volatility

Where Are You on the Ride?

photo shows people going down a hill on a roller coaster, yelling and arms either in the air of clutching a bar

With summer fading in such a strange year, we find ourselves revisiting old memories. This will date me, but I’m thinking about the summer thrills we used to enjoy at places like Omaha’s Peony Park or Lake Okoboji’s Arnolds Park.

Part of the fun of a thrill ride is the anticipation. There’s a story and a rhythm to each ride. On a coaster, you make the climb—with a thunk-thunk-thunk on a lot of those “classic” rides!—and you can see the drop coming. Although you won’t know what they feel like until you get there, you can see the curves ahead.

And it’s all fleeting. The climb may feel like it takes forever, the terror of the drop may flash your life before your eyes… but you don’t go up and up forever, and you don’t fall down and down forever.

Sound familiar? Clients, you’ve heard us say this exact thing as a reminder about the markets.

Part of this lesson could use more attention, though: the ride can just be a ride when we know where we are on it.

When investors enjoy the climb of a hot stock, some mistakenly rush to throw everything they have at it, not recognizing that they are already near the peak: that thing will not go up and up forever. Nothing does. (Incidentally, this exuberant behavior can contribute to bubbles.)

Likewise, some get the itch to sell out when a stock cools off—but things may just be down for now and not down forever.

We don’t have a crystal ball, and we don’t have a map, but we know there are rhythms and cycles. What pain could we save ourselves by using a little perspective?

Where are we on the ride?

Clients, we’re here to help make sense of your plans and planning. Call or email when you’re ready for us.


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

IT WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T

the photo shows a wooden desk with a keyboard, notepad, pen, and balled up pieces of paper

We’re contrarians. We are not satisfied with conventional thinking that portfolio management requires plugging in the right numbers and then following the formula.

It’s not that simple—and it can actually lead investors astray.

Here’s the deal. Modern portfolio theory—one version of the conventional wisdom—uses rigorous statistical models that attempt to quantify volatility and risk in their many forms. The idea is that if you can measure and predict volatility then you can construct a portfolio that has only as much volatility as you desire.

We believe there are a lot of problems with this approach. These models all rely on the assumption that the market will continue to behave rationally. So when the market experiences irrational exuberance, statistical models quickly lose their meaning and begin producing nonsense.

For example, one measure of a stock’s volatility is called its “beta.” The more correlated a stock’s movement is to the broader market, the higher the beta. A high beta stock tends to be a big winner or big loser based on what the market is doing, while a low beta stock generally moves less than the market. A stock can even have a negative beta, where it tends to move the opposite way from the rest of the market!

Under normal circumstances, volatile stocks tend to have a high beta. But when a hot stock gets caught up in a speculative bubble, it can take on a life of its own. A stock on a hot streak that goes up even on days when the market is down will show a lower beta than stocks that follow the market but may still be volatile.

In cases like this, investment managers that are chasing “low beta” may end up with some very volatile holdings in a portfolio that claims to prioritize stability and low market correlation. And investors that are looking to avoid the roller coaster of the stock market may find themselves on an even bigger ride without realizing it.

We believe statistical analysis can be useful, but it cannot compete with timeless investment principles. Trying to quantify volatility exposure can lead to ugly surprises when the underlying models break down.

We think there’s another way. Instead of trying to mathematically capture and avoid it, we believe in living with volatility. If you are investing for the long haul and you know where your cash flow is coming from, you do not need to fret about day-to-day price action.

Clients, if you have questions about this or anything else, please give us a 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 High Cost of Low Interest

© Can Stock Photo / AndreyPopov

Savers might remember the 1990’s with great fondness. For most of the decade, money earned 4 to 6% in bank certificates and other safe and liquid forms. Even in the first decade of this millenium, at times there were interest rates above zero on deposits.

After the financial crisis that began in 2008, interest rates plunged. The Federal Reserve adopted a Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) in an attempt to spur economic activity. Some foreign central banks even went to NIRP, a negative interest rate policy. For most of the time since then, short term rates in the US have been close to zero. (Federal Reserve Bank St Louis)

After a tentative, brief return to rates above zero, the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus has slammed rates back to near nothing. Rates may stay lower for longer. Savers and investors are affected.

