portfolio theory

A New Way of Looking at Your Wealth

paradigm

A paradigm is a typical pattern or example of something, a model. It is a set of concepts or mindsets. We frequently find ourselves at odds with the old paradigms about investing and finance, as you know.

One of the most irksome things (to us) about investing is the use of the terms ‘aggressive’ and ‘conservative’ in describing an investor’s investment objective. The industry-standard scale goes from conservative to aggressive in five steps, with prescribed mixes of stocks and bonds for portfolios at each step. At the conservative end, the portfolio would be nearly all bonds; at the aggressive end, nearly all stock.

But is it really conservative to expose wealth to the long term risk of purchasing power loss and missed opportunities that accompanies investing in fixed dollar portfolios of bonds and cash? We don’t think so.

An all-fixed income portfolio is typically suitable for short time horizons, where it is important to know that portfolio value will remain relatively stable. So in place of ‘conservative,’ we would use ‘short term’ to describe that end of the spectrum.

By the same token, is it really aggressive to invest for growth of capital over extended periods? As difficult as it is to make one’s money last a lifetime, growth may be handy for long term investors—for many, it can be crucial to financial success.

So instead of ‘aggressive’ for the other end of the scale, we would say ‘long term’ makes far more sense. Thus, instead of the ‘conservative to aggressive’ axis, we believe the continuum should run from ‘short term’ to ‘long term.’

It is a new paradigm, so to speak, for describing investment objectives. It replaces abstract and unclear terms with simple, easily-understood phrases. And it avoids the unfortunate connotations of conservative as prudent and aggressive as stupid. (Doesn’t ‘aggressive driving’ really mean ‘stupid’ driving?) All in all, we think this is a more useful way for you to think about your wealth.

A related issue confuses the conventional wisdom. The old paradigm mistakes volatility for risk. That may be at the heart of the misguided use of the word ‘aggressive’ since long term portfolios necessarily do fluctuate. (We explained why we believe that aspect of conventional wisdom is counterproductive in this short essay.

The bottom line: we always try to think about the best way for you to meet your goals. We look at the world and strive to see it as it is, not in accordance with some stale textbook written in a different age for different conditions. We cannot know that our view is correct, and we have no guarantees. But we do work at gaining a better understanding of how to grow your wealth.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or any other aspect of your situation, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Alternative Facts, Alternative Investments

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Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hay made in the press about “alternative facts.” The term is a sarcastic euphemism; when something is labeled an alternative fact, the clear implication is that it is not a fact at all.

There is a certain class of investments which are collectively called “alternative investments.” This term is unrelated to the term “alternative fact”, but the similarities are undeniable.

Traditional investments are based on the notion of putting your money to work in order to generate more money. When you invest in a company’s stock, you are buying a piece of a going concern that generates revenue. When you invest in bonds, you are buying a debt obligation that bears interest. Even if you are just holding cash reserves, when you leave your cash with a bank, they are paying you interest to hold onto your money. In today’s interest rate environment you are probably earning close to nothing, but at least in theory there is some return on cash.

This is not to say that traditional investments are not without risks. You are not guaranteed to break even, let alone make money—companies may go broke, leaving stocks and bonds at a fraction of their former value. But you still have the hope that your money can grow into more money over time.

“Alternative investments” is a very large category which encompasses a wide range of assets. The only common element is that they do not fall into traditional investment categories such as stocks and bonds, and in many cases, arguably do not qualify as investments in the traditional sense at all.

Commodities are one form of alternative investment. These are gold, silver, oil, corn, and so on—actual, physical products, not the companies that produce them. If you buy a bar of gold, all you will ever have is a bar of gold. It will never turn into two bars of gold. If you are lucky, maybe you can sell it to someone for more than you paid for it. But that is speculation, not investment.

Derivatives contracts are another type of alternative investment. A derivative’s value is based on (“derived from”) the value of another asset, such as a stock or commodity. When you buy options to purchase a company’s stock, you are making a bet that the company will be successful, just like owning stock. However, stock options tend to have a very short time horizon. You are speculating on short term price fluctuations, not really investing in a company’s long term growth.

Undoubtedly some people make good money speculating on alternative investments. As a result, some portfolio managers believe in buying small slices of alternative investments for everyone in case they happen to outperform traditional investments. Our response: nuts! We want to build an orchard big enough to live off the fruit crop. We have no interest in owning a smaller orchard and trying to make up the difference buying and selling fruit with other fruit speculators.

Clients, if you want to talk about your portfolio, please call or email. But if someone is trying to sell you “alternative investments”, you should perhaps treat them with the same skepticism you’d give to someone pitching “alternative facts.”


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

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and involve special risks such as leveraging the investment, potential adverse market forces, regulatory changes and potentially illiquidity. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

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