portfolio construction

Letters to Our Children #7: Know Your Assets

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Our previous letters have talked about the three buckets you have for your money: short term, long term, and in-between. Each one serves different purposes. Today we will dive into the details of the different assets you can put into those buckets.

The simplest and most familiar asset class is cash. It has a fixed value and is completely liquid, available to spend any time you want. While the change jar on your counter is not exactly an investment, you can put it in a savings account and generate a little bit of interest. Short term certificates of deposit and Treasury bonds can also be considered cash equivalents as long as the maturity is within a few months. They can not be spent without notice, but could be turned into cash quickly for major expenses.

Longer duration CDs and bonds fall into another asset class: fixed income. You can expect higher interest by accepting longer maturities and shakier credit ratings, so fixed income will generate more income than cash. There is a reason for this: your risk exposure also increases. Buying bonds with poorer credit quality increases the risk that the borrower will go broke and default. And if you lock in your money long term at a fixed interest rate, you will be in for pain if inflation and interest rates rise. This can make fixed income investing difficult in a low interest rate environment.

The third main asset class are equities, or stocks. These are what you are thinking of when you talk about the stock market. Stocks represent partial ownership in a given company. Exchange-listed stocks are liquid, and owning a share of a rapidly growing company offers the potential for higher returns. But again, these returns come at a trade-off of volatility and risk. There is no fixed face value or interest rate on equities, and the market price can change rapidly.

There are also alternative investments outside of these three main asset classes. Most alternative investments are tangible assets such as real estate or physical commodities. These assets are largely speculative: they do not grow on their own and do not pay out interest. As such, we do not generally recommend them.

Different assets are useful for each bucket. Your short-term bucket needs both liquidity and stability, so it should be mostly or entirely in cash. Your long-term bucket can tolerate more volatility and will probably want to seek higher returns, so equity investments may be more appropriate. The intermediate-term bucket can hold a range of investments, although you will probably want a healthy proportion of cash and short-term investments.

Your financial situation is unique, and there is no one-size-fits all approach. Clients, if you want to discuss what is in your buckets, please call or email us.


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

Government bonds and Treasury bills are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

CDs are FDIC Insured to specific limits and offer a fixed rate of return if held to maturity.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and should be considered as an investment for the risk capital portion of the investor’s portfolio. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

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

This Will Pay Dividends

© Can Stock Photo / lightkeeper

One of the joys of thinking is that every once in a while, you might come up with a good idea. We are hoping we just did exactly that.

Our buy list, the securities we believe have favorable prospects for the years ahead, provides the building blocks for your portfolios. We rank them in order of timeliness, together with a weighting or percentage each should have. When funds are available in a portfolio, we start at the top of this cascade and fill up each holding to the desired weighting.

In our research and portfolio management, our object has long been to maximize total returns.

The bright idea? We re-ranked the Buy List based on dividend yield, and changed the weightings to reflect an income emphasis. By taking the top twenty dividend payers on the list and putting more weight on the better payers, we come up with a healthy dividend yield in a portfolio that has the potential to grow, too. Income and growth.

Dividend payments could be used to reinvest and compound your income or taken as a monthly payment, your choice.

Is this right for you? Maybe, maybe not. Our traditional “total return” approach is more suitable for many. Both alternatives feature holdings that fluctuate in value. These “income emphasis” portfolios will be more concentrated, although having twenty holdings provides diversification.

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

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Change is Still Constant

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We wrestled for a long time with the issue of how to build portfolios in a zero-interest environment. The crushing of interest rates distorted values in the investment markets. The old ways of thinking carried too much risk, in our opinion. (When interest rates rise, bond prices tend to fall.)

So about a year ago, we settled on the concept of ballast. This enables us to tailor portfolios to address individual preferences. Different clients can have differing portfolios, while retaining common elements that enable efficient management.

Ballast refers to holdings that might be expected to fall and rise more slowly than the overall stock market. Ballast may reduce the volatility of the overall portfolio, thereby making it easier to live with. And it may serve as a source of funds for buying bargains when the market seems to be low. We’ve been able to put this thinking into effect.

A little over a year ago, monetary policy in the U.S. shifted from zero interest to a plan to raise interest rates over time. As we foresaw, this has not been great for bond prices. But now U.S. Treasury securities actually have a little bit of a yield these days, with short term maturities recently reaching over 1% for the first time in years.1

The return of interest rates on lower volatility, short term, liquid balances makes it easier to hold cash and cash substitutes as part of a portfolio structure. As interest rates continue to normalize, returns on cash could increase.

We like the portfolio framework, shown above, that we developed a year ago. We will continue to assess clients that may be suitable for this strategy. As the economic environment changes, we will review the need to adjust the tactics used in each layer of the portfolio. Change is still constant.

We will update you soon on the trends we are seeing in our long term core investments. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

1Effective Federal Funds Rate. Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Accessed March 2018.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

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

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Tactical allocation may involve more frequent buying and selling of assets and will tend to generate higher transaction cost. Investors should consider the tax consequences of moving positions more frequently.

The Model Prisoner

© Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean

Model students do all their homework and get top grades. A role model is someone to look up to. Model prisoners earn time off for good behavior.

Model portfolios are a whole different thing.

Model portfolios are the predominant method of managing wealth these days. There is an understandable reason: they can be profitable for the financial firm. Simple to operate, standardized, easy to talk about–and the pie charts look great on paper.

Out in the real world, models have a glaring flaw. Typically, every client in the model owns the same thing—no differences. But there are valid reasons why people with the same investment objective might have portfolios that vary one from another.

For example, our midwestern clients often want to follow the “Oracle of Omaha.” People everywhere would like to own a piece of the hometown company that does well.

A larger source of variation arises from investment ‘holds.’ Think of shares in a leading, well-run company that was trading at an attractive low price years ago. Once purchased, it may make sense to be a percentage owner for the long haul. But after it goes up in value, it is not the bargain it once was, and new clients find better bargains elsewhere.

Or clients may come to us with long-held stocks purchased at low cost many years before. Income taxes would be a problem if they were all sold at once.

These factors and more create valid, useful variations in client portfolios. When we began to build our systems and processes to tailor portfolios to each client, we quickly realized that model portfolios would only be good for us, not you (our opinion). That isn’t how we conduct business.

At 228 Main our research drives the development of rules-based trading protocols that we can effectively apply across client portfolios. Our systems accommodate the concept of the investment ‘hold,’ and your specific instructions about specific holdings. Our rules-based trading helps us aim for the efficiency of models without the drawback of mass standardization, regardless of your circumstances.

Two things help us immensely. You and we seem to be on the same page with how we think about investing—we are a tight group. And the mutual trust is key: you trust us to make the most of whatever is going on; we trust you to persevere.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other pertinent topic in more detail, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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

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.