time horizon

Teaching an Old Stock New Tricks

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Consolidated Edison Company of New York (Con Ed) was listed on the New York Stock Exchange back in 1824. Known then as New York Gas Light, it holds the record for the longest listing on the exchange.

For every single day of those nearly two centuries, every share of its stock was owned by somebody. Through financial panics, recessions, wars, the Depression – through everything – every share of its stock was owned by someone.

It seems curious to us that some investment advisors advocate the belief that the vast majority of investors are incapable of owning shares of stock through the inevitable downturns. (Stocks do go up and down, as we often note.) Yet somebody has to own every share, every day.

These advisors with low expectations of you usually rely on one of two basic approaches.

1. Keep 40 to 60% of your long term assets in bonds or other forms of fixed income. This strikes us as an exceptionally poor idea for many long term investors, because of historically low interest rates, and potential losses from inflation and rising interest rates.

2. Expect to be able to sell out before big declines, and reinvest before big rises. This unlikely outcome is usually sold as a “tactical” strategy. It is a great one, too, but only on paper. Nobody to our knowledge has ever demonstrated a sustainable long term ability to reduce risk while maintaining market returns with in and out trading.

Our experience tells us that many people understand long term investing, and living with the inevitable ups and downs. Many more can be trained to become effective investors. We think you can handle the truth: real investments go up and down.

The thought of forfeiting a significant fraction of potential future wealth by pandering to fear of short-term volatility hits us wrong. We won’t do it here at 228 Main, nor would we pretend we our crystal ball works well enough for in and out trading.

Of course, our approach is not right for everyone. Clients must be able to live with their chosen approach, and not everyone can live with ours. We can handle the 60/40 or 40/60 mix for clients who want less volatility. But the fraction in the market is going to experience market volatility, a pre-requisite to obtaining market returns.

We mean no disrespect to advisors with different approaches. After all, they lack the main advantage we enjoy: working with the best clients in the whole world.

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. 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. 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.

 

Letters To Our Children #8: Keep Your Eye on the Horizon

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We wrote before about your three investment buckets, each with a different time horizon. Here is why that is so crucial.

Business founder Jeff Bezos highlighted the key thing about time horizons.
“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you are competing with a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you are now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.”

The investment parallel is clear: just by lengthening the time horizon, you can live with the short term volatility that is inherent in the pursuit of long term investment results.

Those with a short time horizon—an insistence that market values be stable day to day or month to month—can generally expect meager returns. Stable values and liquidity both cost a premium, and if you want both you’re not left with much room for returns. This is good for your short-term bucket, but may hamper you anywhere else.

Behavioral economists have a theory that the preference for stability is very strong, part of human nature. If the demand for stability is high, then the price of stability may be high—and the rewards for enduring volatility may prove to be large since fewer are willing to do it. This is based on our opinion, no guarantees!

Bottom line: we believe in investing for the long term with your long term money, and leaving short term strategies to your short term bucket. It pays to understand volatility, and its role in your investment returns. No matter what, you should be able to live with your chosen strategy, even when (especially when?) it is uncomfortable.

Clients, if you have questions 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.

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

The Hidden Trade-off: “Risk-adjusted Returns”

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You surely have noticed this by now: we disagree with conventional ways of doing many things. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) forms the theoretical underpinnings of a lot of investment practice today, without adequate understanding of its deep flaws.

MPT defines volatility as risk. We believe, as Warren Buffett does, that volatility is just volatility – the normal ups and downs – for long term investors. So one common practice is to promote the advantages of getting 80% of the market returns with only 50% of the risk (for example). This supposedly is a superior “risk-adjusted return.”

But you could use the same statistical methodology to show that it may cost you about one third of your potential wealth in 25 years to have a 50% smoother ride on the way. For an investor with $100,000 in long term funds, this might be a $250,000 future shortfall. The question might be, “What fraction of your future wealth would you sacrifice in order to have less volatility on the way?”

The idea of sacrificing future wealth is a lot different than the idea of reducing risk. But they are two sides of the same coin. This is the hidden trade-off in superior risk-adjusted returns.

Our experience is that people can learn to understand and live with volatility. We believe investors get paid to endure volatility.

Of course, our philosophy is not right for everyone. Volatility is easier to tolerate for investors with a longer time horizon. But we believe everyone should see both sides of the coin before making a decision to forego significant potential future wealth for a smoother ride, less volatility, along the way.

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.

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

Letters To Our Children #6: Investing, A Tale of Three Buckets

© Can Stock Photo / kevers

We talked about human capital, the traits, characteristics and skills you possess which others value. This is the source of your earning power. When you spend less than you earn, you develop savings. Our topic today is how to manage those sums.

Think of having three buckets. The first one you have is short term. This is where you go to find money to deal with emergencies. You also use the short-term bucket to save for annual expenses like real estate taxes or insurance premiums. This bucket must be stable and liquid, to provide money when you need it. Returns are secondary.

On the other end, you have a long-term bucket. If you ever hope to retire instead of going to work every day, or accumulate wealth for other long-term goals, you need one of these. Unlike the first bucket, this one may endure more volatility in the hopes of garnering higher returns over a long time horizon. You should plan on not tapping this bucket except for those long term goals, short of an emergency which can be met no other way.

Naturally, the third bucket is in between. You may have goals for things that happen in a few years, on an intermediate time horizon. It might be for a major purchase like a boat or camper, to meet educational expenses for a child who is a few years away from college, a down payment on a home you intend to buy at some point in the future.

