modern portfolio theory

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.

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.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

© Can Stock Photo / alphaspirit

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld made headlines when he stood up during a press conference on the case for war against Iraq and proclaimed “there are known unknowns.” At first, this phrase sounds like a silly oxymoron. However, it actually makes a very important distinction. Whenever we are considering our planning, it is important to acknowledge both the risks that we know—the “known unknowns”—and the risks that we don’t—the “unknown unknowns.”

For example, suppose you are thinking about investing in an airline company. You are probably aware of a number of possible risks to an airline: natural disasters, plane crashes, or spikes in fuel prices, to name a few. These are your known unknowns.

Now imagine what happens to your investment if you buy airline stocks and the next day a scientist announces that they’ve built a teleporter that can safely and instantaneously transport people across the globe. Nobody could have foreseen such an outlandish invention—it would be something straight out of science fiction. This would be an unknown unknown, a risk that is so far off your radar you probably would not even think it was worth thinking about.

And you may be right. These risks are by nature rare and unpredictable, so it is practically impossible to plan around them. But it is important to remember that they can and do happen, and to be ready for the possibility. There was a point when heavier-than-air flying machines seemed like an impractical fantasy. Those who bet against the airplane wound up paying for it eventually.

Today, investors and advisor representatives have a wide range of tools to try to quantify the risks of a portfolio. These forecasts are only as good as the models behind them, though—they can only estimate based on the known unknowns, not the unknown unknowns. There is certainly some value in statistical risk analysis, but there is also a real danger in false confidence.

As humans we are pretty bad at understanding probability: a 5-10% chance sounds pretty unlikely, but in practice a 1 in 20 chance is not nearly as rare as we think it is. When we hear numbers like 95% we tend to think of them as being a safe bet. That’s not much comfort if you turn out to be the 1 in 20, though.

Here at Leibman Financial, we have a different approach to risk analysis. It goes something like this:

Everything we invest in has risks. Many of the investments we prefer are more volatile than average. You may lose money.

We do not make these statements because we are fishing for excuses. We are proud of our results and stand behind them. We want you to continue to do business with us, and believe the best way to ensure this happens is to make money for you.

We like to think we do a pretty good job. But we cannot guarantee our results, and we will not inspire false confidence by guessing numbers for you. If you have any concerns about investment risks, feel free to call or email us and we will discuss them to the full extent of our knowledge and understanding.


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.

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.

Change is the Only Constant

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The ability to adapt to changing conditions is what sets those who thrive apart from those who merely survive.

Our portfolio theory evolves over time as economic and market conditions unfold. The problem with the textbook approach in a changing world is that a textbook, once printed, never changes. Looking at the world as it is and doing our own thinking, we see things in a new way.

We believe that central bank intervention and counterproductive monetary policies have distorted pricing in the bond market and for other income-producing investments. By crushing interest rates and yields to very low levels, the old investment textbook has been made obsolete.

Therefore the classic advice about the proper balance between stocks and bonds brings new and perhaps unrecognized risks, with corresponding pockets of opportunity elsewhere. Yet the classic advice met a need which still exists: how to accommodate varying needs for liquidity and tolerance of volatility.

Our adaptation to this new world is the portfolio structure you see above. Our classic research-driven portfolio methods live in the Long Term Core. We believe our fundamental principles are timeless, and make sense in all conditions.

But people need the use of their money to live their lives and do what they need to do. So a cash layer is needed, tailored to individual circumstances.

The layer between is ballast. This refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast serves two purposes. It dampens volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. Ballast may serve as a source of funds for buying when the market seems to be low.

The client with higher cash needs or who desires lower volatility may use the same long term core as the one who wants maximum potential returns. One may want a ‘cash-ballast-long term core’ allocation of 10%-25%-65% and the next one 4%-0%-96%.

The adaptations we’ve made have generated efficiencies and therefore time—time to work individually with you on your plans and planning, time for more frequent portfolio reviews, time for more intensive research.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this structure might fit your needs, please email us or call 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.

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.

Art Versus Science

© Can Stock Photo / karandaev

For most of human existence, our primary occupation was trying to get enough food to keep ourselves going. Countless millions of manpower-hours have been spent hunting, gathering, farming, and fishing to put food on the table; millions more were spent preparing, preserving, and cooking.

The upshot of this is, we got really good at it. Thousands of years of practice gave us a lot of room for trial and error. We figured out how to create healthy, sustainable diets from practically every environment on the planet. Every culture came up with their own answer for how to feed and support their population. But if you asked any of them why their diet worked, they wouldn’t really be able to give you an answer. All they knew was that this was how they had traditionally made their food. It was an art, not a science.

