Then it went into residential real estate in the middle 2000s. No wonder: prices marched higher, year after year—until they didn’t.

We humans usually believe that recent trends will continue. When friends and neighbors and coworkers are getting in on the action, it is easy to join them.

A powerful narrative that seems to be creating a lot of wealth is hard to resist. “We have entered a new era.” “This time is different.” “You can’t lose money in real estate.”

Popularity pushes values farther and farther away from the underlying economics, and a reversal usually follows. The bubble pops; a great number of people are surprised. Some end up with losses instead of the gains they felt sure about making.

Our analysis suggests that a new kind of bubble is upon us. The zero interest rate policy or ZIRP of the Federal Reserve Board for most of the past decade led to a scramble for yield. This moved the valuation on many kinds of investments that pay income into very rich territory, in our opinion.

For example, we were recently pitched on a “cash substitute” with a 5% yield, in a supposedly liquid form. Sounds great, right? Perhaps too good to be true.

Indeed, when we took the proposition apart, we found it was made largely out of corporate bonds in financially weak companies—junk bonds, in other words. To make matters worse, the manager pursued opportunities in a thinly-traded part of the market—odd lots, small amounts of each bond that are unattractive to other buyers.

This idea will work until it doesn’t. When the next economic slowdown creates cracks in the theory, investors who believed they owned a “cash substitute” may be sensitive about losses of any size. As they cash out, the manager may be forced to sell into a market with even fewer buyers.

The silver lining for us is that dislocations bring opportunities. Prices overshoot in both directions. One of our roles is to try to spot these anomalies, and figure out which ones are attractive opportunities for you. (We have no guarantees of success in this.)

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. 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, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal.

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

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.

 

About Those Good Old Days

© Can Stock Photo / Chuckee

A client recently expressed a desire to return to the good old days, when we didn’t have all this turmoil and trouble. Wouldn’t we all like that?

But we human beings have some quirks. One of them is the universal sense that, back in the misty past, things were normal, or stable. This idea may not stand up to scrutiny.

If we confine our study just to the economy and markets, the history we’ve lived through has this to say:

1. In the early 1970’s, a mania centering on big blue chip stocks hit the market. It was thought that you could just buy them at any price, and own them forever while they went up and up—“one decision stocks” they were called. Prices ballooned to extremely high levels. The major stock market averages peaked, then sold off more than 50%1.

2. The 1970’s also saw a pair of Arab oil embargoes that resulted in spiking gasoline prices, shortages, gas stations out of gas, and rationing. Over the course of the decade, inflation rose, eventually going over 10%. Unemployment went over 10% in the mid-decade recession2.

3. The early 1980’s began with back-to-back recessions, 15% mortgage interest rates, and inflation at unprecedented levels. The unemployment rate went over 10% again. Long term bonds declined in price as interest rates rose. A mania in oil stocks that began in the 70’s ended badly early in the decade3. The biggest one-day plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average ever—22% in a single day—happened in 19871.

4. The 1990’s began with the cleanup from the savings and loan crisis. The Federal deposit guarantee fund had gone broke, along with thousands of financial institutions. The value of housing, which began to fall nationwide in the late 1980’s, didn’t recover until 19924. The bond market suffered its first annual loss in seventy years in 1994.

5. Clients, most of you remember the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, the attacks on 9/11, and the so-called Great Recession of 2008-2009. You already know the fine points; it was not good fun for investors.

6. The current decade, free of recessions so far, has had a lot of ups and downs. The downgrading of US Treasury debt and the recurring Greek financial crisis were two of the main events. The zero-interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve distorted prices in some sectors of the investment markets, some observers believe.

The resilience of the equity markets over these many decades is astonishing to us. We had all these challenges and issues, and somehow the country came out on the other side, every time. We suspect this general trend will continue. The problems of today will give way to solutions– and new problems–tomorrow. That seems to be how it works.

In the meantime, financial strategies that have worked through the decades may be the best way to approach the future. There will be winners and losers in every change and challenge. We may not be able to get back to those mythical good old days, but we can make the most of what we have to work with.

Clients, if you wish to discuss this, or your situation, please email or call.

1S&P Dow Jones Indices, https://us.spindices.com/indices/equity/dow-jones-industrial-average

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Unemployment and Inflation

3Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Oil Prices

4Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Housing Prices


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.

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

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 Dow Jones Industrial Average is comprised of 30 stocks that are major factors in their industries and widely held by individuals and institutional investors.