timeless wisdom

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.

The Giants Who Came Before Us

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 The work of Roger Babson contains countless worthwhile nuggets. He was a Wall Street pioneer a century ago, creator of the first investment research service, and philanthropist of note. A keen observer of business, the markets and the economy, and an original thinker, his words ring true today.

We see applications to the world of investing. For example:

“Experience has taught me that there is one chief reason why some people succeed and others fail. The difference is not one of knowing, but of doing. So far as success can be reduced to a formula, it consists of this: doing what you know you should do.

Thoughtful people understand the sentiment behind the old saying, ‘buy low, sell high.’ It has become a cliché. Yet in tumultuous and uncertain times when pessimism rules and stock prices have fallen, many people have trouble with step one: buying low. It turns out to be very difficult in practice.

We’ve also had conversations in the tough times with people who say “I know selling out now is the wrong thing to do, but that is what I want to do.” Clearly, this is a case of knowing what you should do—and doing the opposite! We illustrated how costly that can be here.

Without knowing Babson’s Rule, we have spent many years working to find or train investment clients who would do what they know they should do. You, our clients, are the best. We believe our efforts have been good for you-–and for us.

We will keep on working to find good opportunities, avoid threats where we can, and cultivate effective attitudes about investing—helping you do what you know you should do. If you would like to discuss your situation in detail, please write or call.


Securities offered through LPL Financial, Member FINRA/SIPC.

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.

What’s Next?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / chungking

Fifty years ago, comic strip hero Dick Tracy’s famous 2-way wrist radio got upgraded to a 2-way wrist TV. Forty years ago, visionaries were talking about telephones that would fit in a shirt pocket. Instead of each home having a phone number, each person would have one. In between those dates, the country’s only telephone company introduced push-button “dialing” as an alternative to the rotary dial.

You all know the rest of the story. In many respects, what seemed like science fiction or fantasy in decades past has become a routine part of everyday modern life. The same is true in many aspects of our lives.

There are constants in life, of course. We each seek to make a difference, to be happy, to provide for ourselves and others, to smile and be smiled at, to connect with our fellow human beings. Many of our most fundamental impulses remain unchanged since the dawn of time.

So the conditions of our world are a mix of unchanging things like human nature and the sun rising in the East, and rapid change in other things. All the way back in 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about “Future Shock,” a perception of too much change in too short a period of time. If anything, the pace of change has accelerated since then.

In life, we suspect that being grounded in the enduring truths help equip us to adapt to change.

In the field of investing, we believe that understanding the unchanging aspects of human nature help us understand and deal with change. The ever-evolving landscapes of the economy, markets, companies, and technology produce constant and unpredictable changes. But no matter how different the world may seem, new changes will still produce reactions and over-reactions, fads and manias, and varying amounts of fear and greed.

We will admit it. We are entranced with the conflict between simple eternal principles and the endless complexity of the world. Making sense of it to help people in their real lives—that’s why we wake up and get to work every day. If you would like to talk to us about your situation, write or email us.