volatility

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”

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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.

More Lessons from Moneyball

© Can Stock Photo / findog822

Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball turned 16 over the summer. In 2015, we wrote about the contrarian lessons we noticed in the Moneyball movement. The Oakland A’s won by using data to make roster decisions, favoring things like on-base percentage over batting average. Then, after the rest of the league adopted the A’s process, the 2015 World Series champion Royals won by bucking the trend and not following along.

We’ve found another lesson within Moneyball that applies to us—and you. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane rarely watched the product he helped put on the field to see how it performed. This may seem unusual (who wouldn’t want to watch baseball as part of their job?), but Beane had his reasons.

In a 2014 interview for the Men in Blazers podcast, Beane explained that he didn’t watch games because he did not want to do something about it in the heat of the moment. “When I watch a game, I get a visceral reaction to something that happens—which is probably not a good idea when you’re the boss, when you can actually pick up the phone and do something.”

Beane continued by saying doing something “probably isn’t logical and rational based on some temporary experience you just felt in a game.” This has meaning to us.

We all know that the market goes up and down, and we don’t find watching the ticker each second of the day to be helpful. Like Beane, we’ve strategically built our portfolios for performance over the long term (no guarantees), and we’re willing to ignore a hiccup from a star on occasion.

Like Beane, we can remove ourselves and our initial emotions from the equation. Then we can focus on only the moves to better our “team” and its goals in the big picture.

Clients, if you’d 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.

Building a Faster Horse

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There is a quotation often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Biographers and historians have never managed to find any evidence that Ford ever uttered this statement, so it remains apocryphal. But the sentiment remains true to Ford’s reputation as a stubborn visionary.

For investors as well as consumers, sometimes there is a difference between what we need and what we want. We all want stability in our portfolios: why not? But stability often comes at a cost of lower income or growth potential. If you are sure you have all the money you will ever need, it makes sense to invest for stability. If you need your money to work for you, though, you may have to hold your nose and accept volatility.

If you really want stability, you can bury your money in a hole in the backyard. It will never grow, but you know that if you dig it back up you will still have what you put in.

The same is not true if you invest in volatile holdings. The value of your portfolio can and certainly will go down sometimes. As painful as that is, if you can afford to wait there is a possibility that it may recover over the long run.

If you just buried your cash in the backyard, there is no chance that it will suddenly produce more wealth. A long time horizon can smooth out the risks of a higher volatility portfolio, but it will not produce more gains from a more stable portfolio.

If we asked new prospects what they wanted, many would probably say they wanted stability. But that is not what we are selling. Not everyone has the same risk tolerance, and different amounts of volatility are appropriate depending on financial circumstances. We still generally think that learning to tolerate volatility may be more useful than seeking stability at all costs.

Clients, if you have anything to discuss, please call or email 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.

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

Rule #3

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Our Fundamental Rule #3 of Investing: own the orchard for the fruit crop. What do we mean?

If the fruit crop is enough to live on, you would not have to care what the neighbor would pay for the orchard – it’s not for sale! Whether the latest bid was higher or lower than the day before makes no difference.

You can think of your long term portfolio the same way. If it produces the cash flow you need, fluctuating values don’t always affect your real life – you buy groceries with the income, not with the statement value. The down years may have no impact on your life or lifestyle. All we need to know is where to find the cash you need, when you need it, to do the things you want and need to do.

This is what we mean when we say “own the orchard for the fruit crop.” It’s important, because enduring volatility is an inherent part of investing for total return.

There are two key points of caution. This approach presumes you keep the faith that downturns in the market end someday, that the economy recovers from whatever ails it—and you do not sell out at low points. Also, it assumes that your short term lump sum cash needs are covered by savings that do not fluctuate.

Clients, this understanding is key to our work. Please call or email us if you would like to talk about it, or anything else.


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.

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.

The Trouble with Zig and Zag Theory

© Can Stock Photo / chokniti

The idea behind massive diversification, owing a bit of everything, is that some things zig when others zag, keeping the whole bucket steadier. Great theory.

The problem is that things do not zig and zag ALL the time. When the big downturn comes, they all go down together. Oh, some things do not go down – but those things also tend to never go up, either.

The mathematical basis for massive diversification is Modern Portfolio Theory. It depends on different types of assets behaving more or less independently of one another – zigging and zagging. The lack of correlation is what drives the hypothetical usefulness of the theory.

In the big downturns, however, the correlations may converge. In plain language, in times of market stress, even independent investments may act as though they are related. The theory may not work due to systematic risks.

This is a real problem, because it is a theory that sometimes has the potential to drive investors to diversify into sectors and asset classes which may hold unknown risks, in the interest of avoiding market volatility.

This only makes sense if one defines volatility as risk, something to always be minimized and avoided. We think it makes more sense to understand volatility as an integral and necessary part of long term investing, a feature to be tolerated (or embraced) as the price of pursuing market returns over the long haul.

Investing in fluctuating markets with confidence requires us to know where our needed cash will come from – only long term money should be invested for the long term.

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.

Choose Your Risks Wisely

© Can Stock Photo / alphaspirit

When you think about your finances over the course of a lifetime, it is easier to see that risks may only be selected, not avoided.

Our first understanding of risk often relates to fluctuations in value. If you put in a dollar, and the value soon drops to 80 cents or 60 cents, it seems like a clear (and vivid!) loss.

Money buried in a can would never have that kind of risk, yet its purchasing power—what you could buy with it—declines year by year if there is any inflation at all. This kind of damage reminds us of termites, which chew away behind the scenes, causing damage that is not obvious.

Longer term fixed income investments, like bonds, offer interest that may offset inflation in whole or in part. But the value of a bond may change with interest rates. A 3% bond is probably not going to be worth its face amount in a 6% world.

The interesting thing about all these different kinds of risks is that they cannot be entirely avoided, but they may be balanced against each other.

• The things that fluctuate in value may provide growth over the long term to offset inflation.
• Having money in hand when needed may enable us to live with fluctuating values in other parts of our holdings.
• Reliable income helps us avoid excess amounts of money laying around.

We think one of the most valuable lessons about risk is that, on our long term investments, volatility is not risk. If we aren’t retiring for many years, ups and downs in our retirement accounts may not be all that pertinent.

The stock market, measured by either the Dow Jones Average or the S&P 500 Index, has risen three years out of four. There is no guarantee that this general pattern continues, or how results will work out over future periods. But someone that invested ten, twenty or forty years ago may have seen a lot of growth overall, in spite of fluctuations ever year—and some years that were negative.

Clients, if you would like to talk about the balance of risks in your situation 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.

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.

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.