• The difference beween 5% and zero on $100,000 in the bank is about $400 in monthly income. Savers used to enjoy cash income on their balances, income that could make a difference.
• In order to get income returns on money, people face volatility in market values or greater risk of loss or reduced access to funds.
• The competition for income-producing investments creates market distortions, which may increase risk.
• Artificial stimulus for goods or services could result in lower growth later, when monetary conditions return to normal.

Against those challenges, low interest rates appear to benefit one group of people: borrowers. Many people have been able to refinance home mortgages to rates lower than they might have imagined years ago. But even this silver lining has a cloud around it: low mortgage rates may have increased home prices.

Bottom line, as with all of the challenges in life, the key is to make the most of it. We work to understand alternatives and strive to sort out how to balance the needs for income, and growth, and preservation of purchasing power. Finding the opportunity in the challenge is our goal.

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

The End of the World Portfolio

© Can Stock Photo / twindesigner

We live in trying times, a recurring feature of our existence.

Our entire investment philosophy is underwritten by a simple fundamental belief: tomorrow will be better than today. We can’t know that this will be true of every single tomorrow, but we’re pretty sure about the long term trend.

Though they say that “past performance does not guarantee future results”, human civilization has a track record thousands of years long of resilence, rebounding from crisis to do better than before. We expect it will continue. Without this belief the idea of investing for the future is meaningless.

We know that there are troubles in the world, with the news full of the virus, death and disruption. People sometimes feel that the latest bad news signals imminent total catastrophe. This isn’t anything new–people have been predicting the end of civilization for the entire span of human history. Yet somehow we’ve always rebounded all the same.

If the most dire predictions ever do come to pass, it isn’t going to matter what investments you own. Your meanest neighbor will be trying to steal your canned goods. So the ideal portfolio for the end of the world is the one that will serve you best in the event that the end of the world fails to show up—again.


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 economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

A Structural Reminder

pyramid

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.

Some time ago, we concluded that counterproductive monetary policies have distorted pricing for bonds and other income-producing investments. By crushing interest rates and yields to very low levels, the old investment textbook had 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 may be 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%. It’s a free country, you can have it your way.

It may be time to review the structure of your portfolio. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call us.


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.

Where Did All The Risks Go?

© Can Stock Photo / Hmelevskih

In what seems like the good old days, we thought about many kinds of risk. Now, to many, risk only means one thing. All the other kinds of risk seem to have disappeared. Here are some of the classic risks as we learned them long ago, and still understand today:

Market Risk. Changes in equity prices or interest rates or currency exchange rates that hurt the investment value.

Liquidity Risk. Being unable to sell an investment without a discount for lack of buyers.

Concentration Risk. Having all your eggs in one basket, when the basket gets upset.

Credit Risk. A bond issuer might not be able to pay you back because of adverse conditions.

Inflation Risk. A loss of purchasing power over time because investments fail to keep up with a rising cost of living.

This old-fashioned approach to risk focused on possibilities for what might happen in the future. This makes sense to us, since the future is where we will get all of our coming investment results, good and bad. The past is past.

But perhaps the most popular approach to risk today is based totally on the past, not the future. Past volatility is supposedly the measure of risk in any investment and every portfolio. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) implicitly assumes that past volatility is the sole measure of risk. Yet volatility is inherent in any form of long-term investing, and has little to do with many of the classic forms of risk.

Investment firms and advisors promoting ‘risk analytics’ and many measures of ‘risk tolerance’ are using this backward-looking theory of risk. It has nothing to do with the classic definitions of risk, outlined above. In our opinion, some of the latest and greatest risk management technology is not focused on actual risk at all, and could discourage people from enduring the volatility required to achieve long term results.

Meanwhile, the classic understanding of risk has us thinking about its many dimensions as we choose securities and build portfolios. One drawback of our approach? It takes more work to do things the old-fashioned way. But we think it is the right way to go. No guarantees, of course.

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.

Teaching an Old Stock New Tricks

© Can Stock Photo / alexskopje

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”

canstockphoto28830461

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.