As humans we are inquisitive creatures by nature, so some of us were unsatisfied by this answer. So scientists began to study what made our food tick. They isolated essential vitamins and minerals and determined their effects on our body. Armed with this knowledge, they devised newer and more “scientific” diets. According to their theories, we could make cheap mechanically processed food and insert vitamins to give us all the nutrition we needed. We would be free of having to slave away in the kitchen and wind up healthier than ever.

Unfortunately, this never really panned out. It turns out we still don’t understand nutrition as well as we thought we did. We’ve revised our nutritional models again and again, and yet we are still not substantially healthier or wiser than we were when we were slaving away in the kitchen doing things the way grandma did.

This is an elucidating story on the limitations of scientific study, but it also has practical applications for our work. Just as our food scientists try to figure out what makes our food tick, financial professors try to figure out what makes our investments tick. They isolate factors that they believe account for investment performance and construct portfolios on the theory that they can reduce holdings to simple factors and whip up a balanced “diet” that has a little of everything.

Sometimes, the theories work. But anyone who thinks that they have unlocked the secret to guaranteed wealth is going to be just as disappointed as the food scientists who were certain they had unlocked the secret to guaranteed health.

We believe that we are likely to do better by sticking to the same timeless investment principles that our predecessors in the market made their money by. We are not Luddites—we are more than happy to include scientific investment analyses in our research. But we still believe that investment is as much art as it is science.

Perhaps someday in the distant future someone will manage to reduce investment success to an algorithm. Until then, we will trust our “artistic” judgment over what a computer tells us we should buy. If you would like to have an unscientific discussion about this or any other money topic, please call or write.


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

Our Three Principles, or Postmodern Portfolio Theory

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / nahlik

We recently wrote about the conventional investment wisdom, as embodied in Modern Portfolio Theory. No surprise here: we don’t like it. The pie charts, talk of asset classes and correlation…it is all wonderful until it isn’t. Our alternative approach relies on three fundamental principles. We believe they apply in every season.

Our first principle, avoid stampedes in the markets, is based on our understanding that the stampede is usually going the wrong way. There was a stampede into tech stocks in 1999, which ended badly. There was a stampede into real estate in the early 2000’s, which ended badly. There was a stampede into commodities after that, which ended badly. In short, major peaks are usually accompanied by a stampede of money that drives prices to extremes.

Our second principle, seek the best bargains, lets us sort “the market” into its pieces. The three major asset classes are stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives. Cash and its alternatives currently earn practically zero-point-nothing interest rates; bonds are barely better. Diving one level deeper into stocks, we find that some sectors and industries are expensive and others appear to be bargains.

Our third principle is to seek to own the orchard for the fruit crop. Portfolio income is an important component of total returns, and those among us who rely on our portfolios to buy groceries surely understand the importance of cash income. As noted above, interest rates remain very close to zero—we do not believe that bonds or cash alternatives are a good way to generate income these days. But we are currently enjoying generous dividends from many companies in the bargain sectors, including the oil and natural resource companies. Other holdings purchased in past years continue to pay regular dividends, from pipelines to telecom to auto stocks.

We must note that, in actual practice, these principles require patience. One should always know where needed cash and necessary income will come from. Please see our post ‘The Fruits of Investment (link)’ for a fuller treatment of the three principles in action.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. We suggest that you discuss your specific situation with your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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.

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

The Philosophy Lurking in Your Portfolio

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Paul_Cowan

Modernism is a philosophical movement that arose from the far-reaching transformations Western society underwent in the late 19th century. This gave way to the skepticism of the late 20th century which led to the movement we call Post-Modernism.

This sets the stage for our discussion of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), and our response to it.

If you have ever seen the customary asset allocation pie chart or heard talk of getting exposure to all the major ‘asset classes’ then you have been exposed to MPT. It presumes that historical data about the behavior of all the various kinds of investments enables computers to calculate the best mix of holdings to get the returns we desire with the lowest level of risk. One investment zigs when another one zags, leaving the total portfolio steadier than it otherwise would be.

Great theory. Here are the problems that arise in practice:

1. At times of greatest stress in the markets, when you most need MPT to work, the historical correlations go away and the most overpriced assets get slammed regardless of what the computer thought.
2. Common sense and fundamental investment analysis often reveal that one slice of the asset pie is likely to leave a very bitter taste. Large growth stocks in 2000, real estate in 2007, commodities in 2011…everybody knows now that the best allocation to these overpriced bubbles was ZERO.
3. Although the discipline of MPT reduces the damage from counterproductive crowd behavior, it neither eliminates the damage nor allows one to profit from the madness of crowds.

Our investment management approach, forged in the skepticism born of deep knowledge of MPT, is based on three fundamental principles. We believe these principles are timeless, suitable for any market. We have written about them before, we will write about them again, and we have talked incessantly about them for twenty years. For now let us simply note that, as a reaction to Modern Portfolio Theory, they might collectively best be known as “Postmodern Portfolio Theory.”


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

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.