perspective

Can You See the Forest?

© Can Stock Photo / Elnur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Setbacks and Setups

© Can Stock Photo / yellowcrest

Time travel is a powerful way to reframe the present. Our collective present is full of challenges and setbacks, but what will this moment mean to you down the road, looking back?

If you’re prone to stay mired in the moment, here’s a game of “I spy” for you: where are the setups among all these setbacks?

You’ve heard it from us before. There’s day-night, day-night. There’s up-down, up-down. Well here’s one for these challenging times: setback and setup.

Some of our acquaintances are facing tradeoffs big and small right now. Less time for work… but more time with the kids. Less time with the gym buddies… but more time out in the sunshine.

In terms of business, our classic principles still apply here. We seek bargains. Economic activity is shifting. Some areas have slammed on the brakes as demand has fallen off; some areas are buzzing in a scramble to keep up with demand.

Just like the setbacks in our individual lives, the business setbacks exist alongside potential setups. Part of our job is to take a good look around to try to spot them. No guarantees, but we wonder what future growth is being watered by the current storm.

We’re not ignoring the storm. This approach, however, helps remind us of the bigger picture. It’s a more complete way to tell the story of a setback.

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

The Pain Up Close and the Big Picture

© Can Stock Photo / PongMoji

This is personal.

I was visiting with a client the other day about the inevitable rebound to come in our economy, and the opportunities that are developing now. The conversation turned to concern for those we know who might not survive a COVID-19 episode, and the grim scenes and stories from tragically overburdened hospitals.

It was a reminder, again, of the duality of our existence.

On the big scale, it is almost mundane. Demographers estimate that 108 billion humans have been born in all of history, and 100 billion of us have already died. Death comes to us all. It happens to everyone.

Yet when you get down to cases, what could be more unique or personal than our experience of the loss of a friend, lover, parent, brother, sister?

It may seem impersonal or cold to compare a projected death toll from our current troubles to some past pandemic, to talk about economic recovery and market rebounds. But we have to think about the big picture in order to make plans for living. We need to avoid emotional reactions to issues which would benefit from reasoned consideration.

I am only going to say this once. I feel the pain up close, intensely. Less than a year ago I learned first hand what happens when the ventilator loses the battle to keep a person alive.

I’ll not be apologizing for trying to figure out how to make the most of what we have to work with. Cathy wrote me a note in her last hours. It said “You have a lot of wonderful life left.” That’s the big picture. 330 million of us will survive the virus in this country. We have a lot of wonderful life left.

We need to feel our feelings about the pain up close. But we owe it to each other to think our thinking in the big picture.

If you would like to talk about the big picture or anything else, please email us or call.

First Light

firstlight

Each one of us remembers some new beginning. Perhaps your first thought at seeing the phrase might be of a first day of school, or first kiss, first day at a new job, new relationship, life in a new neighborhood, or something else.

Beginnings are all about potential, anticipation and excitement: a journey on roads we’ve not traveled.

I often take walks in the first light of dawn. The quality of the light in that hour can be magical, whether in the village of Louisville or the banks of the Platte River, along San Diego Bay or Michigan Avenue or in Pinellas County, Florida.

But the meaning of first light is more special to me than the beautiful scenes it might envelope. First light is a new day dawning, another step on a path never before taken. It is fraught with potential, anticipation, and excitement. Each day is a beginning.

This perspective may be helpful to move forward from past hard times, or to change things we would like to change. But it can also be useful as we seek to strengthen new habits or build on recent successes. Whether things are going well or poorly, a beginning is a chance to reset.

What new beginning excites you? Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Dream or Vision?

© Can Stock Photo / Gautier

Scott McKain has a story about a legendary motivational speaker with whom he had a chance to become acquainted. McKain, a best-selling author, consultant and friend, happened to share breakfast with him at a conference. He learned that this speaker lived his creed: ‘walked his talk’ as they say.

The integrity, confidence, and connectedness exuded by the legend led McKain to conclude this is success: to be who you claim to be, to do what you say you will do, to live the vision.

“Living the dream” is a phrase some use to describe an ideal life (sometimes ironically.) But dreams end when we wake up. A vision is something different. One of the definitions of ‘vision’ is the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom. So living the vision is a way transform the future we desire into reality by what we do each day.

Here at 228 Main, we are thinking a lot about how our work for you might be improved in the years ahead. We don’t want to be big, but we do strive to make the very best things possible for you and yours. It is too early to say our vision has evolved and grown – but we are working on it.

We may ask you for input and perspective as we shape these plans. You will hear about the pieces as we figure them out. One thing we already know: having the best clients in the world makes the whole project a worthy endeavor.

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

The Long View

© Can Stock Photo / iofoto

The unemployment rate dropped to 3.5%, a fifty-year low, according to the Labor Department’s report for September. Like clockwork, some observers were quick to find the clouds around this silver lining.

That got us to thinking about life fifty years ago compared to today. Looking at the facts, it is hard to think of it as anything but unimaginable progress. In 1970, more than three quarters of homes lacked air conditioning. Televisions were only in 61% of them. 38% had washing machines. One in twenty lacked indoor
plumbing. There was about one land line telephone for every two people.

More startling are the things that nobody had in 1970, because they had not yet been invented. Mobile phones, digital cameras, post-it notes, email, video games, inkjet printers, MRI scanners, fiber optics, personal computers, GPS, and the internet, to name a few of them.

