Financial Markets Don’t Come with Traffic Signals

It is unfortunate, but true. There are no financial traffic lights that signal “green.”  It’s all safe now…enter the stock market with no risk.

There are no reliable financial traffic lights that signal “red” and you should exit the stock market now.

So, how to handle the volatility that seems to face us? These are things we have been discussing with our clients. For years. Because in our view, “this time is not different.” Just the dates and issues have changed.

You must have a plan. It does not need to be fancy. Working with us, we will help you adhere to your plan. But you need to develop a written plan that provides for an asset allocation that makes sense for you and your family. We help to develop this plan, and how much to allocate to fixed income (cash, bonds, CDs) and how much to invest in stocks, and where, such as US, international, emerging markets and real estate. And we discuss with you the importance of “value” investing.

So what about now? What is going on?

Part of our philosophy is recognizing that we do not have a crystal ball and that we cannot predict the future. That being said, we are realistic and we are optimistic, for the long term. History teaches us that if we are patient, globally diversified investors, we will be rewarded. Most problems will get resolved. Companies, people and countries innovate and are resilient.

We recognize that there are many problems in the world, today. Right now, the financial markets are focused on Greece and European debt. Last year, the markets fluctuated with every drop of news from China. The US debt crisis and the “supercommittee” that is working on the US budget will be the focus in November.

We take a longer view. There are many positives. As Warren Buffett has stated, Mr. Market is usually too optimistic or too pessimistic. We feel that the markets’ decline this summer was overstated and caused more by emotional fear, than financial reality. We don’t think that future corporate earnings expectations have dropped by 15-20%. Many companies are reporting stronger earnings, have healthy balance sheets (corporate cash is at all time highs), have used record low interest rates to borrow cheaply and oil / gas prices have dropped or stabilized. These are all positives.

We also recognize that there are many problems. Governments of all types will need to reduce spending, to reduce their deficits. That reduction in spending will hurt economies and certain sectors. Uncertainty is a hot topic, especially in the press. Some type of uncertainty always exists. That will not change. We focus on what we can control.

Timing the market does not work. While worldwide stock markets declined in the third quarter, much of that decline has been recouped in the first few weeks of October. Just as no one could have predicted the steep decline on July 1 that subsequently ensued, no one could have predicted on October 1 the rally that has occurred.

We wish we had a crystal ball. We wish we had the perfect financial traffic light. Instead, we have a solid investment philosophy (which is not based on predictions and guess work) and financial planning skills that provide our clients with comfort and financial security. What do you have?

Dieting, Exercise and Investing. What’s the Lesson?

How do you succeed at dieting, exercise and investing?

Are these unrelated? Not really.

Success at all three requires discipline, consistency and a program that you can stick to over the long term.

So how does this relate to investing? As advisors, we have adopted an investment philosophy that can be adhered to over the long run. It is rational, and provides our client’s with peace of mind, so they can stick with it.

In the past few weeks, the financial world has provided further evidence of why our approach makes sense, which gives us even greater confidence in our long term philosophy regarding stock investing. The markets have been very volatile since July, and our clients with stock investments have incurred losses, as have most others. But there is a distinct difference in approach.

We recognize that we cannot predict the future. We do not believe that we can identify which fund or money managers will do the best over the long run. Thus, we have adopted a philosophy which recognizes this.

A few weeks ago, Fidelity Magellan replaced the manager of this very large mutual fund, after years of underperformance. Over the last 10 years, this fund, once the largest in the world, ranked in the 95th percentile (1 being the best), trailing its benchmark and the S & P 500 by approximately 2.7% per year.

Fidelity, and this manager, have vast resources and a huge, global staff to assist in the research and stock picking for this fund. Despite all these resources, Fidelity’s staff was unable to outperform or come close to its target benchmark on a consistent basis, or even a majority of the time. The lesson: it is hard to pick a good money manager, in advance, that will outperform its respective benchmark, on a consistent basis over a long period of time.

The second example has been a number of reports of hedge funds reporting huge losses or funds that are simply shutting down, due to underperformance or dissatisfied investors. John Paulson, a hedge fund “titan” was an investment hero in 2008, as he placed huge bets against mortgage and financial stocks, and he was right.

Now fast forward to 2011. The WSJ reported today that two of his funds are down 32% and 47% for the year, far worse than market averages. He has placed huge bets on Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard and China’s Sino-Forest Corp. He has been very wrong in 2011. His funds have also lost billions on investments in gold and gold related stocks. Many of his clients are impatient and not willing to wait for his next great idea.

The lesson: There are many. Making huge, concentrated bets are risky. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, and your bets are very concentrated, the results can be horrendous.

Diversification, and not making concentrated bets and predictions, does work, which is why that is one of our core philosophies.

Our next post will further explain our investment philosophy.

Sources: Morningstar, for Fidelity Magellan; WSJ for Paulson information, 10/11/11 online

Financial Advisors Keep Learning

As the world is continuously changing, and the financial markets certainly are, it is important that we as financial advisors continue to learn, listen and interact with top industry experts.

Keith and I recently attended a series of programs in late September, as we do multiple times a year. I participated in a “Masters Forum” study group on Friday and Saturday, September 23-24th. This group of 20-25 members, which started in 2006, meets twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. We also talk in smaller groups every two weeks, to discuss topical issues. Keith participated in a similar study group on Sunday, and also talks to members of his peer group on a regular basis throughout the year.

These sessions were followed by the BAM Annual National Conference, which is a 3 day event featuring top speakers from across the country. This conference is attended by approximately 125 firms, representing $14 Billion in assets under management.

The following are some of the items from these meetings:

  • Investor behavior is critical to investment success. That was the message of Carl Richards, of http://www.behaviorgap.com/. This NY Times weekly writer and sketch artist, has developed a series of sketches to explain and discuss complex financial issues in a simpler manner. We now have 4 of his sketches in our office, and will soon have a fifth. Visit us to see them!
    • Carl emphasized the importance of investors’ behaviors and emotions, which cause huge gaps (differences) between market returns and what most people actually earn on their own (usually much less!).
  • We interacted with a number of portfolio managers and mutual fund executives, regarding updates on the financial markets and the strategies that we utilize. We are very confident in our long term investment philosophy, which for stocks is primarily implemented through Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) mutual funds.
  • Hedge funds: we continue to not recommend them, as they are hard to evaluate, costs are huge (relative to mutual funds that we recommend), a substantial numbers of these funds fail, which makes historical analysis very difficult, as the poor performing funds drop out of the databases.
  • We heard one of the top national speakers on retirement distribution strategies.
  • Portfolio rebalancing is critical for long term investment success. Having the discipline to rebalance (to buy certain stocks when they are low, and sell certain stocks when they are high) remains a key part of our philosophy and value we provide to our clients.
  • We discussed the importance of communication skills and truly listening to our clients. One of the speakers, Mitch Anthony, has written a book titled “Defining Conversations.” He stressed the importance of real conversations, about deep issues and concerns, not just having superficial discussions. I started this book and highly recommend it.
Throughout the five days, we had the opportunity to share ideas and discuss various topics with both industry experts, as well as our peers throughout the country. This strong network of fellow advisors is an important component of our firm, as being able to discuss both specific client situations and general financial issues is critical to maintaining our discipline and add intellectual value on behalf of our clients.