Not surprisingly, the third bucket may balance stability and higher returns with a middle of the road approach. This is in between the strategies of the short-term bucket and the long-term bucket.

There are other aspects of investing that we will explore in future letters. But the idea of three buckets is a helpful way to understand the functional purposes of investing. You will need to know something about the basic kinds of investments, styles of investing, some tax considerations, and the options available in retirement accounts.

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.

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

Make Believe

© Can Stock Photo / nameinfame

It’s good fun to watch small children at play, using their imagination – they might be pirates or princesses, or serving imaginary meals, or having conversations with stuffed animals.

What is not good fun are financial types who pretend that so-called “market-linked” products actually provide exposure to real investment market returns. Often, a formula used to determine returns pays only a fraction of percentage gains, puts a maximum limit on returns, and ignores the effect of dividends. That’s investing only in the same sense that talking to a teddy bear is actual conversation*.

There is another common form of make-believe in the investment world. Some pretend that one might sharply limit the ups-and-downs in an account, yet still reap stock market returns, through some special strategy or tactic. Our view is that this is pandering. Long term investing is about willingness to accept a certain amount of risk in pursuit of getting paid.

Both of these fantasies play on the natural human desire for stability. But lower volatility may come at a cost of lower returns or higher costs. By the time the investor figures out there is either less stability than expected, or lower returns, a lot of freight may have been paid. Skip the make-believe, keep it real.

Clients, not everyone agrees with us – we hold contrarian views. 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.

Icky-Tasting Medicine

© Can Stock Photo / dolgachov

If you believe that living with ups and downs is an integral feature of long term investing, some aspects of customary investment practices seem rather curious.

The idea that volatility is risk is the root of the trouble, in our view. We believe volatility is simply the normal ups and downs, not a good measure of risk. A widely followed concept, Modern Portfolio Theory or MPT, adopts the approach that volatility is literally, mathematically, risk.

This approach attempts to work out “risk tolerance,” by which they mean willingness to endure volatility. If one is averse to volatility, then portfolios are designed with volatility reduction in mind.

Unfortunately, volatility reduction may result in performance reduction. But investments which do not fluctuate are not truly investments. Your bank account does not fluctuate, but it is not an investment.

We think beginning the conversation with an attempt to tease out willingness to endure volatility is a lot like a doctor working with a child to determine tolerance for icky-tasting medicine before making a prescription.

Our strategy is to impart what we believe about investing. We work with people to understand what part of their wealth might be invested for the long term, and whether they are comfortable with ups and downs on that fraction of it.

This necessarily involves learning about near and intermediate cash needs and income requirements, as well as talking about what it takes to live with the ups and downs. We invest a lot of time and energy into providing context and perspective so people might be better able to invest effectively. This process begins at the very beginning of our discussions with potential clients.

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


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

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

Up And Down Really Means Up And Down

© Can Stock Photo / webking

As long term investors we talk a lot about the need to weather short-term volatility in pursuit of long-term results. Our notion is that volatility is not risk, but an inherent feature of investing.

As years go by, many think of the market as having good years and bad years. This is based on the outcome for calendar years. The astonishing thing is how much movement there is during the course of the typical year.

“At least one year in four, roughly, the market declines.” We’ve said that about a billion times, to reiterate that our accounts are likely to also have good years and bad years, if one judges on annual returns. The object is to make a decent return over the whole course of the economic cycle, year by year and decade by decade.

But in those other three years out of four, the market also experiences declines during the course of the year. In an average year you may see a decline of 10 to 15% at some point during the year.

Our object is to leave long term money to work through the ups and downs, without selling out at a bad time. Three things help us do that:

1. A sense that everything will work out eventually, a mindset of optimism.

2. Awareness that downturns tend to be temporary, ultimately yielding to long term growth in the economy.

3. Knowing where our needed cash will come from, based on a sound cash flow plan.

Bottom line, even years that end up well can give us a rough ride. Knowing this can make it easier to deal with.

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.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

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.

 

Did Fleetwood Mac Get It Wrong?

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The iconic Fleetwood Mac hit song, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, encourages us to believe tomorrow will soon be here, better than before. The focus is always supposed to be on tomorrow.

But if we never stop thinking about tomorrow, we cannot live in the moment, appreciate what we have right now, and fully experience the sights and sounds and feelings of today.

Experts estimate we have 15 billion neurons outside of the brain, most with multiple nerve endings. If you are fully preoccupied with the 85 billion neurons in your head, thinking about tomorrow, you are not feeling the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the smell of sweet clover, or whatever else may be going on right now. Are you truly living?

As with so many things, perhaps the best answer is in between. Not all of one, not all of the other, but down the middle. When we think about tomorrow, we improve life for our future selves. Planning pays off—that is why we show up for work every day.

But what is it for, if we do not truly live? Living in the moment, feeling life in all its joy and pain is what it means to be human. You may know of someone who pointed so hard toward retirement, worrying and saving every possible dime, that they never could begin to enjoy the present, even after that glorious tomorrow arrived. Tragic.

Our object is not to insult the wonderful classic rock tunes that some of us enjoy—but to promote the idea of balance. We need to think about tomorrow, plan and live an intentional life in some respects. At the same time, we will be happier and healthier, better centered and more well-grounded, if we also stay present in the moment.

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

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.