Median household income, adjusted for inflation, grew 37% over that half century. The rich got richer, but the average household made a lot of progress, too.

However, life isn’t all puppy dogs and rainbows, as an older acquaintance of mine likes to say. The economy grew and shrank in its cycle of expansions and recessions. The stock market, measured by its major averages, also went up and down year to year, sometimes sharply.

In between the record low unemployment rates at the beginning and end of the fifty years, we had three episodes of unemployment in excess of 10%.

We have noticed that when times are bad, some have difficulty imaging a recovery. And when times are good, some can scarcely think about the possibility of poor times returning. We humans like to believe that present trends and conditions will persist, good or bad.

The bad news is, the economy and the markets will continue to go up and down. The good news is, over the long term we have made amazing progress on almost every front. The past is no guarantee of the future, of course. In our opinion, there are many reasons to believe our progress will continue.

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


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

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.

What Are You Looking At?

© Can Stock Photo / sanayamirza

In planning, we take a look at the world in which we operate. Our plans need to be grounded in reality to have a chance to work out. If I plan to learn to fly by flapping my arms vigorously, the laws of biology and physics are going to have an impact.

When we look at the world, two kinds of things are especially pertinent. Challenges are the obstacles to our success. The stuff in between the challenges are possibilities. The Wright brothers evidently spent no time trying the arm-flapping thing, or fussing about the challenges of physics and biology. Eventually, one of their possibilities was converted into the accomplishment of flight.

The way some people talk about challenges, fighting them or overcoming them seems to be a key element of success. In that line of thinking, challenges occupy a central role.

I have been in a situation where the challenges seemed impossible. In fact, many have failed to overcome the same kind of challenges. Reflecting later on this chapter in life, a surprising realization emerged.

Under the pressures of the situation, I had no time to think about anything but the possibilities. After the initial planning, the challenges turned out to be totally irrelevant.

The realization: when you focus on your possibilities, your challenges disappear.

Thus the question in the title. What are you looking at? Your focus, your perception, these things change the world.

We’ll be thinking about this more. There are applications to other parts of our work for you. In the meantime, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

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.

 

Optional Thinking

© Can Stock Photo / lisafx

Readers know we believe there are those financial arrangements that maintain stability and those that may garner long-term investment returns. But anything that promises both stability and high returns is not likely to work out that way.

The uncomfortable truth is, we must live with volatility in order to have a chance at market returns. Short-term market action cannot be reliably forecast, nor profitably traded, in our opinion.

Yet market values can be volatile. Imagine an account of $500,000: a 20% drop would shrink it to $400,000, while a 20% gain would grow it to $600,000. How do people stand it?

First, long-term clients tend to take the long view. If that $500,000 account started as a $200,000 account years ago, the owners remember where they’ve been. That original investment is their anchor: any value above $200,000 represents a gain from that beginning value. (We are talking about the effects of time and compounding, not claiming any unusual investment results.)

Second, the long view helps clients understand that volatility is not risk. Put another way, as we’ve written before, a short-term drop does not necessarily represent a loss. How should we view that $500,000 value dropping to $400,000, in the long view? Relative to the original $200,000, it’s still a gain. Worrying about drops as if they are losses is optional for people who are investing for many years or decades down the road.

Third, even while staying the course over the long haul is important, strategies need to address short-term needs. For those who are living on their capital, knowing where the cash is going to come from is vitally important. With secure cash flow, it is easier to live with the ups and downs in account values. We call this pursuit of opportunity “owning the orchard for the fruit crop.”

This perspective requires a certain confidence that we will stumble through any problems and likely come out of whatever troubles have arisen. Optimism is sound policy, for if we are going back to the Stone Age, it won’t matter what is in your portfolio anyway.

Clients, if you would like to talk about these ideas or any other, 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.

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.

 

Connect the Dots

© Can Stock Photo / bradcalkins

Do you remember the “connect the dots” pictures for children? By drawing lines from one dot to the next, the players discover that a coherent picture emerges from a seemingly disorganized collection of dots on the page.

Likewise, our work involves creating a picture that makes sense out of all the things going on in the world. In our version, though, there’s no handy numbering guide to draw our attention to the relevant dots.

Instead there seems to be an infinite number of dots in the world. So our first task is to do some sorting. For example, a vast mass of information is available about the day-to-day movement of the stock market. We can sort out any dots that fit into the category “the market goes up and down”—and then discard them. They are not pertinent for long-term investors.

Time horizon plays a large role in sorting as well. There is a wealth of opinions about nearly any investment alternative. A short-term technical analyst may have an opinion that is useful to a day trader but worthless to investors who are thinking in terms of years or decades.

But our work involves more than sorting out what to ignore. We frequently need to dig deeper—to read SEC filings, to research what happened in prior cycles years ago, and to look up many years of operating results. In other words, we still have to be able to find some of the specific dots we know are needed to complete the picture.

For example, we believe that inflation in the next few years will exceed consensus expectations. There is little information from the past decade supporting this view, in our opinion, but as we dig deeper, the patterns going back many decades suggest we may have it right. (No guarantees.)

Another way of saying all of this is that perspective, context, and background matter as we try to connect the dots. We are fortunate to have time to think deeply—and clients who value our methods and our work are a big plus. Together, we’ll create the picture.

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

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.